The weird and wonderful world of stompboxes is quite simply a magical place where’s one’s imagination and creativity take hold and time simply slips away, endlessly tinkering, in the best possible way of course. There are some wickedly inventive pedal makers out there and we’re going to take a look at 6 rather unusual designs that have tickled our ears.
To be straight up, this article isn’t intended for those looking for something to add a little extra hair to that “verging on breakup” combo amp. Sometimes you want to just dive into the twisted and torn fabrics where sonic mayhem reigns supreme. From juicy synth tones to cavernous, extra-terrestrial reverberation, these 6 weird and wonderful ones will have you endlessly exploring new sonic possibilities.
Gamechanger/Third Man – Plasma Coil
First out of the gate is a pedal of ultimate destruction. Not for the faint-hearted, the Gamechanger/Third Man Plasma Coil takes what the original Gamechanger Plasma distortion pedal was and has churned, chewed and spat out a most ferocious sounding noise maker— exactly what one would expect from a pedal collaboration with Jack White.
For those who weren’t already familiar with the (not so) standard Plasma (literal) ultra-high-voltage distortion pedal, this very unique pedal design takes distortion to a whole other level. Opposed to “traditional” LED, transistor or vacuum tube-based circuits for signal clipping, Plasma turns your guitar signal into a bunch of continuous high-voltage discharges within a xenon-filled tube. Not only does this give unparalleled visual feedback of your guitar’s signal going through the tube in the centre of the pedal, but provides a very uniquely spitty, Velcro-like, heavily gated response to your distorted/fuzzed-up signal. Sounds awesome right!?
So the Plasma Coil does just that, but completely discards the blend knob of the Plasma (giving you the ability to blend affected and unaffected signals) and gives you just the effected signal. Again, this is not a subtle pedal. The blend knob is instead replaced by a pot that switches modes from a boost through to octave down, 2 octaves down, octave up, one up/one down and two down/one up [gasps for air]. The extra footswitch (not found on the original Plasma) engages these modes and can operate in a latching or momentary manner. Momentary probably allows for the most fun though, allowing for quick-fire bursts of insanity to the already roasting plasma circuit.
The same voltage, volume, high and low-frequency knobs are taken from the original and the playability in each of the modes is quite amazing for a pedal this savage. Not only does it sound awesome, but you’ll probably just want it based on looks alone. Coolest take on distortion in a long time!
Digitech – Dirty Robot
Who doesn’t love taking the sound of one’s guitar or bass and mangling it into something worthy of the synth gods themselves? Ok, maybe it’s not for everyone but it is irresistibly fun with Dirty Robot from Digitech.
For what many may think as an effect they wouldn’t ever need on their pedalboard, the tonal possibility of the Dirty Robot might change the way you think. Firstly, the two distinct voices allow for (at the literal flick of a switch) go from classic envelope synth vibes on V1 to vocal formant or talk box like effects on V2. Depending on which voice you’re switched to means slightly different interactions for some of the other controls. For example, the Start knob when on V1 determines the start frequency of the sweep and on V2 changes to the formant range. As for the Stop knob on V1, as probably expected determines the frequency where the sweep with stop and V2 determines the direction of the sweep, rather interesting and fun to play around with.
The drift knob adds tons of fun and variety to the sound you can generate with its 360-degree rotation. Ranging from sub for super fat, rounded bottom end synth tons through to octave and square waveforms. The built-in modulation of this pedal is where things get really lush sounding cause lets face it, what’s synth without some chorus. The mix knob operates as expected from only dry signal to full-on wet swamplands of synthesis.
The Dirty Robot gives you the perfect amount of control over how you can process whatever signal you put into it, without being overly complicated for those not familiar with sound design or synthesis in general, which we think is where this pedal really shines. It might well be the synth pedal you never realised you needed.
Death By Audio – Total Sonic Annihilation 2
For the lovers of all things noise, Death By Audio’s Total Sonic Annihilation 2 is one for those seeking something simple yet effective and with the potential for pure, unadulterated sonic chaos. The Total Sonic Annihilation 2 (or TSA2) does exactly as its name suggests yes, but can also be used more subtly with the feedback loop it creates, plus its got a few extra tricks up its sleeve.
Designed to have your pedals running into it (from one to all) as an effects loop when the pedal is disengaged, everything operates as it should, but when engaged all sorts of unexpected behaviour can ensue. Input/output and send/receive connections are all quite self-explanatory. The large knob on the top labelled feedback controls the amount (you guessed it) feedback created within the circuit. As you can probably imagine it can be quite the volatile control depending on what effect (or chain of effects) is connected to the TSA2. But the fun doesn’t end here. An independent gain circuit (dubbed active boost) is built into the pedal and when engaged feeds back into itself, creating its own world of chaotic noise, regardless of whether you have any external effects patched into the loop or not. Gain control of this circuit is available, plus a phase switch (only functions when the active boost is on) and limit control the overall output of the pedal, again only with the active boost is on.
Certainly not a pedal for everyone, but absolutely one for those who like to bend the rules and delve the depths of sonic mayhem, the TSA2 is exactly the type of genius design we’d expect from Oliver Ackermann and the rest of the legendary Death By Audio crew.
