6 EQs That Aren't Boring
At some point, your precious guitar, your carefully constructed pedalboard, and your painstakingly tweaked amplifier settings are just not going to cut it. If you let your tone obsession take hold, you will eventually purchase an equalizer pedal. I have owned several over the years, among them the Boss Bass Equalizer, MXR 10-band EQ, Akai Professional Equalizer, and probably others I forgot. This is what always ended up happening: I bought it, I tweaked the EQ a bit, then I never touched it again until I sold it. It became just another knob on an amp that I set and then eventually got bored with, or got to where I wanted something more flexible or interesting. What follows are some frequency altering pedals that have more unusual properties, characters of their own, or could be used as an effect themselves.
BBE Sonic Stomp
The Sonic Stomp is an unusual device that was born as the BBE Sonic Maximizer—a popular rackmount effect from the '80s. Even though it has but two knobs, explaining how it works is quite tricky. When a musical signal is amplified, the frequencies that compose the signal can overlap with each other to produce what is technically called “distortion” but perceived as a lack of clarity rather than the pleasing saturated sound of overdrive. The Sonic Stomp could be thought of as separating these frequencies near these crossover points, so that overlapping frequencies are increasingly minimized as you turn up the Process knob. This typically means you get a more present high-end, along with more full and complex sounding mids. The Lo-Contour knob is a low-pass filter, which cuts sub-bass frequencies to tighten up the low end. The Sonic Stomp is intended to be placed last in the pedal chain and can really bring out the best in modulation, analog delay-type effects, or any pedals where mud can creep into your tone. It can also be used in line-level applications, like in the effects loop of your amplifier, where it acts like a master preamp filter. In extreme settings of the Process knob, you can remove almost all dynamic content from your signal, kind of like a very strange compressor. For an interesting application, put a Sonic Stomp in the effects loop of a delay pedal (for example, the SolidGoldfx Electroman MKII) and crank up the Process knob. Each repeat gets clearer and thinner as it fades out, dramatically changing how the delays will feel.
Electro-Harmonix Steel Leather
The Steel Leather is designed for the bass guitar, but produces such an extreme effect that it can be used on anything. It technically is an expander, which is the inverse of a compressor. Where a compressor will make your quieter parts louder and your louder parts quieter, producing the most even possible sound, an expander enhances the disparities even more. The Steel Leather focuses on a very specific frequency range near where your string attack occurs, which is great for slapping and popping styles of bass playing, but also for aggressive pick playing as well. The Response knob can control how much effect is applied to your notes depending on how hard you play. What's cool about the Steel Leather is how unsubtle the effect is at even moderate levels. It can sound like an absolute ice pick, and by focusing so specifically on your attack, it can even remove almost all of your remaining signal at its maximum setting. Putting it in a blend loop adds a really cutting layer of string clatter, picking, and thump on top of your playing. My secret weapon is putting the Steel Leather in front of a fuzz or distortion—it instantly makes you sound like Steve Albini on old Big Black albums! It's a totally nasty and hostile kind of sound, and it's completely beyond the norm of what you'd get from just EQ and your fuzz box.
Boss AC-2 Acoustic Simulator
The Boss Acoustic Simulator is designed to make your electric guitar sound like an amplified piezo pickup, commonly used in acoustic guitars. The AC-2 is the older version of the AC-3 and not nearly as good of an impersonator as its successor. The AC-3 uses the latest in digital modeling, but the AC-2 uses considerably lower-fidelity technology that sounds almost like a series of EQ filters applied to your signal. I don't think anyone would be fooled into thinking you're playing your Martin with it on, but it adds some very interesting texture and tonal shaping to your electric guitar that you wouldn't get otherwise. It adds a kind of "piezo-ness" to your sound, with its dry clarity and emphasized note ringing. The Mode knob controls characteristics of the effect intended to reproduce various kinds of acoustic guitars, and each can interact with your guitar and other effects in surprising ways. The Body and Top knobs are supposed to simulate the open space of an internal acoustic body and the hardness of the resonate wood used for an acoustic top, respectively. They seem to function closer to bass and treble controls, though not in a typical way. I learned about using this pedal this way from Minneapolis-area music legend Chout, who used one as a kind of filter and gain boost pedal in front of other effects. Rather than a “set it and forget it” kind of thing, using it as a dynamic tone shaping device completely changes how your other pedals interact with your guitar.
