When hearing the name Dan Armstrong, most people think of that clear Plexiglas guitar made by Ampeg. For stompbox freaks, the name conjures up images of legendary effects like the Orange Squeezer and the Blue Clipper. In the seventies, Dan Armstrong designed a line of acclaimed effects modules that were manufactured by the Musictronics Corporation. The line has returned, fresh for 2008, and is now being manufactured by Grafton Electronics, appropriately located in bucolic Grafton, Vermont. They’ve given these hand-assembled pedals a brand new, interlocking design, allowing them to fit together for a more efficient, space-saving layout on your pedalboard. We were able to gets our hands on a few of these Sound Modifiers to see if time has been kind to Dan Armstrong’s designs.
The Blue Clipper is a thick sounding fuzz with gargantuan sustain. Does that sound like the description for a Big Muff? Well it fits, as I would say this pedal is the Big Muff’s noisier cousin with a very similar tone. The Blue Clipper delivers a nice, thick fuzz like the Muff, but this unit packs a little more bite. The big difference is that the gain level is preset and there is no tone knob to be found. Rest assured – it has enough gain and is dialed in for most people’s tastes. In a startling display of simplicity, you control the gain of the Blue Clipper by adjusting your guitar’s volume. Turned down you get some nice crunchy break up; crank that volume knob and the Blue Clipper churns with snarl and spit. It handles most chords well, but occasionally got muddy with certain chord voicings, especially when on the neck pickup. Another possible point of contention occurs when the guitar’s volume is all the way up – hit any open strings while simultaneously playing fretted notes and the fretted notes may get washed out.
This pedal will go over well with the minimalist crowd – the front of the pedal features a lone volume knob, a blue LED and an on/off switch. The switch is not the normal button you’ll see on most stompboxes – it’s very easy to press and a simple brush past could possibly engage the pedal. The battery is changed by removing some very stubborn screws on the back cover – it took me a while to get into the unit, and once inside, I noticed that the manufacturer was fairly conservative in the amount of solder used, raising the real possibility that you may have to climb inside the case with a hot iron someday. That said, the construction seemed solid and the case is built like a tank. If you’re looking to add thick fuzz that can play naughty or nice, this pedal is the way to go.
The Green Ringer combines distortion with an interesting ring modulator-like effect. According to the manual, if a single note is played it creates a tone one octave above. I did notice some subtle ring modulation on the breakup, which was cool in its own right, but playing two notes into the Green Ringer is where the fun really starts. The manual also states that, depending on the interval played, the tone the Ringer produces will either be harmonically related to the original note or dissonant. There are a lot of variables here and inventive players will love this.
This pedal really begs for experimentation. You can go from awesome Octavia-like sounds to crazy, out-there ring modulation. Throw in some unison bends and you’ll be greeted with a cacophony of sounds coming out of your amp. The pedal doesn’t really offer that much gain, but throw it in front of another distortion device and you have gold. The Green Ringer seems born to be paired with the Blue Clipper – it really brightens up the Clipper’s tone and gives you all the aforementioned effects without diminishing them at all. Due to the noticable lack of controls, this pedal is simple to use – just plug it in and go. I did notice that the effect is more prevalent on the neck pickup than the bridge and build quality is on par with the Blue Clipper.
All in all, I really enjoyed the Green Ringer. It allows the musician to control what kind of ring modulation they want by knowing how the notes they play will affect the sound. If you’ve been in the market for a ring modulator, or just want to add some flavor to your riffs, this comes highly recommended.
As either the most stripped down pedal ever or the ultimate niche accessory, the Black Reaper does one thing: it lowers the midrange frequencies of the input signal. It’s basically a mid scoop pedal, but don’t think eighties thrash metal. What the Black Reaper does is make your tone rich and full, allowing you to crank your amp without adding any harsh midrange frequencies. This pedal plays extremely well with Strat and Tele bridge pickups, as they can sometimes be too quacky and thin-sounding.
Turning the knob is like turning the tone knob on your guitar, but without removing any of the highs like a traditional tone control. It did become apparent that as you add more gain the pedal’s effectiveness decreases – after cranking up the distortion on my amp the effect became less noticeable. Placing the Reaper before or after a distortion pedal had little effect, remaining barely apparent. This pedal seems geared toward players that play clean or slightly overdriven.
As with the previous pedals, the Black Reaper is beyond easy to use; however, in an odd design decision, the effect is increased by turning the knob to the left instead of to the right. It’s a minor point, but something to keep in mind if you’re turning a lot of knobs during a set. Nevertheless, for all you players out there who need to roll off some midrange and fill out your clean sound, this pedal is for you.
The Orange Squeezer
Just like Mr. Whipple when no one was looking, this pedal puts the squeeze on your tone as any compressor should. Following in the pint-sized footsteps of its relatives, the Squeezer features a lone knob for adjusting the volume of the effect. While it has a versatile range, turning the volume up too high caused the pedal to clip and cut out, so care should be taken when using the Squeezer in a live capacity. I plugged it in and right off the bat I was getting that smooth compressor tone we all know and love, in addition to some great sustain.
According to the manual, it has an internal adjustment to let the player pick the threshold of the effect, but a look inside the pedal only revealed an adjustment wheel situated behind the input jack and not within easy reach. What does this mean? While the pedal seemed to be set at a threshold suiting my needs, if it’s not set the way you like, you’ll have to do some digging to adjust it and risk the possibility of breaking delicate solder joints in the process. I liked the sound, but it would be really nice if it was easier to get to that internal adjustment, as I suspect the Squeezer could be capable of greater things.
The Final Mojo
Grafton has put these classic pedals into some interesting new cases – they feature unique grooves which allow pedal owners to interlock the effects together, saving precious space on your pedalboard. But aside from the nifty locking design, it’s a mixed bag with these Sound Modifiers. The Blue Clipper is a nice thick fuzz and the Green Ringer was a pleasant surprise. I would have liked to see the Black Reaper accommodate a more distorted signal and wonder about the internal adjustment on the Orange Squeezer. Additionally, the pedals each have a jack for a 9-volt external power supply but my wall wart plugs didn’t fit, making me wonder if a special adapter is needed.
Regardless, all of the pedals performed as advertised; if you were a fan of the original Dan Armstrongs or are just really into minimalist design, you’ll want to check out these compact pedals for your board.
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