In the beginning, there was a guitar, an amp, and a human being between them. This, of course, would put the beginning at the start of the 1930‘s, the decade in which the first Public Address (PA) systems, and eventually guitar amplifiers, would see the first signs of mainstream success.
As the cardinal generations strategically shed obstacles that kept players and spectators alike distracted (cumbersome battery packs, poorly designed speakers), technological design continued to improve exponentially, and scientists like Harold Black, Robert Noyce, and William Shockley began to speculate the possibilities of an ever-expanding world of sound and amplification.
Harold Black’s famous publication Stabilized Feedback Amplifiers, published in 1934, allowed engineers at companies like Gibson, Rickenbacker and eventually Fender to explore higher volumes with less Distortion, leading to an influx of louder, more dependable amps.
But the improvements made in the wake of these advancements began rather simply: knobs for adjusting basic Low, Middle, and High frequencies, attaching spring-driven reverb units, or hardwiring power cables that could finally plug directly into walls. Some of them even allowed palettable amounts of gain into the signal, allowing mighty bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Guitar Slim to match their guitars to their roaring vocal styles.
It also helped hotshots Django Reinhardt, George Barnes, and Eddie Durham balance themselves with big band ensembles, especially ones with drums. As the amps became louder, the crowds became larger, and so did their imaginations.
By the mid-1960’s, world famous acts like The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were stomping increasingly intuitive fuzz machines on stage and in the studio. Each of them had honed in on a distinct flavor of rich, distortion-like saturation, generally referred to as “Fuzz,” that originated from a board misfiring while tracking “Don’t Worry,” as performed by Marty Robins.
At this point, headier effects like phase shifters, compression, and delay were already becoming integral to defining the sound of the burgeoning fusion and psychedelic scenes.
Civil unrest and consciousness expansion were birthing extreme entities like Yes and King Crimson, who began to push progressive music to the limits by which the term ‘prog’ itself are still defined.
It should come as no surprise then, that some of these devices went on to serve important roles in the lives of several sonic godfathers of “math rock.” Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, for instance, were stunned by the possibilities of playing into multiple tape machines in the 1970’s, sending both of their solo careers into wildly experimental yet influential territory. Punk, post-punk, and no-wave bands were also occasionally peppering angular riffs with splashy reverbs or rockabilly delays. But the idea here isn’t so much to debate where math rock began or whether or not it’s roots are inextricably tangled with effects pedal history; the idea here is to merely shine a spotlight on an often overlooked yet fascinating intersection in the mystical bond between math and machines.
Just before the 2000’s, effects pedal culture had come full circle after nearly two decades of the allegedly practical standardization of studio-grade rack units; their tiny cousins had finally come back into style. Around this time, math rock had also hit several key strides in it’s identity. Though by no means in vogue, it was at least approaching a certain notoriety, and emerging acts like Pele, Ghosts and Vodka, and Giraffes? Giraffes! were allowed to flourish without being entirely misunderstood.
So, without judgement or expectations, let’s take a look at some of the toys that you’ll most likely find on the modern Math Rocker’s pedalboard.
Delay is a sound described in most non-musical situations as an “echo,” or “repeat.” The concept, though simple, can be put to use in a variety of ways.
With shorter delay times, (the distance between the original note and the delayed signal) the effect can add quick, rubber band-style repetitions to a player’s notes. Don Caballero‘s influential American Don, almost 20 years old, remains a fantastic example of delay of all kinds, from the subtle call and response in “Fire Back About Your New Baby’s Sex” to the glitchy, ice-pick attack in the background of “The Peter Criss Jazz.” Many of these sounds were created with a secret weapon of guitarist Ian Williams: a rack unit Gibson Echoplex.
At the turn of the century, Line 6 finally released their classic delay/looper combo the DL-4, breathing new life into the effects pedal community as the first real response to the immense power of the Echoplex or Roland Space Echo. It took the best parts of units like the Boss DD-3 or Electro-Harmonix Memory Man and added in powerful tap tempo and looping, luxuries generally reserved for DAW processing and rack units. It also inspired formidable delay units from companies like Eventide and Damage Control, who went on to become the legendary Strymon Engineering.
Before we knew it, early 2000’s bands like Minus the Bear and Adebisi Shank were taking these complex new sounds and transposing them into entirely different contexts, from sample-heavy future pop to blazing, mind-warping math punk.
When experiencing longer delay times, and ultimately moving into the territory of loops, things get arguably even more mathematic as melodies and chords reflect off of one another into infinity. One needs but a small dose of Hella’s “Half Hour Handshake” to understand the possibilities (and room for potential disaster) of delay feeding back into itself, giving birth to patterns previously exclusive to synthesizers and the engines of interstellar cruise ships.