Tech21 Sansamp Classic
The Sansamp was a revolution when it was released. By plugging straight into a console, it could really allow you to play “sans amp” with surprisingly good tone. It also famously was used by Kurt Cobain as a high gain distortion by setting its controls for maximum hair. It's a testament to the flexibility of the original that all the amp-specific modelers and later editions of the pedal have never equaled it. The DIP switches (handily explained on the pedal itself) control various preset equalization curves and tone settings that are intended to emulate different amplifier settings, types of speaker cabinets, and tube overdrive. A side switch controls the overall frequency range, making it cover a very wide swath of sounds from bass amplifiers to screechy high-gain metal rigs. If you've thought about an EQ pedal but want something with more sound options, this could be the ticket. It's a bit like having an amplifier in front of your amplifier in this context, and sticking it after your distortion but before your modulation and delay can make it an effect in and of itself. The included instruction manual shows various DIP switch combinations to try and sound like a Marshall amp, for example, but it's way more fun to treat it as a mad science kind of experiment where random switches and knob settings produce wildly different results. Tech21 celebrated the anniversary of this pedal with a distressed edition where graphics are partially chipped off the pedal. It's fitting—there's almost no wrong setting with the original SansAmp.
Aphex Big Bottom Aural Xciter series
Like the Sonic Stomp, the Aural Xciter is the result of popular '80s rackmount equipment brought to the pedal world. The Xciter series of pedals includes units aimed at frequency ranges for guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass, though their functions are generally the same. The Xciter generates complimentary harmonics to your signal, almost like adding an additional voice, but very different from an octave generator. The Lo Tune and Hi Tune knobs control what frequencies of your signal become the foundation of the generated harmonic; in general, the higher these knobs are turned, the further towards your mid-frequencies the signal will start. With normal use, it certainly emphasizes treble airiness and clang, as well as some very fat sub-bass. In extreme settings, you can make your guitar's harmonic output sound very unusual, which interacts in really cool ways with envelope filters and flangers. The Big Bottom optical filter is different for each pedal, focusing on different bass and low-mid frequencies for guitar, bass, or acoustic guitar. It makes your notes sound deeper, while avoiding a lot of the soupiness of sub-octave generation. A neat use for this is as a crossover in a bi-amping setup. The Xciter series has an XLR direct output and you can choose to send the effected or dry signal through it. You can send this to any amplifier with a simple balanced-to-unbalanced converter or balanced-to-mono quarter-inch cable or directly into a recording or live console. You can send your unaffected guitar signal to a clean amplifier before you send the normal output into your other effects, or record your aurally excited signal as a separate track to blend with your tone-sucking vintage fuzz box.
Diamond BEQ1 Boost EQ
The Diamond Boost EQ is the equalizer and gain stages from the circuit of their popular compressor. The equalizer is quite unique, and an interesting choice if you'd like to try something new. It's called a tilt EQ, and it works by focusing your sound on a specific frequency and then tilting the EQ curve from that point like a fulcrum. At the Tilt knob's center detent, the frequency response is flat. Turning the knob towards the left "tilts" the frequency spectra toward lower frequencies and turning right tilts toward higher. A dedicated Mids knob allows you to boost or cut high-mids that are also set from the center tilt frequency. While this seems like it would be rather cut and dry, it produces a very wide range of sounds. I liked the sound of it tilted toward the left, which seems to beef up my sound without adding excessive woof, and turning up the Mids knob for some pronounces pick and fingerstyle attack. The boost acts almost like a bonus, and it does have quite a bit of gain on tap. You can disable the EQ section with a toggle switch if you'd rather have a straightforward booster pedal in front of your tube amp. When I use band and parametric style equalizers, I essentially look for the sounds I got out of these two Tilt and Mids knobs, so it's cool that such a simple package can deliver. If you're like me and have never got on with boost pedals, find a fuzz pedal that's overloaded by input gain (older Big Muffs are notorious for this) and then crank the boost way up and turn the output volume of the fuzz it feeds way down. You can really change the nature of the fuzz pedal this way, and it can really bring out the more singing sustain qualities of those kinds of effects by squishing your signal down.
Written by Nicholas Leners