Pedals are still my favourite guitar-related field - nothing yields the same degree of instant satisfaction as a smart pedal, and there were quite a number of intriguing ones on offer in this year’s crop. I started aiming for 20, then chopped and changed quite a bit - to end up with this current selection of 21. All of these hold significant interest for me and would be / are being considered for inclusion within my pedal chain and compact and mini collections - for which I currently have 37 active slots, and power supply for 3 more if at all necessary. Mostly it’s just about swapping existing pedal slots for something better or even just an occasional or temporary change of scene / flavour.
Various pedals stood out for me this year, and of those I chose to separate out my top 3 - which are the Empress Zoia, Gamechanger Plasma Distortion and JHS Bonsai Multi-Overdrive - in descending order. Most pedal aficionados were of a mind that either the Zoia or the Plasma Pedal ’Won’ the pedal category for NAMM this year, while others gave that accolade to the Line 6 Helix HX. I will touch on the Helix a litle later, but will first concentrate on the pedals included.
There’s quite a mix here of overdrive, distortion, delay, reverb, synth, bitcrusher, fuzz, filter, EQ and wah - pretty much most categories covered. There’s also a few trends I would like to highlight. I would say the most popular single category at the show was Reverb - with several new pedals featured there, several manufacturers like Way Huge and JHS were also compacting their pedals - from large and mid-sized enclosures down to the standard compact or regular MXR type enclosure. Also of particular delight to me was the increase in dual-footswitch compact pedals - following on from the leader in that area - Joel Korte of Chase Bliss Audio - we now see JHS launching a series of dual-footswitch pedals, as is the new Keeley Ecco Delay and Walrus Fathom Reverb.
My favourite pedal this year was the very unexpected and intriguing Empress Effects Zoia - a sort of Multi-Effects Sequencer - which combines elements of Eventide’s H9 and Ableton’s Live Push Controller - with its any-way connectable 50+ effects modules. Second place went to Gamechanger’s Plasma Pedal - a one-up on Ibanez’s NuTube Tubescreamer if there ever was one - and then in third place - the new JHS Bonsai - featuring exact analogue circuit recreations of 9 classic Tubescreamer Pedals. The last one rather pulls the rug from under Ibanez’s feet, as I was originally considering the NuTube pedal, until the Bonsai came along with is 9 classic varieties in one - and for circa £20 less outlay! I in fact like all these kinds of let’s call them ’heritage’ pedals, and probably started off by JHS’s Muffuletta Big Muff pedal, now joined by JHS’s Bonsai Tubescreamer variety and Crazy Tube Circuits Constellation Fuzz - which does a similar thing sort of for Tonebenders! All of those pedals are obviously very high on my wishlist.
I was extremely excited too when I clocked the 2 new Chase Bliss pedals - the Condor EQ / Filter / PreAmp and Thermae Pitch-Shifting Delay. Yet both of those are not really exactly fits for my pedal chain - I already have pedals which provide more EQ options, more Filtering and more PreAmp-style boost than does the Condor - so the Thermae proves to be more interesting, but diffused somewhat by its £499 price-tag and somewhat fiddly pitch controls - which I touched on before. I do think the Thermae is a really cool effect, but it’s highly specialist - so the question is where to place it in a Stereo chain, and how much use you would I get out of it?
In terms of Drive pedals - we have the Amplitude Eleven Dual Channel Drive - a sort of competitor for my Strymon Riverside and Sunset, then the really cool Plasma Drive, JHS Andy Timmons +/ V2, Mad Professor Little Tweedy Drive, MXR Sugar Drive, Neunaber XD-1 and Suhr Mini Riot. Beyond the obvious here - I was actually most surprised by the Little Tweedy Drive - a flavour I had not given much thought to before, but is essentially that twangy Chuck Berry sort of sound - for original-style rootsy Rock ’n’ Roll. The Neunaber XD-1 prototype is also somewhat reminiscent of my Sinvertek No.5 Distortion, but does a really clever Channel switch with a quick press of the footswitch while a long press switches the pedal on and off. I’m also intrigued that MXR has launched its own Tumnus competitor - I’m surprised it took this long for any competition to materialise in the mini form factor - this seems like a more authentic Klon tone - i.e. lacking the additional bass frequencies of the Tumnus which made it so instantly liked, but the MXR makes up for that with a Buffer switch which colours its core sound significantly - as well as a smart charge pump for ramping up the gain.
