Each year - based on the previous year’s experience, I focus on the most pertinent and relevant trends happening in guitar pedal design and manufacturing. I long since highlighted the dual-footswitches trend which was really popularised by Chase Bliss Audio - and continues to proliferate with brands such as Jackson Audio, JHS and Walrus Audio.
The first time I did this type of feature I highlighted the evolution of larger more populous pedalboards with more pedals in the chain, the increase in smaller, more-easily accommodated pedals therefore, and the overall Chase Bliss Audio influence - particularly with dual-footswitches.
Last year I talked about pedals getting a little smarter overall - with more clever control-topologies and interfaces, more voicings onboard, the use of Multi-Colour LEDs, and the increase in utility overall - generally pedals doing more and doing it more cleverly.
All those previous trends are still present and pervasive as I indicated in my recent Mini Pedals State of the Industry feature - where we’re really seeing unprecedented features, build and component quality and output from the smallest usable pedal format.
My own preferred enclosure size has always been and will remain the compact enclosure size - as originally popularised by Boss and MXR in the late 70's, and as represented by 1590B and 1590N1/125B -style enclosures. They for me contain the perfect footprint to functionality ratio - and the cleverest of this type - Chase Bliss Audio for instance - outperform other similar pedals of much larger dimensions. Not that Chase Bliss Audio always gets things perfectly correct, and not that I don't also like certain vertical medium-rectangle enclosure boxes of the 1590BB type too.
Where possible though I will always gravitate towards the compact format - which is why my 4 examples above are all compacts. In fact all but the CBA Brothers are very recent releases - alas I could not find anything newer than the Brothers which contained specifically that functionality which I required for illustrative purposes here. In any case I have chosen 6 areas to focus on this year, and I will likely use a different primary pedal example to punctuate each.
Note above visual illustrating the principal pedal enclosure sizes as I see them.
I have said many times now that pedal-makers have pretty much exhausted the canon of classic effects - EQD had to lower its price point also to make its recent 3-way clipping Plumes Tube-Screamer-style Overdrive suitably sufficiently appealing. While Anasounds introduced the DIY angle for its own multi-clipping Tube-Screamer type - the Ego Driver.
We have pretty much all though seen a variety of multi-clipping Tube Screamers before so all this is just new money for very old rope. We've also seen a number of stacked overdrive pedals before - a variety from Wampler - including the Dual Fusion and Hot Wired, similar examples from Analog.Man, JHS and King Tone. Variously stacking Tube Screamer, Blues Breaker, Dumble-style, Klon-style and Marshall Plexi/CJM800-style drives in the same sort of 3-knobs per channel medium enclosure box. A recent example of this has been Mad Professor's Supreme Drive - which combines the Royal Blue Overdrive on the left-channel with a high-headroom Dumble-Style voicing on the right-channel. The Royal Blue being Mad Professor's own take on the dynamic/transparent overdrive proposition.
In any case we've pretty much exhausted all the conventional variables - and much like in cooking - what remains to us know is 'Fusion Cuisine' which is finding more unusual complementary flavours to stack together. Up until now we've had relatively few stacking modulations - with the Boss MD-500 being the only example for the longest while until the very recent arrival of GFI System's Synesthesia which somewhat ups the usability of that combination play.
I've also picked out Crazy Tube Circuit's Killer V Magnatone-emulating Vibra-Drive - which cleverly combines drive with phasey vibrato in the same dual-footswitch compact enclosure. There are already a smattering of intriguing mid-size combination boxes, but relatively little as regards the compact format. I believe the compact format is the bread-and-butter size for most players - so it would make sense to have more capable and interesting pedals in that form factor. Will be intriguing also to see what sort of uptake the Killer V will have - I am certainly planning to get one of those for myself.
I did a feature back in August of last year about some of my favourite Dual Stage Stacking pedals - while indicating an obvious preferences for multiple stacking options and alongside individual control over each channel via dual footswitches - that way you can get 3 different flavours out of those pedals - like I can with the CBA Brothers, Loophole Grey Matter and ThorpyFX Heavy Water - being able to deploy each channel separately as well as in combination.
While reviewing the Loophole Grey Matter, I also picked up the fairly similar but not quite - Pelican Noiseworks / 60 Cycle Hum 50/50 Double OD - and would really like to own further example of these sorts of pedals with interesting voicing combinations and tone-sculpting options.
When I reviewed the Boss JB-2 Angry Driver back when it was released I noted how much more useful this would have been with dual footswitches - where you would be able to utilise the pedal in a more flexible manner - versus leaning over to shift the mode, or deploying a secondary auxiliary footswitch. I am one of those which finds it infuriating when basic functions such as tap-tempo and ramping etc. are made to be reliant on additional auxiliary devices.
