Hands-on review: ZVEX Effects Fuzz Probe
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2012-02-24)
The ‘fuzz’ needs only sparse introduction, rearing its beautiful head when the American pedal steel guitarist Orville ‘Red’ Rhodes (1930-1995) fell upon the sound by accident when a faulty recording console preamplifier circuit produced an unusual (for the time) fuzzy sound from Grady Martin’s guitar during the recording of Marty Robbins’ 1961 song "Don’t Worry."
Based on the sound he heard, Rhodes developed the first fuzz box that resulted from the console’s problem, which really wasn’t a problem since Rhodes recognized the potential of such an unusual tone. Musicians, including The Ventures, began inquiring about the ‘new’ sound and Rhodes offered a fuzz box he made to the group, which they used to record 2000 Pound Bee in 1962. Everything went uphill from there when Keith Richards, in 1965, used a Maestro Fuzz-Tone to record "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction," and many more groups and musicians used such devices thereafter. However, it was Hendrix who set the standard in fuzz integration, sometimes having 3-4 fuzzes in a chain for that heavy thick tone for which he became known.
OK, now we stray a bit into left centre field with the Theremin. Many may not know the term, but likely are familiar with the climaxing effect during Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and particularly seeing Jimmy Page command the whirls and squeals during that song with his hands, in the rock documentary The Song Remains the Same.
The Theremin, named after its Russian inventor, Professor Leon Theremin, is an early 1928 electronic instrument controlled without actual physical contact from the player. Based on two metal antennas that sense a player’s hand position (to stimulate the control oscillators for frequency and amplitude [volume]), the Theremin produces eerie sounds that were used initially in movie soundtracks best associated with science fiction and horror/suspense movies, e.g., "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It was inevitable that the Theremin would find its way into psychedelic rock, including the stylings of Hawkwind and around the time Page began dabbling with the effect.
Now, what does this have to do with ZVEX Effect’s Fuzz Probe? Imagine having a very diverse fuzz pedal, which most rock musicians take to heart, along with a Theremin effect to offer up some unusual tones not found in any other pedal! And so the story continues...
Most pedals are constructed from a metal box (sometimes plastic), but this ZVEX true bypass pedal looks different from the get-go. The front half is made of aluminum, but is surrounded by a thick clear acrylic casing that modernizes its appearance – as well sandwiching the Theremin antenna. This is super study stuff, and even the knobs have some protection with a projected end-plate in the event it is dropped. The artwork has a vintage, nostalgic appearance that, when combined with the space-age look (including the ZVEX Effects logo) makes it obviously unique without even turning it on; but its appearance encourages you to want to try it. As a nice add-on feature, you get a two-year warranty that is superior to what is offered by many of the ‘big-box’ manufacturers.
Having owned and used several fuzzes, this is by far the most diverse in the line-up. The knobs of this hand-assembled pedal, which is a deluxe version of ZVEX’s Fuzz Factory, include the Volume, Gate, Compression, Drive and Stab (stability). All of these controls affect the various operating levels and biases of each aspect, thus allowing you to ‘shape’ your tone and fuzz – but most importantly, each is interactive and influence every other knob settings. This means that the Drive control affects the Stab, and the Gate affects the Compression, etc. To put it bluntly, it takes some playing around to appreciate fully what this pedal offers, since there are numerous possibilities of fuzz and tones available. To offer another example, the Comp (see below) will shape sound, as a compressor does, but it reacts differently as you adjust the Drive, Gate and Stab.
No, this is NOT a typical fuzz pedal, but one that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It is a pedal that will have you playing around like a young boy who has first discovered Lego on Christmas day! Fortunately, ZVEX has offered some solid-sounding basic settings from which you can experiment like a mad scientist, including High Compression Fuzz, Velcro Fuzz, Cleanish Hi Octave Intermodulation, Smooth Fuzz and Radio Fuzz (those settings do not express the Theremin’s potential, but with a few tweaks of the knobs you can have complete Theremin free-styling that will intrigue yourself and your listeners).
Seriously, the Fuzz Probe, with its NOS ‘60s Germanium transistors and Theremin technology, takes a leap forward in fuzzadelic tone possibilities for that truly authentic (yet potentially off-the-charts) fat sound and vintage feel that should have been available in the early 1970s of experimental rock. It only took us about 40 years to get there!
This appears nothing more than ‘output level,’ but anyone can tell you, like the volume pot on your guitar, it makes a difference. As suggested in the instruction, turn down the volume on your guitar slightly and you will notice a clearer response with the pedal (this is particularly true with the Theremin fully engaged). Likewise, the pedal’s volume knob may make a difference in the output only ‘slightly,’ but more particularly it has an effect in terms of clarity and the quality of the pedal’s tone. I noticed sufficient differences whether the Volume knob is at 3 o’clock as opposed to 9 o’clock; the latter instance offers more drive with the fuzz, as well as more sustain and volume with the Theremin (if engaged amply), thus enabling you to bleed the pitch effect and guitar fuzz as desired.
Next, you get that squelch or squeal from the Theremin after a sustained note – and that really affects the tone and dynamics in playing, i.e., the degree of Theremin feedback. What the Gate controls is the degree in which you hear it and when (along with the controlling of any buzz or hiss); this can be very noticeable with the knobs set appropriately and when damping the strings or playing short staccato type notes for that ‘burping’ effect – a very punchy, in-your-face fuzz.
