When we think of boutique effects, what comes to mind are hand-built units, based on classic designs, created in a garage, one box at a time. Strymon, while certainly being boutique, have unabashedly embraced the digital age - using modern technology to fix age-old problems and eliminate impossibilities. Somehow, they've managed to do this while retaining the... stompboxiness... we effects nerds prefer over the do-it-all qualities that have been so common in digital processors until recently. With these two units in particular, the challenge was to give the player classic sounds - endearing flaws and all - that keep us going back to things like tape echos, and plate reverbs - the former being expensive and not always reliable, the latter impractical for live use. Additionally, many of Strymon's effects have hidden options the player can unlock and set, depending on their preferences and requirements.
Fans of good design will notice that Strymon pedals are unique looking. They are beautiful and original, while still retaining the familiar qualities of good ol' classic stompboxes. The layout is well thought out, and the construction is solid. The footprint is relatively small considering the controls but doesn't seem crowded. All of the I/O is in the back panel, which is very handy if you have more than a few things on your board. I don't think they could have done a much better job, aesthetically or functionally.
The cleverly named El Capistan is a tape echo emulator that also allows the user to create simple loops. The company uses their proprietary dTape Technology to replicate the two most common types of tape echo: the fixed-head, variable-speed units (Roland, Watkins); and moving-head units (Echoplex). Brilliantly, they have taken "faults" into consideration, like headroom, resolution, and wow and flutter, which is more noticeable when the IPS is reduced on variable speed units.
Knobs control Time, Mix, Wow & Flutter, Repeats, and Tape Age. There is a three-position switch for Fixed, Single and Multi-head, and another for modes A, B, and C, which have different functions depending on which head configuration you've chosen (e.g., which heads are engaged, tape motor speed). Also, mode C in the Single-head mode replicates a tape style looper, which allows you to set tape length and splice-point in real-time, at the tap of a foot. The user can create simple sound-on-sound loops, which slowly erase over each revolution, or full on Frippertronics pieces that continuously build up. Loops can be sped up or slowed down, and degraded with the Wow & Flutter and Tape Age controls.
Of course, the main use for this box will be for making straight up delays that mimic your favorite tape based machines. It excels at this. It stood up beautifully against both my vintage Klemt Echolette and the popular Roland RE-20 Space Echo modeler. I used new and old tapes with the Klemt, at various speeds, and the only major difference I noticed was the Klemt overloaded in a way that added some nice tube grit. Everything else - the warble, the slow speed affects, the degradation over each pass - was so perfectly replicated I really didn't notice a difference. Meaning, I could tweak the El Capistan to sound convincingly like the Klemt. I could also get it to do everything the Roland unit could do, but the inverse was, of course, not true. The RE-20 is a great box for the money, but the Strymon gives the user more options. Put another way, the Roland unit is a great choice if you don't want to take your Space Echo out on the road, whereas the El Capistan is for you if you don't want to take any of your tape echos out on the road, or you want one box to replicate them all.
The same five knobs can access hidden features that one would be likely to "set and forget," like Tape Bias, Tape Crinkle, Low End Contour, Spring Reverb, and a +/-3 dB boost/cut in case you want to make sure your inner Jimmy Page isn't lost in the mix. I went to both ends of the spectrum with these controls, which allowed me to hear what a machine new off the shelf probably would have sounded like, as well as one that was brought back into use after propping up a table for 30 years, with no servicing before powering up. I seem to have successfully weakened the motor, flaked the oxide off of the tape, and wrinkled it to a point that was almost comical. Taking it to that extreme was academic, of course, but it was nice to know that those touches could be easily added, allowing me to customize the sound to a minute level of detail. After tailoring it to my needs, I used the unit for at least eight live shows with three different bands, and found it to be a joy to use, even under the pressure of a performance.
Another features allows the user to choose whether the bypass switch cuts the delay cold or allows it to trail off. Also, an expression pedal input not only allows a rocker-type control to be assigned to any parameter, but it will also accept Strymon's own Favorite Switch, which allows the user to recall a most- used patch, regardless of the knob twiddling that has occurred - very useful in a live setting, and effectively turning it into a two preset unit. Tape Op readers are handy with a soldering iron, so I assume an SPDT switch plus a TRS cable could easily equal a DIY version of the Favorite Switch, plus aftermarket ones are out there, but the official issue one is available for only $49 and shares the Strymon aesthetic.
Delay ranges from 25 ms to 1.5 seconds, but that depends on which mode you're in. Loop lengths can be up to 20 seconds. Next to the bypass switch is a tap tempo which, when held, triggers the good old cycling/feedback effect we all love. The same switch doubles as the loop control. All in all, a fantastic, great sounding little box that delivers on its promise with no exceptions.
Since I was already in "space", it was easy to make the transition to the blueSky Reverberator. At first glance, there seem to be almost too many options available for a reverb pedal, with its five knobs (Decay, Mix, High Damp, Pre-Delay, Low Damp) and two toggles (Mode and Type), but like the El Capistan, it lends itself to having the user tailor it to his or her needs. That becomes even easier when you consider the Favorite Switch is built into this box, right next to the bypass. In no time, I had this set up as a double unit. The manual settings were dialed in to a great, deep, spring reverb, and the Favorite setting was dedicated to a washed-out room, with light modulation, that couldn't be obtained with an analog device. And that's just it; the blueSky can deliver genuine spacey tones - some entirely unique to the unit - as well as classic mechanical reverbs. Anyone just looking for spring replication might want to save their money and buy one of the many boxes available at a fraction of the cost, even though the Strymon sounds great. The real reason to buy the blueSky is because it goes way beyond what other reverb pedals can do, almost into rack territory. When the left toggle is switched to Mod, a light chorus effect is added that is both subtle enough to not sound like you're rehashing dated, '80s sounds, but strong enough to add some interesting depth. It's hard to describe what happens when the same switch is in Shimmer mode. As the reverb decays, harmonics develop and "bloom" - the longer the decay setting, the more intense the harmonic development and overall effect. It's very unique, usable, and can take things in an almost synthy direction.
Pre-Delay is useful if you want to avoid a "crowded" reverb, and Damp helpfully tames and contours tones as well. These features are particularly useful when using Plate effects. I found that I never needed to set these in real-time, however, and occasionally kicked them during live performances. I feel like much smaller knobs for these effects would be a minor improvement. That would still allow tweaking but would clean up the face of the unit and make it even more suitable for stage use. Like the El Capistan, the user can decide whether the reverb cuts when bypassed or continues until it decays.
Both Strymon pedals accept instrument or line-level, are stereo, and signal-to-noise is an impressive 115 dB, so these double as a studio option. They offer true bypass, and the dry path is always analog, without conversion. These things are understandably power hogs, so they won't run on batteries; they require their own slot on a power brick and don't always daisy-chain well, so be forewarned. The manuals are well laid-out and very easy to read; and there is an abundance of great information on their website and blog. Warranty is only one year for manufacturer's defects; I think Strymon could do a lot better here considering the price-point they are competing in and what most other high-end companies offer.
I think Strymon is really onto something, bridging the gap between the boutique market and studio- quality gear. Plus, Strymon manufactures in Los Angeles. Their products leave few details unaddressed, without overburdening the user with too much choice. And the attention to detail is more than skin deep; it's present in the entire design. ($299 street each; www.strymon.net) -Alex Maiolo