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  • Nick Rambo

TACTILE (R)EVOLUTION: Pedals that break the mold

Mass-produced guitar pedals date back to the late 1970s. To be clear, there were earlier designs that cemented the basic form and function, but the advent of stalwarts like the BOSS OD-1 and Ibanez Tubescreamer ushered in a new era of compact stompboxes. And for the most part — not much has changed in the decades since.

In fact, most pedals released between those early days and now feature the same familiar fundamentals: a rectangular enclosure adorned with control knobs, an off/on toggle switch and maybe an LED indicator or two.

But over the past few years, a handful of standout designs have hit the market and changed those longstanding paradigms.

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The first may have been Walrus Audio’s Janus, a fuzz and tremolo combo with dual joysticks that was first conceived by Brady Smith (now of Old Blood Noise Endeavors) and Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips.

“Steven wanted to see this combination come to life and make it easily manipulatable in a live setting,” says Colt Westbrook, Walrus Audio president. “The joysticks are XY potentiometers, controlling one parameter up and down, and another left and right to create mesmerizing sonic landscapes.”

Inside the Janus, an aggressive fuzz feeds into the tremolo side for all varieties of sputter and pulse.

“It’s a hypnotic effect and people really love it,” Westbrook says. “The Janus is chaos and aggression meets manual control.”

Of course, the Janus still has a few knobs and toggle switches, but the inclusion of joysticks was and still is particularly inventive.

Speaking of inventive, the Automatone concept pioneered by Joel Korte at Chase Bliss Audio has captured significant attention for its simultaneously retro and futuristic array of mechanized faders that slide and dance as you cycle presets.

“I think the idea probably started in 2014,” Korte says. “I was in a modern studio with my band at the time and the mixing desk had motorized faders. I thought, ‘Dang — that’d be really cool on a pedal.’ I was working on a bunch of other stuff and still trying to get my company off the ground at the time, but I seriously started pursuing the idea in 2018.”

The first exploration pulled in Chris Benson of Benson Amps and resulted in the Preamp MKII, a combination of DNA from Benson’s Chimera amp and Korte’s penchant for marrying analog circuits with digital controls. Jumping from there, Korte collaborated with the team from Meris on the newly released CXM 1978 reverb.

“The development process has been the single most fun and rewarding project I have ever undertaken,” Korte says. “I was a little worried how the pedals would be received due to their uncharacteristic appearance and price point, but I’m encouraged with all the excitement I’ve seen so far.”

The next pedal to make a statement was the Empress ZOIA, which fused DJ-style touchpads with guitar tech.

“ZOIA is basically a modular synth in a pedal,” says Empress Effects founder/designer Steve Bragg. “You place a bunch of modules on the grid of buttons and each button is either an input or an output, working with either an audio signal or a control signal. Then you connect the modules in whatever way you fancy to build your own custom effects, synthesizers, utilities and even whole new instruments.”

Inspired by grid-based controllers like the Monome and Launchpad — two of Bragg’s favorites — the ZOIA offers the same kind of experimentation, but without the keyboard-and-mouse fatigue.

“I wanted to create something similar to that system but something that wouldn't pull me out of the moment,” Bragg says. “It's been exciting building something a little outside the norm, but to develop the ZOIA, we had to learn a bunch of new stuff. We bought a little CNC milling machine and a 3D printer and learned how to make molds. For the software side, the ZOIA requires a lot more dynamic memory allocation and object oriented programming than the typical digital pedal.”

Still, the 48-button touchpad experience is a significant departure from the run-of-the-mill stompbox designs that have been so prevalent in the industry.

Finally, the touchscreen-enabled Digit from Loki Davison’s Poly Effects may well be the next step in pedal evolution.

“Depending on how you look at it, Digit is either a fancy reverb pedal or a visual modular synthesis environment,” Davison says. “I originally intended it to be the ultimate reverb and delay pedal, but realized that to do that I needed to be able to place different modules on the send and return from the delay or reverb modules, which grew to allow a full modular environment.”

Both liberating and challenging, Davison says that the development process for the Digit was inspired by using Bitwig on a Microsoft Surface Pro.

“Touch interfaces have considerable advantages,” he says. “We've got so much freedom compared to the just knobs-based designs — but this comes with a lot of risks. The challenge is to make it perform like the touch interfaces we're used to, which is difficult both hardware- and firmware-wise.”

To make the Digit intuitive, a fast CPU and GPU — and a lot of design work — were needed. And it wasn’t easy.

“Using a modern high resolution touch screen has some hardware challenges I wasn't used to,” Davison admits. “The high speed signaling and differential impedance matched traces is pretty scary stuff, but I was driven to explore interface options and once I decided on a screen, having a touch screen made much more sense than a screen plus buttons and knobs.”

Of course, the primary benefit of a purely touch environment is versatility and Davison is encouraged by the range of players who have adopted his designs.

“A modular environment, as far as audio flow, is normal for guitarists with pedal boards, but the idea of one module controlling another with CV is pretty foreign,” Davison says. “But a lot of guitarists are now creating patches that have sequencers and LFOs, so it's great to see people engaging with the depth of the pedal.”

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Suffice to say, the future is bright where guitar pedals are concerned. As modern circuit designers continue to push the limits of their own creativity and technological advances, we can only hope that more and more of these rich and unique tactile experiences continue to break away from the standards of old.


Check out these pedals and builders using the links below:


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