For something less cathartic, try the withering vintage sounds of William Basinski‘s The Disintegration Tapes or perhaps Terry Riley‘s Rainbow in Curved Air for something cheery yet otherworldly.
Loop has come a long way from its origins in heady 1960’s minimalism, but at the same time, how far can a loop really go?
Turns out, extremely long distances, if you’re up for the ride.
While the DL4’s delay modes were still making waves in the effects community, its loop function had also developed a reputation for being fun and easy to use, complete with a half-time button that could turn ones riffs into caffeinated 8-bit playgrounds. Pedalboards with multiple loopers started to appear, largely in part to Minus the Bear guitarist Dave Knudson stringing three or four DL-4’s in a row in songs and creating songs like “The Fix” and “Knights.”
The pedal also earned tongue-in-cheek nods from math rockers everywhere for including a knob dedicated to adjusting the level of “Tweaze” in one’s delay sound, an amusing but likely unintentional nod to Slint‘s first full length album, Tweez.
Freshly inspired, many pedal developers began featuring new attractions like multiple loops, on-board storage, and longer possible lengths; some even had internal clocks you could sync between compatible units. But as Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) quickly advanced, advanced units like Akai’s Headrush, Boomerang’s Phrase Sampler, and Boss’s RC series to achieve maximum duration and effect.
Rather than buck this trend, a new generation of super pedals entered the fold that could fully integrate with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) devices like samplers and synthesizers. Before the first decade of the 2000’s was over, we had been given powerhouses like the Strymon Timeline, the Eventide Timefactor, and Pigtronix Infinity, which answered loop fanatics everywhere with the processing power of computers and rack units.
On a practical level, it’s safe to say bands like Save Us from the Archon, Lightning Bolt, or even El Ten Eleven would have explored different territory altogether had it they not been allowed such articulation. But the best qualities of loop pedals, ultimately, are only as good as the best qualities of the players themselves.
There is no replacing the excitement and creativity of playing; but you can repeat it, sample it, make it half-speed, and throw it into reverse if you have the right looper.
If we move too fast, we’ll go from delay times and loops into speeds that’ll give us warped effects like flange and phase, called modulation.
So let’s pause for a second, and talk about one of the most subtle and elusive effects in math rock, Compression.
Juan Alderete of Mars Volta, Racer-X, and Zavalaz has referred to the Boss CS-2 as his most important pedal. It could be argued that tremolo plays an equal if not even larger role in his bass-heavy soundscapes, but Boss’s classic compressor reigned in unpredictable spikes in volume with sweet decay that allowed for the uneasy-yet-exactly-right textures throughout Mars Volta’s 2005 epic Frances the Mute.
Certain compressors add small amounts of saturation to the signal like the CS-2 or fabled Ross Compressor, while others aim to be completely transparent so as not to add any unwanted boosts or distortion while leveling out isolated resonant peaks in your chain. These are often closer to the compression units one finds in professional recording studios. Nowadays, there are even pedals that attempt to bridge the two worlds together, like the Darkglass Hyper Luminal Hybrid or Wampler Ego.
And though the CS-2 was the right box for the job for Volta, it might have been the wrong one for say, someone playing in the style of Covet‘s Yvette Young.
Compression also lends itself to fingerpicking and two-handed tapping, techniques that are paramount to math rock. It can bring focus to the dexterous complexity of Chon, Good Game, or TTNG to the nostalgic, ‘twinkly’ atmosphere of bands that predated them like Piglet or American Football. Although relatively expensive, if you’ve ever considered placing a hair scrunchy on your guitar neck to dampen open string noise, save up a paycheck or two and give something like the Keeley Compressor Pro when time allows.
Another cornerstone in the world of compression is sustain; when compressed, the natural decay of chords and notes can last exponentially longer. This concept became the main idea behind what would become a legendary effects pedal in it’s own right, the Electro-Harmonix Freeze Pedal. When engaged, users could simply hold their foot down as long as they wanted a chord to last, wistfully laying melodies or solos over the top. This haunting crossroads between sustain, looping, and volume swells has long been championed by artists like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Bill Frisell in their epic, ever-long adventures.
Alright, now we can talk about the weird stuff: the bubbling, chirping, squelching sounds of pedals like phasers, flangers, chorus, and vibrato.
The unsuspecting listener can be easily transported to sudsy, sun-soaked memories by the sound of a good chorus or vibrato, two effects with similar nature but different goals. Chorus generally uses Low Frequency Oscillation (LFO) to duplicate a signal into two different waves, with one bending the pitch upward, and the other bending the pitch down. In conjunction with the original signal, it gives off the washy, shimmering tone. Vibrato makes for a similar movement in pitch, but it does so utilizing a single wave, as opposed to duplicating the signal, and simply bends the pitch up and down. Some are obsessed; some are convinced it is the sound of sea sickness.
