I’ve long mentioned that we’re living through the second golden age of effects pedals (some say ’Diamond Age’’), and as good as things have been - 2019 took it all to an entirely new level of excellence. I don’t recall any previous year where we’ve had quite the same degree of innovation and so many ingeniously appealing pedals - this year has been so fast and furious - it’s been difficult to keep up at times.
I noted in my End of Year Pedal-Chain Update that half of my 41-strong chain had been swapped out during the year - I really can’t imagine this happening to the same degree in 2020 - but we shall see. Winter NAMM 2019 was the strongest I’ve ever seen - with so many enticing new propositions - many so ambitious and complex that they took the best part of the year to finesse - and I think it highly unlikely that one of the most ambitious of those - the Chase Bliss Audio + Benson Amps Automatone MKIV PreAmp will make it to release before the end of the year.
Several brands had a totally blistering year - as reflected in this selection and elsewhere, my friend Adrian Thorpe had his best year ever where he introduced 4 new amazing pedals - the Deep Oggin Analog Chorus, Heavy Water Dane-Inspired Dual Boost, the Redbeard Effects Red Mist MKIV collaboration - and everyone’e favourite new flanger - the quite superb sparkly/shimmery Camoflange. Considering how the flanger effect is typically considered a fairly leftfield modulation - I believe everyone was rather surprised by just how quickly all of those sold out. In fact so successful was Thorpy that he posted a couple of days ago that all his stock of pedals had been sold out - right across the range - and that Georgia, he and their team were working hard to replenish stock in time for Winter NAMM.
Boss had another incredible year on all fronts - launching the Katana MKII range of amps, the new Waza Air Katana Modelling Surround Sound Headphones and a whole plethora of killer pedals - including the brand new 200 Series, new Synthesizer pedals large and small, and the equally smart RC-10R Rhythm Loop Station.
Joel Korte’s Chase Bliss Audio crew and collaborators also had a killer year in launching what has been their most successful pedal to date from what I understand - the MOOD Micro Looper - and then the equally brilliant CBA edition of Tom Majeski’s Cooper FX Generation Loss pedal, and finally the Scott ’Knobs’ Harper collaboration Blooper Looper that so many of us have been following with interest this year courtesy of Scott’s YouTube ’Blooper Reels’ - my copy of which pedal arrived with me just today!
Strymon also had a notable year with its supercharged El Capistan in effect - the new Volante Magnetic Echo Machine, and really smart Iridium Amp & IR Cab Simulator. There were so many new entrants in fact that it took me the longest deliberations to date to distil the longlist down to my 25 overall favourites. I’ve included those that just missed the cut as honourable mentions below.
As in previous years I have also singled out 3 at the top of the pile for the highest honours - to be awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze in recognition of spectacular achievement. This was an always moving target - in particular the final order of awards where I had to apply some really stringent criteria to single out the top place in particular - and I will endeavour to explain some of my workings in that area. In any case - these are my top 3 pedals of the year:
In another year I would likely have awarded the Empress Zoia the gold - ’The Infinite Pedal’ as the Pedal Crush Book calls it - its technical achievement is really in a category of its own - as you can programme it to be pretty much any and every pedal you would want. But it does take quite a bit of setup, and you will note it has only one knob on it - so it doesn’t allow those easy on-the-fly tweaks I so value in these sorts of pedals. There’s just a few too many sub-menus here for me - and the whole setup process can be very sub-menu heavy and clicky! Which means that it’s practical utility is somewhat diminished for me, and the pedal I will be rotating in in its stead at the start of next year - is the GFI Synesthesia - which pretty much does what I mostly wanted to use the Zoia for - a variety of mixed and mashed up digital modulations. The way the GFI splits things up into two hands-on tweakable channels is just ingenious interface-wise - although there may be a few too many secondary functions for several players’ comfort zones.
So the Zoia is the most incredible engineering achievement overall, but it loses some points in practicalities for my own usage scenarios - so it’s only fair that the pedal to oust it from its seat take the gold instead. The top prizes could really have gone to any of 10 different pedals - including the innovative Jackson Audio Broken Arrow, fully-loaded Sinvertek N5+ and Thorpy’s just amazing sounding Camoflange flanger. I felt it fair though for the Volante to be in the medal positions too - as this has been a major part of my chain for the greater part of the year.
As you can see in Honourable Mentions below - there were lots of pedals that just missed out on a top 25 place - and of course these are my preferences and applied to my own specific criteria. Pretty much all of these I’ve considered for acquisition here - and of the top 25 I already own 21 with the GFI Synesthesia also marked out and spoken for as such. For the longest time I was going to be getting the Wampler Terraform, and I still might at some stage - albeit the Synesthesia is currently my favourite candidate for those purposes. And I did not get around to adding the Strymon Iridium or Walrus Audio SLÖ to the collection - but that will surely happen next year. All of these others have been in the pedal-chain this year, and 15 of these still are right now. Two other 2019 notables that are in the chain currently and deserve special mentioned are the Boss RC-10R Rhythm Loop Station and Sitek Wuffy Fuzzy Distortion.
So here follow my 25 favourite and most meritorious pedals of the year - do note as mentioned that these are my own personal preferences, and I may have different criteria to other critics and reviewers. Do let me know though if you feel I have unfairly overlooked a pedal or two which merited further consideration!
I've mentioned several times in the past how I really liked the Schumann PLL format of harmonizing fuzz / synthesiser. But decided early on that a full-size device would be a little much for me - even the somewhat compacted Montreal Assembly PurPLL has a few to many knobs even for me. In fact I was considering the EQD Data Corrupter for the longest time when that came out - but was still put off a touch by its slightly over-sized dimensions. I ended up acquiring 3 PPL devices this year - the Beetronics Swarm, Mantic FX Flex Pro and assembled PedalPCB Mini Heterodyne Receiver - and of those the Swarm was the most fun to use - delivering the perfect combination of features, tones and form-factor with the optimal number of controls to give you all the variety with as little inherent complexity as possible. As a fuzz this is still very much an acquired taste, but as far as I'm concerned this is the best take on the format yet! At least for my purposes.
Boss's 200 Series debut was a major moment this year, and this was probably the best realised of those 4 pedals - containing exactly the right mix of algorithms and feature set where some of the others did not quite hit that magic formula. This is totally intuitive and effortless to use and contains one of my favourite Echoverb algorithms - the really cool Tera Echo. This was brought in on supplemental duties in addition to the Strymon Volante, and came to replace the also excellent - but slightly more leftfield Red Panda Particle V2 - which I still love of course for special occasions.
I did a recent very detailed in-depth review of this amazingly versatile dirt pedal - which really meets and exceeds most expectations, albeit there are a few quirks in operation that need to be ironed out. It's nonetheless a hugely impressive engineering achievement and easily the most capable of the existing Hybrid / DSP style drive pedals. I feel it needs a probably a couple more surface dials to adjust clipping texture/feel - but even as it is it should suit a wide variety of players.
My Guitar Synth adventures have had a number of stepping stones along the way - and for the longest time I was considering the Meris Enzo - but overall it was just a little too large for my preferences and lacked proper onboard recallable presets. I've pretty much settled on the compact enclosure synth pedals as being the perfect form factor for my needs - and the most capable of those is easily this new Boss Compact Guitar Synth - with its 121 combinations - it too could have done with onboard presets, otherwise it's pretty much perfect for my needs and should hold this position for the foreseeable future. Another potential candidate was the Source Audio S4 Synth pedal - but that relies far too much on an external App for my liking - so the Boss SY-1 is my nearest Guitar Synth match to date! The Subdecay M3 also warrants mention here as a cool addendum to the Boss - will probably get that as well some day.
We've all been waiting for this one since its announcement at the start of the year at Winter NAMM - I wasn't 100% sure it would be for me, but in following Scott 'Knobs' Harper's YouTube Blooper Reels and seeing how this pedal was shaping up I couldn't but get involve in the recent Kickstarter campaign - and that pedal is with me this very day. There are so many clever innovations here - and the already incredible Chase Bliss Audio form-factor gets further enhanced with two more push-button controls! The Layers knob in particular is genius - this pedal is really going to set the benchmark for all creative loopers yet to come.
I've long been a fan of Tom Majeski's Cooper FX and have had all three of his pedals on my wishlist at one time or another - the Generation Loss, Moment Machine and Outward. Those are all medium or large format pedals, and something about them has held me back from hitting the trigger until the CBA Dark World Reverb came around - which utilises the Generation Loss in part for the Mod algorithm, and the Outward in part for the Black algorithm. The one I most wanted really though was the Generation Loss - so when Joel announced they would be doing a limited Chase Bliss Audio run take on that - I immediately leapt at the chance of owning an enhanced and compacted version of the Generation Loss. It largely retains all of the original's functions but in a slightly different way - as I detailed in my CBA Generation Loss review. Of course it added in a whole host of extra bells and whistles too - including some truly stellar chorusing modes. This pedal is now happily occupying slot #34 in the chain - which it will have to give up eventually to the Blooper, although I'm extending the Generation Loss's rotation into January!
