Tremolo. For most players the immediate association is the sound of an old Fender amp swampily bubbling away. But amp tremolo is just a single incarnation of an effect that can be much more varied and complex.
Consider the Kleissonic Tremulant. Designed and built by Berlin-based Theo Klissiaris, this visually and sonically striking device combines an overdrive circuit, deep-pulsing triangle waveforms, and wide-range rate and depth controls to produce tremolo sounds that run from subtle to radical and oddly dynamic. And though it’s probably not ideal for players with rigidly traditional sensibilities, it’s a powerful and protean modulation effect that can define and profoundly reshape a song or guitar part.
Psychedelic Shine, Multicolor Glitter
A casual perusal of Kleissonic’s artist/customer list says a lot about the company’s alignment with the unconventional. Kleissonic users include such noiseniks and post rockers as Lee Ranaldo, Mogwai, and Godspeed! You Black Emperor, as well as neo-psychedelic outfits like the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Wooden Shjips, and Black Angels. And before you even play a note through the Tremulant, Kleissonic’s predilections for the trippier side of things is clear. For starters, the tremolo rate is indicated by a blindingly bright LED that can induce seizures at the fastest speeds—and it’s always on. When you actually engage the effect, the status LED slowly morphs from blue to red to green. Together, the two lights create their own psychedelic light show—a visual treat that, while occasionally a distraction, portends much about the sounds the Tremulant makes.
The pedal itself is beautifully built. The polished steel enclosure is stylishly adorned with floral filigree and the spooky Kleissonic humanoid hand logo. And though there’s a fair bit going on under the hood with tremolo, drive, and level boost functions, the hand wiring is tidy, well ordered, and clean. Perhaps the only gripe to be made about the design is the off-center placement of the footswitch, which is close enough to the edge that you could conceivably hit an adjacent footswitch on your pedalboard in a, well, psychedelicized state.
The 4-knob control set is a little unconventional too. It’s increasingly common to see level or boost controls on tremolo pedals for overcoming the perceived volume drop associated with tremolo. But the Tremulant features a drive control in addition to the level control, which is situated after the modulation—a design distinction that yields interesting sonic results, as we’ll see. The rate and depth controls will be familiar to any tremolo user, but they have a range and sensitivity that feels unique.
A Deeper Pulse
While it’s possible to dial in the Tremulant for a softer, contoured, and more conventional tremolo pulse, the Tremulant is really designed to put more overt, in-your-face modulation at your fingertips. In fact, it takes fairly attentive and careful adjustments to dial in this pedal’s best approximation of amplifier style tremolo. You can stray very easily by adding too much depth, which emphasizes the sharp, dramatic rises of the triangle wave. That said, the Tremulant will churn up intoxicating, lush, and swampy “Born on the Bayou” flavored wobbles with the depth control around the 9 o’clock position. Past the 10 o’clock position, however, the choppier sound of the triangle wave become much more apparent, transforming the sound and responsiveness of the pedal.
Triangle waves emphasize the on/off nature of the tremolo much more than a sine wave. As such it can be hard to dial in a deep tremolo pulse on the Tremulant that will work for odd-meter chord melodies or fluid, improvisational leads. (Though the Tremulant can certainly provoke fascinating paths of improvisation.) Instead, the Kleissonic excels at lending bold, stark emphasis to chugging quarter- and eighth-note rhythm parts and languid, soul-ballad arpeggios. At super-high pulse rates, it generates throbbing stroboscopic freakouts.
The addition of the drive control emphasizes and enhances the tremolo-on-nitrous-oxide facets of the Tremulant even further. It also highlights the pedal’s sonic kinship with Vox’s old onboard effects circuits, which turned up in guitars like the Starstreamer and Cheetah, and combined the company’s Distortion Booster and Repeat Percussion tremolo. The combination of the fuzzy Distortion Booster and reverse sawtooth tremolo from the Repeat Percussion provided the hook for “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by the Electric Prunes, and propelled the hypnotic sounds of Spacemen 3. The Tremulant delivers a fascinating twist on this super-psychedelic texture, though it feels and sounds subtly different.
One of the most significant differences between the Tremulant and the old Vox circuits is the placement of the drive after the modulation effect. Situating the effects in this order means the peaks of the waveform are more distorted than the base, which also makes the modulation sensitive to picking dynamics—particularly when the depth is dialed up high. This touch sensitivity isn’t easy to manage at first, but with a little practice you can dial in tremolo textures that are irregular, chaotic, and responsive all at once. Hotter drive settings also work with the depth dialed way back, and with the addition of super-fast rate settings you can summon subtle percolating textures that add effervescence underneath leads and chords.The Verdict
Though there are simpler and more intuitive tremolo effects around, there aren’t many that reward restless and adventurous texturalists quite like the Tremulant. Getting the best sounds out of it take a little practice. And in the early going, the pedal can feel downright unforgiving. But the many permutations of distortion and odd and intense waveforms that you can extract from the Tremulant can spark creative picking and composition while adding alien, disorienting textures, as well as subtler, prettier shades of modulation.
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