Electro-Harmonix: MicroSynth

Hey all you knob lickers!  I’ve written another review just for you (don’t tell anyone because they’ll be jealous).  This one is long (winded) and detailed (much like my other reviews) so I will try to keep side-tracking to a minimum.  The pedal I want to talk about has confusing features that have led many a guitar player to sell or throw aside the glorious contraption that is the Electro Harmonix MicroSynth.  If you don’t know Electro-Harmonix then you should go back to pedal school and learn about Muffs and the six-hundred-thousand other pedals they have made sometime since the late 60’s.  They were one of the first companies to sell and mass market affordable effects for guitar/bass and have always been downright creative and original with their designs.  A testament to EHX’s more unique offerings (I’m thinking of the HOG2, POG2, Flanger Hoax, etc.), the MicroSynth was also one of the first guitar synth pedals and remains to be one of the best as most companies even today dare not tread into such experimental territory.

Electro Harmonix - The Pedal File

I get really excited about synth pedals.  I don’t know why I get happy to make a guitar sound like it isn’t.  Maybe it’s because ‘normal’ guitar tones bore me as they can be heard everywhere at all times on everything.  The MicroSynth is a gust of fresh air in this respect as it allows me (and you too) to push the boundaries of guitar tone the way I want to.  It combines fuzz, distortion, octave, envelope filter, and swell effects that are controlled with a row of highly sensitive and tweakable sliders.  The aforementioned sliders could break off easily as opposed to knobs (just be gentle with it – good touch only), but they save space and in my opinion make the visual aspect of tweaking this pedal a bit easier.  With these erect little mechanisms between your fingers you get to be the captain of a funky space ship time machine blasting off and into wormholes into alternate realities where you meet the Bizarro you and have to fight to the death because the Bizarro you wants to kill you and take your place back here in this reality!  …Ok, maybe that description is slightly hyperbolic, but seriously you can emulate a smorgasbord of sexy synth tones that will increase your rank amongst all your cool hipster friends.  Enough sillyness, let’s move on to the tweakage, shall we?

Electro-Harmonix lays out the controls pretty logically, but at first glance they can be rather intimidating. I’ve said it before – read your manuals!  You can save yourself from getting rid of a perfectly good pedal (*GASP*  THE HORROR) and also lots of frustration when a pedal doesn’t do what you think it should.  It doesn’t hurt if you are somewhat familiar with the basic controls of a synth either.  Or if you really don’t feel like reading even more information, just watch the video by Prymaxe Vintage.

Tweakables:
Quoted text is from the EHX MicroSynth Manual

The MicroSynth is split into”…four voices: GUITAR, OCTAVE, SUB OCTAVE AND SQUARE WAVE that are completely independent and fully mixable. The MicroSynth can modify these signals with envelope control for a variety of “bowed” or “blown” sounds.  In addition, a sophisticated swept filter control allows highly variable frequency adjustments to be applied to the overall output signal.”  In other words, you can pretty much never run out of crazy sounds to make, but that’s not even the tip of a giraffe looking up at the sun while jumping on a pogo stick on top of a big old iceberg.

PREAMP GAIN ADJUSTMENT – “The preamp gain in the MicroSynth has been set at the factory for use with a guitar equipped with single-coil pickups. If you will be using another instrument with higher or lower output, it may be necessary to readjust this setting.”  I remember messing with this, I think I turned it down a little to compensate for the humbuckers on my tele.  It did make a difference in the overall sound of the pedal and should be taken into consideration if you’re not playing single coils.

