And so it begins again! This time punctuated by Virtual NAMM / Believe in Music Week and some certain JA incident.
I will include a mini NAMM roundup here of what some of my favourites were. In the past I’ve done a separate highlights article on the subject - but there really weren’t that many releases this time around to warrant such - in fact I would estimate only around 10% of the volume released in 2020 and 2019.
I will also indicate where I think I’m heading for the year and what areas I’m looking to target.
The JA fallout is something of a fluid situation - where I initially determined that I would purge the board of all such offending specimens. While latterly I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t embargo good pedals because of a toxic regime - but should rather curtail any activity that might unnecessarily endorse or promote the builder - while I will still be reviewing them periodically - and continuing to do my own take and analysis on them. I may even do a more in-depth review of the Modular Fuzz if other arrangements can be made - say through dealers or distributors.
I know a few dealers who carry JA pedals and I really don’t wish to do them a disservice - so I will do my best to navigate this somewhat strange situation.
While the overall numbers for the year were somewhat underwhelming - there were still some bright sparks in amongst them and plenty of creativity and innovation on display. Although nothing quite as next level as say the CBA Automatone or Cooper FX Arcades of previous years.
For me Walrus Audio had a particularly good 'show' - and I will certainly look to pick up their R1 at some stage this year.
My winners from in and around NAMM include the following :
The ones that are down on the wishlist for acquisition are :
And nice-to-haves include :
The big Pedal winner of NAMM is tied for me between the Walrus Audio R1 Reverb, and the Way Huge Atreides Synth-Fuzz.
I also have a number of wishlist items I'm still chasing from last year - where my peak target is still the Coppersound Triplegraph. My Big Ear Albie seems to be running a little behind schedule - and I also have a Pettyjohn ODI Overdrive incoming with both Classic OpAmp Mod and NOS Clipping Mod - so just two stragglers really which isn't bad. While I'm also looking to secure a Klirrton Oh My Goat High Gain distortion from new pal - Carsten Plinker - and more about that in due time.
Obviously I'm never going to get every single one of those as I'm fast running out of storage space - and I still have some Fuzz and Boss targets remaining from previous years! Also new targets and priorities rising every day.
As far as JA goes I've decided not to deny myself if that's the best solution for me for a particular slot. I've essentially furloughed what I can and have great alternatives in place which sound every bit as good. There is however no direct replacement for the Bloom and its feature set - nearest matches are DryBell Unit67 which is all manual controls, and Hamstead Soundworks' Zenith - which has just a single Compression parameter, and does not allow for the same range or granular switching as the Bloom - while it covers a greater EQ Range.
For the Prism replacement I am trying out the ThorpyFX Team Medic - which is sonically not a total match as generally the Prism tends to be very slightly softer, warmer and more sustaining in impact, while at its core the Team Medic is slightly brighter and more articulate. We'll see how I go here, but I have no qualms about switching the Prism back in again if I feel that is going to give me more satisfaction.
The second visual above shows the path for where I am heading - I'm sure there will be some kinks and detours along the way. Obviously the acquisition of a CXM 1978 is pushed back a little further by the arrival of the Walrus Audio R1. And it's going to be interesting for me to accommodate the relatively large Triplegraph at the front of the board as such - and next to the Automatone Preamp MKII.
In terms of other forthcoming goodies - Thorpy should have a really interesting modulation pedal to share in around March, and and another killer Red Beard Edition for the following month. Also a lot of my builder friends seem to be working on new Chorus and Tremolo pedals in particular. I expect there to me quite a number of those this year - including several Harmonic Tremolo variants.
Otherwise companies are keeping their cards to their chest. Hopefully I will be able to share my collaborations with Decibelics and Expresso FX this year - as they were pushed over from 2020. Everyone is so busy these days that those may still get pushed further down the line - but I remain quietly optimistic.
Last year I swapped out around half the pedals in my chain - in some ways I'm hoping for a slightly calmer 2021 - otherwise it just takes up a lot of time and effort to keep on re-jigging and re-calibrating the chain. Oh and my pal Justin hints that Mike Fuller is working on a Cali76 style compressor - which should materialise sometime relatively soon. Masters of innovation Chase Bliss Audio apparently only have one pedal so far planed for this year - which I believe is another compact classic - obviously we will find out soon enough there too - while I doubt there will be another Automatone variant this year - but who knows?
There are 6 new entries for January - actually plus the Team Medic on slot #6, the Abominable Electronics Hail Satan Deluxe on #19, and the Sinvertek N5+ back in on slot #22. I had hoped to secure both a Friedman Smallbox (Done!) and Klirrton Oh My Goat - both of which are in somewhat short supply, but which I believe I will secure within the next week or two. Update - actually Smallbox now secured - should be with me on Saturday.
The brand new entrants therefore are the Reeves Electro Black Hat Sound Fuzz on #5, Decibelics Golden Royale on #9, Zander Circuitry Surplus on #10, Friedman Smallbox on #17, Zander Cranium on #20 and the superb JAM Pedals Harmonious Monk no #31 - which is just the gooey / syrupy confection that I hoped it would be when maxed out!
Here follow the individual slot updates :
For January there have actually been three new fuzzes largely on rotation on this slot. The Reeves Electro Black Hat Sound is the overall favourite of that bunch - ahead of the Fulltone Queen Bee and ToneTuga FX Salvage Fuzz. The Black Hat Sound is just one of those legendary fuzzes which sounds truly amazing - thick, and richly textured with very significant volume and gain on tap - and useful Bias and Bass controls. It's slightly MKI adjacent but not exactly with that same dry edge - but definitely a close cousin! It's one of those fuzzes that just deliver sheer joy on playback - wonderful sonically, inside and out.
The incumbent here was obviously the JA Prism - which I still really love, and which has a slightly different tone-signature to the ThorpyFX Team Medic currently in place. The Prism renders slightly warmer, softer and more sustaining - you can more easily feel the blooming of notes. While the Team Medic is slightly brighter and more articulate. I have tuned that in very close to the Prism - and I will see how it goes. If I determine long-term that the Prism is the preferred choice here, I will have no qualms about switching that in again despite its association! Note that the Team Medic now comes with indicator LEDs next to each footswitch, and an internal trim-pot to adjust the Boost level for that left-hand footswitch - which in my setup delivers a vary tasty mid-gain overdrive.
I though I would mention that despite my best intents - I have discovered that the Bloom is pretty much irreplaceable for me. There is no other pedal that comes quite close enough to its smart combination of feature set and functionality - particularly the granularity of control afforded by its smart footswtiches. The Hamstead Soundworks Zenith and DryBell Unit67 are the closest matches - while they're really just not close enough for my needs. I seem to genuinely love the format and granularity of what the Bloom delivers - and so it stays despite the association! Note that I changed its emblem to a Rebel Alliance Jedi insignia!
I'm a little sad to see the ThorpyFX Peacekeeper leave the rotation as it has served me so well for so long. However with all its obvious prowess - it can't hope to match up to the dual-channel delights of the new Decibelics Golden Royale - which totally doubles up on what I so love about the Golden Horse. Those extra toggle-switch mods just add another whole range of tones and versatility. People really should be queueing up around the block to get hold of one of these - of course in the same imperial green as mine! Sounds fantastic every which way.
Out goes the Golden Boy, and in comes the every bit as good mid-gain fuzzy-drive which is the Zander Circuitry Surplus. I've taken to this like a duck to water - as I find it really intuitive and responsive to use. That combination of clipping options with Tone and Response controls is just really easy to get stuck into - and I was up and running with great tones in no time at all. Obviously with 8 clipping modes to explore it's still very early days for me - while I seem to be very much favouring the Transistor/Mosfet option right now. Alex Millar has really hit it out of the park with his new compact units - and I will be picking up each of those - bar the Bass-specfic varieties. Note also that I have a Pettyjohn Custom Mods ODI incoming - which will also take up rotation on this slot - which will undoubtedly mean some sort of time-share!
I've determined to give the Friedman Smallbox a decent run on this slot, but I was a little slow to move initially - and by the time I got organised in this area they were all sold out in the first batch - at least those at the appropriate price level. I am largely waiting on these to come back into stock - and I will pounce when a suitable candidate materialises - hopefully in the next week or two. Will be interesting to see whether this one sticks, or I return back to the excellent Menatone King of the Britains. Update! One acquired at the time of writing this - should be with me on Saturday - so just gets in within the January deadline!
Currently on the slot is the excellent grinding Abominable Electronics Hail Satan Deluxe - which sounds nothing like any of my other Muffs. It really has a special texture to it which I seem to have a lot of fun and success with. The Hail Satan will though inevitable give up is slot in time for the incoming Way Huge Atreides - which I expect will live on this slot for a while. The Atreides could also have gone in on the #3 slot - but I determined it to be more of a Synth-Fuzz, than Fuzz-Synth! In fact much like the Beetronics Swarm which also lives on this slot - in time-share fashion.
While the Dr Scientist Frazz Dazzler V2 largely owns this slot - it still occasionally yields its place to the also excellent ThorpyFX Field Marshal - and currently to this excellent new Zander Circuitry Cranium Rat variant. I foolishly initially misconstrued the Tone control for a master EQ - where it's obviously rather a High-Cut - which needs to be the other side of mid-way for me - in fact currently at full CW. If you dial that too far back you get more and more Treble - which in the end results in some degree of whistling. It seems to work best for me parked at max Hi-Cut, while I'm still endeavouring to get a grasp on the subtleties of the 'Frequency' control - which is essentially a variable Ruetz Mod. Took me a little longer than The Surplus to get properly on track - but I feel I've mostly got the measure of this now. Like the Surplus it comes with 8 Clipping Options which delivery a vast variety of tones. So I've still got a lot of exploring to do - but so far so good!
The final JA ejection - i.e. El Guapo sees the significantly more nuanced Sinvertek N5+ back in full effect. This is really where that pedals lives best - while weirdly I was for a while using it for lower and mid-gain settings. Where it really is a saturated distortion monster - with so many clever ways to hone its signal. It properly sounds stellar in this EVH Brown Sound role.
This year has been a little like wading through treacle - with everything just taking a lot more time and effort than in the past. I had hoped to secure one of these superb Klirrton Oh My Goat distortion pedals sooner from my new pal Carsten Plinker - but it's taking a little longer to arrange. This is a thunderingly good and expertly calibrated fat distortion - in fact taken from the 'BottomShaker' half of Klirrton's amazing Grindstein HM2 style monster. This will no doubt happen soon enough - and I will of course be sharing a more in-depth review when my copy lands. This one sounds really fantastic!
As predicted - the JAM Pedals Harmonious Monk is everything I thought it would be - and yes it does that syrupy pseudo Uni-Vibe thing really well with most of the controls maxed - which is exactly how I am enjoying it these days. I would really have preferred a tap-tempo versus double speed on the second footswitch, but I really cannot fault how the pedal works and sounds. Would have been nice to have the dynamic envelope functionality from the Anasounds Ages - which I still love, and which will surely be in on the rotation. The Ages is generally though quite a bit more subtle than the Harmonious Monk - and doesn't get anywhere near quite that syrupy - still sounds fantastic though.
As much as I love innovations and new products - I'm still hoping for a slightly quieter year than the last two - which saw quite a lot of changes to the chain. Swapping around a lot of pedals all the time is fraught with challenges - and you do need to recalibrate the whole chain probably a couple of times a year - which can be a bind. Also the number of times a power lead or patch cable hasn't been 100% fully slotted in - can lead to all kinds of annoying 'check everything' episodes.
I am usually very careful in installing new pedals - and generally the track record is pretty flawless, While every now and again there creeps in a little niggle which can often be difficult to trace - without double checking all power leads and connections.
Considering everything that's going on and the complexity of the setup - it's quite amazing how almost entirely silent / noiseless everything is. It's really just the Carvin V3MC tube amp which delivers a little of that ambient hum.
I feel that currently a lot of the pedals are somewhat unassailable in terms of their long-term residencies. In most instances I feel I already have an / the ideal pedal on that slot. So perhaps 2021 will be more about just experimenting with new flavours than necessary trying to improve things.
In any case - regardless of what happens there is a great fallback already in place. I think the Flanger and Tremolo of choice are already there, while like I said - there are quite a few more forthcoming modulation pedals this year which will inevitably end up in rotation. We also have the Boss TB-2W and HM-2W to look forward to - and surely the RV-200 cannot be that far away now!
Would be great to hear what your own plans are for the year and what you're chasing in particular - also - which were your favourites from this year's Virtual NAMM - and which of those are high priority!