Creative side-chaining functions come to life in a super-compact and powerful stomp.
Side chaining—the studio practice of ducking instrument volumes in sync with rhythmic elements—is a fixture in everything from dance music to fist-pumping stadium rock. It’s a clever way to add impact, animate ordinary rhythms, and make a straight-ahead track into a dance floor corker, which is no small currency in today’s pop music production climate. Side-chaining can be used for any instrument. But when it’s applied to guitar in the studio, it can sound like everything from tremolo to reverse reverb to heavy compression.
With the Deep Space Pulsar, the ever-clever David Rainger has stuffed an effective side-chaining device in a compact enclosure designed for performing guitarists. Like all Rainger effects, it can look and feel scarily unorthodox. But it’s a cost-effective and surprisingly straight-ahead means of achieving tightly sync’d ducking effects without MIDI. It’s so accommodating to lo-fi, lo-tech approaches, in fact, that it can be triggered by a microphone stuffed in a kick drum and wired right back to the pedal!
Tiny Purple Beat Slicer
David Rainger takes inventive approaches to interfacing with effects—and even the guitar itself—and his work often assumes that you’ll interact with your guitar in ways your music teacher didn’t cover. That aspect of Rainger’s design ethos is strong here. But Rainger’s ingenuity pays more practical dividends too—most notably in an effective, flexible control scheme that fits in a “mini” pedal enclosure.
The Pulsar’s two primary controls make the pedal feel a little like a mutant tremolo/phaser/compressor hybrid. The dip control changes the intensity of volume drops. The “rel” (release) control, meanwhile, regulates the rate with which volume returns to normal after the drop. A volume knob controls the output. But there’s also a cool inverse button that flips the relationship between the rhythmic pulse and your instrument so they hit simultaneously.
On the top of the unit, just next to the I/O jacks, you’ll see a 1/8" jack that is key to making the Deep Space Pulsar work. It receives input from your rhythmic “controller,” which can be the included Igor tap tempo unit, a drum machine, or best of all, a microphone on a drum kit. It’s this latter trick that makes the Pulsar so accessible and full of possibilities as a live improvisational device. And it’s a cool flipside to the rigid side-chaining typically used in pop and EDM.
Parts That Pop
Though the control set is easy to grasp conceptually, most players will need time to adapt to the way it feels. Bold use of the effect means an inherent latency between what you play and what you hear, which will probably change the way you approach your parts rhythmically and dynamically. What’s cool is the way that limitation can make the Pulsar into a riff-writing conspirator—forcing unorthodox meters and rhythmic shifts that can transform simple melodies and chord changes.
The Deep Space Pulsar is good for much more than heavy-handed effects. I loved using fast release times and less intense volume dips, and then driving the effect with a drum machine or kick drum to create subtle, poly-rhythmic tremolo effects. It’s a trick that adds cool complexity and movement to chord patterns and works well with spacy reverbs and delays downstream. If you’re a fan of My Bloody Valentine’s dance/space pop hybrids, you’ll love this facet of the Pulsar’s personality.
The Deep Space Pulsar isn’t a pedal for minimalists. At the very least, you’ll need the tap tempo controller to make it work. And if you get hooked on the pedal’s potential—which is likely—you’ll almost certainly want to explore the possibilities of miking drums or syncing up to a drum machine via a cable splitter. On the other hand, the Rainger is brilliantly set up to do all this with a minimum of fuss and space. Given the potential sonic dividends and songwriting inspiration, it’s an avenue worth exploring for even the casually curious.
A gated fuzz brims with unexpected complexity and surprising vintage voices.
Gated fuzz has a weird, polarizing reputation. Some players I know associate it unequivocally with macho stoner rock riffs and hyper-gain doom trips and cringe at its very mention. But I hear gated fuzz as a point on a continuum that originates with primitive, fizzy germanium fuzzes. There’s way more to gated fuzz than creating the sonic equivalent of orc armies on the march. And that’s why Way Huge’s Conquistador Fuzzstortion is such a kick. It’s just as happy dishing desert-rock riffage as it is churning up ’60s scuzz-punk leads or layering art rock textures in the studio. And while the gating is distinct, there’s just enough lingering harmonic content to make the pedal sound complex and even a little soft around the edges.
A Fuzz by Any Other Name
Conquistador uses a completely familiar control scheme: fuzz, volume, and tone. And apart from the gating, the three controls behave as they would on any fuzz. The enclosure is the usual, high quality Way Huge stuff, and I’m glad they have never succumbed to the miniaturization urge. They look great. The aluminum enclosure means the pedal is light and sturdy. And the switches and pots all function with smooth precision—another Way Huge trademark.
You can power the unit with a 9V DC adapter, but like most contemporary Way Huge pedals, it also has a super-convenient, easy-to-access battery compartment on the front of the pedal. Interior construction is tidy and looks robust. The circuit board itself seems to float—held aloft by the pins from the three pots and the LED apparatus. The I/O jacks are mounted to their own board, as is the footswitch. And as long as the pedal’s cool rubber feet are in place, you don’t even need a screwdriver to remove the back cover.
