Fishman set a benchmark for acoustic guitar amplification back in the stone age with the Fishman Acoustic Matrix. They’ve since held their position as one of the most prominent brands in the field, continuing to innovate and refine what was already solid. Recently, the Fishman Aura Acoustic Imaging Blender has been turning heads with its powerful “imaging” technology – making use of some freaky algorithms that duplicate the way a particular guitar body sounds mic’d – and revolutionizing the way pickups interact with the rest of the system.
When the gang at Premier Guitar handed me a stack of three new Fishman AFX acoustic guitar effects pedals – reverb, delay and chorus – to test and review, I was extremely intrigued. Monolithic in a friendly way, these boxes are reassuringly solid and weighty, with the Fishman logo prominent, yet subtle. From the moment the temptingly textured boxes hit my hands I was hooked. The pedals are sleek, slightly retro, immediately comprehensible, and – dare I say it? – shiny.
Adventures in Stereo
First things first: kudos go to whoever decided to make these units stereo. There’s a right and left input and output on all three units, meaning it would even be possible to use these pedals, particularly the reverb, as outboard effects for a mixing board – a painless way to get reverb into the signal when you’re plugging into a Bose L1, for instance. Double kudos are needed, because the reverb pedal has enough luscious settings to justify the stereo capabilities. Also, the überhandy Input Gain switch toggles between Normal and Boost, adding a little more punch to a passive pickup. For players who have multiple signals coming out of their guitars from multiple pickup systems, a perfectly clean, stereo reverb in one little box is a revelation.
The rubber feet are attached to the base of the unit with screws on all four corners, making it highly unlikely that they’ll fall off and get lost in anybody’s gear fragment vortex. The knobs are enticingly chunky, super easy to turn and clearly marked with highly readable black text on the brushed nickel top plate, which means given barely adequate lighting (the norm at many gigs), you’ll actually be able to see your settings. The bypass footswitches are effortless to find in the dark and have a very solid and unmistakable click that tells you when you’ve made contact. I get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the designers at Fishman have actually gigged before. These are some of the most user-focused and friendly pedals I’ve ever plugged into.
Apart from the aesthetics, the biggest hook is that the AFX pedals are specifically designed for the tone and frequency range of acoustic guitars – there is no compromise here. They’re beautifully clean and clear with vibrant, lively sounds that compliment your acoustic image perfectly, and there’s no crunch, noise or other distracting tonal inefficiencies that characterize so many pedals designed for electric guitars. When you increase the level, you don’t distort or change your tone. That pretty much seals the deal right there. But before we get too carried away, let’s plug them in.
There are eight presets out of the box – Studio, Room, Plate, Chamber, Stage, Concert, Cathedral and Canyon – and three controls to sculpt your sound: Level, Tone and Decay Time. Fortunately for the less-techno-savvy acoustic guitarists out there, the controls are immediately comprehensible. The Level control mixes in parallel, simply adding effect; likewise, Tone adds brightness or warmth to the effect, but steers clear of your instrument’s tone. Decay Time does what it promises, adjusting the length of the reverb’s tail, allowing you to increase the drama or dial it back for some simple sweetening.
The unit generates no noise that I could hear and unlike some other reverb pedals available, there is a clear and immediately discernable difference in the sound when you start dialing in the exact ‘verb you want. I particularly enjoyed the Tone knob’s flexibility, preferring a little more warmth with my steel string and a little more brightness with my nylon string. The presets themselves are very appealing, with most needing little or no tweaking. Overall, Fishman’s AFX Reverb offers up clean and effortless operation – not to mention killer value for the money.
you want gorgeous reverb and effortless control over it
you require more control over elements not available here
Fishman's AFX Chorus also includes eight presets to start the user off with a nice, big palette; three Chorus settings, Stereo and Narrow Tremolo, Flanger, Phaser and Rotary effects round out the package. I'm not a big chorus fan, but found myself far more engaged with this pedal than I imagined I'd be. In fact, a taste of Chorus 1 on the warm side was enough to scare away the winter blues. Schmaltzy and smart jazz tunes really pop, and it's possible to dial in Scofield-style weirdness, too. The trem, flange, phase and rotary settings sound just as transparent and clear, but to my ear they lacked a little of the beauty that the Chorus effects claimed; it might have simply been because I couldn't figure out how to incorporate a rotary sound into a fingerstyle tune, but if you're the inventive type, you'll enjoy the added effects. The control knobs - in this case, Level, Tone and Speed - remain dead simple, although the Tone control didn't seem as responsive as on the AFX Reverb, with the bright side becoming sterile at the highest settings, and the warm side adding just a touch of mush. Nevertheless, the sheer transparency of this unit makes it truly remarkable and well worth adding to your rig if modulation effects are your thing.
you need a smart, sophisticated chorus palette that's a breeze to set
you need more than just Tone and Speed controls
While I've never really employed delays in my own playing, if I was to embark upon such a mission, this is the delay I'd go with. The pedal features two delay types - the ultra clean and quiet Modern mode or the warm, analog-styled Classic mode - and four presets for each, giving the users the option of short, medium, long or ping pong variants (with up to 2.9 seconds of available delay time). There's also the ability for short phrase sampling, a nice bonus for such a compact unit.
Due to size constraints there is no tap switch onboard, but the pedal features an extra input for a tap switch that allows the user to override the delay time and set their own tempo. Like the other two pedals, this unit is well thought out and easy to use, but the most important thing to my ear is that there is no sudden "electric" sound. Nothing gets added to your hard-earned acoustic tone - you just get delay.
The Final Mojo
you want a gorgeously transparent delay effect that satisfies your wildest muses
you need unlimited versatility and depth of control
Personally, I can't imagine being an acoustic guitarist and not wanting these pedals; they're incredibly user-oriented, and with 24-bit A/D/A and 32-bit processing, these units provide the high-quality tone and transparency acoustic players crave. Diehard tweakers may wish for some more depth of control, but for the majority of players, these things will transform how you look at coupling effects with that gorgeous acoustic.
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