Strymon Riverside Review
A hybrid JFET/DSP gain machine invites creative, unorthodox playing and defies preconceptions about digital distortion.
Strymon’s DSP-driven delay, reverb, and modulation effects are good enough to win over dyed-in-the-wool analog loyalists. That’s no easy feat. But overcoming concerns about authenticity in a digital reverb is nothing compared to the skepticism old-school players reserve for digital distortion.
Such biases may help explain the circuitry of Strymon’s Riverside Multistage Drive, which combines a responsive, class-A JFET input gain stage with three additional SHARC DSP gain stages. A hybrid circuit like this might look like a risky proposition—even for a company that’s hit one home run after another. But like so many Strymon products, the Riverside is full of surprises and sounds that smash pre-conceived notions about DSP.
With knobs for drive, level, bass, middle, and treble, the Riverside looks pretty conventional. There are two footswitches: one to engage the pedal and the other for “favorite”—a Strymon feature that lets you recall a single stored setting. If you have another Strymon unit, the favorite function lets you activate favorite settings for both units if you use “favorite output” mode.
Two toggle switches on the control face enable switching between high- and low-gain modes, and normal and mid-boosted settings. At the top of the pedal is a presence toggle switch, I/O jacks, and a boost pedal input which you can use with an external footswitch to get an extra 6 dB of boost. An expression jack, as we’ll see, unlocks even more of Riverside’s hidden magic.
The digital engine is predictably powerful. It is a 32-bit processor with 24-bit, 96 kHz A/D and D/A converters, and post-overdrive digital EQ.
To test the Riverside I used an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis Sport, a vintage Charvel Model 1A, and a Fender Super-Sonic amp. I jumped right in without consulting the manual and was able to get good sounds easily. But to really get the most out of the pedal (and the substantial $299 investment), you’ll want to tap into the multitude of hidden features—and you’ll definitely need the manual for that. Just doing a factory reset meant pressing and holding the “on” footswitch while powering up, then turning the drive knob from zero to max, twice. You’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than you would sorting out that one through trial and error. Other knob acrobatics enable you to switch between true bypass and buffered bypass.
Using an expression pedal (you’ll need one with TRS jacks) opens up even more of the Riverside’s formidable potential. At the simplest level, you can set up an expression pedal to function as a volume pedal. The real fun, though, comes from assigning varied gain settings to the heel-down and toe-down pedal positions and moving between extremes through the many gain levels. This type of feature is common on multi-effects pedals, but I can’t recall a stompbox distortion pedal that offers such an effective variation on this function.
I liked setting the heel position for a relatively clean sound: low gain mode, midrange boost off, EQs all around noon, and drive around 9 o’clock. At the toe position I set up a very different sound: high gain mode, mid boost on, EQs at noon, and drive jacked up to 3 o’clock.
Like many guitarists, my exploitation of clean-to-dirty dynamics typically occurs at clearly delineated changes in a song—using clean verses and dirty choruses, for example. But using the Riverside's expression pedal mode opened my eyes to the possibilities of shifting tones midway through phrases and leads, rather than song sections. I could play a repetitive, ascending sequence at the low-gain position; then, as I hit a high target note, seamlessly morph into the high-gain setting to let that note sustain and stand out with a very different timbre. And if you set the master volume similarly for both extremes, the smooth taper can sound organic and seamless while still sounding unexpected.
I also improvised question-and-answer-type phrases with different tones for each phrase—effectively taking the role of two guitarists. This kept me busy for hours, and within that time, I felt I only scratched the surface of Riverside’s expressive possibilities. A creative musician could make the Riverside the focal point of a rig and cultivate fresh, never-before-heard sounds and arrangements.
For most guitarists, it all comes down to the sounds, and here the Riverside delivers in spades. The pedal boasts low- and high-gain settings, but there’s a bit of overlap between the two. Even in the low-gain setting, the Riverside can sound brutishly powerful. And when I had it set with the gain around 3 o’clock, with the mid boost engaged, and EQ knobs all around noon, I got what most would consider a scorching, high-gain sound.
Likewise, when I switched to high-gain mode, moved the drive back to around 9 o’clock, kept the mid boost engaged, and the EQ controls around noon, I got milder but sustained tones that were incredibly dynamic and perfect for leads. It reminded me of my Mesa/Boogie 50 Caliber Plus hitting the sweet spot, and it would be a killer sound for fusion or ’80s metal rhythm guitar.
If you’re just looking for a gain pedal, the U.S.-built Riverside’s $299 price tag might initially seem high. But opening up the plethora of special features and advanced functions makes the pedal seem like a bargain over time. I can’t recall a dirt box that made me rethink and reshape my approach to playing quite the way the Riverside has.
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