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Gear Review: Big Sound, Little Muff; Or, this Pi’s for You!

Big Q I can’t answer: “The EHX Big Muff Pi is conspicuous for its very ubiquity. But does it really deserve its exclusive status as the “fuzz of all fuzzes”?’

Few if any axe-grinders have taken to the concert stage without the giant silver wedge of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi at their feet at one time or another. My first was an army-green Sovtek that I picked up at the local music store/pawnshop I frequented in my teens. I remember being fascinated by the Cyrillic lettering on the pedal’s wooden box, both amazed and confused that this piece of Soviet engineering had found its way to me, in Morristown, Tennessee. I knew nothing of the Big Muff’s long history, or that Sovtek was really just Electro-Harmonix (builder of my first stomp box: a red and black “Small Stone” phase shifter) in exile. That big green wedge was gateway to a whole new universe of tones — and volume — and it was a mainstay at my feet for the better part of twenty-five years. When I sold ‘Big Green’ in order to finance some new gear I coveted, I almost immediately regretted it; despite there being countless new,  Judge-Me-By-My-Size-Do-Youdifferent, and even ‘fuzzier’ options available, I missed the tried-and-true sound of my BMP. After a flirtation with going fuzz-less, I was soon pulled back toward the furry side with the EHX’s Big Muff Pi w/ Tone Wicker, which found a home on my board until, lo and behold, I happened upon the Nano Big Muff Pi — the most unintentionally oxymoronic pedal of all time. How can it be ‘nano’ and ‘big’ at the same time?

Not being a wizard myself, I can’t tell you what kind of spell Mike Matthews and his Brooklyn-based coven slapped on this Lego-brick of a stomp box. What I can tell you is that they somehow shrunk all the best parts of the Big Muff Pi into a teeny enclosure that somehow generates its own unique brand of fairy dust. I have both a newish, big-ass-silver-box “NYC” BMP and a newish Nano BMP, and the Nano stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of in-your-face hairiness, and outshines the full-size BMP in clarity. Maybe my ears are biased, but the Nano actually sounds better to me: just a little bit sharper, letting just a wee bit more of my pick attack come through.

Now, if EHX could just get with the program and start using center-negative 9V inputs like everyone else does, we could really get down to business!

 

 

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Gear Review: Empress Tremolo2

I’ve spent the past year or so trying out various tremolo pedals, in search of “the one” that can both suit my gigging needs and give me that little ‘something extra’ to spark the creation of new songs, sounds, riffs and licks. Tall order, I know. From high-priced, high-tech and boutique offerings to plain-jane no-names, quite a few contenders have spent quality time on my pedalboard. I’m not going to rank them (because ‘different strokes for different folks’), but these effects are all worthy of mention as gig-worthy Tremolos that spent considerable gigging and playing/writing time on my board:

  • VHT Melo-Verb
  • Black Cat Mini-Trem
  • CMATmods Tremoglo
  • Catalinbread Valcoder
  • SolidGoldFX Stutterbox (V.1)

IMG_1493_2Note: I acquired almost all but one of these pedals second or third-hand via Reverb; I’ve also turned around and sold many of them via Reverb, once I’d decided to move on. I’ve found that this is a better and, in the end, more affordable way to “audition” pedals than using a Netflix-style effect rental service because 1) I can usually find the pedal I want when I want it, and 2) if I’m patient I can make $5-$20 per sale, beyond the initial cost of the pedal — or at least break even.

Now, I can finally declare a winner in the ‘Tournament of Tremolos’ — it’s the Empress Tremolo2. I’ve had it for about a month, now and have used it on two 3-hour gigs and for lots of at-home fiddling around. The T2 is both gig-worthy and musically inspiring, my main criteria, but it also shines in some very specific ways.

Ease of Use? — What a Concept!

