issue 28 :: October 2017

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Pedal Reviews

When I play music, in general, with my own group or solo projects, with the Austin new Music Co-op, with LSJ, with the Gates Ensemble, I rarely use any kind of live processing besides amplification. Rarely, I do use a rig of electronics to process sound. A part of my current rig is  Lexicon MX-200 multi-effects rack unit that provides 4 or 5 seconds of delay time. I use this delay frequently to create drones. I like the MX-200 greatly, I find it can be controlled nicely for my musical purposes. But 5 seconds is paltry for my needs, I constantly think of Stockhausen’s idea that something happens to human perception of sound after 9 seconds. This probably isn’t a scientific idea, just Stockhausen’s unbridled creative genius, but I take it seriously. Nowadays, memory chips are so cheap that delays and loopers can have many minutes or hours of delay/loop time. Let’s see which pedal will be best for my purposes.  

I expect many companies to use the same chips, and sometimes you see different pedals with the same time limitations, so the distinction between different effects is their control features and A/D converters. I will test each pedal to similar tests. 1. Looping a rock rhythm guitar track to solo over, 2. Looping prepared guitar noises and constantly adding to them and 3. Using the looper in a live situation with my group, if the looper has a stereo function (my guitar on one channel, Jeff Dhalgren’s vocal work on the other).  

As with last time, the equipment I used was 1987 Fender Squire Stratocaster with Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups, into a 2005 Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amp.
TC Electronic DittoX2

This is a larger version of their Ditto pedal. I didn’t like the pedal much until I realized that most people use many effects that feed into the looper which then goes into the amp. Looping my dry guitar signal and then playing through the looper made a tinny mess that was hard to discern the looped and live parts. I then plugged the looper into my amp’s power amp loop, so the looper captured the partially-amplified sound of the guitar. This sounded much better. Probably most people won’t have this problem. The extra features of the DittoX2 version weren’t too interesting to me. On the right side, there is a three-way mini toggle to control the function of the right foot switch. Stop, which stops the loop, was useful. Half-Speed, which slows the loop down by half, and lowers the pitch an octave, produced a tinny, puny sound. I thought I could play a single-note pattern, and drop the speed to make it sound like a bass guitar, but it sounded horrible. Reverse is the third option, and it is difficult to get a sound that doesn’t have a gimmicky reverse sound to it that is not just fade in/out of drones. The Reverse setting was useful when I ran my ensemble through it from a musical perspective. I would reverse for 5 seconds, then replay those sounds and reverse again, making a manual loop within the loop. This was a fun, creative thing to do while collaborating live on stage.For this I used the stereo ins and outs as two separate channels, my guitar going through one, and Jeff’s electronics going through the other.
TC Electronic FlashbackX4

This is the greatly expanded version of their Flashback pedal, adding multi-featured echo functions to the looper. The echo features are placed before the looper, so when looping, the echo effects are included in the loop. This pedal was frustrating to use as the foot switch to engage the looping was defective, so that 80% of the time either it failed to start the loop or it activated twice so that only a millisecond loop of nothing was created. So if you buy one of these, especially used, check to make sure the switches work. I don’t think I have ever used a pedal where a switch was faulty in such a gross manner. Much of my use of this pedal was clouded by the frustration of getting the loop started at the right time. I did not try this pedal out in a live situation, even in the loose settings of my improvised settings, I need better control of electronics. Beyond that one major flaw, the Flashback was fun to use. No reverse or half-speed like the Ditto, but I did not miss these functions. The four foot switches provided (when they worked; one of the other switches was wonky as well) easy control over starting, stopping, adding-to and deleting the loop. I can’t even tell you how long the maximum loop time was, I never came close to filling in that much. The pedal has two modes, Looper and Echo, with the four foot switches controlling either the Looper or the Echo. I did not use the pure Echo mode very much. I did use the Echo in the Looper mode all of the time. Here we are given numerous types of echoes, selected by a dial switch. Most of these sounded the same to me. I could not tell you how Space, Tape and Lodi differed. There were two settings that had modulation to them that I tried once, and a Reverse echo that I tried twice. The Echo control knobs were easy to use and I could quickly dial in the effect I wanted. This is one of those pedals with a USB port to load in settings from famous musicians (Izzy Stradlin’s echo sound right in front your fuckin’ face!) or custom settings of your own. There are four slots for these sounds. I suppose that is useful, if you’ve developed a particular echo time for a particular song, and you don’t want to fiddle with recreating it on stage. Still it seems cheating, why not dump everything into a sampler and just play the entire song from the perfect sampler memory? Because you’re not a piece of shit who lip syncs in a video? Yeah, know your equipment well enough to dial in the echo setting on the spot. I can imagine a need to do an Alvin Lucier piece where the echo must be timed perfectly to match the dimensions of the room, where the echo has to start just when the natural echo returns to the speaker, but I have never had to do that in my life so far. Made by the same company, I liked the FlashbackX4 better than the DittoX2 overall, maybe due to the echoes. If you already have an echo/delay box you like, the FlashbackX4 would still be worthwhile to look into over the regular Flashback just for the expanded control over the loop settings.
VOX DelayLab

This is an older pedal compared with the other pedals in this review. The pedal only boasts 28 seconds of loop time, which was probably huge when it was released, but tiny in today’s terms. Like the FlashbackX4, it is a 4 foot switch large device, with numerous echo/delay settings with a looper thrown in. I have never used any VOX equipment before, although I’ve been impressed by their reputation, and this pedal lives up to that. Just about every pedal adds some color to the sound, and the color added here is generally a welcome one, adding a warm glaze to everything. The controls are somewhat confusing, I had to download the manual to figure out all the setting options. Like the FlashbackX4, there is a rotary switch to select the type of echo/delay, and then a button to choose three different voices within each setting, so Analog Delay has three sub-settings: Analog Delay, Saturated Delay and Stereo Analog Delay. Five knobs then adjust the various parameters of each setting, which can then be saved and recalled. I did not use the looper function too much, but I greatly enjoyed playing with the Analog delay setting. I also enjoyed experimenting with the different Stereo echoes, by running the Left output into the Right input, and creating a double delay sound, with a weird interplay between the two delays, as one could be set to pan to the other and vice versa.
Boss Loop Station RC-30

My friends Rick Reed and Shawn McMillen have both used the earlier RC-20 version of this dual foot switch pedal, so it the looper that I am most used to hearing on stage, and I have seen both of them use the looper in very creative ways. The RC-30 looks similar, but there are a few important differences. The RC-30 has a XLR microphone input, with optional phantom power. There is no Reverse function on this, but there are are a number of effects that can be added (only one at a time). The Bend Down effect slowed the loop down by a half and dropped it an octave; like the other pedals reviewed so far, this effect wasn’t as good as the pitch shift on my Lexicon multi-effects unit. the Step Phaser produced a nice sample-and-hold blippy sound that was ok for use once, but then I got got tired of the effect. The Sweep Filter, Tempo Delay and Lo-Fi effects weren’t useful to me. This looper has two stereo tracks to record into and play back with useful volume sliders for each. And these can be stored into many different memory banks. Using the pedal was slightly annoying, after pressing the record foot switch to end the loop, it goes back to the start of the loop in overdub mode, so I would have to time a second tap to turn off the overdub, so I could never have my mind clear to begin playing over the loop at the very start of the loop. Using the pedal with my improv trio was fun, the effects adding more sounds, but without being able to change the settings of the effects (maybe this is possible via USB), they become too noticeable as effects to use again. I have to get an RC-20 and compare the two. The RC-30’s extra features were not very useful to me.
Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai

First off, I don’t know what “Hazarai” means. It is a white push-button knob that selects the various settings. This is an echo box with a nice sound that also has a 30 second looper built in. There are only 2 different types of echoes (each one has three different, non-overlapping time ranges, so there are some delay times this box can’t do), but the five control knobs give unusually broad control over the delays. Some of the knobs provide extra features when they are turned all the way to the left or right. This is one pedal where reading the manual is necessary, especially on how to engage and erase the loop, and how to reverse it and change the speed. The looper controls are confusing and not listed; you have to read the manual.
Death By Audio Ghost Delay

This is not a looper at all, but a delay effect that combines three one second delays in series, each with a time and feedback knob. It’s a noisy effect, and not at all suitable for the effects I am primarily looking for. I played with very short delay times and setting the feedback knobs to maximum to produce piercing feedback tones. An EQ knob would have been nice for each delay. This would be good for harsh noise music; lowering the feedback after setting it to maximum produced some interesting glitchy textures.

Boss Slicer SL-20

This was a complicated, idiosyncratic device that mainly befuddled me. It makes loops called “slices” that are sputtered out in various rhythmic patterns, but I could never master how to change the patterns in useful ways or adjust the tempo. Despite these handicaps on my part, I was able to use the pedal in a live performance with the LSJ trio to some effect, mainly due to the Effect Level and Direct Level knobs, so I could smoothly fade in or out one or the other. The sputtered effect was so noticeable, like the Step Phaser effect of Boss’s RC-30 Loop Station, it became too noticeable after using it once or twice. I never used any of the stereo effects, which would probably expand on the device’s utility. Overall, a fun pedal for me for a month of playing with it, but will not become a permanent part of my signal chain.

Boss Space Echo RE-20

This is a digital recreation of the famous Roland Space Echo box, which I have never played. Maybe unlike many people who use loopers, I am not terribly interested in a faithful recreation of the sounds I put into the loop; I want to make creative drones and being able to change or adjust those drones while they are looping would be beneficial to me. Hence my use of this space echo. First of all, as a standard echo box for playing guitar, this has an excellent, warm sound. Pick noises and rakes are not horribly amplified. Playing through some of the other echo boxes here I’ve had to drastically alter my playing to make it clean and neat. I can play normally through this pedal and not have my scratchy picking turned into jarring distractions. But as a looper, I could not find a setting for Intensity (delay feedback) that held the echoes static; there was no way to make “tape loops.” At maximum, Intensity made squeals of feedback, degrading the inputted sounds. Again, I am exploring the pedal in ways it was not designed for. The Mode Selector knob chooses which and how many of the virtual playback heads are used. Changing the Repeat Rate knob during playback adjusted the pitch of the echoes, but not in a way I think I would ever use. All in all, this would make a great echo box if I played in a rock band, but it doesn’t function as I want it to for my creative music.
Vox Lil’ Looper

Like the Vox DelayLab, this pedal just sounds good. This is a 90 second dual looper with a simple multi-effects system set up before the looper. Simple means simple, you can choose to use any one of 12 different effects, each effect is controlled by a quarter-turn of the Effect knob, so not much variation of the effects, but the effects I used--Phaser, Chorus, Overdrive, Distortion--all had nice, useful sounds and I could imagine those effects being used as my default sounds.
Verdict: no clear winner for my particular and peculiar needs. The Vox equipment sounded the best, the DittoX2 probably had the cleanest and most usable sound, and the Boss Slicer SL-20 and Boss Loop Station RC-30 were both usable for one live performance each, but I would have grown tired of their tricks after a while.
Reviews by Josh Ronsen.
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