TRIGGER – “Determines the input volume at which the filter circuits will ‘turn on.’ It does not affect any other circuitry.  If the TRIGGER is set too high, the filter may ‘stutter’ due to multiple triggering. This is especially true if full chords are played.  It is best to set the TRIGGER at exactly the sensitivity needed for your playing.”  Mine tracks best when I keep the trigger set lower, somewhere between 1 and 5.  This is probably the most important setting to figure out to make this pedal behave the way you want and it’s hard to get a feel for because it responds to your pick attack.  Set it too low and it won’t sweep the filter.  Too high and you get glitchy sputtery filter-y madness…which can be cool, but only when you want it there.  Because the trigger is so important and relies on pick attack to get the amount of effect you want, I suggest putting this pedal first in your chain.  If you have a compressor try putting the MicroSynth after it, but pay attention to how this affects the tone and always do what sounds best to you.

VOICE MIXING section – “GUITAR, SUB-OCTAVE (one octave below), OCTAVE (one octave above), SQUARE WAVE. Each voice is completely independent and can be mixed with the others in any degree.”  This is where the tone crafting comes in…turn up just the guitar voice to add nice harmonic richness to your signal.  Turn up the other voices for dirty synth fun time.  Even without sweeping the filter, you can never run out of tonal combinations.

GUITAR – “Controls the output volume of the input signal through the filter.”  Set the start/stop frequencies together for fixed wah tone or apart for envelope filter sweeps.  Take the guitar voice away and you’ll forget what instrument you play.  You also might forget you are not a robot.  (..Rrrrreeemmmemmmmmberrr…)

SUB OCTAVE – “Controls the output volume of the Sub-Octave. The Sub-Octave effect only tracks single notes.”  This is a fat and deep sub octave, perfect for Moog-y style bass parts.  With the guitar voice mixed in you can still play chords and get them to track better.  Adding distortion can make things awful gritty.

OCTAVE – “Controls the output volume of the Octave. The Octave only tracks single notes. This voice contains a small amount of harmonic distortion for added richness of tone.”  While most fuzzy octave up pedals give you just the standard octavia effect, this one grants you access to way more than that.  Poly filter sweeps, voice box synth, and laser gun sounds are at your fingertips.

SQUARE WAVE – “Controls the output volume of the Square wave.  Intensity of this voice is also determined by instrument attack or volume.  In all other respects it operates in a similar fashion to a standard distortion device.”  This goes from clean to monster fuzz, but with an overall analog synth filter-y quality to it.  It sounds even awesomer if you stack it with another distortion or fuzz.  Or both.  Set the stop frequency low, crank this up along with the sub octave and trigger and say hello to the ‘blown’ (as in a blown speaker) sound they talk about.

ATTACK DELAY – “Determines the time required for the voice signals to reach full volume. Higher-numbered settings can completely remove the initial attack of the instrument. Different delay times contribute greatly to the characteristic sounds of various instruments. It is recommended that you synchronize your playing to the speed setting of the ATTACK DELAY.”  I love this function.  Like the Boss SG-1Homer 3D, you can achieve those cool volume sweeps to sound like a bowed instrument or by selecting a faster rate a syncopated funky monophonic synth.   It’s surprising how much atmosphere you can create with this function.  I like to turn the attack delay, the resonance, and rate to maximum and set the filter to sweep either up or down.  Add a delay pedal and you’re instantly swept into that 3D world Homer found that one time behind the bookcase on that episode of The Simpsons.  You’ll be, like, running around on circuit boards inside of some giant computer.  In space.

FILTER SWEEP section –

RESONANCE – “Affects the degree of sharpness, or “Q” of the filter. Higher settings will produce a more emphasized filter sound and also add a slight boost to the signal.”  What the hell is Q you say?  It’s kind of like a resonance knob on a phaser (The MicroSynth happens to be a 2-pole resonance filter – the less ‘poles’, the brighter the sound, hence the signal boost).  This control is also important for those Moog sounds.  Add a little for a subtle harmonic boost (mids/treble) to your tone, or a lot to commence your trip on a synth space ship.  That sounds like a line to a funk song.

START FREQUENCY – “Determines the frequency at which the filter sweep begins.”  Start high or low to sweep up or down, the power is in your hands!

STOP FREQUENCY – “Determines the frequency at which the filter sweep ends. This is also the “resting frequency” of the filter, and if START and STOP controls are set at the same level no sweep will occur, though the filter will provide emphasis of that particular frequency band. In addition to lead synthesizer sounds, START and STOP controls can be used to simulate attack, decay, and harmonic content of acoustic instruments.”   As great as the envelope sounds I like to keep the filter fixed like this a lot of the time.  You can create dinosauric-ly massive tones this way with the different voices.  On the other hand by using more subtle sweeps, you can bring a new level of expression to your playing.

RATE – “Determines the speed at which the filter sweeps from START FREQUENCY to STOP FREQUENCY. It is recommended that RATE be synchronized with your playing speed.”  You can simulate a fight scene in Star Wars by setting the rate fast or create long and beautiful filter sweeps like you’re being pulled in by a space ship tractor beam.

The amount of tweakability and the range of control on this pedal really astounds me.  What I love is that it makes for limitless possibility for a guitar player (they have a bass version too, which a lot of guitar players use to take advantage of the lower and beefier register.  This one is still pretty beefy).  My only complaint is the high price tag.  The pedal doesn’t feel as rugged and heavy as I’d like for the cost.  And yet despite this the MicroSynth has been around for a long time, but doesn’t get the respect I think it deserves.  If you’re looking for a pedal that is completely different from anything out there with tones to infinity (not just wild ones – there’s amazing rock tones in there too), look no further.  If you play guitar but secretly wish you played synth (synth players shouldn’t get to have all the fun right?), if you like to experiment, or if you’re just bored with life on Earth and you want to escape the dreary confines of your shabby town and ride your guitar like a witch’s broom to a magical far away land in the sky, then you should probably buy this pedal.

What do you think of the MicroSynth?  Is it too much?  Not impressed?  Am I a liar?  Do I smell?  Leave me a comment!  For more info check out www.ehx.com

Thanks for reading!

Love,

Nick
The Pedal File

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11 thoughts on “Electro-Harmonix: MicroSynth

  1. I want to know who has tried to emulate a more versatile version of this pedal by running a fuzz,sub octave pedal,and octave pedal into 3 0r 4 channel PARALLEL looper into filter and a envelope generator like the boss slow gear or pigtronix attack sustain or volume pedal. first u need the parallel looper and effects pedals of course

    • Ha I haven’t heard of anyone trying this, but it sounds like loads of fun! You could certainly have more control over the type of fuzz and ADSR parameters. If it happens to be a looper that allows you to blend in your clean signal (of if one of the pedals in the chain has this control), there would be lots of possibilities. I’d like to know too if anyone has done this. Thanks for your comment, Tom!

      • have had this pedal for a while and got it second-hand modded already for expression control of the stop frequency and some other nifty features which I then made more deluxe. but think I could still mod it further to get it to the functionality of the hog, just not sure I’m digging a deeper hole…? I love the nasty and brutal nature of this thing that the hog just doesn’t have, but that’s what fuzz is for. so possibly an awesome square-wave fuzz and the hog might do a lot of the same stuff. my boards are already too massive and has me tap dancin’. anyways, coffee and smoke has me pondering possibilities yet again for the most sounds and best economical decision. blah, I just want to make sounds that blow people’s minds, not worry about money. one day…

      • haha cool man. Yea that is the perpetual struggle, isn’t it? I always wanted to get my MicroSynth modded, but I’m always spending money on new stuff instead. I’m sure if you tried some forums or reverb.com you could find a good deal on a used HOG. Thanks for your thoughts!

      • yeah I was thinking of that but the new hog 2 slays. so I might just wait until I can get that thing. the ring thing is pretty sweet in meantime. and by the way, FX DR. is who I used to mod the hell out of my BSM. and think I want more. like an option on the expression to have both stop and start locked after I read this article. and having the square wave possibly on it’s own footswitch, though there is alreadsy a feedback loop between the voice and filter for fuzz or whatever. @.@

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