Guyatone GST-U05 Ultron Auto Wah and GST-C04 Ultrem Tremolo pedals
Godlyke, P.O. Box 3076, Clifton, NJ, 07012
$425 (Ultron Auto Wah); $375 (Ultrem Tremolo)
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, there was a time when effects were the sole dominion of guitar players. We could step on a pedal now and then, but while six-stringers were busy phase-shifting, getting octavered, and distorting to hell and back, everyone expected us to do our job-playing root notes, being supportive-with a tone that wasn't too far removed from upright bass.
That all changed, of course, in the Seventies, when badasses like ex-Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham and P-Funk wild man Bootsy Collins added a whole new vocabulary to the bottom end with a string of thumpalicious freak-outs, opening minds- and ears-in the process. Of all the effects they rocked, perhaps none says "get out your bell bottoms and Afro wigs" like the slippery "ee-owwww" sound of the Musitronics Mutron III envelope filter. Unfortunately, the company shut down at the dawn of the Eighties; today, as Mutron III prices reach record highs, dozens of pedals battle for envelope supremacy.
Guyatone, the guys responsible for the cute little Micro Tone pedals, have thrown their hat in the ring with the Ultron Optical Auto Wah (also known as the Ultron Optical Envelope Filter). We figured we'd test the Ultron-and its brother, the Ultrem Optical Tremolo-to see if, indeed, they can give up the funk.
TONS OF CHOICES
The essence of an auto wah (also known as an envelope filter or envelope follower) is that it responds to the dynamics of your performance. The shape of the wah sound, its frequency range, and the variance in expression, however, are all important parts of the triggered-filter equation, too. Lucky for us, the Ultron pedal's controls cover every variation in the autowah palette.
Housed in a tough black metal case and flaunting a somewhat bewildering array of controls and LEDs, the Ultron looks more like a squashed Star Wars robot than a typical effects pedal. Those blinking lights and diagrams aren't for nothing, though: You have control over the threshold level, peak level (as with most envelope filters, higher levels usually provide a stronger effect), frequency (anything from a deep rumble to all-out whistling when the filter opens), filter mode (high pass/band pass/low pass/ notch filter), range selection (hi/ mid/low), and drive selection (either "wah" or "ow"). If that sounds like a lot, it is-but it's pretty standard fare for envelope filters.
The Ultron steps it up a notch by offering even more options. Envelope filters are all about your dynamics, but thanks to its digital oscillator, the Ultron can trigger the filter automatically. An LED display shows either BPM (beats per minute) or milliseconds, letting you synch to a specific song tempo or utilize time subdivisions. The Ultron oscillator's default speed is 120 BPM (500 ms). Changing the BPM speed is simply a matter of twisting the knob to raise and lower the tempo. When you're in Time mode, however, you can have the oscillator zipping along in cycles as quickly as 70 ms-about 14 "ows" per second-or loping by in cycles as long as 4,000 ms (once every 4 seconds), as well as anywhere in between.
There's plenty of room to get freaky on your own, but you can also try one of the six wave-shape presets. And if you really want to get picky, mess with the dip switch inside to customize default threshold and peak responses. (Although many effects work best with active basses, the Ultron's controls can accommodate a wide range of input levels and tones.)
GET ON THE GOOD FOOT
I used the Ultron on several types of gigs; although it's still a novelty pedal in jazz and R&B settings, I did use it for toneshaping with marginal success. But it really shined on rock and funk gigs.
I came prepared, but once I hit the stage, my basic funk auto-wah setting just didn't cut it. This is where the design of the Ultron really came through for me: It was super easy to fine-tune the response of the auto wah, pedal control, and oscillator in the heat of onstage battle. Once I understood the pedal, in fact, I had no problem setting up sounds during songs.
The tap footswitch made it easy to go back and forth between auto-wah and oscillator/CV (control voltage) expression pedal settings or to set a tempo in wave-tap mode-two taps was all it took to establish an oscillator wah in time to a James Brown-style drum pocket. The CV pedal allowed me to utilize the Ultron as a straight wah pedal, or to vary the depth or oscillator speed, and the pedal's automated oscillator helped me get more than just envelope-filter sounds. Just as Anthony Jackson used a phase shifter to twist our minds in "Money," I let the oscillator control the wah cycles in various ways to shape my tone, rather than just emitting a wah (or ow) sound with every attack.
The controls allowed me to concentrate on playing without worrying about odd-tempo foot-wah cycles. The pedal certainly got the attention of my bandmates, who were surprised that the Ultron-" just" an envelope filter-had so many tones at its command.
Like the Ultron, Guyatone's Ultrem tremolo pedal is loaded with ways to customize your sound. You can use it as a straight volume pedal or as a panning pedal between two amps (or through a stereo input in a mix), or use the oscillator to synch a set interval with another sound source (in either BPM or ms). Like the Ultron, it also has a true bypass feature as well as several multifunction controls.
Using the ultra-quiet Ultrem on gigs (in stereo or mono) was a breeze. With a CV pedal in tow, I performed the usual volume tricks-panning between amps/ channels, making my attack disappear or swell (with varying attack modes, this got pretty trippy)-but I also used oscillator- controlled volume characteristics as rhythmic tools. The tap button/time-multiple switches proved their worth as I effortlessly coaxed out quarter-, eighth-, or 16th-note rhythms-hell, even compound time feels-on the fly.
Although I dug the tremolo tones, I ultimately ended up using the Ultrem primarily as a volume pedal. I had to admit, however, that being able to alternate between the oscillator and manual modes at the flick of a switch allowed me a lot more expression than a regular trem pedal. And hooking the two pedals together created complete polyrhythmic madness.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Premium pedals can carry a premium price tag, but thanks to their cool hybrid of digital control and analog signal path, the Ultron and Ultrem transcend cliché auto-wah and tremolo pedal sounds while breaking new ground for tone shaping and rhythmic expression. For the truly adventurous, there's a universe of uncharted possibilities waiting to be explored in this pairing.
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