Three of five new analog stomps from the revived brand forge unique paths from vintage origins.
Unique, vintage-colored modulations. Boost compensates for perceived volume loss.
Modulations could be a little more liquid and cohesive.
Maestro Mariner Tremolo
Many different effects can salvage a crappy backline situation. A nice reverb goes a long way toward making a lame amp sound okay. A delay or compressor can usually lend a little energy and mystery to an otherwise lifeless tone, too. But in my experience, few effects coax magic from garbage quite like tremolo.
Just ask Keith Richards. For the spooky-as-hell guitar track that underpins “Gimme Shelter,” Keith used a Triumph solid-state amp that legendary engineer and producer Glyn Johns hated. But while Johns may have thought the Triumph sounded lame, it had a tremolo circuit Keith loved. Go ahead, give the song a listen. It’s hard to imagine “Gimme Shelter” without that haunting pulse.
Maestro’s Mariner tremolo has the same potential to rescue a lifeless track or performance. It’s not the most refined tremolo (it can come on a bit strong at times), nor does it sound like an approximation of any vintage standard. (It sounded very different from a black-panel Fender Tremolux and Vibroverb, as well as an excellent digital take on those circuits.) Functionally speaking, it will probably remind many players of the Boss TR-2, with its depth, speed, and wave shape controls, which move between sine and square waveforms. Even its controls are arranged in an inverse triangle like the Boss. But the Mariner offers a second, more phase-y mode that it calls harmonic tremolo, which approximates, to some extent, the harmonic vibrato on some early-’60s Fender brown-panel amps. That extends the practical and fun potential of the Mariner.
Pick Your Pulse
If you’re a stickler for vintage-correct emulations, Mariner might not be your first pick for a pedal tremolo. That doesn’t mean it lacks vintage feel, though. In classic mode (it’s not clear if this all-analog circuit was designed to approximate an optical tremolo circuit, bias tremolo, or neither), you can dial in very pretty, immersive modulations that will sound more than adequately vintage-like in a mix. Classic settings are also easy to shape in creative ways with the waveform knob. Compared to what’s arguably the affordable analog tremolo standard bearer, the Boss TR-2, the Mariner’s maximum depth and square wave settings are more pronounced and intense. Some of this intensity might be due to the fact that the Mariner is flat-out louder. Tremolo-pedal makers often build in a very mild boost to compensate for the perceived loss of signal that accompanies some tremolo effects, and Maestro certainly seems to have included one here. The Mariner is perceptibly louder than both a TR-2 and a Strymon Flint.
Even still, Mariner’s harmonic mode is rich and charming, and the wobbly pulses lend a very psychedelic edge.
The Mariner could be more nuanced at times. The classic mode’s pulses, for instance, sometimes seem more hard-edged than liquid. These less-fluid modulations can be even more pronounced in the harmonic tremolo mode. Many players, however, will prefer this texture, even though amp-based harmonic tremolo tends to sound smooth and contoured. Still, Mariner’s harmonic mode is rich and charming, and the wobbly pulses lend a very psychedelic edge. And at slower rates, in particular, the harmonic mode finds its stride. The modulations are phasey and elastic and can sound both beautiful and striking in the right setting.
At nearly 160 bucks, the Mariner is priced near the top end of the affordable tremolo class. But Mariner’s secret weapon may be the fact that it sounds vintage without clearly imitating other circuits or sounding too generic. That relative individuality, plus its extra output, make it an appealing option for those who’d rather not default to the most obvious standard.
One of my favorite ways to make a tremolo pedal like the Mariner sound even cooler than it already does is by situating a phaser downstream. I tend to disagree with guitarists that regard phase as one-dimensional. I’ve seen ripping players with great dynamic touch and broad tone palettes that almost never turn them off. And it’s always impressive how they weave a phaser’s cool mysterious sense of motion into a complex whole instead of placing the modulation front and center.
There’s a lot more flexibility to do that these days now that phasers have evolved so considerably from early one-knob classics. Maestro’s Orbit Phaser walks the line between contemporary and complex, and vintage and stupidly simple, though it tends toward the latter. So, while it lacks some of the fine-tuning features you see on more powerful units, it facilitates creation of subtle, backgrounded blends and much more prominent modulations.
You Gotta Move
The Orbit’s phase is bold and clear. There is no perceived signal loss—a problem that plagues a lot of older analog phasers and which becomes a fear among many first-time phaser shoppers. In some situations, the Orbit cuts because of a very pronounced midrange emphasis. The pedal adds a distinct tone color—midrange-y enough to evoke a cocked wah or filter at certain settings and with certain guitars. There are some awesome applications for the voice. For example, I paired the pedal with a Telecaster on which I rolled the tone way back. The resulting skwonky waveforms I heard could transform an otherwise dull part into something hooky and weird. The midrangey voice also meshes very nicely with PAF-style humbuckers, creating pronounced, muscular waveforms that cut in jangly settings or psychedelic blues solos. The Orbit sounds extra cool and assertive at fast modulation rates—another neat way to pepper up a same-old fake-Jimi solo. It also sounded bolder in this setting than the very old and familiar Small Stone and Phase 90 I used for reference.
