This tiny stompbox recorder enables real-time riff capture and fast file sharing via Bluetooth.
TC Electronic’s Wiretap Riff Recorder might seem like an answer to a problem few have considered. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great idea. It enables the capture of ideas right in the middle of a jam—without ever breaking stride or sacrificing a magical mood or moment. And with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and a clever file management app, it facilitates fast sharing of musical ideas.
If you guessed at the intent of the Wiretap, you might think it works something like a cross between your smartphone’s audio recorder and a looper. You wouldn’t be too far off. Like a looper, you just hit the bypass switch while you’re playing and it begins recording. You can play back the recording through your amp. But the real upside comes via the downloadable app, which enables file naming, organization, and fast sharing.
There’s no limit to file length, save for the eight-hour ceiling on the unit’s memory. You can also play back recorded sections and scan through them using the simple, tape-recorder-like 3-switch array. Wiretap may seem like a solution to a problem you thought you had sorted. But few methods for capturing ideas are as easy or immediate.
A classic wobble box, revised and expanded.
Here’s a scary campfire story you can use next time you’re out in nature with young guitarists. First, shine the flashlight upward into your face for demonic effect. Next, intone these words:
“Long ago, in a dark, distant century, there was a soulless time when most players and manufacturers forgot that tremolo was bitchin’.” [Pause for horrified gasps.] “Tremolo was a rare feature, even on cool little combo amps. And that wasn’t the only thing.” [Make ’em wait for it.] “It was nearly impossible to buy a good, vibey tremolo pedal!”
You can stretch it out from there, but don’t end on an entirely dismal note, or no one will sleep. Add this: “However, there were a few lights in the darkness. A few plucky companies built tools to make tones tremble the way Leo and God intended. Manufacturers like James Demeter, with his brave little Tremulator!” [Your audience will visibly relax at this point. Time for s’mores!]
Carrying the Trem Torch
It’s been nearly 35 years since the original TRM-1 Tremulator debuted. Back then, when a flanger was a must-have and tremolo was deemed old-hat, the TRM-1 was the perfect remedy for trem-less amps. The pedal became a mainstay for players including Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, Jonny Greenwood, Michael Landau, and Ben Harper.
Demeter recently updated his design with the Tremulator Plus. The good news is that it duplicates the sound and features of the beloved original. The other good news is that the added features are cool, usable, and highly musical. (Bad news? Why does there always have to be bad news?)
A Classic Reconsidered
Let's revisit the original features before surveying the new stuff. This is an optical tremolo circuit in the blackface Fender vein. There are simple rate and depth knobs, but both have far greater range than on a 1960s Fender amp. High rate settings yield super-fast fluttering—almost approaching ring modulation. At the other extreme, you can order a pizza between pulsations. The depth control can also get extreme, yielding a hard, percussive chop.
I’ve always been of two minds about these wide-ranging rate controls. On one hand, the expanded ranges unlock sounds you can’t get from an old Fender amp. On the other hand, I sometimes find it tricky to dial in the perfect rate/depth balance, despite the simple controls. This isn’t a tap-tempo design, so overly deep modulation can easily mess with your groove. Meanwhile, the rate control’s extreme range means you sometimes have to fiddle around in small segments of the control’s range. Yes, you can absolutely get vintage sounds—and more—but it can require finesse.
New Ways to Wiggle
None of the new controls radically reinvent the effect, but each one adds something nice. There’s now a dedicated gain control, which is more useful than you might initially think. Tremolo is subtractive. It lowers the volume of the quiet part of the waveform, as opposed to boosting the loud part. That means there’s an inevitable energy drop when you engage the effect, and most cool trem pedals compensate with a few dB of extra gain. But there are times when it’s great to be able to fine-tune the level. For example, if you tend to use tremolo on clean-toned passages, but not the loud distorted stuff, an extra shot of gain can make the effect gush more—especially when playing delicately. This gain knob’s modest range can be surprisingly useful.
There’s also a control to fade between traditional triangle-wave modulation and more aggressive square-wave modulation. The square-wave setting lets you nail the sharp-edged pulsation of the quirky Kay Tremolo, a cheapo vintage model that’s acquired a cult following. There are many attractive in-between settings.
The other new addition is a bias control, also with a narrow but useful range. It can add a slight touch of saturation and, like the gain, it has the effect of making the tremolo gush with a little extra presence. High settings sounded great with the vintage-output pickups in my test guitars (a Gretsch Spectra Sonic Baritone and a 1963 Strat).
Inside the standard BB-sized enclosure, the work was clearly done by hand. The soldering is solid, though some of the wire runs seem needlessly long. The metal jacks are chassis-mounted. The components are standard-issue stuff, with op amps handling the gain control and an enclosed opto-isolator providing the throb. The pedal runs on external 9V power (not included) or internal battery connection. A blinking LED indicates the current modulation rate.
