Intuitive and easy to navigate. Nice variation in tones. Extra-cool MXR and revo voices.
Can’t toggle backwards between modes.
Ease of Use:
MXR probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think tremolo. But it’s not for MXR’s lack of trying. The company’s M159 Stereo Tremolo—a derivative of the Dunlop TS-1 Stereo Tremolo—was underrated. It sounded great, with a strong, throbbing quality, and its stereo pan feature made it an excellent alternative for shoegaze fanatics and dream-pop travellers that couldn’t find or afford a vintage Boss PN-2. Ultimately, though, the M159’s relatively sizable footprint led casual tremolo seekers to more compact and streamlined pedal solutions, and the M159 never quite got the props it deserved.
The new, digital MXR Tremolo will appeal to players that prefer smaller stomps. But MXR did not err on the side of streamlined when it came to sounds. Instead, the MXR Tremolo features six varied and often viscerally pleasing tremolo modes that can fit into just about any musical situation. There are also two stereo output options, switchable tap tempo/expression pedal control, and a crazy-cool envelope-controlled mode that enables you to vary tremolo speed via picking intensity—pretty impressive for 159 bucks.
Trips Down Tremolo Lanes
You hear a lot of talk about how digital processing has transformed the world of high-end, hyper-accurate modeling. But the MXR Tremolo is a case study in how cleverly applied digital processing and control can convincingly ape analog sounds and facilitate creative sound sculpting at the accessible end of the price spectrum. And by using a control layout similar to the company’s excellent Reverb pedal, MXR delivers a ton of versatility via an impressively simple and intuitive control and I/O array.
The MXR Tremolo accomplishes a lot with three knobs. There’s the requisite speed and depth controls as well as a gain control that can compensate for perceived volume loss and generate enough drive and grit to add a very vintage-amp edge to the modulations. But the gain knob is also a push switch for toggling between the six tremolo types, and holding it down for a few seconds activates the envelope mode that is one of the pedal’s most interesting features.
The MXR Tremolo’s jacks are a model of efficiency, too. The output jack can be operated in mono or stereo if you use a TRS cable and a splitter. But you can also enable stereo operation by using the expression pedal input as a second output—just by shifting the small slider switch on the side. The same switch enables you to repurpose the jack for an expression pedal (which controls rate) or a tap tempo switch.
Every Wobble a Winner
Even if you use tremolo infrequently or are less familiar with nuances that differentiate tremolo types, it’s easy to hear the variation in the MXR’s six different voices and derive inspiration and musical ideas from them.
The MXR voice, which honors the sound of the MXR M159, has a unique personality, with strong-but-contoured pulses that split the difference between softer-edged, amp-style tremolo—like the bias and opto settings here—and choppier square-wave tremolo. The strong pulses with soft contours are a great match for detuned and baritone lines, lending definition and creating space for low frequencies, where the bias and opto voices can get blurry. The strong pulses are also especially well-suited to the envelope mode, where they highlight modulation rate changes without squashing overtones that bloom as the rate goes from fast to slow.
Bias mode (the tremolo associated with old Fender Vibro Champs and Princetons) is especially dreamy at subdued depth and speed settings, and is an ideal choice for adding tasteful, just-barely-there animation to chord phrases and slow, melodic leads. The optical mode (which simulates the tremolo from most larger, black-panel and silver-panel Fenders) features more subdued pulses. To most ears it will sound like a close cousin to the bias mode. But its softer throbs can make high depth and speed settings easier to manage. Revo mode, meanwhile, takes the opto waveform and reverses it, accenting peaks for a more rhythmic and pulsing variation on the opto setting, but also lending very slight suggestions of pitch shift that add up to a very submarine kind of quaver.
The third of the amp-styled settings, the harmonic mode, isn’t quite as thick and greasy as the real deal, and probably favors the phasier side of a real harmonic tremolo’s complex sound spectrum. But the setting is still overtly evocative of a brown-panel Fender and reveals it’s own alluring complexities that make it beautiful accompaniment for sleepy chord melodies or a woozy accent to chugging Lonnie Mack and Bo Diddley rhythms.
SQR mode, as the vowel-less construction suggests, kicks with the deep throb of square wave tremolo. It doesn’t have as much on/off binary intensity as a Vox Repeat Percussion tremolo circuit, but it does a fantastic job of creating a very similar hypnotic and spacious pulse that leaves room for melodic counterpoint or droning textures.
The MXR Tremolo is both totally practical and a total blast. Its intuitive design facilitates experimentation with different modulation textures and can reshape riffs and spark new creative and compositional directions. Some hardcore amp-trem-only and analog tremolo devotees might find the analog simulations a little less complex sounding than their inspirations. But they still sound great on their own merits, and the addition of the more colorful MXR, revo, and SQR modes are imaginative and inviting alternatives. Given its flexibility, immersive textures, intuitive, easy-to-use control layout, and super-fair price, the MXR Tremolo stands a good chance of becoming a modern tremolo staple.
Watch John Bohlinger demo the MXR Tremolo: