Phasers That Stun



UPDATE: My Premier Guitar Heptode Virtuoso review is live. Read and listen here.

I’ve got phase shifters on the brain, especially after encountering a couple of truly stunning ones. I just wrote a review for Premier Guitar of Heptode’s Virtuoso phaser, a superb clone of the old Maestro PS-1A. (I’ll link to the review when it goes live.)

It took me back to my Pleistocene pre-teen years, when I once spent hours in my local music shop playing an electric nylon-string through a big-ass PS-1A mounted on a music stand. Despite its size, it had few controls — just big colored switches that could have been swiped from one of the era’s cheesy home organs. It sounded glorious to my 12-year-old ears. I’ve never since held such a high opinion of my own playing.

I haven’t played a PS-1A since then, but the Heptode pedal took me right back. It really is a gorgeous-sounding phaser, and one that vanished soon after the debut of the cheaper, smaller, and awesome-sounding MXR Phase 90. The sound captivated me all over, though I’m not sure if I actually like it more than the Phase 90, or if it just sounds so cool because it’s a less familiar color.

The plastic switches make it sound better.

The plastic switches make it sound better.

I dug out a few other favorite phasers, like the $89 BYOC Phase Royale that usually lives on my analog pedalboard. It’s yet another brilliant DIY kit from BYOC’s Keith Vonderhulls. It’s basically a Phase 90, but with all the cool mods, like mix and resonance controls, plus a six-stage phasing option. (The Phase 90 and the Uni-Vibe are four-stage, while the Maestro is six-stage). It’s a fun build, and an excellent next step for DIYers who have built a few fuzzes and are ready for something a bit more challenging.

I concluded my little phase-fest by unearthing my old Lovetone Doppelganger, a bitchin’ dual-LFO phaser from the late ’90s. Not to be confused with today’s Lovepedal brand, Lovetone was a British company run by Dan Coggins and Vlad Naslas. They specialized in large-format pedals with an almost absurd number of controls. (Their brilliant slogan — “Big Pedals to Trip Over” — is rivaled only by Zachary Vex’s “Crazy Effects for Rich People.”) I’d flip out when each new Lovetone pedal came in for review at Guitar Player. Even then, they were expensive, usually in the $400-500 range. Now, of course, they’re obscenely rare and valuable. I bought as many review models as I could afford, and to this day I regret not purchasing their Meatball, Wobulator, and Brown Source. I did, however, snag the Big Cheese, Flange with No Name, Ring Stinger, and this guy:

I haven’t heard the Doppelganger in years, and it was interesting to revisit it. See, while I always loved the ideas behind the Lovetone boxes and was happy to own them, I’d found that I just didn’t tend to use them a lot for gigging and recording. For me, they had tons of cool sounds, but often not quite the right one. But I’ve gotten better at dialing in tones in recent years, and really dug the sounds I got yesterday while making the video. Maybe it just took me 15 years to learn how to wrangle these beasts!

Anyway, the Doppelganger is now a Museum of Lost Effects inductee, and it’ll be joined soon by its big-box brothers.

Want to read more about these mad scientist stompboxes? The Lovetone site is still live, though they only seem to be selling spare parts and repair services. Here’s a nice blog post on building a DIY Big Cheese. And there’s a Lovetone wiki at diystompboxes. It’s still kind of sketchy — but maybe we can help fill in some of the blanks.

So let’s get high talking about the phasers that stun us! As the Small Faces expressed it in “Itchycoo Park,” the first big hit to feature phasing (via tape manipulation, not stompbox):

I feel inclined to blow my mind
Get hung up feed the ducks with a bun
They all come out to groove about
Be nice and have fun in the sun
It’s all too beautiful

22 comments to Phasers That Stun

  • Oinkus

    That’s a good sound you got going there Joe ! Nice pedal with a ton of options and textures. For what it is worth ,I was working on a friends jam room and there is a Maestro Phaser in a box back there if you want it ? I can get it real cheap guy is very easy going type would probably give it to me if I asked. . Think the hoarder dude has a broken one too but he probably wants a thousand bucks for it, no clue. It’s all too beautiful ! Only one I have now is a re-re-reissue notsoold Phase 90. I really miss my Phase 100 from the first run of production.(cursing and whining commences)

  • Paul Boutin

    Keith Richards on “Shattered.” I still marvel at it. The Internet gearheads say it’s a Phase 100.

  • NotSoFast

    That sounds really nice.

  • Wow. Nice phaser! A few too many options for my tastes, however; I can see how this would end up in it’s box with a one or two knob phaser taking it’s place for gigging simplicity. I’m currently using the very affordable ModTone Atomic Phaser which isn’t the world’s greatest phasing unit, but for the amount of uses it gets at my average gig (not much) it does the job in an unfussy manner.
    As for older classics, I had the opportunity to do an article on a rare Japanese-built Memphis Rotophase a while back. It’s a late-70’s Phase 45-like one knobber and offers wonderfully lumpy asymetrical phasing. Loved it!

  • soggybag

    Great post. I’m going to have to stop reading these. Each time I am left feeling inadequate. When i got up this morning I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I needed a new phase shifter. That BYOC kit looks pretty neat, but I can resist it.

  • soggybag

    On closer inspection Itchycoo Park sounds more like flanging to me.

  • bear

    I gotta confess, I’ve only gotten phase from algorithms before, and rarely at that. Every time I hear it the past few years, though, I get more compelled to make an addition. Fuzz abusers seem to get phase to play along nicely, too, which is a bonus for my predilections.

    • Ernie Isley’s fuzz/phase breaks on the Isley Brothers’ ‘Whose That Lady’ are a fine example of the two effects getting along famously. I certainly have never had a problem getting them to coincide.

      • joe

        I love that sound. Phase after fuzz can give such intense focus to the sound. I think it has to do with phase cancellation in the lows. But as captivating as I find that tone, most of today’s listeners read it as funny/kitschy/cheesy, so you have to proceed with caution. :cuckoo:

        • mwseniff

          I like putting phaser before fuzz sometimes. It causes the signal to fuzz on the peaks but gets cleaner in the valleys sounds very cool if you turn it up faster. This works well for the right music YMMV.

          • Jeez, never even thought of that…MW, you rule the sickiverse without a doubt! Hope your back’s feeling okay! (Or at least manageable).

          • mwseniff

            I’ve been prescribed morphine (extended release + instant release for breakthrough pain) 3 years ago and it gave me a lot of my life back. I also have a neurostimulator implanted with a set of electrodes in the spinal cord area,it cuts my need for morphine in half. If I manage my activity I can play guitar, garden and even play live as long as I recline to let my back relax every 2-2 1/2 hours. Add to that some muscle relaxants and I can do everything but my full time job (been disabled for 7+ years). I am very fortunate to have a great pain specialist for a doctor who has really made my life better. So I have been growing Padron peppers for him this season which he really likes.

  • mwseniff

    I own a PSA-1 which is a great phaser but has a very audible noise floor. The noise floor can be overcome using a Rocktron Hush II on both input and outputs and slaving the output trigger to the input trigger making it useful for recording. But it is a bit cumbersome and too big for my pedal board. Nowadays I use an Infanem Faye Sing which cops all the Maestro PSA-1 sounds and a lot more too boot. Like all Infanem pedals it is very flexible and has extras like an expression pedal/CV input to get the Foxx pedal phaser sounds. this pedal also uses a DC to DC converter to create a +-12 volt bipolar supply which is necessary to create a really good phaser IMHO.

    On the cheap side I also have an Elektar Phaser sold by Gibson a few years back very thick yet expressive. I bought it at the local Meijers (Walmart style big box store but not owned by the psychotic walmart heirs). It was $29.95 with a pwr supply wall wart and a 6 foot cable it can sound very psychedelic. It looks like these pedals are being sold under the Castle brand by but for more money.

    • joe

      Wow, thanks for all the awesome info!

      I really love the PS-1A. The Heptode clone is dead-quiet. I wonder if simply updating to modern parts would be enough to hush that circuit. I haven’t managed to track down a schematic — anyone seen one?

      If I may oversimplify something where my insight is already about as simple as it gets: I tend not to hear much difference between ±9v and higher voltages in distortion circuits. But I often hear a dramatic difference when going ±18v with “clean” circuits like phasers. I’ve been working on a simple vibrato circuit since, like, forever, and it really came to life when I added a 9v-18v charge pump.

      • mwseniff

        There are some ICs that have to have ± DC supplies to function properly and many modulation FX use some of these ICs. You can split the 9 volt to supply to get ± rails but you only have ±4.5 volts max. So a DC to DC converter that gives you say ±12 volts would be a big improvement also bipolar devices usally have better noise immunity etc. The original EH frequency analyzer used a single 9 volt battery AFAIR but the new versions use a 40 volt DC supply that is split into a bipolar supply internally in the pedal. The new Freq Analyzers sound much better IMHO.
        As for other pedals I think most of my Pigtronix pedals sound better at 18 volts vs 9 volts and I think it is mostly a matter of more headroom in the final output stage. The Philosopher Rock (a compressor) works much better farther along in the pedal chain than say my old MXR red box tho’ I am most likely in a minority of users that don’t put the compressor first in the pedal chain.

  • Flanging and phasing are both swept comb filter effects. Flanging is a time delay effect that involves adding a slightly delayed version of the signal to the original. Signal addition and subtraction occurs and results in a comb filtering effect where the spacing of the filter notches is harmonically related. The delay must be slowly modulated for the sweeping flanging effect to be really audible. Flanging typically produces a relatively large number of comb filter notches.

    Chorus is a very similar effect produced in the same way, but it uses longer delays.

    Phasing is produced by applying an all-pass filter that shifts phase, but does not affect frequency response (so it uses phase shift rather than time delay). When the output of the all-pass filter is mixed with the original signal (and the all-pass filter shift is modulated) then again the result is the addition and cancellation of a comb filter, but phasers can only produce a few notches (for example the MXR Phase 45 only produces one notch). Phasers with multiple stage all-pass filters can produce more notches but the notch spacing is not harmonically related. A typical six stage phaser only produces three notches. The Uni-Vibe, sold as a Leslie emulator, is actually a four stage, two notch, all-pass filter phaser with an odd selection of capacitors in the filter stages.

    Flanging (as heard on Itchycoo Park) was originally produced in studios using a tape delay and was discovered as an unwanted result of double tracking vocals using duplicated tracks. Until bucket brigade delay chips became available flanging was an effect that was almost impossible to reproduce in a foot pedal, but pedal designers realised they could produce a somewhat similar sound using all-pass filters in a phase pedal.

    If you don’t mix in the original signal with any of these pedals you get a vibrato effect.

    Is there really no bypass on the Heptode? Or do you have to hit 2 foot switches at once?

    • joe

      Thanks for a nice — and relatively easy to understand — explanation of the various modulation effects!

      On the Heptode, pressing any switch activates its effect. Pressing another switch turns off the previous mode and activates the current one. Pressing an active switch a second time bypasses the effect. You can’t engage more than one setting simultaneously.

  • Ian Lovetone

    Thanks for linking to my blog.
    I dont update it much these days. I can build all the Lovetone pedals nowadays though 😉

  • The Maestro was it. I had one that someone mistakenly threw out. I did find two Gibson/Norlin SG amplifiers cheap. Each has the Oberheim/Maestro circuit board in it. I will pull at least one to put in a pedal.

  • Heads up for DIY-ers: smallish format Doppelganger pcbs for sale for non-commercial use here:
    I built some from the last run, and they sound fantastic.

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