Pedal Feature – Iron Ether Pt. 1

Good news, everyone!  A new post about pedals!  It’s been far too long and it looks like you’ve been working out.  Very nice.

Iron Ether logo

At this very moment I want to bring your attention to a rather unique pedal purveyor.  A few months ago I stumbled across, made up my mind I must have, and then acquired The Frantabit and Subterranea made by New Orleans based pedal erector, Iron Ether.  After I watched their demos I was really intrigued by the versatility of those two particular pedals (Subterranea review to follow shortly).  Both were able to achieve a wide range of sounds/tones and I couldn’t resist.  What really excited me was the fact that the Frantabit and Subterrenea make your guitar sound like not a guitar – more like a digital chainsaw in the former case and a fuzzy Moog synth in the latter.  Starting with the Frantabit as part 1, allow me to break it down for you, Morgan Freeman style:

The Frantabit

The Frantabit is essentially a bit crushing, sample-rate reducing, sound degenerating device capable of destroying and transmogrifying your tone in ways you never thought possible.  Bit crushing is caused by the reduction of the resolution or bandwidth of digital audio data.  The resulting quantization noise may produce a “warmer” sound impression, or a harsh one, depending on the amount of reduction.  If you’ve ever listened to techno or played a video game, you should recognize the sound.  It’s like your guitar is teleported to an alien world, but it gets stuck in between teleports and is deconstructed atom by particle, then passed through a series of fine mesh screens until you’re left with just a cloud of dust in some unknown dimension.  No foolin!  With control over the sample rate and bit depth (control over reduction of bandwidth), the Frantabit lends itself to being a highly flexible bit crusher.  On top of that, two separate modes only add to the craziness, with the ability to achieve some kick ass tremolo as well nice ring modulation with plenty of harmonics and chime.  Oh, did I mention that it can get all fuzzed and filtery too?  Like you’re the driver of a sputtery digital motorcycle (digicycle?).  For reals.  This pedal is tremendous for making noise and for adding texture to riffs when used more (or less) subtly.

Tweakablesquoted text is from the manual/Iron Ether’s website

  • “Sample Rate control: This control allows the user to lower the sample rate of the analog-to-digital conversion from 32khz down to <100hz, creating Nyquist aliasing effects – frequencies from the instrument begin to “fold” back downward, creating new harmonics and subharmonics. The frequency response is lowered as sample rate lowers, but instead of simply filtering out higher frequencies, they are mirrored back downward, to create strange harmonies and overtones.”  I don’t really know what that means, do you?  You could go get a degree in electrical engineering, or just take my word for it, the frequencies are weird and wonderful.  Like receiving an outer space transmission on your old tube radio.
  • “Bit Depth control: From a pristine 24 bits down to a massive fuzzed-out 1 bit, the Bit Depth control introduces digital distortion artifacts as the instrument’s amplitude is quantized into progressively fewer volume “bins”. Uniquely, with this type of distortion, the instrument actually becomes cleaner as it gets louder – the opposite of traditional harmonic distortion. Dynamic fuzz tones, digital destruction, and chiptune synths can be dialed in with this control.”  This one is fucked up, but like the previous feature it’s true.  You pick hard and the tone is clean.  You barely strum and your speaker is like a fuzzy whispery ghost.  It seems spooky and counter-intuitive, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.  You definitely get some wild fuzz tones with this knob – fuzz that is chaotic and soaring, which is great for bends and sustained notes.
  • “Mix: Controls the relative volume of the clean and effect signals.”  For those of you about to dismiss this pedal as another toy for noise nerds, please realize this feature makes the Frantabit quite useable in a musical setting.  By adding your clean tone, you can achieve such unique textures that I’m willing to bet no other pedal can give you.  Let it give it to you.
  • “Volume: controls overall volume.”  It can get LOUD.
  • “Degrade/Obliterate switch: This switch controls the behavior of the sample rate reduction.”  I like a switch with choices such as these.  If only I had a remote control with this function to use against those who disobey and annoy me…
    • Degrade mode is true digital sample rate reduction, as described above.”  At some settings the Degrade mode is perhaps the crunchiest, fuzziest, most ominous black cloud bass synth tone ever.  It can also provide you with lots of bit crushed ‘playing Mario Bros while the Nintendo is on fire’ sort of sound.  This thing can literally disintegrate your signal down to one bit.  Like pulling the thread on the sweater of your tone, you can hear it unraveled – naked and screaming like an altar boy in the night.  This mode is also great for producing your gnarly, sputtering, and ripping fuzz tones.
    • Obliterate mode is an emulation of analog aliasing effects – a harsh, harmonically rich “pixellated” sound, much like square wave ring modulation which creates synthy atonal waveforms.”  Obliterate mode is hard to describe.  How do you put things like digital bubbles, digital saws, digital bowling pins, digital pins and needles, static, crackles etc. into words and in a musical context?  Some settings give you really nice warm tremolo (as mentioned above) that can be choppy as well as change speed on each note you play.  Other settings give some nice ring modulated bell like tones and the other scrambled weirdness I feebly attempted to describe above.
    • “Expression Mode rotary switch: this 4-way switch allows the user to assign the expression pedal to any control:
      • S: Sample Rate
      • B: Bit Depth
      • +: Controls both Sample Rate and Bit Depth at the same time
      • M: Mix – clean/effect volume ratio”  This is also really cool and surprising on a pedal of this size considering it’s complexity and amount of knobs.  You have lots of options to tweak with your foot, and I have to say, one of the coolest things about this pedal is playing stuff while the knobs are ‘turning’.

Check out Iron Ether’s website for more info.  Also, the rest of their line of pedals is totally worth your time:  www.ironether.com

A final thing I found really cool about the Frantabit is that even with just the clean tone dialed in, the guitar tone was improved.  It reminds me of a tube preamp with nice clarity and top end chime.  You could just use this as a tone enhancer/boost and not use the effect at all.  …But you would be the most boring person in the world and I will hate you for not using this exceptional pedal to it’s potential!

I hope you found this ungodly creation from Iron Ether as interesting as I do.  As always feel free to leave a comment about your thoughts and to tell me how your day was.  Stick around for a demo video on the Frantabit and my next post – Iron Ether, part 2…

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Nick
The Pedal File

ZVex Fat Fuzz Factory Review

Jan. 19, 2014

ZVEX – FAT FUZZ FACTORY
661_0_ZVEX_Fat_Fuzz_Factory_VEXTER_VFFF

www.zvex.com

Check 1…1, 2, aaaaaaand welcome to the next installment of Pedal File!  Today I’m going to covet the highly under-rated Zvex Fat Fuzz Factory (from now referred to as FFF for efficiency) and tell you what I think about their update to a solid 20-year-old design.  Also I had a go at making another video for your viewing enjoyment.

The original Fuzz Factory was released in the mid-90′s and can be heard on a lot of cool albums making lots of different noises from players of varied musical genres.  This is what made it appealing to me, and after I heard about the newly updated version this past year I figured I should own one.  The really cool thing that sold me on the FFF was that you still get an original Fuzz Factory circuit with the same controls/sound, but now with a toggle switch to add some crazy really way-down-low-pants-around-your-ankles-deep water-abyssal-penetrating-sub bass oscillation.  Not just one mode of sub-oscillation, but two, each with different tonal character and ability to create wild textures, sounds, feedback, pulses, cracks, moans, shrieks, and many other noises that sound wonderful but can (for real) hurt/damage your ears and (probably) attract the attention of distant alien civilizations.  On top of that, you won’t find any cheap components, jacks, knobs, or other tweakables on this one.  Despite its compact size, the FFF is a heavy piece of machinery built to handle your torture devices as well as put out an impressive array of pleasing and torturous tones.

