Considering how profoundly a compressor
can affect guitar tone—indeed a
guitarist’s very approach to playing—it’s
a wonder these devices so often fall into
disuse. Then again, ask most guitarists to
describe how a compressor works and you’re
likely to get a litany of abstractions about
squish, squeeze, and missing tone. On top
of that, the benefit to your sound can be
elusive. A fuzz? You can describe that sound
with any number of song citations or signature
tones. A compressor? Not so much.
Even when the effects of a compressor
are clearly audible they can do more harm
than good if you haven’t done your tinkering
and homework. And the truth is that
the best sounding compression you hear on
record is probably courtesy of some legendary
vintage rack module worth more than
your entire freaking rig.
This convergence of forces says a lot
about why the compressor is a pedalboard
tool of untapped potential. It also explains
much about why the Rivera Sustain Shaman,
with its 2-channel compressor power, tone
shaping tools, and Super Sustain function is
so remarkable: It’s dynamic, highly tailorable,
offers colors from subtle to strong, and has
more than a few tricks up its sleeve.
Burly Build, Secret Sauce
Rivera’s Sustain Shaman is a sturdy stompbox
built with the realities of frequent gigging
in mind. The knobs are arranged in
recessed area to prevent accidental activation,
and the potentiometers have a taut resistance
that keeps you from shifting settings with an
errant boot. That latter aspect of the Sustain
Shaman’s design is especially important,
given the interactivity between the controls
and how critical small adjustments can be.
The heart of the Sustain Shaman is a
2-channel compressor, and each channel has
its own familiar-enough controls for attack
and sustain. The two channels also share an
effect level control. Unlike a lot of compressors,
however, the Sustain Shaman has tone
and effect blend controls that work for both
channels, and they’re some of the real keys
to the Sustain Shaman working as effectively
as it does in so many situations.
The real secret weapon on the Sustain
Shaman is the Super Sustain switch. It’s
activated with a small toggle, rather than a
footswitch, and it works only for channel B.
But with its ability to significantly change
the voice, function, and nature of channel
B when activated, this switch essentially
places a second effect onboard.
About the only aspect of the Sustain
Shaman’s design and construction that’s
less than brilliant are the decals that label
the knob functions. Granted, we’ll take this
unit’s top-notch assembly, design, and parts
quality over cosmetics, if the alternative significantly
boosts manufacturing costs. The
good news is that these labels are made of
polycarbonate material, which can handle
a beating better than screen printing, and
they are also replaceable.
While it’s a fairly complex stompbox, it’s
easy to get down to business with the
Sustain Shaman. Where a lot of budget
compressors will seem to add little more
than noise and blunted attack and high
end, it’s almost impossible to get a lousy
sound from the Sustain Shaman.
The attack and sustain controls for each
channel are responsive and have a perceptible
range. The attack control—this adjusts
the speed at which the compressor turns
down signals hotter than the threshold—is
the subtlest. At slow speeds, pick attack and
high end tones will sound blunted, but you
can also get a cool backwards-tape-like suction,
depending on how aggressively you
set the sustain and effect levels. At lower
effect levels, the range of the attack control
becomes a lot less perceptible.
The sustain control has the most obvious
influence on your tone and playing, and is
more perceptible at lower effect levels. But
with the effect level at a 50-percent split
between dry and wet, it’s easy to hear how
much range and tone-shaping power it has.
Super-low sustain levels will actually have
a major impact on gain, picking dynamics,
and the range of your guitar’s volume
control, though the lower ranges are useful
for dialing up a sweet spot for percussive
rhythm. Up around noon and 3 o’clock,
the sustain starts making your guitar sing a
little more, but keeps the best parts of your
guitar’s voice intact and beautifully emphasizes
These levels are particularly effective for
use with fuzz and overdrive, provided you
use the level knob with care—the Sustain
Shaman isn’t entirely beyond inducing
feedback. Cranking the sustain creates a
delightfully sizzling layer of high and highmid
harmonic content that adds a swirling,
psychedelic wash to 12-string arpeggios and
a lingering vocal bite to leads.
The Sustain Shaman’s rabbit in the hat
is the Super Sustain function, and it’s no
wallflower of an enhancement. Cranking
the sustain and turning on the Super
Sustain toggle gives individual notes the
droning, sonorous sustain of a church bell.
This is a glorious effect for arpeggios on a
Telecaster, the bridge pickup of an SG, or
a Rickenbacker 12-string—guitars that cut,
but become interstellar with a little sustain.
Combine this effect with a long or backwards
delay, and it’s as if you’re watching
time itself melt and stretch.
Setting up the A and B channels with
identically aggressive attack and sustain settings,
and then engaging the Super Sustain
function demonstrates the considerable
boost in gain and high-midrange content
you get with the Super Sustain control on.
This is killer at quiet club levels, but something
to be mindful of at loud performance
levels. You’ll also notice a slight volume
swell when you really hold onto a note, and
this is most obvious in spare arrangements.
The Sustain Shaman is one of the most
thoroughly designed compressors you’ll see
outside a studio, and it’s not constrained to
a single voice, thanks to the two independent
channels. The Shaman is also noticeably
less noisy than typical stompbox units.
A lot of the Sustain Shaman’s versatility
comes from the tone and effect blend controls—
functions that can add another range
of color to a given set of attack and sustain
settings, and let you accommodate just
about any guitar or musical context. The
Super Sustain function, however, makes the
Sustain Shaman a potent stage weapon and
an impressive tool for altering how your
guitar, amplifier, and fingers interact.