This control can ‘pinch’ the overall tone or, in other words, will vary the ‘attack’ of what the pedal achieves. It works in the same way as any compressor so that you can shift from the mellow to the fat, or to the sharp. Fiddle around with this control in conjunction with the Stab and the Gate, and you truly get a very acute effect that punches out the fuzz full force!
This function controls the distortion, and when all the way down it is very clear and sizzling, but as you turn it up you get a much fatter and thicker tone; as well, the feedback (those lovely harmonics) do increase as the dial cranks upward and onward. The best way to put it is that the more you turn up the Drive the more full-bodied and fat the tone becomes. Usually any increase in distortion also increases the ‘noise’ of the notes, but this is not the case with the Fuzz Probe.
Wowzers! This is the aspect you need to control with a leash! The feedback pitch you can achieve is so variable (in conjunction with the other knobs) that it’s nearly ridiculous! You can get that full Theremin effect, a la Mr. Page, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, when turned all the way down, you wouldn’t even know the Theremin existed. However, fine tune this little beast and you get some awesome raw squealing and harmonics that would require several pedals to achieve the same outcome. In essence, you don’t have to use or hear the Theremin, so that you can simply play around with different fuzz tones... or you can integrate it to such varying degrees that shifting the Stab knob, or any other knob, makes a significant difference on what you heard beforehand – great diversity and options!
OK, although I have summarized some of the potential for each aspect, and due to each component having an effect on the other, it should be obvious that the learning curve is not super simple, like having only 1-2 knobs to turn on most other one-dimensional fuzz pedals, but Wow! – there are so many tonal possibilities as you play around with this pedal that it is possible to develop several signature fuzz sounds and qualities. Adjust things in the wrong way and you get some uncontrollable squeals... but get it just right (and there are many ‘rights’), and you will be in tonal heaven! My suggestion is to experiment and write down what the settings are relative to your ear (e.g. ‘smooth,’ ‘raw,’ ‘psychedelic,’ ‘outrage,’ ‘spacey,’ etc.).
An Added Ingredient?!
On the bottom of the pedal is a screw that is set to company specs (I suspect 10 o’clock is standard). This part of the machinery adjusts the sensitivity of the Theremin antenna, which then adjusts the ‘stab’ sensitivity. This allows you to alter the effect relative to how close your foot is to the pedal... to the point of achieving certain outcomes by merely fluttering your foot above or having to literally stomp on it. As well, a few minor adjustments can have you playing some futuristic tones that would make you think you are engaging in a modernized or futuristic synthesizer through your guitar.
The Fuzz Probe Plays Nice with Other Pedals
Not all pedals react favorably with those of other manufacturers. The Fuzz Probe integrates incredibly well, to say the least. I used this pedal with many others, including Analog Alien’s FuzzBubble-45, and the results produced a clearer and (obviously) fuzzier tone. I also tried it with DrNo-Effect’s Madfly Heavy Distortion, and the result was equally impressive, as it added some natural sounding sizzle and quality as though made from the same manufacturer. I cannot say this about all pedals, as there tends to be some conflict in the outcome, but when you add the Fuzz Probe into the pot it’s like getting that added boost or clarity that is so essential to lead soloing and/or cutting through the mix when wanting to ‘cut.’
Fuzz Probe Conclusions
Thus far I have explained the overall possibilities of this pedal, although (to be reserved) the possibilities are enormous as you can achieve both bright and dark tones for either robust sounds or more ‘severed’ cuts in the mix – whether straight-ahead fuzz or while achieving some space-age sounds fused into the recipe – this truly is a wave of the future fuzz pedal and the quick potential for some synth-like tones make this statement obvious. You can generate tones that far exceed any fuzz pedal, and far clearer then some fuzz ‘standards’ and for only a few dollars more. You get a pure Theremin effect, and then you can take that effect toward new dimensions as it agitates and challenges the Volume, Gate, Drive and Compression, all of which would require several other pedals to achieve.
As important, as you waiver your foot toward and away from the pedal, you further achieve different tones, from the fat to the thin and sharp. Doing so produces a unique ‘wah’ like result while playing... pure bliss! Imagine getting some strange and harmonic-inducing Theremin wailing away, followed by placing your foot onto the pedal for some sizzling fuzz during soloing... the results are surprising, besides being so unusual and authentic that listeners would think you had a conglomerate of effects at your disposal.
The link below is a short composition that incorporates various ‘recommended’ ZVEX settings, and then some. Moreover, this composition involves a Pritchard Black Dagger amp and some delay, and nothing else – all the guitar tones you hear (via a Casper GT custom guitar) are from the same pedal, as well as any bizarre Theremin sounds.
PLUSES: Able to create unique sounds and tones; less than 3 mA usage, which means a battery lasts a long, long time, thus little need for an adapter (ZVEX claims not having to change the battery in 3 years in the prototype... how Green can you be?); incredible potential and variability makes this a diverse and worthy purchase, and particularly if you are an experimental rocker; you get two pedals in one... a variable fuzz pedal with an actual Theremin; a next step in pedal evolution!
MINUSES: Likely not ideal for cover-bands looking for quick-fix tones; requires some experimentation (not meant for the novice), although the example settings get you started in the right direction and with ease; more costly than a typical fuzz, but this isn’t a typical fuzz either; it can be noisy or very quiet, depending on the settings and the tone you are trying to produce.
The Fuzz Probe carries an MSRP of $349.