The Orbit sounds extra cool and assertive at fast modulation rates.
At slower rates—the kind that, say, you would use for The Dark Side of the Moon tracks, soul ballads, or Waylon Jennings jams—the Maestro’s mid-focused voice works less well. Rather, the more open-ended and less specific voices of the Phase 90 and Small Stone let your signal breathe a lot more across the frequency spectrum, while the Orbit feels punkier and more snarling. Which flavor is better is totally subjective. But I would say Orbit’s slow phase tones read as a little less liquid than those from the old MXR and Electro-Harmonix units.
The Orbit Phaser can be a real joy for how unique it sounds. Faster rate settings are particularly rich. The ability to tailor width and feedback enables loads of contrasting subtle-to-robust waveforms. The 4-and-6-stage modes provide additional versatility, though the differences between them is less pronounced than on some phasers with that option. The Orbit’s range would make it the ideal candidate for an always-on phaser, and there will be players who use it in just that fashion. But the strong midrange emphasis will probably dissuade many from using it that way— especially those that primarily use single-coils. Humbucker players might have a different experience. The Orbit’s voice gets along great with a PAF. And that’s just one of many intriguing and satisfying sounds here.
Agena Envelope Filter
To a large segment of the guitar-playing populace, “envelope filter” usually means “auto wah” or “that quacky thing.” Most good envelope filters do that stuff. It’s probably what most buyers expect of them. But envelope filters can do other really cool things. They can effectively work like high-contrast EQ presets—transforming solos as radically as a fuzz can. They can also work like dynamic phasers and summon interesting phrasings from pedestrian chord changes and melodic lines, particularly when you get used to working in bendy, elastic give-and-take tandem with the effect. Correspondingly, they are great tools for digging out of a rut.
Maestro’s Agena lives a little less on the quacky end of the filter spectrum, trading some of those hyper-vowely, percussive and snappy filtering qualities for a more expansive dynamic palette and a little more control over attack. But for anyone keen to explore the effect beyond Jerry Garcia and Bootsy Collins sound archetypes, it will seem much more forgiving and usable than many more clearly Mu-Tron III-derived circuits.
Practical in Practice
If you’re at all put off by envelope filters because their controls are counterintuitive on the surface, you should not fear the Agena. Even if you’re not familiar with how envelope filters are supposed to work, it’s easy to feel your way through how they interact and respond to the input from your guitar and fingers.
The sense knob governs how much picking energy is required before the envelope is activated. Attack controls how fast the envelop opens. Decay regulates how long the filter stays open. A small toggle will be familiar to old-school Mu-Tron and Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron users. It assigns emphasis to higher or lower frequency ranges. The controls are fairly interactive. You can set up classic quacky sounds by cranking up the sense and attack controls and situating the decay control in the middle third of its range. More subdued, less vowel-y tones lurk at faster decay rates, where you can also coax great narrow-focus filter sounds that evoke old octave effects like the Ampeg Scrambler or Dan Armstrong Green Ringer.
You can also coax great narrow-focus filter sounds that evoke old octave effects like the Ampeg Scrambler or Dan Armstrong Green Ringer.
Because the Agena is a dynamically controlled filter, it responds to any change in your input signal. So, it reacts differently to varied pick attack and heavier or thinner picks. Boosts and overdrive remove dynamic range but can add emphasis to quacky and vowelly filter responses or filter effects that highlight specific frequencies. Different guitars and pickups can have very different relationships, too. Telecaster bridge pickups were especially good for coaxing dynamic phase sounds at high-sense/fast-attack/medium-decay settings. PAF-style humbuckers, meanwhile, sounded hot and vocal.
In some ways, the Agena could be the envelope filter for people that don’t like envelope filters. It rarely feels like an all-or-none proposition, and the filter is capable of many sounds in between Grateful Dead caricature and less loaded voices. It also rewards players who pursue less obvious, droning playing approaches as opposed to those who play it funky. But even if it’s just classic quack you’re after, the Agena gives you many shades to work with.
Maestro [Gibson] Mariner Tremolo, Titan Boost, Arcas Compressor, Agena Filter & Orbit Phaser Demos
Comprehending one of the studio's most important but mysterious tools—with metaphorical cocktails!
