ZVEX Vibrophase Review
ZVEX’s phaser/vibrato retains the rich, immersive modulation tones of its candle-driven design concept predecessor.
Uncommonly immersive and rich modulation tones and textures. Cool bias controls. Rangy speed knob.
Ease of Use:
Zachary Vex made a splash at Winter NAMM 2016 with the Candela, a candle-powered vibrato/phaser. That the Candela, with its Heath Robinson-meets-19th-century-navigation-instrument design, was a real working vibe machine was a wonder. But the Candela sounded as fantastic as it looked. It was a brilliant design exercise that stoked all kinds of notions of what a guitar effect could be.
If the Candela’s pedal-less concept was new, the basic idea behind the circuit was not. For all the fanciful aesthetics, it worked on the same principle as a Uni-Vibe, with a candle standing in for the lamp that drives a Uni-Vibe’s optical circuit. Given that, you might suspect that ZVEX’s new Vibrophase, a Candela-inspired vibrato/phaser that uses an LED rather than a candle, might sound like an ordinary Uni-Vibe clone. But like so many ZVEX effects, Vibrophase sounds extraordinary, benefitting from a thoughtfully executed control set that makes the pedal’s impressive sounds as varied as they are rich.
Clean and Candleless
You can’t see much of what goes on behind the curtain in Vibrophase. The two stacked circuit boards are inverted, so you have to imagine the makeup of the circuit driving the LED “lamp” and opto sensor. What you don’t have to guess at is the quality of the construction. It’s clean, flawless, and compact—leaving room for a 9V battery, but you can also run the pedal via a power supply.
The control set is slightly unconventional for a modulation effect. The speed knob is the one digital component in an otherwise all-analog pedal. It regulates a microcontroller with an extra-wide range that enables super slow and twitchy-fast modulation rates. (The entire signal path, for the record, is analog.) The difference in range of rates between Vibrophase’s microcontroller enabled LED and other purely analog-regulated modulators isn’t radical, but it is discernible and enables very cool and unusual effects at extremes—particularly when used in concert with the other controls. The vibrato/phase control is also interesting. It can seem subtle, partly because it is effectively a mix knob that creates phase effects by bringing in dry signal and situating it out of phase with the vibrato effect. The feedback control is often anything but subtle. It has a very wide range that can help you get background modulations or add wildly vocal and vowely emphasis to vibrato pulses.
The high-bias and low-level controls are sensitive, highly interactive, and have enormous power to re-shape the modulation waves and the way your instrument fits into a mix. It helps to think of the high-bias and low-level controls as voltage-regulated equalization. Low limit adjustments add or subtract low range from the sweep, and high bias does the same to the treble. Working with the bias controls feels more akin to using filtering on a synthesizer. It takes some practice, but generates interesting and extreme equalization effects: from snorkel-y, midrange-y phase cycles to booming and corpulent vibrato pulses (that also sound excellent with keyboards, by the way).
Vibrophase’s capacity for unusual EQ effects might be wasted were it not for the unit’s intrinsic sonic richness. We’re conditioned to think that more phase stages mean richer tone, kind of in the way more blades means a cleaner shave. By some standards, that is true. But the payoff for a simpler 4-stage phaser, at least to my ears, is more harmonically complex and oxygenated phase cycles that dovetail seamlessly with your guitar and amplifier tones. In marrying that 4-stage complexity to the mellower contours associated with an optical phase circuit, Vibrophase sounds smoother, more velvety, more colorful, and deeper at most settings—even in hummingbird-fast vibrato modes.
Such richness makes the Vibrophase a joy to use at volume. It’s a marvelous stand in for a Uni-Vibe, with a fuzz on either end. But some of the most intoxicating effects come with slower settings, a bass-heavy bias setting, a clean guitar tone, and a couple of 12" speakers blaring at high volume. In this setup, Vibrophase is as delicious and underwater immersive as you could want—blooming with pretty harmonic detail and syrupy modulation contours that evoke (or even induce) that blissful state of half-sleep.
Even if you use vibrato or phase modulation infrequently, Vibrophase might be worth making your one modulation effect. It’s a high-quality tool. The palette of modulation tones is expansive: from classic analog phasing to authentic Uni-Vibe textures to throbbing, alien vibrato pulses. The sensitive controls make it a blast to interact and experiment with. It’s even beautiful to look at. Vibrophase is a musically inspiring effect in every sense of the word.