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There’s almost nothing like the thrill you get when a new piece of gear arrives on your doorstep—a sense that cool, new sounds are just a box away. But even more rewarding is the moment you discover a new way to use a piece of gear you already have. With the Z.Vex Loop Gate, you get both sensations because it combines the relatively simple and familiar principles of noise gating and effects loops in a way that opens up huge new tonal possibilities.
Yes, the Loop Gate pedal is a noise gate and an effects loop. But because it can slice and smear your tone in almost unlimited ways, at times it feels as if an alien hand has split your skull and reached out from inside the center of your creative core to alter your sound.
Z.Vex has a well-deserved reputation for taking radical—or at least significantly skewed— perspectives on shaping guitar tone. Their Probe units, for instance, have featured antennas and copper touch plates that allow players to interact with a classic effect like fuzz in a whole new way. Their Nano Head is a full-fledged tube amp in the palm of your hand. And nearly every unit in their line-up has at least one feature that sets it apart from other units in its genre.
The Loop Gate is the latest pedal in Z.Vex’s Vextron series of lower-cost pedals. Vextron series pedals are built in Taiwan using many of the same high-quality components as their hand-painted, lifetime warranted counterparts, and are tested by the Z.Vex team in Minneapolis. Vextron series pedals also share the same small form factor as most other Z.Vex pedals, which makes them easy to squeeze into even the busiest pedalboards—an impressive feat given how much Z.Vex’s pedals tend to do. With four ¼" jacks, three pots, two footswitches with LEDs, and two toggle switches, the Loop Gate packs a lot into a small footprint.
While the Loop Gate works on fairly basic principles, it’s not quite fuzz-simple. After staring at the unit for a few minutes, I realized there was more going on than I would be able to decipher without consulting the manual and putting in some practice. The sonic payoff proved more than worth it, however.
Noise Gating Breakthrough
At times it seems like the Loop Gate’s noise gate functionality is Zachary Vex’ way of telling you that, despite all your attempts at trying to silence a noisy signal chain, you’ve probably been doing it all wrong. The problem with typical noise gates is they sit behind all your noise-generating gear—such as noisy old analog fuzz units—and attempt to take on the often impossible task of deciphering what to let through. With the gate footswitch engaged, the Loop Gate listens to your dry, incoming signal (adjustable using the sensitivity pot) and uses that signal, rather than an impossibly noisy one, as reference. To put this feature to work, I set my Fender Stratocaster to its traditionally noisiest single-coil bridge pickup, plugged it into the Loop Gate, and sent an insanely saturated distortion from my BK Butler dual-tube preamp into the Loop Gate’s loop.
To get the Loop Gate to respond appropriately to this pickup, I quickly found that about 2 o’clock on the sensitivity setting worked best. And it only took a few muted power chords to hear the magic at work—a wall of thick, slamming distortion, followed by the sound of absolute silence that’s perfect for creating an extremely percussive and punchy rhythm performance.
The release pot controls the speed at which the Loop Gate’s noise gate closes. So rather than a jarring snap to silence at the end of your note, you can get a nice smooth taper that sounds great with reverb and delay units and works well when you’re trying to get a little more sustain out of your instrument. The same function also works well for managing feedback. As your note gradually transitions to singing feedback, the release control will slowly activate the gate, producing a dramatic and musical decrescendo. On the other hand, shortening the release and using an effect like reverb produces very unusual and interesting tones. Reverb will normally sustain your signal after you’ve stopped playing, but the Loop Gate can snap it off, which will completely defy your listener’s expectations in very cool ways.
You can also enable a chop setting that marries a tremolo effect to the gating effect. When your instrument triggers the gate, it opens and closes repetitively at a speed determined by the release knob. The result is a super-choppy, helicopter-sounding tremolo that you’ll only hear when your instrument is activating the gate.
In the center of the Loop Gate control layout you’ll find a knob that is actually a 2-way switch. This gate/mix switch toggles between the pedal’s two modes. In gate mode, the gate switches between the effects loop and silence to achieve a powerful noise-gating effect. In mix mode, however, the gate switches between the effects loop and your unaffected instrument. The catch is that your instrument’s signal is never sent to the effects loop in mix mode. Consequently, this mode requires that you have some sound generating device in the effects loop, such as a self-oscillating filter, infinite delay, synthesizer, or a pre-recorded sound loop. At that point, your guitar effectively becomes a way to switch on the sound that’s humming away in the effects loop.
The Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, a source of infinite drones, works well in this setting. You start by capturing a chord with the Freeze pedal, then drop the Freeze into the Loop Gate’s effects loop, and finally, as a result of playing your instrument, the sound from the Freeze spews from the Loop Gate. Just as in gate mode, the release knob controls the decay of the sound in the loop when gating ceases. This allows you to create a smooth and musical fade out to each wave of sound you unleash from the effects loop.
Z.Vex has an arsenal of pedals that would work well in this setting too, like the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. With a rhythmic sound in the effects loop, you can use your instrument to crossfade on the beat, much like a DJ would do with a mixer crossfader.
The Loop Gate doesn’t do a lot of effects processing on its own, but don’t let the outward, surface simplicity of its functions fool you. This unit may open up the sonic possibilities of your existing pedalboard more than any other single pedal you own.
That doesn’t mean the Loop Gate is all insanity. It’s handy in some very straightforward ways—you can simultaneously switch on multiple effects in the manner of a preset, for instance. But the Loop Gate can make you think about your effects chain—and the way you can route it—in different, more creative ways. You’ll likely find that even a small number of pedals working in concert with the Loop Gate will expand your sound options significantly. Factor in the unit’s potential for creating riffs and hooks for whole compositions, and the Loop Gate adds up to much more than the sum of its very utilitarian parts.