Surely the clever move is to have these elements built into the pedal. With clever engineering nowadays you no longer need a briefcase-size enclosure to do truly clever things - just look at Chase Bliss Audio's recent Blooper pedal or Sinvertek's new Drive N5+ for the ultimate in onboard control. When you look at the Dual Stage visual above - it would be so much more helpful for the Maple Leaf, Angry Driver, Cornerstone, Plimsoul, Zig Zag and Dragon Hound pedals to have separate footswitches to deploy each of their channels - instead you are reliant on the very manual toggle switches and dials. I see a lot more dual-footswitch compact enclosures coming my way in the near future!
I currently only have a handful of pedals which allow you to do each-way series routing plus parallel combining - including the Boss JB-2, the above featured Chase Bliss Audio Brothers Analog Gain Stage and Strymon Red Sun are the ones which most immediately come to mind - oh and my recent Boss OD-200 Hybrid Drive - where I use that function a lot for creating more interesting textures.
I actually got best to grips with parallel stacking originally on the Boss JB-2 Angry Driver - which really cleverly combines the BD-2 Blues Driver and Angry Charlie/JCM-800-style channels for a really thick, rich and expressive distortion. Up until that time I did not realise quite how well those would/could mix together - of course, as mentioned above - it would have been better to have dual footswitches for ultimate utility - but the JB-2 is still nonetheless a fantastic proposition and probably my favourite Boss Distortion overall.
I would like to see a much larger number of stacking pedals including the parallel option, and not just the either way A>B or B>A options we see so commonly. 2019 - with TheGigRig's Wetter Box and EQD's Swiss Things and EHX's Tri Parallel Mixer - was very much about parallel stacking, but we should not need to rely on chunky external utilities to provide the parallel option - please let's see more of that onboard forthcoming stacking pedals of this nature.
The first time I witnessed the LED-ring colour-changing push-button switches was when Chase Bliss Audio and Benson Amps announced their forthcoming Automatone MKII PreAmp at Winter NAMM 2019 - I expect significant further updates of said pedal at the next now imminent 2020 Winter NAMM.
In any case the first practical application of this occurred on my CBA Blooper pedal - where the Channel Modifier switches are handled by such push-buttons on the front edge of the pedal enclosure. Alas these are only single mode on/off, while the Automatone ones were triple-function-mode-selectors - and I believe some examples of this type of button go through as many as 7 different colour-changing modes.
When I saw the Automatone I immediately updated the toggle switches on my idealised pedal design - per the above visual - and then expected to see a flood of pedals using that type of switches in place of toggles. Most pedal-makers will tell you about the fragility of toggle-switches - I have received numerous pedals over the years where one or more toggle switch was damaged in transit - and surely this newer type of button would be the perfect more robust and visually pertinent replacement.
To date thought I have only seen one pedal which deployed a similar single LED push-button - some sort of fuzz pedal which I foolishly forgot to take note of at the time - surely one of my readers can let me know which that pedal likely was/is.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing more clever deployments of these sorts of buttons - which should be able to solve a number of control-topological issues. And now that Chase Bliss Audio has once again set the standard - surely we will see others following on soon enough.
My big take-away from my recent Glitch Pedals overview was the woeful omission of the pretty much essentially required presets. When you are having to tweak as many as 8 or 10 dials in tandem - you really want to be able to preserve those perfect settings - particularly considering there are 15 other algorithms onboard - all with different parameters/variables and sweet-spots.
Even on basic drive pedals it's useful to have presets as you may deploy a drive in a low-gain, medium-gain and high-gain fashion for different songs and playing styles. I have a number of pedals - including the Sitek Wuffy Fuzzy-Distortion which I mostly operate at one level, but like ramping up on occasion. While there are other pedals where you might like to drop things down a level for a particular passage of music. Strymon occasionally uses a 'favourite' single preset feature for such a function, while I feel that there should really be a minimum of 2 presets if not 3 or 4. Having just the one preset is nice - but slightly disappointing at the same time - like being given half a KitKat or Twix!
With modern pedals you can have a wholly analogue circuit and throughput with just the settings controlled via digital means - things like EQ, Gain and Volume. That is the simplest and most elegant way to enable and store presets. But then you need sufficient presets onboard the pedal itself - for instant recall and playback. I have a pet peeve how presets work on a number of my pedals - including the Meris Hedra, Source Audio Ventris and Strymon Volante. Each of those has substandard preset functionality - while the Boss 200 series cleverly let you switch between Tap-Tempo or Boost Mode and Preset Mode by pressing and holding set footswitch - yet we only get 4 onboard presets where the OD-200 has 12 Drive Type Modes and 15 Boost Type Modes - only 4 is not nearly enough. The Wampler Terraform has 8 which is a lot more acceptable.