Turn Me up, Shut Me Down
Conquistador’s gating is a feature throughout the pedal’s range. Some players might like a little more gray area or the ability to blend in the gating effect. But the fixed gating on Conquistador seems to have opened up possibilities elsewhere—like honing the tone circuit to work with low-end sustain output and cultivating a harmonically complex fuzz profile.
The latter quality is a real strength of the Conquistador. As you’d expect, the pedal’s voice is strong in the midrange and low end because it can be. Gating means the midrange won’t bloom into feedback and the low end won’t generate resonant traps. But the Conquistador also features a very cool capacity for high-mid and top-end content that gives the pedal a lovely, almost chorale-like balance at many settings. This evenness is even apparent at maximum treble and fuzz settings, which are perfect for Davie Allen biker fuzz moves or Spacemen 3-style, single-string, quarter-note drones.
Conquistador’s rich and even harmonic profile is most evident, however, at medium-gain and low to low-mid focused tone settings. And while I had hoped to avoid the obvious Queens of the Stone Age reference, I cannot deny that the grinding riff from “Regular John” sounds pretty freaking intoxicating through the Way Huge.
Though Conquistador is wired for contemporary gated-fuzz applications, it’s overflowing with cool variations on the sound—some of which achieve ’60s-vintage fuzz gnarliness more effectively than pedals designed for that purpose. Conquistador can even sound synthy with the crafty use of guitar volume and tone knobs. And its even, focused attack and decay might make it the ideal fuzz for doubling tacks or soloing in an A/B rig. In these ways, Conquistador is a real overachiever. And while it’s certainly not a fuzz for everyone (you should definitely spend some time with it before you buy, to see how it reacts to your rig and style), it will doubtless be a source of surprises for players willing to dive deep beyond the most obvious sounds.
An optical compressor that delivers subtlety and superb control.
Drawing inspiration from Universal Audio’s famous 1176 and Teletronix’s LA-2A, Mastro Valvola’s Millibar is an optical compressor with an exceptional range of control. And like the studio compressors that inspired it, it’s a highly functional unit with the ability to enliven lifeless tones, re-shape a guitar’s voice to fit in a mix, and focus squirrelly overdriven signals.
The Millibar’s cool aesthetic—one that crosses the easy-to-read control panels of medical equipment with a colorful ’70s graphic style—works well in practical and aesthetic terms. The folded steel enclosure is sturdy and easy to open. The four knobs make up a familiar and common compressor control set. Attack changes the speed with which the compression affects the signal. Sustain can be increased with a clockwise turn.
Ratio sets the level of compression, while volume sets the overall output. The Millibar ships with a 9V battery that can be accessed by removing the four plate screws on the bottom of the housing. You can also power the pedal via a 9V DC jack. The guts of the compressor are mounted on a couple PCBs and it’s very well put together.
Wrangling the Highs and Lows
By using the Millibar with Fender single-coils and a Fender Champ 600—a setup with relatively thin-sounding output—I got a grip on how much meat the Millibar can add to a tone recipe. Setting all the controls in the 12 o’clock range added the extra body that made full-step bends float and fade with more sustain, and made the little Champion sound much larger in tracking situations. It’s easy to imagine the Millibar working wonders in studios for little amps.
The expressive range gets wider still through a big rig—in this case an Orange OR50 and Fender Stratocaster. It was hard not to resist playing like David Gilmour circa The Wall, given all the squish and sustain. Crafty use of the volume control is paramount with big amps (which are typically used in band settings) and high compression ratios. Fat compression usually means a perceived volume drop, and by adding extra volume, you can really squeeze your output with a heavy ratio and still make it out above the hum of a band.
With a Gibson Les Paul, I found (not unexpectedly) that I needed considerably less sustain compared to single-coils. I rarely add extra compression to PAF-style humbuckers in a live setting. But the Millibar added plenty of cool, subtle enhancements to my humbucker output. By turning down the ratio and sustain and keeping the attack around noon, humbuckers took on a nice bit of extra contour that massaged pick attack without neutering it.
Millibar also excels when adding additional effects. While an EarthQuaker Devices Hoof doesn’t need any help in the sustain department, a little extra attack from the Millibar and a subtly higher compression ratio can create a more focused fuzz lead tone. Similarly, the swirling waves of a Homebrew Electronics Psilocybe phaser were significantly augmented with the Millibar out front, with undulations becoming more pronounced as I increased ratio and sustain.
Compressors aren’t the most dazzling effect, but they can transform your tone in beautiful and very utilitarian ways. The Mastro Valvola Millibar performs these fundamental compression tasks in exemplary style. And whether subtly reshaping tone or squeezing every last bit of your output, it remains very musical. I would recommend it for both live and studio settings.