Experimenting with the FFF is like lighting off fireworks in your hand.  If you’re not careful, one goes off too early, you end up with mangled appendages, but have a cool story to tell people at bars.  Admittedly, I’m the kid who lights the wolfpack on the ground and runs as far away as possible:  when messing with the knobs I keep the volume low until I’m sure the smoke has cleared and can approach a normal volume.   Seriously I can’t say it enough…This pedal can get super, duper loud.  But again, that’s why it’s cool:  dangerousness, my pet!

I have respect for ZVex as a company because on top of designing solid pedals they seem to value experimentation.  The manual doesn’t contain more than a few sentences to describe what does what to get what sound.  It even starts with an amusing disclaimer, “Although the five knobs are named for the parameters over which they seem to have the most control, please don’t hold us to it.”

I did my best to describe the controls in my own words.  Of course, you may end up more confused after reading what I have to say…

Tweakables:

Volume – Output level.  This control is blazing.  I keep it from about 8 to noon.  All the way cranked I think you begin to implode and incinerate on a cellular level.

Gate – Like a noise gate.  For those unfamiliar, this kills noise after the end of sustain and is useful for really high gain without crazy amounts of hissing, noise, and feedback in between notes. Tweak to the right to eliminate noise, stopping just as it disappears, or you can use it to tune the feedback pitch in the words of Zachary Vex, “If you’re that kind.”  So yea, you can set what frequency at which your sustained notes feedback.   Speaking of which, by letting this pedal feedback and then turning knobs you can make moaning synth noises as if you’re turning a frequency knob.  This is however, not intuitive and you must use the knobs in conjunction with each other to get all the way from high to low.  It is, however, fun and sounds amazing.  Turning the knob to the left opens the gate.  *Pedalfile Note: when the gate is all the way down, the Stab knob should be turned all the way up to eliminate crazy squealing in between notes.

Comp – Adds attack characteristics when turned to the left and gets softer when turned to the right, and suddenly ‘pinches’ or tightly compresses the tone when all the way right.  Also tunes in “…fat feedbacky fuzz, if you’re that kind.”  Zvex suggests you lower the Stability and see what happens to this control….I did.  Ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong!  You can achieve different tones/effects and in most cases digitized ‘elephant making love to a pig’ fornicational noises by selecting the different modes of the pedal and then turning the Comp knob left and right.  (More about how the tones change with the toggle switched sub modes below).

Drive – This knob increases distortion when used as a “normal” fuzz and adjusts feedback pitch and tonal thickness, again, “…if you’re that kind. This control becomes meaningless when Comp is all the way right.”  But it’s so much more…It’s really interesting and to me sort of counter-intuitive that you can still get pretty gnarly fuzz tones with the drive knob turned down.  I don’t usually mark settings on a pedal or write them down, but it’s a good idea with this one.  Until you get the hang of the controls it can be hard to get back to the village once you’re too far into the dark enchanted forest and all the glowing eyes are upon you.  Just do us both a favor and write down your settings, mmkay?

Stab – Like what you do with a knife, or I guess it’s short for ‘Stability’.  But I like the idea of this knob increasing the amount of knives in one’s hand with which to stab.  Or you can think of taking your blade from dull and rusty to sharp and shiny.  ZVex says to “…use all the way right. Do not attempt to adjust this control below 2:00, unless you like your fuzz soft and squishy. Use to control feedback pitch. WARNING: Many “incorrect” settings on this pedal squeal. This may annoy the faint-hearted. If you use the example settings, you won’t get hurt. We don’t want to see anyone hurt.”  This is one area where I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Vex.  I like having this set low, sometimes even all the way down.  Saying this pedal squeals is an understatement, but if it’s being too unruly just turn the gate up until it kills the squeal.  It does make your fuzz soft and squishy, but to me it sounds good at times and adds even more tonal versatility.

Tones

One tonal offering I coaxed was a glitchy, synthy lower octave.  It tracked pretty well until I played complex chords, which turn into really cool bit-crushed, velcro-y, lo-fi weirdness.  When I plucked high notes, they seemed to almost arpeggiate while they sustained, then quickly died.  Another setting sounded like my amp and guitar were being eaten alive from the inside by some sort of crazy electronic circuit-eating virus.  There’s no taming the very low, rebellious and reed-like tones with some settings.  You’re best bet is to turn the Comp knob up and make fun blast off noises.  Turning the guitar volume knob also produces different squeals and conjures tones like a revving Atari racecar engine crashing into a nuclear reactor.  I was also able to achieve a beautiful hi-octave, almost ring-mod like tone.  Also, on the right night, when I turn my guitar volume down all the way, I’ve been able to pick up strange radio frequencies of ominous fundamental religious speeches.  It has freaked me out, man, on multiple occasions before I realized it was the damn pedal.

Those of you who like to play what you hear on the radio probably won’t be turned on by all this pedal offers.  I’m surprised though because any square law-abiding citizen can make this thing play nice.  At virtually any setting, by turning your guitar volume down, the tone can be very clean, crisp, and compressed like a tube amp with great pick definition.  Turn your knob back to ’10′ and you can be over-stimulating ear va-jay-jays with anything from smooth sexy fuzz, to highly compressed fuzz, to seriously scratchy Velcro fuzz, to hi-octave fuzz, to transistor radio fuzz, to peach fuzz, to fuzzy dingleberries.  As with most fuzzes though, it does not always play super well with buffers or compressors.  They change what comes out of the FFF, so keep that in mind when finding a spot on your board.

Sub-Mode Switch

The sub modes (2 & 3 selected with the toggle switch) are very cool little sub-oscillators, and I’m still learning new things about them every time I play.  I’ve really been into synth pedals lately and was pleased that by applying a little chorus or other modulation to one of these modes and dialing the comp knob properly I could sound like a convincing synth with a lot of great texture and surprising amount of fullness.  The oscillation speed and frequency can be controlled by turning the different knobs in different directions (seriously you have to tweak and listen to get a feel for this) and can be a slow tick or fast squealing, tunable, feedbacky noise.  Zvex says these modes sound great on bass, which I’m sure they do.  In theory, anything with extra bottom end should sound extra good when put through the FFF.  If you wanna make it fuzzy that is!  I recently used it on a recording with a drum machine, and it sounded like a drum kit made of broken glass played with sandpaper sticks while it was raining frozen nails.  Also this one time, I used the FFF with my wife’s keyboard and it also turned it into a beast like I gave it Dr. Jeckyll elixir.  It transformed into a monstrous ripping bass synth, like a fire-breathing Mechagodzilla.  In other words, it was fucking cool and now I look forward to hearing it on anything.

Conclusion

This pedal is first and foremost for grimy degenerates with dungeon basements and mad scientists who like to melt faces and face the unpredictable.  To truly get it, you have to play with it until it makes sense.  It’s like a magic eye, one day the image becomes clear.  The best place to start is with the suggested settings but these are just the tip of the teat.  Anyone who loves noise should own this pedal, and everyone who loves great fuzz and distortion should own this pedal.  I’m convinced your mom, a priest, rabbi, hipster, and/or donkey could use this pedal and find multiple settings they each love tailored to what their individual ears (be it human or donkey) think sounds good.

To bring forth as much beauty in pedal form as the Zvex Fat Fuzz Factory, I think that Zachary Vex character must be constantly high on peyote, steals his ideas from the CIA, or is a superbly creative and original inventor of silly boxes silly musicians like to step on with silly shoes (please don’t sport pointy elf shoes that look like they were made in the Great Depression)…or all of the above??  After spending time getting to know the Fat Fuzz Factory, I have one suggestion: that it be renamed.  My top three suggestions are ‘Morbidly Obese Fuzz Factory’, ‘Fat, Drunk, & Crapped Your Pants Fuzz Factory’, or the ‘Oprah Factory’.  Honorable mention is ‘Justin Bieber in 10 Years Fuzz Factory’.

And did I mention the warranty is good for life?  God Bless America!  God bless everyone!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Nick
The Pedal File