How many guitars, pedals, and amps do you need? Enough to make you happy. But window shopping alone has its own benefits.
I just got back from the NAMM show, and I am suppressing the nervous twitch of desire. My eyes and ears were flooded with all kinds of great gear, from cutting edge software plugins to microphones to—my favorites—pedals, amps, and guitars. With so much new gear around, G.A.S. was so abundant you could almost smell it hanging over the show floor. (Sorry, I could not resist.)
As you all know, I’m talking about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the disease for which there is no cure. I have 15 guitars—17, if you count a cigar box and a diddley bow—that cover the sonic waterfront for me and then some. So why would I want more? My tube and solid-state amps are carefully curated so I can recreate all the classic tones I love, and with my quirky playing approach and equally carefully assembled pedalboard, I can put my own spin on every one of them.
And yet … I return with a pocketful of maybes. Maybe that new semi-hollow with the sleek neck and coil-splitting would get me another tone I can’t quite access now? Maybe that pedal would make it easier to accommodate pitch shifting while I solo? Maybe it’s time to add a bona fide high-gain amp, or dive into modeling?
I used to think these impulses were unhealthy. Especially when I was a touring indie musician and had no money to spend on gear. (One of musical life’s great ironies is that club-level working musicians often earn so little that they can’t afford to increase or upgrade the tools of their craft.) But I’ve changed my mind, thanks to my dog.
“You should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.”
Dolly, who is going on 17, is slow … or perhaps methodical … when we go on walks. But every inch of the way she is sniffing, her ears are up, and she stops to spend time looking at and smelling anything that captures her interest, even for a moment. That’s a great way to spend NAMM and to examine gear, with senses and imagination open, considering the potential of everything for your music, prepared to evaluate impulses without prejudice. (But, unlike Dolly, you should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.)
Considering a piece of gear is not the same as buying it, or I’d be broke. And evaluating these flirtations can lead to something good. Let’s say you’re smitten with a brand-new $250 modulation pedal. But after careful consideration and inspection, you realize you can get a similar sound with the chorus or vibrato you already own, and a delay or reverb pedal. The tempting new gear has led you down a path of finding a new, purposeful sound in your current gear. Same with a drive pedal. It’s fresh, it’s raw, it’s low and singing—and maybe with a bit of compression it isn’t very far from the sound you can get with your current overdrive if you just roll back the tone controls on your 6-string. And what about that semi-hollow? Maybe what I really need is a 10-band EQ pedal so I can approximate semi-hollow and hollowbody tones on all my guitars at whim, which would certainly inject a different voice into the solos or choruses of songs in my repertoire. Sometimes looking at new gear reminds us of the full range of our current musical real estate holdings. And that’s great. It’s easy to get in a rut and overlook the potential of gear you already own. (Parallel question: How many of you really make full use of the tone and volume controls on your instruments? I find this to be an oddly neglected zone of exploration, even this many years beyond Eric Clapton’s unfortunately dubbed “woman tone.”)
That said, there’s also not a damn thing wrong with buying some new gear. In fact, it’s great. Guitars, pedals, amps, microphones, plugins, and even accessories seem to get better all the time, which means we probably all have some room for upgrades if we’re able to make them. Same with the tones produced by modern emulations of vintage gear, which ideally get more on the nose with every iteration, while adding improvements to tonality and performance. In terms of consistency and playability, today’s well-made guitars are perhaps the finest ever built, in some cases outperforming the templates that inspired them at much lower cost. And, as the saying goes, every guitar—or pedal, or amp—has new songs inside of it, waiting to be discovered.
Hopefully you’ve gorged on the videos and reports from the NAMM floor that we’ve shared at premierguitar.com with you this month. There was a lot to see, hear, and smell. Well, maybe not smell, but I think you know what I mean. Never be afraid to chase gear temptation, because it can often lead you to interesting places.
This dialed-in flange/reverb combo sets the controls for shoegazing.
An interesting spin on a unique effect combo. Easy to use. Sounds great with fuzz.