The Tremulator Plus duplicates the fine sound of the original, with some nice new shading and colors. But while this pedal hasn’t changed all that much from its initial incarnation, the world around it has. In the ’80 and ’90s, the TRM-1 was a godsend for trem-starved guitarists. But today, there are far more tremolo options, including models with such features as volume-triggered modulation, real-time control, tap-tempo, dual oscillators, stereo output, asymmetric modulation, and greater waveform control. And those are only the analog contenders. Tremolo is one of the easiest effects to model, and numerous digital tremolos offer deeper control and dead-accurate imitations of many tremolo types, from Vox to Marshall to brownface and beyond. But for players whose chief interest is traditional Fender-style trem (with expanded range and color), these pulsations are likely to please. And while $299 ain’t cheap, the price isn’t out of line for a quality, handmade stompbox.
Watch the Review Demo:
Fender refreshes a classic bass design with a versatile pickup configuration.
Clip 1 - J pickup soloed. Tone dial wide open.
Clip 2 - P pickup soloed. Tone dial halfway.
Clip 3 - P and J pickups engaged. Tone dial wide open.
Short-scale basses weren’t a new idea when Fender’s Mustang bass entered the scene in 1966, but stamp the Fender name on a new bass and the world will take notice. Since its introduction, Leo’s last original bass design while at Fender has been employed by bass heavies such as Bill Wyman, Tina Weymouth, and Trevor Bolder. Ignoring the “student model” label the Mustang carried in some circles, players embraced the design for its tone, comfort, and playability. The Mustang became a darling of the cool kids, likely also due in part to its slight flip of the bird to the norm.
Fast-forward to today and the introduction of Fender’s Mustang Bass PJ. The bass has retained the style, scale, attitude, and comfort of the original, but with a twist. In a Dr. Moreau-like way, the Mustang has been gifted with the mainstream tones of P and J basses as well. And suddenly, the hip becomes mainstream, yet still stays hip.
Run This Pony
Out of the gate, the Mustang Bass PJ is a looker. Fender’s olympic white is always a classy aesthetic, and the mint scratchplate is a nice touch. For the traditional standard-scale player, the 30" scale will take a little getting used to since it might initially feel like a toy. I can assure you, however, this bass is no toy. The alder body has some beef to it, and unlike the models of the past geared more towards the beginner, this made-in-Mexico Mustang feels like it can run with its big P and J brothers. And speaking of its P and J brothers, what really gives the new Mustang its cool is the P/J pickup configuration (with a conventional 3-way switch running the show), instead of the small split-coil of the past.
To get things started, I plugged the Mustang Bass PJ into an Eden CXC210 combo and set the EQ flat to let the axe speak on its own. With the neck pickup soloed, I was met with a full, robust tone sprinkled with a touch of bite. The maple neck was quick and responsive, and the rosewood fretboard felt fantastic. For my bassist friends who like 24-fret slap machines, this 19-fret bass might not be for you. That said, most of us have been taught that less is more with bass, right? The P-like tones that flow from the Mustang Bass PJ are wonderfully dynamic and would be equally fitting on a record or onstage. Roll the tone control back about halfway, and this Mustang moves into a mellower range that sounds akin to deadened strings. That’s a nice tone to have if you’re after a vintage vibe.
The tone rounds itself out and becomes more sonically complete with both pickups engaged. Even though the Mustang Bass PJ came with a light set of strings (.040‑.095), it sounded and played bigger than it really is. And while I would have loved this bass to be strung through the body like the original, I was nonetheless impressed with its sustain. No complaints in that department.
The J pickup is typical Fender Jazz: pointed, tight, and begging for Jaco runs. (Yes, I mentioned Jaco runs in a Mustang review.) The tone won’t necessarily replace what you’re getting from your Jazz, but it will get you pretty close. Would I use this pickup setting to cut through a live or recorded mix? Yes.
With the new pickup configuration, a more diverse cross-section of players is likely to gravitate towards the Mustang because of the additional tonal options on tap. The Mustang Bass PJ would be a fine addition for a wide spectrum of players with differing styles—including those just starting out, so they can develop technique while learning about tone at the same time. My first bass had one tone (bad), so having options is a great thing. And if this is going to be your first bass, chances are you won’t go selling it off like so many of us do with our first instruments.
For the 6-stringers reading this, please take note: We live in a world that is constantly streamlining, so for the guitarist with a project studio, the Mustang Bass PJ might be the right 4-string for your arsenal. Without necessarily coming out and saying it, Fender made this bass for you as well. The short scale will feel close to home and the tones are rock-solid. And if on that rare occasion your bassist doesn’t show up for the gig, your transition over to the bass chair will be that much more efficient since your hands won’t feel too much out of place.
Fender’s Mustang Bass PJ galloped out of the gig bag and into this bassist’s heart immediately. There is something refreshing and, more importantly, inspiring about playing a short-scale bass. And the Mustang Bass PJ did just that for me. The new pickup configuration makes for a more practical bass by providing the ability to jump across genres with its wide range of tones and away from being pigeonholed into the dark corners of the indie world. Whether or not the Mustang Bass PJ finds its way into your life is just a matter of how the shorter scale feels to you. At this price point, however, I’m pretty confident you can bet on this horse and win just about every time.
Watch the Review Demo: