Google “Lida Machine” and you’ll find info on Yellowcake’s new filter stompbox—and the supposed Soviet-era gizmo that inspired its name. I say “supposed” because this information appears chiefly on sketchy conspiracy theory sites. They tell of a sound-generation machine used for psychological manipulation. One source says it emitted ultra-low frequencies that lulled the unwitting listener into a relaxed, pliable state. Another says it dispensed ultra-high frequencies that so agitated victims that they’d promptly spill their guts to the KGB. Maybe it performed both functions!
Its namesake pedal certainly does. The latter-day Lida Machine can produce slow, dreamy sweeps or nasty, distorted oscillation. Sometimes it sounds harsh, and sometimes it’s drop-dead beautiful.
Simpler Than It Seems
The Lida Machine has all the hallmarks of a mad scientist pedal: An oversized enclosure (approximately 5.5" x 4.5" x 1.5"). An imposing assortment of knobs and switches (eight and four each, respectively). Obscure graphics with small, hard-to-read labels. Cryptic extra input jacks. You get the idea.
But if a mad scientist created this dual-LFO filter pedal, it was a benevolent mad scientist—more like Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future than Dr. Moreau. Once you find your bearings, Lida Machine is reasonably user-friendly, and far simpler than it seems at first glance. At heart, it’s a simple LFO filter, with the usual rate, depth, frequency, and feedback controls. But it’s not a MuTron-style envelope follower.
It doesn’t react to your playing dynamics. The filter frequency simply sweeps back and forth according to the LFO rate setting. Nor are there multiple filter types: just your basic resonant low-pass filter with smooth, triangle-wave modulation. There’s also a master volume control, a wet/dry mix knob, and a switch that toggles between slow and fast rate ranges.
But this simple filter sounds terrific. The op amp’s sound quality is excellent. The ranges and tapers of the pots are wisely chosen. The sweet spots are never clumped together at one end of the knobs’ ranges, and every possible setting is usable. The sweeps teeter into self-oscillation with the feedback knob above 4 o’clock or so. Lida will shriek on command, but there are plenty of subtle sounds, too.
And that’s just the foundation.
The Lida Machine incorporates a second LFO with its own rate and depth controls. Mind you, it’s not a separate filter—just an extra LFO that modulates the single filter independently from LFO 1. Additionally, this second LFO has a 3-position waveform switch offering smooth triangle-wave modulation, like the first LFO, or choppier ramp and sawtooth options. Since LFO 2 has its own footswitch, you can potentially toggle between two high-contrast tones without readjusting the knobs.
When you activate LFO2, things get very interesting—very fast. The two oscillators play against each other in complex and fascinating ways. You’re not hearing two independent filters, nor two oscillators dedicated to differing frequencies—but at times you’d swear you are. At slow modulation rates, you get narcotic, gradually shifting sweeps. Fast rates and high resonance yield watery burbles and splashes and whooping wobble board effects. The rhythms get complex and compelling and make conventional parts much more interesting. It’s difficult to not come up with cool new sounds after a few minutes of experimentation.
The Lida Machine wrings an impressive number of tones from this seemingly straightforward circuit. You can push the filter into distortion (as heard art 1:42 in the audio clip), or create near-subliminal animation by favoring the dry signal via the wet/dry blend knob. An expression input jack lets you control the frequency cutoff via expression pedal (not included). Another jack lets you drive the effect using controller voltage—a potentially powerful function for modular synth mavens. (Insane modular synth system also not included.)
While Lida Machine’s enclosure graphics are chaotic, the interior work is clean as can be. It’s a tidy, through-hole build, neatly organized and securely soldered. A second board in a contrasting color connects all the switches and jacks. It’s cut into a complex shape and connected to the primary board via ribbon cable. It’s a beautiful build that looks like … art.
Lida Machine runs on standard 9-volt power supplies, but can accept up to 12 volts. There’s no battery option.
Glance at the Lida Machine, and it seems complicated. Play with it for a few minutes, and it seems simple. Explore some more, and it gets complicated again—but in fun and musically useful ways. Depending on your perspective, the obscure graphics are a vibrant depiction of musical anarchy, or a bloody mess. (Both, I’d say.) On the inside, the pedal is superbly made, and it’s more than reasonably priced for a large-format, handmade pedal. Most important, it’s a fun and (eventually) fast way to conjure a vast number of unconventional but musically meaningful tones.