Catalinbread TopangaThe guys at Catalinbread’s Portland, Oregon, shop have been trying to stuff little boxes with the elusive tones of yesteryear’s mechanical dinosaurs more than just about any other pedal outfit on the planet in recent days. Their Belle Epoch aims to put revered Echoplex EP-3 tones into a medium-sized stomp, and perhaps most ambitious of all, the Echorec attempted to put the quirky psychedelia of a giant old Binson magnetic-drum delay into an enclosure a fraction of the original’s size.
In its pursuit of elusive spring tones, the Topanga uses the same Spin FV-1 chip that drives the Subdecay Super Spring Theory (as well as other pedals that go for more modern sounds). As with the Subdecay, the way the Catalinbread team harnesses that processing power in the Topanga is something special—although the two companies take a different tack in terms of control.
The handsome orange-and-green Topanga approaches the spring-’verb equation simply enough—you get straightforward dwell, tone, and mix controls that react the way you’d expect an outboard unit’s knobs of the same name to behave. Dwell affects the relative depth of the reverb feel, from a muted signal at minimum to a subtle sense of extra body in your sound to a grandness that’ll have you seeing seagulls, swaying palm trees, and beachgoers in vintage swimming attire. Mix takes you from a bold, direct signal at minimum to a nautical washiness that makes your guitar sound like you’re hearing it through a curling wave in suspended animation. With mix cranked, you can even get pretty cool plate-style sounds. And when you dime the tone knob, Topanga sprays your reverberations as brightly as any Chantays cover tune might require, while its minimum setting tames any harshness that a treble-heavy rig might exaggerate.
A fourth knob, volume, controls a discrete preamp that lets you boost your signal to taste. This wonderful addition imparts a very tube-like clean gain that goes a long way toward simulating the warm, vintage vibe of archetypal spring units. I preferred leaving it at noon for a little more oomph and girth—though at maximum it somehow adds a bristling attitude without crossing over into what you’d call proper overdrive.
Virtually my only complaint about the Topanga is its hidden modulation mode—which I discovered by accident. I dial my rig to run a pretty trebly sound—for maximum snap and twang—so I preferred setting the Topanga’s tone knob at minimum to keep reverberations from sounding harsh. The second time I powered up the pedal, I couldn’t figure out why there was an odd shimmer in the decays. The pedal didn’t come with documentation about this, nor did catalinbread.com cover it, but I eventually found mentions of Topanga’s hidden mod mode—which is activated by applying power with the tone knob at minimum—on various forums. To me, the modern feel of mod mode is a bit antithetical to the notion of capturing authentic 1960s spring reverb, but to some it’s sure to be viewed as bonus flexibility. I just wish you could deactivate it with a toggle or an internal DIP switch.
The most militant spring-reverb adherents may never be satisfied with any “spring reverb” that isn’t, in fact, a spring reverb—and good on them for sticking to their guns. I’ll admit that A/B-ing the Catalinbread Topanga with a ’63 Fender Reverb revealed detectable differences in sound—particularly if you’re looking for the same tones at the same knob settings. That said, the differences can be difficult to quantify.
When Surf Zombie Brook Hoover plugged in, he started nodding in appreciation almost immediately. “It sounds like early-’60s Fender—you can hear the splash of the springs. It makes you wanna dig in and have fun. It doesn’t make you think, ‘Oh, this is digital.” He added, “Other units get less believable with higher dwell settings, but this is believable even with it maxed.”
Like the Subdecay, certain Topanga settings that don’t complement your rig’s overall sound might reveal an ever-so-slight hint of digital-ness. And there’s perhaps a greater dimensionality from the Fender when you’re sitting there staring at your amp, scrutinizing the minutest of nuances. But I would love to twiddle the knobs during an A/B blindfold test with stalwart spring freaks. Dialed right, the Topanga (like the Super Spring Theory) can come so close to authentic spring sounds that when you’re A/B-ing you start to wonder if the differences you’re hearing aren’t simply attributable to the fact that you see your hands swapping cables from pedal to tank.