Limited control set will be a non-starter for many flange and reverb afficionados.
The Catalinbread STS-88 flanger and reverb isn’t designed to be associated with any one genre or style. But pairing a 2-knob flange effect with a preset reverb is a strong stance. It’s as if Catalinbread were saying, “These tones are supposed to go together, deal with it.” Rather than provide a bevy of tweaking options, the STS-88’s simple 4-knob/2-effect design removes the potential for sonic option anxiety. It also arguably eliminates some possibilities. But shoegazers and space rockers should listen up.
Simple and Stripped Down
Using a stripped-down pedal can be refreshing, and advanced flangers and reverbs can both be more complex than fun. The STS-88, though, does not suffer from that malady. Instead, flanger control is limited to just two knobs, depth and rate, both of which have a nice, wide range. The STS-88’s flanger tone is warm, and I had no trouble conjuring airplanes and ooze as soon as I plugged in. But the limited nature of the pedal’s controls does mean a lack of sculpting nuance that I’ve enjoyed in some other flangers. Players who aren’t flange freaks, though, will probably find most of what they want in just two knobs.
I was compelled by the idea of a 1-knob reverb. It’s a bold move! And the STS-88’s lush reverb is perfect for washing out the gooey flange. But with just one knob, you can only select less reverb or more, and I couldn’t help imagining what else I could do if I was given just a little more control over decay or tone. The fourth knob is a wet/dry mix, which I’m surprised to say is my favorite option on the STS-88. I’m normally all in on flangers and content to go pretty wet with my tones. But having the ability to dial-in my mix allowed the STS-88 to play a bit better with other effects, which is, I believe, essential to its mission.
With the mix around 11 o’clock and a Fuzz Face clone cranked, I struck a balance between gnarly, cutting fuzz and washy flange and reverb that mixed into a booming, shoegaze-y slurry.
Mixin’ It Up
Catalinbread’s pedals always feel well-thought-out and unique. So, despite my desire for more control, I knew there must be something a little deeper behind the simplicity of the design. If this flanger and reverb are meant to live together within these parameters, what’s the angle? The mix knob, I found, is the key.
Take the way the STS-88 plays with fuzz. I’m a sucker for fuzzed-out flanger tones in the Dinosaur Jr. vein, but I don’t always love the way flangers play with fuzz. But the wet/dry mix on the STS-88 is an easy and elegant solution, and when I ran a fuzz through the pedal, I found my bliss. With the mix around 11 o’clock and a Fuzz Face clone cranked, I struck a balance between gnarly, cutting fuzz and washy flange and reverb that mixed into a booming, shoegaze-y slurry. Messing with the mix is rewarding, and I found many fuzzy, spaced-out sounds throughout the range of the flanger controls with this pairing. A noise gate on the wet side of the flanger circuit also helps the STS-88 pair more effectively with high gain. I also enjoyed overdrive sounds with the STS-88, but to my ears, the STS-88 really thrives with fuzz, and that’s what sells the pedal. In that setting, the limitations the designers built into the pedal make a lot of sense.
Option fatigue can be a real thing with feature-rich pedals, so I’m usually happy to have my options limited. It would be cool if Catalinbread built multiple versions of the STS-88, as they do with their Belle Epoch delay, which also comes in a more complex Deluxe version. Maybe it could include a searing fuzz circuit as well as a time or tone control for the reverb.
As is, the STS-88 is a fun and totally useful addition to a pedal collection. As a flanger, it’s less about Prince-style tones than space-rock sounds. The biggest hangup will probably be whether you like the reverb tone or not, or whether you miss more control. Considering the pedal’s $209 price, that’s worth researching, because it’s going to be a personal taste kind of thing. But if you dig it, the STS-88 sure is fun.
Love varied reverb texture and presets but hate complex preset maneuvers? Well, meet your new best friend.
Simple-to-set-and-access presets. Great thickening ambience at modest settings. Effective damping control.
Some saccharine overtones in long reverbs—even with damping.