Next I should focus on the Reverbs - Brian Wampler actually introduced a couple which I did not really fancy - then there was Robert Keeley’s Ecco Tape Delay, Mad Professor’s Kosmos, Rainger FX’s X-Reverb, Seymour Duncan’s Silver Lake and Walrus Audio’s Fathom - all did something quite a bit more clever. Most of these using secondary functions on footswitches to trigger feedback, hold, freeze, sustain etc. My favourites here being the Ecco, Kosmos and Fathom - each one of those has its strengths - the Ecco in being Stereo in and out, the Kosmos having no less than 11 different varieties of Reverb, and the Fathom having that superb Sonar algorithm - plenty of choices here then.
Finally we have a few more quirky pedals, and the mini version of the CryBaby 535Q Wah - which is an obvious upgrade over the original mini CryBaby. Alexander’s Colour Therapy is a really cool mini synth / 8-step sequencer, Pigtronix’s Ringmaster is a sort of Analog Synth slash Ring Modulator - but unlike any you may have seen before - and finally after 5 years of R&D we have the mothership of all Bitcrushers in the shape of WMD’s Geiger Counter Pro - all good!
Pedals are listed alphabetically by Brand then Product Name:
A really cool Dual Channel Class A Overdrive / Distortion with clever layout and even more clever 3-way GAS voicing switch = Germanium / Asymmetric / Silicon clipping. You get a huge range of tones here and yes it does sound pretty great too as GearmanDude demonstrates above. It's a natural competitor for the Strymon Sunset - I may well check this out one day.
Another cool and quirky Alexander Neon Series 8-Step Sequencer with 6 different smart modes- including PWM octave mode, Oscillator mode, Tremolo mode, Resonant Filter mode, Time Modulation mode and Pitch Shifter mode - also includes presets. So much in such a compact form factor - hours of fun in any case!
This Analog EQ / Pre / Filter pedal is a bit of a Jack of All Trades really - and like I said in the intro I have more feature-rich pedals for each of those varieties, and there are many better pedals for each, but possibly none that contain exactly this combination. I already have several EQ and PreAmp pedals in my chain, and the Filter here is just a single Frequency dial really - so however much I liked the look of this pedal on first viewing, I really don't need it. As always there is some interesting dip-switch functionality here, but I would be better served by adding a smart compact Envelope Filter pedal than another combination pedal. Will be interesting to see how this one is received - it's quite far from the core modulation and delay types Chase Bliss has been hitherto associated with, and I'm not sure this pedal is in any way essential - still pretty cool though.
The price on this might trigger a sharp intake of breath, but that is because it contains the same complement of rare Bucket Brigade chips as the RKM Tonal Recall - so view this as its quirkier twin sister pedal, Much of the guts will be similar, but the Thermae changes things up by introducing a Pitch Shifter into the mix - which with the delays and ramping can offer some really superior ambient effects - making this a very specialist delay pedal. I voiced some misgivings in an earlier blog about the tiny legend on the Pitch dials - and how tricky this would be to set on the fly - especially without notched dials. I have the same sort of issue on my Empress EchoSystem - where I'm not always sure that the Subdivision dial is pointing in the right direction - but that has far fewer options than the pitch dials on the Thermae. From a usability standpoint the best thing to have done with both those dials would be to notch them - so you know 2 clicks up mean such and such an interval, and 3 clicks down is equally memorable - as both these pedals are now - those dials are unnecessarily fiddly - and in particular on the Thermae. I was really excited when I first saw the 'Knobs' directed demo for this pedal, but upon consideration I'm not sure I can justify the additional real-estate or ticket price - and I'm sure Empress would be able to add something relatively similar to the EchoSystem. This was one Magazine's best pedal in show, but however neat this pedal is, it really is too specialist for my taste to warrant best in show classification - and even Joel admits that the Empress Zoia was probably the coolest thing at the show. I'm still debating whether to update to the new Warped Vinyl HiFi - which is an essential pedal, but which in its new version swaps Volume dial of old for Lag - I actually use that dial quite a bit!
Greek pedal-maker CTC has come up a real winner here in the style of the JHS Muffuletta and Bonsai. Only here we are dealing with Fuzz Face and Tonebender fuzzes and a Range Master Treble Boost. You get 2 Fuzz Face modes - with and without Range Master, then the Range Master on its own, and most importantly - 3 different Tonebenders - the Vox version, the MK1.5 and MKII. This pedal is in my forthcoming 20 Best Compact Fuzzes listing - and is of course on my wishlist - spring release I believe.
This improves on the original Mini in every Way - with 5 additional features - a 4-way Range selector, mini Volume and Q Control dials, a Boost button, and a Boost indicator LED. Currently with the original mini you have a 3-way internal voicing switch, so the newer pedal gives you a significant advance in convenience and tone-shaping prowess - definitely one for me!
For me easily the most outstanding pedal of NAMM 2018 - one that is bound to cause equal amounts of glee and frustration in the future. I've described it before as a Modular Multi-Effects Sequencer - sort of what happens if were to combine Eventide's H9 with Ableton's Live Push Interface. You have a main display screen when you scroll through, select and refine 50+ effects modules - you assign these to one or more buttons on the 8 x 5 grid - and then connect those buttons up in any sequence - parallel routing etc. to build a pathway of effects through the grid - both in series and parallel - for full stereo output. You can set the pedal up as a sort of complete effects pedalboard in a single pedal - and you can easily stomp through presets using the 3 footswitches. I believe Empress are aiming for an April release - with pricing around the same as their large workstation pedals. I'm really excited about this one, even though I know it's going to be somewhat fiddly to 'program' and tweak - should make for some really interesting outputs - I look forward to seeing the full list of included modules - hopefully panning is included too - so I can swap this out for my rotary pedal - I'm kind of running out of space in my pedal chain otherwise.
Gamechanger somewhat stole the show last year with their piano-like brass pedal sustainer - and this year they're right back at it once more. What initially looks like something of a gimmick actually works really well - creating rich, complex and harmonic distortion via passing transforming the signal into high voltage and passing through inert gas plasma within a vacuum tube. The electric discharge from the plasma field is the main distortion agent / texture - and this is mixed back in with the dry signal. A relatively simply recipe on paper, but one that has not been done before - another one I will definitely be checking out fully when released.
A simple update to the original signature pedal - with just an added pre-boost footswitch and boost level. Everything is as before - so the same versatile Marshall-esque pedal now with added oomph! Not much more to say about it really - as a fan of Marshall tones I've had its predecessor on my wishlist for the longest time - so it's nice I held out for the extra functionality - no urgency on this one as I already have lots of Marshall options - but I shall acquire eventually.
I've written about this one at length previously - I'm a big fan of Tubescreamers, and the ability to have 9 classic TS flavours on tap - and within a single pedal is just an opportunity I cannot pass up on. These are all exact analogue replica circuits - with some clever digital switching on top - while the signal path is fully analogue. You get a Boss OD-1, TS808, TS9, Metal Screamer, TS10, EXAR OD1, TS7, TS808 Keeley Mod Plus, and TS9 JHS Strong Mod. This pedal should be out at the end of this month, and it's one of the ones earmarked for acquisition in February. Now I just need the same for Dumble and Klon! I can guarantee that the Bonsai is going to be a very popular pedal indeed, and it has somewhat put Ibanez's new Nu Tubescreamer in the shade - I feel the JHS will shift significantly more units.
We just caught a glimpse of this at NAMM - but I like it already - 3 different Tape Delay voicings with stereo ins and outs, twin footswitches for tap delay and secondary momentary functions like hold / feedback - and all in a compact enclosure. I have a stereo rig, and with Ambient effects - having stereo makes all the difference in creating those lovely panning swirls and swooshes - definitely one for the future. The number of times I see a cool delay or reverb and then notice it does not have stereo outputs - this one should be great - Note though - no sound demos yet owing to some faulty components!
Yet another fabulous pedal from one of Björn Juhl's 3 associate companies - Mad Professor (Bearfoot FX, OneControl FX, Mad Professor Amplification)[Side note - Björn has recently cut ties with Bearfoot FX and will be doing a lot more with OneControl!]. This single footswitch pedal has secondary momentary functions to go with 11 different modes - including all the classic Reverb types along with a couple of Delay + Reverb options too, some shimmers and swells. A neat and compact multi-faceted reverb - of course I would have preferred stereo outputs!
The Fender Tweed Amp Sound has never really been on my radar until now. This is the first Tweed type pedal that really appeals - giving you that classic Chuck Berry rootsy style of Rock 'n' Roll sound - as well as a superb Hotel California tone as per the above demo. I've heard Tweed type pedals before, but none as textured or as lively as this one. Yup - goes on the wishlist too.
Another mini Klon-style pedal following in the footsteps of the world-beating Wampler Tumnus which is one of my favourite all time overdrives. The MXR version sounds more close in profile to the original Klon - i.e. a flatter frequency response and not accentuating the lower frequencies like the Tumnus does. Still sounds glorious though and uses a charge pump to ramp up gain as you increase the drive level. If you're a fan of the original Klon sound - then this is an excellent substitute at a fraction of the size and price. I may acquire it for my mini collection some day, but it's not a priority acquisition.
Introduced in prototype form at NAMM - this dual-channel single footswitch overdrive + distortion will prove yet another winner for Brian Neunaber and following on from the success of the Immerse and the Inspire - the forthcoming XD-1 allows you to switch channels with a quick press and switch on and off with a slightly longer one. It reminds my a little of my Sinvertek No. 5 Distortion - which does a not too dissimilar thing with just the one footswitch - but this is yet more clever engineering by Neunbaer - sounds fantastic, and cleans up nicely with the guitar volume knob.
I've discussed this one already in some detail on one of my pre-NAMM posts. I originally thought this was another synth pedal - to go alongside the Mothership 2 - just with more modulation effects applicable. Yet at its core this is an Analogue Ring Modulator also with Tremolo ability, and some nice straight up analogue synth capabilities. It's a touch more quirky than the Mothership - and I like it all the more for it - great quirky demo as above.
David Rainger's 'Overdrive after Reverb' Reverb-X circuit is a neat mini pedal and a suitable companion for the earlier Echo-X. This gives you a pretty unique and grungy - doomy possibly even reverb sound. An acquired taste for sure, but the more adventurous tone-questers will love this cool mini pedal - which of course comes with its own dedicated Igor expression pad. Perfect for broody space-rock!
Seymour Duncan's companion pedal to last year's Andromeda Dynamic Delay. This Dynamic Reverb workstation is greatly impacted by your picking and attack dynamics - so an excellent tool for ambient players. Not quite as full featured as some of the other big-box alternatives, but it certainly has its own voice and will suit many. I'm not sure it's going to challenge the big players or the Source Audio Ventris too much. For powerful Reverbs - I believe the Boss RV-500 and SA Ventris kind of lead the pack at the moment, followed by Strymon's Big Sky, Empress's Reverb, and Eventide's Space. Different players will prefer different approaches and algorithms and each of those workstations offers up something special and different to the rest - so choose carefully.
A complete no-brainer really - most 3-dial pedals can conceivably be miniaturised to a large degree - so why not a mini Marshall-esque Riot. It pretty much has the same circuit and voicing options (actually one less 2 vs 3) of its bigger predecessor and should sound near enough identical. Probably not quite as versatile as the Xotic SL Drive, but has the same sort of high quality sound. I'm so glad that most pedal-makers are turning out smart mini-pedals now - Wampler and Xotic have most definitely led the way in delivering smart boutique-style minis which sound just as good as their larger stablemates.
This 4-way Reverb pedal from Walrus gained quite a lot of hype in the run-up to NAMM - sounds particularly wonderful in Sonar mode - but is an all-round ambient delight - with smart secondary functions on both footswitches - including sustain - i.e. hold / feedback. It has top-mounted sockets and immense immersive and soaring textures. I of course would have preferred stereo outputs - but it offers interesting competition for the above Mad Professor Kosmos - which gives you a few more modes. Both those pedals are excellent - yet not really for a stereo rig - I like the compact form factor, but my next most likely reverb - to go alongside the Boss RV-500 - is the spectacular Specular Tempus from GFI System - in full-blown stereo!
This pedal was held up in development hell for the best part of 5 years - many thought it would never happen - but here it is - the Mac Daddy of all LoFi / Bitcrusher pedals - with no less than 512 Wave Tables to filter, texture, distort and glitch your input signal. You have 10 dials to shape your output, full midi-control, and 3 footswitches for controlling playback and presets. This is a significant improvement over the standard Geiger Counter with a tonne more capabilities including randomisation of all parameters! Sure it's an acquired taste, but this is one of the greatest experimental pedals ever made.
Various pedals came to my attention late or otherwise did not make the cut - they include the Boss GT-1000 (£879) Multi-Effect workstation - which has more processing power, yet fewer overall effects and a less user-friendly interface than the key competitors - Line 6 Helix (£999) and Headrush Pedalboard (£899) - I feel both the latter ones have superior user interfaces - with more playback capabilities and easier to read dynamic labels on the footswitches. The Line 6 has the most overall options - models & fx, but I would still be tempted to go with the Headrush if I was going for this sort of thing! Line 6 of course launched the Effects only Helix HX (£540) - which does away with all the amp modelling and rocker footswitch, and leaves you just with the various effects categories - to appeal to fans of the M5 / M9 / M13 series. I'm still not tempted yet! I think the best sounding ones are the Axe FX and Kemper ones, but both those need better interfaces and lower prices, and digital is still not quite 99% there for my liking. It will get to a point though when I will check out one of those larger floorboard style workstations - I just need them all to improve a touch more. The Boss GT-1000 has offloaded a lot of its interface function to the mobile app - which for me is insubstantial. From experience I've learned that the functionality and interface has to work perfectly well on the actual device itself - and in that respect the Boss lags a little behind the others and seem pricey in comparison!
Fender also launched a commendable pedal collection of 6 smartly design pedals - covering most basis, with light-up dial markers and very reasonably priced at £87 to £160 - possibly the distortion was my favourite of those. Then Friedman had a couple of new pedals including a double BE-OD - the DP-OD - which combine a lower-gain-voice BE-type with a regular profile one, and reduces the tight dials to on/off switches.
I've mentioned the Ibanez NTS Nu Tubescreamer which proved inconclusive in the Andertons demo, and when you can get 9 classic flavours from the upcoming JHS Bonsai, I'm not sure you would want to pay £20 more for a less classic single new version. Finally there is the SIM1 XT-1 Guitar modeller which supposedly can make your guitar sound like any number of other classic - i.e. allow your humbucker shred axe to play like a Martin or Taylor Acoustic, Strat, Tele etc. - yet for me initial demos are inconclusive and not close enough matches in either tone or dynamics. And finally finally Diezel had its dual-footswitch forthcoming Herbert Pedal on demonstration, not a dual-channel affair like the VH4-2, but a pedal where you can switch in a Mid-Cut profile for a significantly different voicing. The Diezel Herbert amp is played by one of my all-time favourite guitarists Ian Crichton of Saga - so I may check it out at some stage - but it's not quite as exciting a proposition as the VH4 from what I've heard so far!
There was one more trend which I omitted to mention in the intro - namely the pedal pre-amp, or amp-in-a-pedal - like the new Milkman Amp pedal, Mooer Preamp pedal and the various tube-driven pedals from Victory Amplification - and yes their Kraken still sounds fantastic. Yet many of those pedals are rather larger and unwieldy - so nothing that has yet to take my fancy as such.
I think generally there has never been more pedal choice - although I still rue not getting this or that pedal which is now out of production and unobtainable - which mean setting up feeds and scanning Reverb.com on a regular basis. Would be cool if you could advertise that you were on the hunt for a particular pedal too - to that you could connect with someone who might be considering off-loading a pedal that you find highly desirable.
I am always fascinated by how scathing pedal fanatics can be - I belong to the Pedalboards of Doom group on Facebook, and there is often quite a lot of venom and vective directed at this and that pedal maker and certain generally well received pedals. Yet it's just like food or wine really - one man's poison is another's nectar and vice versa and some people hate Fuzz for the bizarrest of reasons when there really is a fuzz flavour our their for everyone - just no two the same!
Whenever I review and consider pedals - I have my own formulae and preferences applied - and even though there is a likelihood of some overlap, there are just as many players who will hate my choices. Yet I have several very particular sounds in my head - and that's what I'm chasing - and you no doubt may have a very different map of how things are and how they should be laid out.
My intentions as always are to highlight what is available and what is possible - with a view to improving my own signal / pedal chain - and helping others to learn and benefit from my research and experiences. There is no magic bullet solution here - it's always a best-fit line - and everyone has their own line profile...