TC Electronic’s Tone Print series pedals are a killer way to expand sound and texture palettes on less-than-boutique budgets. Even at their most basic levels of functionality the pedals tend to be deep, capable, and brimming with options. But with the company’s swelling library of downloadable Tone Print sounds, and the availability of the easy-to use Tone Print Editor, the sound potential of the line is beginning to border on limitless.
The digital Helix Phaser is one of the nicest Tone Print pedals we’ve heard—and we’ve really enjoyed most of them. With a very nice vintage flavored mode, a second, resonant ‘smooth’ mode, a highly tunable control set and the already growing host of Tone Print options, it’s a phaser that will spin the heads of more than a few one-knob phase devotees.
Swirled Lemon Custard
The Helix is hardly a complicated pedal, though the four knobs are very interactive and can be a little tricky to dial in on your way to the perfect phase confection. The speed and depth controls are self-explanatory and common to many phasers.
The less-common mix control, which blends dry and effected signals, is key to many of the Helix’s most understated applications. The feedback control emphasizes resonant peaks, which become more prominent as you turn the knob clockwise, feeding output back into the input section.
The 3-way toggle switches between a “vintage” setting, the Tone Print (you can store one Tone Print in the pedal at a time), and the more resonant and radical “smooth” setting. The USB port for downloading the Tone Print is on top of the pedal adjacent to the 9V DC jack (you can also use a 9V battery). Tone Prints can also be “beamed” to the Helix via a Smartphone with the Tone Print app and your guitar pickups.
Mellow Yellow …’Til It’s Not
In vintage mode, you’ll hear the most recognizable tones. The key to approximating the sounds of the two analog phaser standard bearers—the Electro-Harmonix Small Stone and MXR Phase 90—is to set the depth, mix, and feedback controls somewhere in the top third of their range. Vintage
Small Stone tones lurked with the depth, mix and feedback all around 2 o’clock or a bit beyond. Vintage Phase 90-like tones take just a touch more mix and feedback. While the Helix gets very close to matching these classics, it lacks some of the watery shimmer and harmonic complexity through the modulation curve you’ll hear from the analog units. The output is also comparatively bassy, and the dry signal can, at times, sound less than seamlessly summed with the phased signal.
The obvious advantage the Helix has over those one-knob classics is how readily you can re-shape the phase. Low mix levels—which are not an option on old one-knob analog units—work especially well with high depth and feedback levels to create subtle but distinctive textures with cool high harmonic peaks. More subdued feedback levels and slower speeds lend a very pretty swirl for strumming and arpeggiated chords. The lower mix levels also make the Helix much more friendly to fuzz and distortion. Though a phase-heavy mix is an excellent mate for gnarly fuzz (high feedback and speed levels add a devilishly weird and alien bit of bonus disorientation), low mix levels give fuzz a funky sense of motion without obscuring pick dynamics and nuance.
The Helix’s “smooth” mode (definitely a metallic kind of smooth) adds flanger-like resonant peaks. It’s not subtle—even at the mellowest mix levels, it’s distinct and present—but it’s the source of some of the coolest sounds. Setting all controls around the noon to 2 o’clock zone gives the phase a deep, resonant, and vowely character that works surprisingly well (and sounds insane) with hot, buzzing fuzztones.
The Helix is a lot of phaser for 129 bucks. You have to listen close to hear the Helix’s few shortcomings: It’s less harmonically complex than vintage analog units, and the sometimes disconnected wet/dry signal mix might show up under the microscope of a good studio microphone or in a spare, quiet musical arrangement. In 99 out of 100 live applications, however, these differences will be impossible to discern, and the trade-off in sound sculpting flexibility makes the Helix one of the finest phaser deals around.