Meris – Mercury 7
Ok ambient sound-scaping, sci-fi nuts, this one’s for you. Despite the vast vacuous vacuum that is space, if one were to imagine the sounds of the infinite universe, the Meris Mercury 7 would indeed be the perfect pedal for this expedition.
The fact that this otherworldly pedal is directly inspired by the original Blade Runner soundtrack composed by the legendary Vangelis’s says it all, and heck does it ooze sci-fi, in the best possible way.
Mercury 7 presents a simple 6 knobs layout dubbed Space Decay, Modulate, Mix, Lo Frequency, Pitch Vector and Hi Frequency, but more fun is to be had when the Alt (hold) button is engaged unveiling additional parameters of each knob for an abundance of extra tweaking. What’s nice to see is the lack of (what can be overwhelming) endless reverb modes, with just (gasp) 2 modes available. But the variety of ambient madness you’re able to craft with these two modes is nothing short of inspired. Ultraplate offers rich, fast building plate-like verb, whist Cathedra takes things interstellar with enormous, unearthly reverberation with a slow build. Although not a new concept in this upper echelon of reverb pedals, the way in which the modulation and pitch variations add and interact with the reverb spaces on the Mercury 7 make for a truly unique pedal. For example, dialling in the Hi Frequency knob with the Alt function engaged varies the Vibrato depth added to the reverb input, and yes, it sounds ridiculously good!
Put simply, if you like making massive, ambient, soundtrack-like soundscapes, the Meris Mercury 7 offers this in spades. The quality and detail of this pedal meet that of a studio rack unit, so no surprise this unit is also available as a 500 series module. Dial this thing into whatever flavour you want without muddying your signal but more so adding a bloom of beautiful ambience. You won’t be able to get enough.
Aguilar – Filter Twin
When you’re in the mood for funk and groove, a bass line just isn’t the same without some tasty envelope filtering. One pedal that really takes this simple effect into the new and interesting territory is the Aguilar Filter Twin.
The Filter Twin is treated to not one, but two identical filters sweeping in frequency in opposite directions. What this allows for sonically is really cool and what sets this pedal apart from other envelope filter stompboxes. Each of the filters have velocity control pots which vary the filter speed, so you can have each of the filters sweeping at different speeds and in opposite directions at the same time, very cool. Pair this with the blend knob where you’re able to dial in exactly the amount of each filter you want, from just one or a delicate blend of the two to taste.
Going from classic 1970s to more modern vocal quack, the Filter Twin is a super lush and warm sounding twin envelope filter, ideally suited for bass but certainly not limited to. It’s simple and easy to use layout makes it very inviting to any user to dial in instant gooey goodness.
Empress Effects – Echosystem
“I only want one delay pedal, two is just overkill”, said no guitarist ever! Why settle for one when you can have two? Well, that’s what we say anyway. Our 6 weird and wonderful pedals wouldn’t be complete with one of Canada’s finest pedal crafters, and their Empress Effects Echosystem.
As the name suggests, the Echosystem is just that, a system of echoes and delay with a whopping 36 modes available with up to 35 presets ably to be saved. Getting this system concept yet? Ranging from classic digital, tape, analogue types, through to ambient, filter, delay and reverb, reverse and of course Whisky mode, Echosystem is as deep and versatile as it sounds. Hear a delayed sound in your head, this beast can probably make it.
So how bout those two delays we teased at earlier? The dual delay engine under the Echosystem hood allows you to dial in and independently control two delays. “Yeah cool, but I can do that with two delay pedals”, you might be thinking. Yeah sure, but what’s different here is you’re able to choose how you route the delay engines, whether it be in parallel, serial or split left/right. Want a classic RE-201 Space Echo type delay in the left and a revering dual pitch type on the right? Yep, too easy. The controls on the front face are mostly pretty self-explanatory, including Mode, Delay Time/Ratio, Mix, Output, Feedback, Tone and then there’s Thing 1 and Thing 2. These ambiguously named knobs control a vast variety of parameters depending on what mode is selected and range from swell time and chorus level on the Triggered Reverse Mode to Oldness and Break-up Amount on the Old Timer Lo-Fi Delay mode. Seriously, we’re not kidding.
Obviously, this absolute monster of a pedal isn’t going to be for everyone, some probably dodging this descriptor altogether, and yes it will set you back a healthy wad of cash. But for others who just can’t get enough delay, the Empress Effects Echosystem will certainly tick multiple boxes and might even fill the duties of several stomps combined.
Let’s get weird
The beauty of pedals, such as these, is that they aren’t just limited to guitars, synths or drum machines, but you can mangle any audio signal you pass through them. Think of them as the affordable alternative to outboard gear, try pushing the limits. Link several pedals together for a really unique vocal effect. Try the Twin Filter running into a dual delay with a dotted 8th note tape delay on the left and a 16th note modulated delay on the right. Or take that sitar track out of your DAW, send it to a distortion pedal stepped down an octave and push that into a pitched up cavernous reverb, and record that effect back into your DAW for a unique personalised sound. Give it go, get weird. The worst thing that could happen is that you might actually create something unique and interesting, there’s no limit to the different possibilities!