The T2 has a digital heart hiding beneath its analog trappings. The Empress site describes the pedal as having an all-analog signal path with the tremolo effect “controlled digitally via opto technology.” Whatever digi-log voodoo mojo they performed works for me, because my ears don’t detect even a hint of artificiality in the tones the pedal produces.IMG_1492

However, the combination of technologies does explain how the T2 is able to save multiple presets (I used 4 — with some additional fiddling around, you can set up to 8!) that allow you to tweak and save all of the manual settings you make for each sound/speed/rhythm you need. I liked the four presets that came with the pedal (I have no idea if they were the factory settings or had been set by the previous owner), but ended up tweaking them to my liking and to the needs of the songs I’d be playing. After adjusting a mellow Blackface Fender-tone in preset 1, and a faster, deeper version of that in preset 2, I made preset 3 a hard, choppy Valco-style trem for a couple of more garage-y songs, and gave preset 4 a less choppy, but rhythmically unusual, flavor of the same.
IMG_1491_2
Changing between presets is a breeze, even for a stone-cold idiot like me. Set the switch to “Presets” then click the bypass button — you are in preset 1 (blue LED). To switch presets, hold the tap tempo button down until the LED changes color, and there you are!

On top of all that, you can tweak each preset on the fly with the knobs on the pedal’s face. Has the drummer counted off that ballad too quickly? Then adjust your preset with the speed knob. These tweaks aren’t saved, unless you go to the trouble of saving them, but making adjustments like this quickly, without having to go through screens or menus on a digital pedal, can be a song-saver.

Go Deep — Seriously, Even Deeper!

Some boutique pedals are difficult to use right out of the box — you probably know which ones I’m talking about — because they offer so many options from the get-go that you have to read the full manual before you can even summon a tone as basic as Link Wray’s “Rumble” tremolo.
IMG_1494
The T2 is not only is good-to-go right out of the box (note: the manual is available online and is written to get you started playing ASAP), there are features a-plenty under the hood. Yes, the T2 is gig-ready, but there are enough unique features (e.g. three wave forms, eight rhythm patters) and control options (external tap, expression, control voltage, MIDI.) to inspire you to continue deepening your knowledge of the pedal’s creative possibilities.

What Now?

If you are interested in some audible samples of what the T2 can do, check out the Empress site; they have numerous sound clips showing off many of the features I’ve mentioned, and much much more.

If you are looking to purchase a T2, new or used, check out Reverb.

If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts on Tremolo pedals (or guitar effects in general), post a comment below.

SolidGoldFX Funkzilla Review

The auto-wah, touch-wah/envelope filter is a bit of a niche effect. Die-hard rockers and funkmeisters always seem to go for the clunky, full-size Vox or Dunlop wahs, and there are no shortage of those and their imitators to go around. I could never get the hang of constantly working a pedal with my foot while having to focus on what my hands were (supposed to be) doing. I canguyatone wr 2’t pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, either. For the hopelessly uncoordinated who still want to get funky, a wah/filter effects pedal is a must-have. Since trading away my first Cry Baby after many thwarted attempts at playing “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” I’ve owned several of them. My first was a little purple Guyatone WR2 “Wah Rocker” that I bought used out of the window of a music store in Nashville for around $90, I think, in 2004. It was a very simple auto wah, with knobs for Threshold and Decay, and a bypass switch. Even an idiot like me could use it! Sadly, it disappeared somewhere along the long, winding and somewhat inebriatedly navigated road of my semi-professional music career. At this very moment it’s probably being used as a door stop in the ladies’ bathroom at a truck stop somewhere between Richmond and Bristol, VA. Enjoy your second life, my tiny purple friend!

My next companion in the funk wars was the dutifully named Modtone Funk Filter. With three knobs, which included settings for low pass, mid pass, and high pass filters, it was more tweakable, if less actually ‘funky’ than the Guyatone. Still, it had a thick tone, especially in the ‘mp’ setting, that fattened up single string riffs and give an interesting punch to my brief solo breaks. Unlike the Guyatone, which was an auto-wah (the sweep of the filter — what’s controlled by the pedal on a “big” wah pedal — is automatic, and controlled by a speed, or in the case of the WR2, a “Decay” knob), the MFF is a touch-wah or classic envelope filter: it responds to the signal going in, and an “attack” control gauges how sensitive the filters affect is to your playing dynamics.

Speaking of breaks, the Modtone is now broken. The 9V input assembly cracked (that’s weird, I know!) but that was a simple enough, straight-forward fix: $1 for a new power jack and some soldering time. However, I am not the world’s most deft electrical tinkerer; when attaching the new 9V assemble (which worked!), I also seemed to have dripped some solder or got something too hot — in any case, now it powers up, but doesn’t work. It will probably take awhile before I can trace down all the components that will need to be replaced in order to fix what I unfixed when I was fixing. No worries, though, as it joins yet another broken Modtone pedal in my “I’ll get around to it” box which I will probably cannibalize for parts.

Which leads me, finally, to the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla, which I borrowed when I recently re-upped my subscription Pedal Genie. For those of you unfamiliar with the service, it’s like Netflix for guitar pedals. You pay a monthly subscription fee, create a “wish list,” and they send you a pedal from that list. Keep it as long as you like; when you are ready to return it, put your pedal back in the provided box, and email the kind folks at Pedal Genie to request a mailing label. They will shoot it to you via email; tape it onto the padded flat rate envelope they sent along inside your pedal order, seal the boxed-up pedal into the envelope, and drop it in the mail. As soon as they receive it at the Pedal Genie office, they will send you another pedal on your list. It’s cool, and convenient, and a great way to try out unusual and/or boutique pedals before actually dropping $200-300 on one. I’ve gotten a Caroline Kilobyte, a Strymon Lex, an EHX B9 Organ Machine, a Tech21 Fuzz/Boost, and, now, the SolidGoldFx Funkzilla. Of all these, the Funkzilla has been my favorite, and it’s the only one I’ve been so enamored with that I’ve begun stalking it on Reverb and eBay. They are still running in the low $200’s, even for a used one!funkzilla pedal

The Funkzilla is more than just an auto-wah or filter effect; the ease of use, tweakability, and overall design make it almost an instrument itself. Billed as the “ultimate filter pedal,” the device comes in a sparkly purple rectangular enclosure; with its white knobs and white “Electric Company” style lettering, I was immediately struck by how ‘funky’ this pedal looked. While the rows of knobs and switches made my brain hurt a little, I decided to plug and play before searching online for a manual. It didn’t take long at all to figure out how the controls worked and to get busy using the various settings for musical inspiration.

The Funkzilla is basically a two-function monster. There’s Tap mode, which utilizes the Speed, Mode, and Depth knobs, as well as switches to select among three wave-forms, repeat-multipliers (1, 2, or 4), and >dir< which controls the “direction” of the filter’s sweep in both modes. I’d liken the Funkzilla’s Tap to an extremely tweakable Tremolo; the Mode knob gives you several different rhythmic “chopping” patterns to select from, and their character and speed are easily shaped by the aforementioned knobs, the ‘tap’ button, the wave-form selector or the multiplier switch. I could’ve spent hours playing around with just half of the pedal’s functions, but what I was looking for was the funk, so my quest continued.

Envelope mode is where you find the familiar filter effects lazy-footed guitarists are in search of — and this pedal certainly delivers. The Depth, Frequency and Attack knobs are active in this mode, and allow you to contour the filter to mimic a wide range of sound shapes, from a spanky quack to very musical, talkbox-sounding vowel sounds. And the >dir< feature really comes alive in this Envelope mode. I’d never imagined that reversing the filter sweep would do much more than muddy the initial input signal, but the effect was something nearly akin to a Slow Gear volume swell. For something I would’ve considered superfluous before trying this pedal out, the >dir< feature is one of the things that really sets this pedal apart from the pack.

My gigging experience with the Funkzilla was a very positive one. I put it after my EHX Soul Food overdrive, basically in the middle of my pedal chain. (BTW I know most sources say to put a Wah before an overdrive, fuzz or boost, but I actually prefer the ‘darker’ results of distortion going through the filter, instead of the other way around.)  I stuck exclusively with Envelope mode, as I felt that I’d need more time to really get a handle on Tap mode before I could use it effectively.  Even using only half the pedal, I found the results exciting and inspirational, both for rhythm and some solo passages. I had to do very little tweaking during the show, and was pleased to see that the purple sparkle of the pedal, contrasting with the white knobs and white labeling, made onstage, low-light knob twiddling easier. So, the funky color is both a stylish choice and a practical one. I don’t currently have an expression pedal that I could use to test the effect’s functionality with the added interface, but I imagine it would add even greater flexibility and increase the possibilities for live exploration and invention.

I don’t have a rating system for gear reviews — should I have one? — but if I did, I’d give the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla two thumbs up, four guitar picks, five gold stars, etc. My only knock would be the cost, but my experience with guitar effects is that you often get what you pay for, and the Funkzilla, even at $250 new (and still $200-225 used), packs a lot of value into that funky purple box!