EarthQuaker Devices Ledges
I’d guess that when many people consider EarthQuaker and reverb in the same breath, they imagine devices from the wilder side of the effects spectrum. Certainly, EQD built their share of these. Reverbs like the Transmisser, Astral Destiny, and Afterneath are famous for their ability to mix modulation, octave content, or filtering effects with reverb and then propel those sounds ever skyward. But EarthQuaker is equally adept at building practical reverbs. The ultra-utilitarian Dispatch Master is one of the company’s best sellers. The discontinued Levitation moved from modest reverbs to extra-ethereal spaces with ease. And the Ghost Echo lives in the relatively pedestrian realm of digital spring-style reverb.
The new Ledges, which combines room-, hall-, and plate-style voices, fits very neatly on the practical side of the EarthQuaker reverb family. But that does not mean it is timid by any stretch. Indeed, one of the most practical facets of Ledges’ design is how readily you can move from reverb that’s barely there to interstellar realms.
Streamliner to Space
Ledges walks a middle ground between complex pedals with multiple modes, voices, and presets, and more streamlined, what-you-see-is-what-you-get stompboxes. Everything you need to summon the whole of Ledges’ expansive reverb vocabulary is right there on the face of the pedal. Six presets are saved and selected via a small, illuminated save/recall button that’s adjacent to the rotary preset selector switch. To save a preset, you merely set the other controls to preferred positions, select a preset position on the preset knob, and hold down the save/recall button. That’s it. There are no tricky multi-tap-hold-and-twist maneuvers to navigate. It’s dead simple and it’s beautiful.
Ledges’ remaining four controls are a wet/dry mix control, a reverb-length knob, a treble-damping control, and a 3-position toggle that selects room, hall, or plate reverbs. There’s also an expression pedal jack, and you can assign any settings to an expression pedal (and save them within a preset) using a quick two-step sequence.
From My Room, I Dreamed of the Stars
Room mode is great for adding body as much as ambience to your guitar signal. Even at bassier damping settings, it gives a guitar a fuller, airier essence. It’s great for adding heft to a Stratocaster pickup without sacrificing its essential Stratiness, or, at less damped settings, giving the top end of a humbucker’s signal a little more top-end life. Using less damping and a more aggressive mix can approximate the reflections of tile surfaces, or, with longer tails, a small gymnasium. These reverb settings are beautiful for pairing with a clear but overdriven guitar signal, or with a quick, tape-style echo for old-school reggae or rhythm and blues studio ambience.
”There are no tricky multi-tap-hold-and-twist maneuvers to navigate. It’s dead simple and it’s beautiful.“
The most modest hall settings start where the most ambient room settings leave off. But there is a sense of just-right size and body in the hall mode, particularly at mellow length and mix settings. In this range you can find pretty alternatives to amplifier spring reverbs that offer many similar overtones without the splashy clang of a spring. It’s a tasteful but robust sound that situates itself with ease in a mix, and will likely make you popular with bandmates and recording engineers. It doesn’t take much extra length, though, before the hall takes on cave-like proportions. It’s good to mind your damping and mix settings here. But a little extra top end from the damping control can add pretty, almost harmonizing overtones.
The plate setting, to my ears, sounds magnificent with all the knobs parked at 10 o’clock. Here, clean guitars become big but tasteful in ways that can fill and transform a song—making chords a beautiful bed for accompanying instruments and giving lead lines sweet resonance. But the plate setting is also home to preposterously long and near-infinite reverbs that can turn a single chord into a bed for whole extended verses. Without the damping setting, many of these reverberations might sound cloying in the top end. And some sugary overtones can remain if you don’t get that setting right. But if you consider the way these extreme options enable a move from a very subdued reverb to a preposterously expansive one—just with the flick of the preset switch—you start to see the performance potential Ledges has to offer.
Ledges gracefully straddles the line between utility and access to outsized ambience. It’s an incredibly practical stage and performance tool that can move between many moods, modes, and identities in a set with reassuring ease. EarthQuaker definitely hit the easy-to-use mark here. Not surprisingly, they created a very satisfying palette of sounds to work with, too