I was actually a little late to react to this which is not usually my style. I was a little thrown off by its sudden announcement/launch, and initially somewhat confused as to its positioning versus the Blooper - and I went through all manner of deliberations thinking first I would probably prefer the Blooper to this - before deciding that I really needed to own both. As a result I missed out on a wooden box version - but boxes are rather immaterial to me really, and I'm far more interested with the functional side of the pedal. The MOOD brought together David Rolo with Old Blood Noise Endeavors - in a similar way to how the Dark World had brought together Tom Majeski and Robert Keeley to provide each half / channel fo the pedal. With this being my year of Glitch I was more than familiar with the workings of Micro Looping and Granular Synthesis - in particular having spent a very long time in the company of David Rolo's V3 Molecular Disruptor. The MOOD is another brilliant Chase Bliss Audio innovation and I believe their most successful pedal to date.
This was a pedal I kind of missed/overlooked in the amazing mêlée that was Winter NAMM 2019 - but caught up with in the immediate aftermath. Readers of this blog will know that I'm a huge Fuzz fan - Fuzz fiend even - and that I also love all varieties of Fuzzy-Drive and Fuzzy-Distortion / Fuzzstortion. So this sort of mix of Tube Screamer with Germanium Fuzz Face style fuzz was just the perfect soundstage for me - this pedal spent a mighty long time in rotation this year and is easily one of my favourites of the genre.
2019 is the year I got to know the lovely gentlemen of Demon Pedals - Pete & Matthias which I covered in an in-depth feature. I've acquired 4 of their pedals to date and in particularly love their Parvati Fuzz and Kondo-Shifuku D-Style Drive. The latter of which has been in my chain since it first came out. I've long been a fun of Dumble-Style drive units - going though a plethora of devices including the Mad Professor Simble, Wampler Euphoria and Bearfoot FX Hs - all excellent in their own right. But the Kondo-Shifuku is the best of them all as far as I'm concerned and most closely matches the fuzz-edged ideal drive sound of that genre that I've always had in mind!
I've written quite a lot about the Zoia, yet not completed a full in-depth review. I have copious notes from the year, and I still remain hugely impressed with this pedal - which is the most incredible technical achievement of the year. But which in practice hasn't worked out quite as I would have liked. I always thought I could set out a full pedalboard of complex modulation effects - as a replacement for my Strymon Mobius and Boss MD-500 units. And yes you can sort of do that, but you miss out on the more hands-on elements that you still really need with modulation pedals - that instant ability to slightly tweak a parameter or two. With the Zoia you can do it - but you need to go through a number of sub-menus - and the pedal is really best used as a desktop unit for Modular Synth guys rather than as a floor-based unit for guitar players. I still hugely admire this pedal and will of course be keeping it, but I've already made up my mind to replace it in the chain with the GFI Synesthesia.
This pedal arrived a little late in the year for me - as I had already made various commitments to year end - and by the time I pivoted and re-prioritised these pedals had all sold out at source!. Nevertheless I've touched base with GFI to ensure that I'm at the front of the queue for batch 2 - hopefully very early next year. In any event this pedal provides the functionality that I was really largely hoping to get out of the Zoia - in a more hands-on format. The controls being split into two halves is really clever - as are all manner of short cuts and control functions. Sure there is room for improvement in some areas - but as a new platform this is just the perfect mix of capabilities for me - although I will need to run it with the optional extra Triple-Switch add-on. All-in-all I feel this is a really worthy 2019 all-round winner and I'm sure this pedal will find many happy homes in the forthcoming months.
This has been my favourite overdrive pedal for so much of the year - I'm genuinely surprised this hasn't been featured more than it has. It's largely just Joey Landreth and I that have pushed this pedal this year! It's a genius smart format which carries on from the Jackson Audio Bloom in utilising dual footswitches independently and in tandem - to set 4 different drive types on the left footswitch, 4 different boost types on the right footswitch, and ramp up in 25% incremental steps of Gain Level set when both footswitches are pressed in tandem. So many other reviewers totally missed the mark on this one - some woefully so. This and the Sinvertek Drive N5+ genuinely took the compact overdrive format several generations forward in one year.
After much deliberation on the Meris Enzo and Mercury 7, the first of that brand I actually add to my collection is the new Hedra Pitch-Shifter. And this just a short time after I had acquired and retired the TC Electronic Brainwaves, and was considering various variations of EHQ Pitchfork and POG, Boss PS-6 Harmonist, and Chase Bliss Audio Thermae even. Before the TCE Brainwaves I had had the TCE Quintessence and then DigiTech Whammy Ricochet on the slot - and the Hedra just seemed to fit the bill in covering off most of those and giving me a whole host of other cool features in addition. In fact I currently use it mostly in Pitch-Shifted delay mode which was never really the intention - but everything I've thrown at it thus far has come out really great - so this is definitely a keeper.
I do love my Metal and High Gain pedals and every year add a few more off the wishlist to the collection - which this year included the REVV G4, Aleks K Red Scorpion - and this latest incumbent of the #27 slot - the superb Mikey Demus signature Distortion. I believe Rabea's review is still the benchmark - while a few of the recent YouTube demos were just weird really and did this pedal no justice. For me it has just the right combination of texture and punch - with a gorgeous fuzz-edged attack which is just joyful to deploy. It sounds fantastic in my rig regardless and will likely hold onto this slot for a while - in the face of somewhat fierce competition.
The Red Panda Particle and Tensor have both been on my wishlist for a while - and I was delighted when the new V2 Particle came through with its more compact dimensions, dual footswitches and 4 onboard presets in tow! Since I added the Strymon Volante as my main delay in place of the still most versatile around Empress EchoSystem - I needed a supplementary pedal for other delay flavours - where I could best accommodate a vertical medium enclosure format at the largest extent. So for the first half of the year the Particle V2 was delay understudy to the Volante, while I later rotated in the Boss DD-200 on the slot for largely the same purposes - but with more vanilla delay flavours vs granular. Both the Particle V2 and DD-200 are exceptional pedals in their own right and do get rotated fairly regularly on that same #35 slot.
Latest FedEX tracking updates indicate Friday arrival on this - although details have been a little sketchy to date and I wasn't really expecting this one to arrive with me the right side of the new year - but we'll see. In any case I own both predecessors to this - the No.5 Distortion and N5 Drive. This N5+ ups the ante somewhat exponentially with now 7 milled aluminium knobs - Volume | Gain | Bass | Mid | Treble | Resonance | Presence and 5 further toggle-switch option controls for maximum tone-sculpting on a compact interface - you honestly could not fit in any more controls and it's an helluva feat of engineering to get all this present and correct in this Tube-Amp voiced Drive/Distortion Pedal. I am expecting even more amp-like sound than the predecessors with more refined control and articulation. Sinvertek and Jackson Audio really set the bar high this year for compact-form-factor drive pedals - the Origin Effects Compact RevialDrive also merits mention actually! NOTE - awaiting first official YouTube demo - will add here when it materialises!
Most will be well aware of my long and arduous hunt in trying to secure a relatively reasonably priced example of the Gemini III predecessor in Europe. Fortunately Spaceman Zak saved me from further adversity by releasing this even more heavily featured update to that Dual Fuzz Generator pedal - which carries both Silicon and Germanium flavours - right along from Fuzz Face into Big Muff territory - a really versatile and all-time great fuzz pedal. Props also to the DanDrive Austin Pride which has been on steady rotation on the same slot - and provides both Germanium and Silicon flavours of Fuzz Face in an even more compact enclosure.
There are and have been more impressively fully featured Amp and Cab sims - but Strymon has the knack for striking the formula of best balance of features and usability, And the Iridium is just the most perfect pedal for my needs - when I come to want to do digital recordings of my stereo rigs. If I had to specify something myself it would almost exactly overlap with the features of the Iridium. I did not necessarily know in advance that I would want the Iridium - but once I had seen it - I could immediately ascertain that it ticked all the right boxes. It sounds great in delivering essential flavours of classic Fender, Vox and Marshall amps - and everyone I've recommended it to has loved it - so yet another winner for Pete Celi and the Strymon team - they really seem to have a knack for hitting that Goldilocks zone!
I've long been a fan of the Strymon El Capistan - but kind of preferred the control topology of Dawner Prince's Boonar Echorec style delay - while I really wanted something a little more versatile and fully stereo in and out - which is where the Volante comes into the picture. I believe I already have the most fully-featured and perfect Multi-Delay pedal in the Empress EchoSystem, but found that my go-to-voicing on that was the tape delay. The 8 push buttons which enable you to set strength and feedback on each of Volante's 4 virtual tape heads is just genius, as is the Spacing dial and included Spring Reverb. In fact I have just a couple of issues with the pedal - the system of presets is just a nonsense really - way too clunky, and several players still prefer the extra warmth and depth that the Boonar and El Capistan can both deliver. Yet overall the Volante is where it's at, and besides the one at a time presets things I really enjoy using this pedal in every way - including of course the SOS / Reverse mode.