Another influential Mars Volta member, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez had already helped introduce increasingly unhinged levels of modulation in his previous band, At the Drive-In, throwing an already curious post-hardcore community into a vicious pedal frenzy.
Chon’s “No Signal” from last year’s Homey is a spacious, free-wheeling romp made all the more believable by the slowly swirling, phase-like modulation of the first guitar lines. Phase, the viscous older cousin of chorus and vibrato, splits between points in two signal paths, and circulates between them to give you slow, syrupy oscillation. One of the most well known phasers is the MXR Phase 90, popularized by tap-daddy Edward Van Halen himself; however, Chon’s Mario Camarena is often sighted with a trusty Earthquaker Devices Grand Orbiter for phasing. But while phase can be considered the not-so-distant cousin of chorus and vibrato, it’s sibling flange, is often found in a world of it’s own.
Flange puts two identical signals together at speeds less than twenty milliseconds, producing a sweeping filter that modulates between set frequencies. Looking for the stretchy, metallic effect you hear in Lite‘s “Red Horse in Blue?” Maybe the quirky, mystical sounds in the background of Giraffes? Giraffes! “Hug of Death?”
The Earthquaker Devices Rainbow Machine has been called upon repeatedly for flange-y, chorus-y, pitch-y magic over the last several years, and may be a little “mysterious” for some, but is hard to resist in it’s deceptively dreamy pink enclosure. It even has a “magic” button.
The parameters of modulation only expand outward from here, and evolve from a sequence of the harmonic overtone series filters to the alteration of pitch itself, from one note to another. The limits that exist currently, are simply where the pedals of tomorrow will start. It can be hard to imagine where we might go from here, but rest assured, it will at least be interesting.
And here may be the best place for the inevitable reminder before we approach our final section, that while special effects can take a good song and make it great, they can’t necessarily take a bad song and make it good.
Sure, it’s all subjective; but a good rule of thumb is that if a song sounds great on the acoustic guitar, it’s got half a chance at sounding great plugged in. And it should go without saying that there are literally countless records that prove you don’t need pedals to get weird.
In the same breath, there’s no one true formula to writing great songs that resonate with current or future generations, so all we can hope for in an age where technology sprints into the future as our mortal bodies drag behind, are some songs that can do a little bit of both.
The last of the effects we will be discussing today is pitch, a subject familiar to almost everyone. It’s not hard to imagine what it’s like to hum or sing along with a tune; you could do it right now. You also know what it’s like when you and your try-hard best friends harmonize and take breathy solos over the car stereo and barely avoid getting pulled over for reckless dancing.
Now imagine you can put that glorious experience in a guitar pedal. From the arcade-style playfulness of the Electro-Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generator (The POG) to the veracity of the Digitech Whammy, the personalities of pitch vary widely. While some are happy to aid you with simple octaves or harmonies, others may have hidden, more complex agendas like harsh, digitized 8-bit voicing or sending cascades of rising arpeggios into the stratosphere. Belfast’s post/math behemoths And So I Watch You From Afar‘s song “Guitars Set to Kill” is a powerful example of how a Whammy pedal can slam pitch downwards, as well as bring it back up.
Another method of pitch these days is blending in lower sub-octave tones with copious amounts of fuzz. Guitarist and vocalist Josh Scogin of noisy two piece ’68 unleashes a dazzling wall of sound using an ever-changing array of POG’s and fuzz pedals. Without this brand of low end backup, Scogin’s duo and similar bands like Cleft or Fang Island would still be great, but lacking their signature bass-heavy tones.
As we bring the article to a close, it would be journalistically remiss if we didn’t save space for two math rock bands that literally named their songs after pedals. Tera Melos and And So I Watch You From Afar have long been renowned for their experimentation with effects, regardless of the genre people assign them to. Melos released Trash Generator in 2017, featuring the song “Universal Gonk,” a likely nod to the DOD Gonkulator, a particularly wonky ring-mod pedal. Fun Fact: Original units can be spotted not only from their retro design, but options like Smear, Suck, Gunk, and Heave. In 2018, ASIWYFA released “Arpanoid,” the literal name of the pedal that inspired the song, the Earthquaker Devices Arpanoid, which creates programmable arpeggios.
We live in interesting times. With the generally accepted collapse of the record industry putting more control in the hands of artists, developers, tone freaks and technology geeks, including yours truly, we have never been more able to recreate the sounds we hear in our heads. When we are uncertain that the future of music is bright, we can at least rest assured it will be loud, and filled to the brim with songs and sounds we have yet to comprehend.