Ever since Maestro unleashed the FZ-1 fuzz in 1962, the quest to destroy clean guitar tones has remained more or less relentless. In recent years, builders like Death By Audio and ZVex pushed fuzz to extremes. Then came the rise of bitcrushers—the rabid lovechildren of a Tone Bender and a Nintendo 64 sound card—and the movement to eschew pristine tones in favor of mangled, unpredictable squawks marched on.
Portland, Oregon’s Malekko Heavy Industry is renowned for effects and synth modules that contort sound in familiar and much less subtle ways. But the beauty of the new DSP-driven Scrutator sample rate and bit reducer is that it delivers a little bit of everything—incorporating subtly weird and radical sounds as well as relatively intuitive, synth-like interactivity and a surprising range of control in a compact stompbox.
Creeping, Crawling, Compact Creature Malekko packed a lot of functionality and sound-shaping power into a small enclosure. There are three controls across the top: rate (sample rate reduction from 16 to 2 bit), filter, and Q (bandwidth and amplitude of the filter). There is a second row of three controls below: preamp (gain), which has an LED indicator to indicate clipping, mix (dry/effect blend), and bit (bit reduction, 48 kHz-300 Hz).
The controls are situated closely together, but they’re still relatively easy to adjust. They’re resistant to accidental nudges into unexpected settings (though you may be into that sort of thing if you’re reading this review). On the right side of the case are a 9V DC jack, input jack, and expression pedal/control voltage input. On the left is an output jack. All of this fits in a housing the size of an MXR Phase 90. Additionally the filter can be set as a two-pole bandpass or lowpass, simply by holding the footswitch down while powering up. It all adds up to a lot of options and functionality in a compact pedal—and a commendable design effort on Malekko’s part.
Crushed and Fried With a ’79 Stratocaster and my Dusky D2O (hitched to an Orange 1x12), I put the Scrutator to work. Though I expected the Scrutator to possess a very synth-like personality, the lowpass setting delivered grinding, gated fuzz tones that worked great for building unique riffs and lead lines that would be equally at home in a Tame Impala tune or electro-punk LCD Soundsystem track. Playing the same lines on my Mustang bass revealed how amazing the Scrutator can sound in that context.
By tweaking the two filter controls in the bandpass setting, I was able to dial in bell-like, ring mod effects that ranged from musical to chaotic. When things got too crazy I used the mix knob to fade more intense settings into the background. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the mix control enhances the Scrutator’s utility—making it possible to transform the most radical sounds into more digestible and subdued textures.
Expression pedal options for the Scrutator are useful and numerous. Not only can you control rate, filter, Q, or bit settings individually, you can set the pedal up to change settings for all four parameters at once. You can also re-configure the control range and the direction in which expression pedal sweeps will move the control. For instance, you can simultaneously open the filter while reducing the bit rate—effectively turning one knob clockwise and the other counter clockwise by rocking the expression pedal heel to toe.
There’s not enough room in this review to describe all the Scrutator’s capabilities. But there are many standout sounds. Through various knob and filter combinations, I created a wah pedal with fizzy overtones, a filter sweeper that degraded the signal over the course of the sweep, and something like a cosmic-sounding manual envelope controller. And by adding an Arturia Beatstep sequencer through the control voltage input I could randomize these sounds and textures to insane effect. Adding a delay to that chain produced sounds that Radiohead might kill for.
The Verdict I’m used to something like a good overdrive pedal inspiring new riffs. But a bit crusher that generates this much inspiration is a revelation. The compact package does mean a few trade offs. It would be nice, for example, to be able to switch between filters without powering down (especially given how profoundly different the pedal is from one filter setting to another). A mini toggle that does that job would be a nice addition. And though the mix control is invaluable, a dry output would be a great way to expand sound and routing options (especially for incorporation of other effects). Nevertheless, it’s a wonder Malekko crammed as much as they did into this little box.
Strictly traditional players may not find much to love about the Scrutator—even if they could use it to break out of a rut, or spice up the occasional lead. But uninhibited guitarists will get a lot of mileage out of the Scrutator. Sure, with certain settings you can sound like you’re at risk of accidentally writing the new Super Mario Brothers theme song. But thousands of previously unheard, unique, distorted tones are also yours for the taking. And if you’ve ever thought of bit crushers as one-trick ponies, the Scrutator will likely compel you to re-evaluate that point of view.