Matthews’ Astronomer isn’t the only reverb pedal that enables you to switch between two different reverb sounds. And it’s far from the only reverb to feature harmonizing, upper-octave “shimmer” textures. But it’s certainly one of the easiest and most intuitive to use. And it could be enormously appealing for players who like to move between pronounced shimmer-verb colors and mellower, more conventional reverb tones without navigating millions of presets. It’s a killer little reverb for real-world gigging.
Space (Gazing) Efficiency
While we’re only familiar with Matthews’ Conductor tremolo (reviewed in the June 2015 issue), the little company’s quality control and design standards seem pretty top flight. The board layout is clean, thoughtfully arrayed, and looks and feels solid. Input/output jacks and the two footswitches are enclosure mounted, and the board and vital components seem well insulated from shocks and jarring. Though the circuit layout is visibly efficient, the extra footswitch means there’s no room for a 9V battery.
If the six knobs and two footswitches give rise to overwhelmed-by-options anxiety, fear not. They are actually two sets of identical controls: one set for each reverb mode. Mix is a wet/dry control, glow controls the amount of upper octave content or “shimmer,” and travel sets the decay level. The potentiometers and knobs are set up perfectly—not too twitchy and just the right amount of resistance to keep settings in place as you switch between reverb modes.
The two-switch system might look like trouble at a glance, given the proximity of the two switches on the enclosure. But the “alternate” switch, as Matthews terms it, sits much higher than the regular bypass switch relative to the underside of your stomping shoe—making it surprisingly easy to navigate the switching process through strictly tactile means.
Voices from Deep Space
The Astronomer’s basic reverb voice is pleasing and versatile. There’s not a lot of spring flavor, as you might suspect, given the emphasis on shimmer tones. Instead, it has a somewhat plate-like quality that dovetails nicely with basic guitar and amplifier voices when it’s the only pedal in a line, but also sounds cool on the back end of a smooth, Muff-like fuzz or a not-too-spiky overdrive.
Because you can’t stack the two reverb voices, the most effective use of the Astronomer is to set up the two modes for very different flavors of reverb. In my own explorations of these reverb opposites, I set up the primary reverb with something as close to ’60s slapback studio reverb as I could manage: mix at about 60 percent, glow down to virtually nil, and the travel anywhere between 20 to 40 percent depending on the spaciousness of the riff. These settings produced cool tones for choppy garage rock riffage and leads. But they also revealed the one primary shortcoming of the reverb voice: you can never really dial out the upper-octave shimmer entirely. Rick Matthews tells us that the newest version of the pedal will enable users to remove the shimmer voice entirely. That’s great news, because this simple addition by subtraction would go a long way to bolstering the Astronomer’s already cool ability to juxtapose very different reverb tones.
The most extreme reverb tones will also be appetizing, depending on your orientation toward shimmer reverbs in general. The Astronomer’s upper octave voice is very vocal, evoking at times the sound of a choir-based synth pad or a synth organ. For certain applications—say, an Eno-esque, undersea film soundtrack—the voice is perfect. Other uses might leave you thirsting for a more open-ended or tunable upper-octave voice. Regardless of musical context, the shimmer tends to sound most musical when tucked away in the fading vapor trail of the tails. And speaking of tails—the range in the travel control is impressive, which helps highlight dramatic differences in two-mode setups and enables control of the octave voice when it seems excessive.
The Astronomer’s simple switching capabilities also make it a great reverb for loopers that need to move fast on stage. Using a longer reverb with heavy shimmer settings, I set up a simple loop of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “The Cavalry Cross” riff—the octave shimmer standing in for the harmonizing accordion drone—then soloed using a short verb that highlighted the concise, jabbing punctuation from my Stratocaster’s bridge pickup. A simple loop, with just the Matthews in the mix, gave this basic musical architecture an impressively spacious ensemble feel. If you’re an ambient pop artist that likes the idea of a really streamlined band, an Astronomer and a looper can solve many personnel issues.
The Astronomer is a well-made, thoughtfully executed digital shimmer ’verb that—unlike many multi-’verb monstrosities—is very easy to use in the heat of performance and won’t take up too much space. Its musical potential will largely depend on how you relate to the pronounced octave voice, which can’t be dialed out entirely, can sound excessively vocal, and, as such, almost disconnects from the very pleasing basic reverb voice. But for players with ambient and atmospheric proclivities, those very celestial colors—and the ability to switch between subdued and extreme versions of those shades—make the Astronomer a very powerful study in space efficiency.