There have been many players that have lusted after the stellar high frequency shimmery tones of an original EHX Electric Mistress Flanger - but in a smaller, more controllable and more reliable unit. And that is exactly what Thorpy and key collaborator Dan 'Lovetone' Coggins have achieved here. The interplay between the
Harmonics, Treble and Blend controls in particular are what make this pedal such a magical proposition - the best sounding flanger for me to date by some distance!
When The Dane first arrived on the scene I always found it somewhat oversized for my needs - particularly as it was in part derived from the Peacekeeper circuit and I was intending to get that anyway. So when Thorpy launched the Dane Boost (right channel), augmented by a Germanium Diode Boost (left channel) - I fairly leapt at the prospect of being able to acquire a 'Turbo Dane' as such in combining the Heavy Water with the Peacekeeper. I had already taken to using the Spacemen Effects Mercury IV Germanium Harmonic Boost - as a mostly always-on texturising boost - to deliver more texture and harmonics to my core sound. So I saw having the Dual Chanels of the Heavy Water as an upgrade from the Mercury IV as I could use the two Heavy Water boosts in 3 different modes - including stacked - both combined with the Peacekeeper which I finally acquired at the same time, and in place of the Mercury IV. The Mervury IV is Transistor-based versus Diode and I wasn't immediately definitely sure that the Thorpy would fully cover off the same level of fairly subtle Germanium Harmonising and Texturising - but it certainly came through on that - where the Heavy Water is super high-headroom too - so I run it almost fully CCW on both channels - with the Lows set to around 9 o'clock - sounds superb in any case, and stacks really well for me.
I've already detailed in my 2019 Year of Glitch roundup the whys and wherefore's of this exceptional Granular Synthesis pedal. For many though it will have all too many knobs, and is sorely lacking in the really quite necessary presets department. My big conclusion from my wider Glitch overview is that all of those pedals could really do with presets - yet largely the Cloud holds its own in delivering some suitably weird and eerie textures - it's certainly one of the best put-together Glitch pedals out there - which is why it merits inclusion here. Also Devon Blue Whitaker's above demo is just next level amazing!
This is one that I loved from first encounter - it is alas mono only output though - and dropped down the priority list alongside the CBA Dark World for similar reasons. Both those though I have re-classified as more ambient / texturising pedals and I've decided I can sort of live them being mono only - while they will both likely just be occasional rotational pedals in the chain rather than full-time long-termers. The SLÖ is nevertheless an exceptional textural Reverb which ended up being the biggest selling 'new for 2019 pedal' on Reverb.com this year - so there are lots of players that love this - and it's significantly lower cost than the sort of similar Chase Bliss Audio Dark World - which is also still on my sort of imminent acquisition wishlist!
This was for such a long time my forerunner for replacing the not quite working out for me Zoia - I gave it an excellent review and recommended it to several people - who all love it of course. But then along came the even more capable GFI Synesthesia which was actually much closer to what I had been looking for in the Zoia. I was of course familiar with dual simultaneous modulations via my Boss MD-500 - but the Synesthesia's smarter control topology splits the pedal in half and gives you really clever direct hands-on control of each Channel at the same time. While the Wampler's 11 algorithms are THE perfect ones for me - and the pedal is a lean mean modulation machine which sounds amazing and is surprisingly simple to control. I may well end up with a Terraform too - which will be the better choice for several player - while more experimental players will likely prefer the infinite flavour combinations of the Synesthesia.
So all 3 fuzzes that ended up in this top 25 do rather special things - and in many ways the De La Riva is not too dissimilar to the Gemini IV - in allowing you to mix up or play singularly Silicon and Germanium Transistor flavours - while the tone-shaping on the De La Riva happens somewhat differently - by way of 20 different dip-switches which allow you to engage or disable different key parts and options along the circuit signal chain - where you can select number of gain stages and how tone controls etc. are applied to each. It can be somewhat fiddly to use and really cannot be operated without a manual or copious note-taking. This is another pedal that could probably do with some presets. I also feel that there must be a somewhat more elegant way of achieving the same sort of thing but with fewer and / or more intuitive controls. That said you get stellar sounds here right the way through from Germanium Fuzz Face to really beefy Big Muff.
So even though 25 is a longer best of the year listing than most of my peers put up - it still does not reflect quite how stellar a year 2019 was - so I've included the longlist here of all those others considered for the higher honours. Some of these are in my active pedal-chain too - so they're certainly worthy of your consideration also - I just felt the above 25 were the strongest and most meritorious overall.