Unconventional modulation sounds. Awesome real-time control. Nicely made. Good price.
No stereo output. Must repower to change some settings.
Ease of Use:
The latest stompbox from Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation is a digital chorus pedal with a few kinky twists. But don’t flee just yet, chorus-haters! The Thicken might not convert you to this love-it-or-hate-it effect, but it may at least expand your sense of the effect’s range.
Malekko created the Thicken in tandem with Colin Newman, guiding light of the seminal art-punk band Wire. The group made its debut album in 1977, just as modulation effects were about to become ubiquitous. But Newman wasn’t interested in fluffing up clean-toned new wave pop hooks. He wielded modulation like a weapon, mutilating tones with sour detuning and woozy modulation. Like many guitarists, my instinctive reaction to distortion with chorus is nausea. Yet I love how Newman used modulation effects to get willfully nerve-wracking crunch tones. (Example: “I Am the Fly,” with its foil-on-fillings flange effect).
In other words, while the Thicken can create conventionally pretty chorus sounds, it can also be applied to less wholesome ends.
Three Lines, No Waiting
The Thicken deploys two layered effects: chorus and “spread.” Here, as usual, the chorus section generates a very short delay and then modulates the delay’s pitch. Subtle settings can sound cushy and warm. Yes, the digital sound is brighter and more hi-fi than you’d get from an old analog chorus with its bucket-brigade delay, but it’s still a pleasantly musical sound—until you crank the knobs, anyway. There’s a lot of range to those rate and depth pots, so things can go off the rails quite quickly.
Meanwhile, a single knob controls the spread effect. Spread brings two additional delay lines into the mix, for a total of three possible detuned voices. These, too, are very short delays. Even at the longest settings, you don’t get perceptible echoes. Still, there’s much tonal range here. The lower settings provide slightly out-of-phase fattening. Longer settings transition to edgy metallic flanging. Moving the delay knob while playing yields head-spinning phase effects. Or you can switch to random mode, where a sample-and-hold LFO creates weird and unpredictable wobbling. (Changing from normal to random mode requires repowering the pedal while holding down the stomp switch.)
The spread and chorus effects have independent volume controls, and you can get a lot of variation just by altering their relative levels. The Thicken also includes a clean-toned, transparent preamp for setting overall levels—or overdriving your amp at high settings. Note, though, that the Thicken’s effects are strictly mono.
The More Things Change.…
The Thicken’s killer feature is the assignable expression mode. (Controller pedal not included.) With it, you can morph between any two sets of knob settings. If you hold down the footswitch, dial in a setting, and release (which saves that setting), you can use an expression pedal to transition from your current setting to the stored one as you depress the expression pedal. Such morphs can be seriously weird. But you can also dial in a subtle sound and release the modulation kraken only on selected notes or phrases.
You hear all these scenarios in the demo clip. The entire thing was recorded with a parts S-style solidbody with Firebird pickups through a combo amp with a clean setting that never changes. The only variables are from the pedal’s knobs, plus a homemade drive pedal. As fun as the Thicken can be, it’s 10 times more so with an expression pedal.
The Thicken resides in a standard B-sized enclosure. It runs on the usual 9V power supplies and has no battery compartment. Sometimes not having a battery can be an advantage, however. For example, the rate LED glows even when the pedal is bypassed, pulsating at the modulation rate so you can dial in the desired modulation speed before activating the effect.
Chorus is a notoriously love-it-or-hate-it effect. Haters often cite the effect’s tendency to soften and diffuse tones, dulling their edges. But no one can accuse the Thicken of lacking edge. Yeah, it does traditional chorus sounds to fine effect, and they’re warmly musical despite the pedal’s digital voice. But the Thicken is also capable of aggressive, unsettling, and sometimes downright nasty noises. It’s nicely made, and the price is more than fair. And it just might challenge your concept of chorusing.