[Originally published 6/8/2020]
Welcome to Recording Dojo—PG’s new monthly column pertaining to recording and engineering, with guitarists in mind. Think of this column as your place to develop better audio-recording skills, experiment with new techniques and gear and, most importantly, mindsets. So bring your best self forward and your willingness to learn … the dojo is now open.
Let’s begin our training with compression: a confusing topic for guitarists as players and as engineers wanting to make their recordings more professional. Compression has five core parameters: threshold, knee, attack, ratio, and release—or TKARR. I’m going to explain this metaphorically, as if you are at a major event, say, the Grammys, and you’ve just won. You’ve condensed a lifetime of “I’d like to thank” into 15 seconds, and you’ve been regally whisked offstage by an anonymous beauty in a ball gown.
The next thing you’re instructed to do is leave backstage, go through the giant ballroom (where a band is playing and people are partying), and go to the press room for photo ops and post-win interviews. You walk down the long hallway towards the ballroom door, where a burly 6'8" doorman stands behind velvet ropes. The doorman is the threshold and the velvet ropes are the knee.
In order for you to get into the ballroom, the doorman has to let you in. As you arrive at the door, he takes his hands off the ropes (hard knee), crosses his arms, coldly stares at you, and says, “What are doing here? This is for Grammy winners only.” Ouch! He doesn’t recognize you. He only listens to Siberian reggae bands. High threshold. So high that you can’t pass though. Conversely, if, as you approach, he gently unfastens the ropes (soft knee), says “I’m a huge fan,” and moves aside without you having to break stride, you have crossed the threshold and are now inside the ballroom. This is a well-set threshold, only allowing in those who are authorized. Or perhaps, as you arrive at the ballroom entrance, you notice that the doorman has passed out, the ropes have long been knocked over (no knee), and anyone can enter. Low threshold.
As soon as you enter the ballroom, within a millisecond, a waiter comes up to you: “Champagne? The press room is on the other side of the ballroom.” That’s quick attack. You notice there’s a string quartet playing Haydn’s Op. 76, and the volume is comfortably loud (low ratio, somewhere between 1.5:1 to 4:1). Almost as soon as you enter the ballroom, you’ve got your libation and move directly to the press room—quick release. You arrive at the press room with your wits about you, ready to talk about your big win.
Or, upon entering the ballroom, you mill around in the crowded room looking for directions and you’re in the middle of the ballroom before a waiter comes up to you and shouts: “Drink? Press room is over there.” That’s medium attack. The band is an ’80s cover band and the volume is rather loud for the room (medium ratio, 5:1 to 9.5:1). You eventually find your way to the press room and arrive slightly stunned, but ready.
Another version: Upon entering the ballroom, you’re immediately lost in a sea of people, shouting for directions and hopelessly trying to be heard above the Mötorhead tribute band. Your ears are ringing. Time passes, and you somehow find the press room door and a waiter shoves a drink in your hand just before you leave the ballroom. Slow attack. You arrive, dazed and confused, in the press room (high ratio, 10:1 and above).
These simple scenarios should help you understand the parameters of compression. It’s very important you know that all of these scenarios are equally and musically valid, and by no means exhaustive. Want that “When the Levee Breaks” drum sound? Low threshold, high ratio, quick attack/release. Want your acoustic to sound natural and dynamic? High to medium threshold, medium attack/release, medium to low ratio. Remember, the focus of this article is to explain the five parameters of compression (TKARR). Based on their highly varied and different designs, not all compressors give you access to every parameter. So, this will be our subject next month!
A warm, analog optical compression designed to offer plenty of sustain, attack, and release that can be blended in to taste.
In the Spanish language, Mira is a command that translates to look, see, and call attention to and today Walrus Audio is bringing attention to their newest pedal offering, the Mira Optical Compressor. Starting with the bonus features: Walrus decided to also provide a push-button High Pass Filter in the side-chain (the part of the circuit that controls the optical element in the compressor). This is designed for preventing bass frequencies 120Hz or below from engaging the compressor as much as higher frequencies. The keen result of this keeps the compressor from overworking on lower notes and is great for bass guitar or keeping low-frequency dynamics dramatic for guitar players.
The Mira is a true bypass optical compressor offering studio-grade sound sculpting and sustain packed with controls you’d normally only find on studio units. Mira also offers in-depth control over Attack, Release, Ratio, and a Make-Up knob to help maintain unity levels after your signal has been compressed. Use the Blend knob to mix in your compressed sound with your clean tone to maintain note clarity while offering increased sustain.
Walrus Audio Mira Optical Compressor Tech Demo
Walrus Audio is offering The Mira for a retail price of $249 USD and is available now at walrusaudio.com and with our authorized dealers all over the world. More info at walrusaudio.com.