More pedals need to take on the same sort of functionality as the Stone Deaf Tremotron - which utilises dual footswitch simultaneous press to switch between presets - but could also in fact do with more presets itself. Actually - let's not forget the GFI System Synesthesia which deploys that same dual-footswtich-press to bank up through presets!
Generally though I would really like to see more pedals with properly footswitchable onboard presets - as well as having those in sufficient quantity to match said pedal's capabilities. I'm not sure what sort of signal you are sending when you have multiple modes available but hardly any presets!
I can't get away from the fact that my rig is very much a Stereo one, and I need my digital modulations, as well as delays and reverbs to have full stereo inputs and outputs - for ideal pedal-chain compatibility and placement flexibility.
One of the very few things I dislike about the new GFI System Synesthesia is its lack of stereo input - which restricts greatly where I can place it in my chain - and somewhat curtails my more expansive experimental nature - yet it is still my favourite of that type for everything else it delivers.
There are far too many appealing delays and reverbs in particular though which are woefully mono only - which means that they are largely impaired for use in my chain unless being purely deployed for monaural textural purposes. In such instances they need to be deployed upstream in the pedal chain - just after the analogue modulations!
I was delighted to see Robert Keeley finally release his fully stereo Eccos Flange-Modulated Delay which combines so many of my favourite features, but is never going to outmuscle my existing Boss DD-200, Empress EchoSystem, Red Panda Particle V2, Strymon Volante and Strymon TimeLine delay pedals. For a compact pedal stereo rig though, it would be my delay of choice most likely.
I actually don't particularly like using TRS / Y-Splitter patch cables for stereo connectivity, but will certainly accept it for compact format pedals where there is really not sufficient capacity to throw in another couple of 1/4" sockets - e.g. on the various Chase Bliss Audio Delays and Reverb.
I sort of realise that we stereo rig guys are probably few and far between - versus the more traditional mono and wet/dry setups - or even dual-pathway rigs which use entirely separate effects for each channel. I'm not sure we will ever see a deluge of these - but would be nice if there were a few more available which catered for the stereo crew!
I still feel that Chase Bliss Audio is leading the charge in smart pedal design - Joel Korte has been ahead of the curve for so many of these features and elements, and with his recent trio/quartet of digital glitch pedals - he's leading the charge on innovation again.
It's currently between Chase Bliss and Jackson Audio as to who is doing the most clever things with smart intuitive interface design and most ingeniously feature-loading its compact pedals.
Of the 6 elements highlighted above - I expect to see a lot more 'Fusion Cusine' style effects for sure, alongside still more dual-footswitch stacking pedals with more presets onboard and more of a proliferation of those really cool multi-state LED-ring push-buttons.
I'm almost disappointed there haven't been more already - but then this sector actually moves relatively slowly overall. Let's not forget that almost none of the components in general and mass use by the guitar gear industry were specifically invented for this format. The whole pedal effects industry is really a by-product of military and mass-market radio and communications industries - with early effects and amps manufacturers just picking up the cheapest and most readily available suitable resource components. A lot of these components were considered somewhat faulty by their original industries - e.g. like the LM308 - which still continues to find a home in unusual noise generation. In a parallel industry which was trying to perfect a noiseless amplifier circuit - everything that went over to guitar gear is really seen as somewhat sub-optimal for those original amplifier.amplification purposes.
There's obviously a significant cost to R&D and Innovation - but with Kickstarter and Indiegogo etc. - there are vehicles to help manufactures take calculated and sustainable risks. By and large this industry isn't that technologically innovative overall bar a few inspired operators - and as mentioned - very few components are actually purpose-designed and built for this sector.
I know it's improbable, but I would like to see more experimentation here. Actually Alexander Pedals is still doing interesting things - but still all mono as far as I recall, and I was a touch disappointed that the otherwise quite superb Dr Scientist Atmosphere Reverb unit was also mono only - I would surely have acquired a stereo version of that had it been available.
When I size up effects pedals - features and practicalities are always a significant driver for me, and although I'm still intrigued by say the Meris Mercury 7 Reverb and GFI System Specular Tempus - I'm still constrained and put-off by the limitations of each. I'm somewhat frustrated with Meris - in that to get the most out of those pedals you need the auxiliary footswitch or to rely on third party midi controllers. When I buy a pedal though I would like a fully self-contained system - which covers off all the essential functionality within its own functional framework. I'm often taken aback by the need to buy additional devices to get the most out of the device you just acquired. There are already people and makers with the right solutions - more just have to follow their lead.
It's no longer anyway good enough to just be churning out the same old shizzle over and over - with the only differentiator being a limited edition paint-job and different price point or other unnecessaily artificial constraints ...