Arion, The Company Time Forgot: The 7 Best

If there are others out there like me, they were stockpiling issues of Musician’s Friend and AMS way before the Internet was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. In this day, catalogs were the way to go, and they were often barometers for what one could expect in their local shops. The story played out like this: I’d ogle everything in one of those catalogs, get worked up over a couple items, then convince my parents to drive me to the nearest music store, 1.5 hours away (shoutout to Two Street Music in Eureka, CA). I’d then fiddle with pedals until my parents couldn’t stand it. One company that was prominently featured in the annals of music catalogs, however, was Arion.

My introduction to Arion was not until much later in life, but from what I could tell from the catalogs, they looked awesome. I fully remember Arion being the sole company championing analog circuitry in an era of pedal canon where companies were trying to out-digital each other. Nowadays, the lore of Arion begins with Musician’s Friend, and ends with—depending on the company you keep—pawnshops or EWS in Japan (and sometimes, both). Well, I’m here to say: Arion is awesome. And here are seven reasons why.

HU-8500 Stage Tuner

Yes, that’s right, a tuner is first! Readers might be wondering why, and admittedly, it is a head-scratcher. The Arion Tuner isn’t astonishingly accurate (±1 percent), nor is it particularly utilitarian (players can’t tune any string to C or F, only E, A, D, G and B). However, the standout quality of the Stage Tuner is the simple fact that it was the first commercially available tuner in the compact stompbox form factor. Before the Stage Tuner, guitarists were forced to use clunky, suitcase-sized strobe tuners on stage, or the ultra-limited quartz types. The spec sheet boasted an LED display bright enough to be read from six feet away, so guitarists taller than six-foot-five or so need not apply. Still, it can be hard to believe that underdogs Arion got the drop on the big boys when it came to groundbreaking achievements in the pedal industry.

MTE-1 Tubulator

Arion itself made no bones about the idea behind the Tubulator, this title was about as transparent as Arion ever got in its naming. Yes, the Tubulator is based on the venerable Ibanez Tube Screamer; however, it boasts a slick Miami Vice style color scheme with an equally powerful font set. But what’s this; it isn’t a direct copy? No sir, the Tubulator employs a few mods that our solder jockey pals might have even done to some our Screamers way back when. The Tubulator increases the resistor in the feedback path of the second stage for a little extra grit, and also increases the input capacitor by 150 percent for a little extra bass. The biggest difference is likely the Tone control itself—original 808s use a special “W” taper potentiometer for its characteristic sweep, and the Tubulator uses a regular audio taper potentiometer. Does this really make that much a difference? Forking over $20 for a Tubulator—a pittance for such a fine pedal—can solve this mystery.

MOC-1 Octave

The Arion Octave pedal might be the second-most transparent clone job Arion ever pulled off. It’s almost excusable because “octave” is such a common term (what else is a company going to call a simple octave pedal?). However, the real giveaway of the innards lies in its color. There was a time in history when several companies took up the old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” adage and threw themselves at the mercy of the feet of Boss. The Arion octave is one such time. In fact, perhaps out of pure sheepishness, Arion switched colors mid-production, from the familiar brown and white to an ugly grey-and-gold motif. If I haven’t yet made it clear, the Arion MOC-1 Octave is a direct copy of the Boss OC-2 Octave, and with that said, both versions are awesome all-analog octave-down boxes that really provide a level of “oomph” behind single notes. Both versions are arguably two of the best analog octave pedals ever (second possibly, to the Pearl), except the Arion is way cheaper.

SCH-1 Stereo Chorus

This, along with the MMP-1 Metal Plus, is the most valuable Arion stompbox. However, there exists a fine line between “valuable because it sounds great” and “valuable due to rarity,” with the occasional pedal that tightropes that line. The SCH-1 is one such pedal, whereas the dismal Metal Plus falls squarely into the latter partition. The SCH-1 is a highly regarded chorus that sounds incredible and features a stereo output for dual-amp processing. Collectors and chorus aficionados have hunted it down for almost two decades now, and it’s become such a vital cog of the grand chorus epoch that EWS of Japan has taken to modifying less-desirable new-old-stock Arion SCH-Z pedals and selling them as new. It’s safe to say that companies buying up less-desirable versions of a pedal for the sole purpose of modifying them and selling them as a superior version cements the SCH-1’s place in the chorus hall of fame.

SCO-1 Stereo Compressor

No, it’s not time to degauss the monitor or factory-reset the mobile device: Arion did in fact release a stereo compressor pedal during its heyday. In fact, Arion made a stereo version of almost all of its pedals; of the 32 Arion pedals ever made, 19 of them were stereo-equipped—over half! Of course, it’s tough to imagine anything other than a time-based (be it delay, reverb or modulation) effect having any kind of useful stereo application, but at least the thought was there. Of the five non-chrono stereo pedals (Stereo Distortion, Stereo Overdrive, Stereo Metal Master, Stereo Compressor and even a Stereo Parametric EQ), the Compressor is perhaps the most interesting. While the other Stereo pedals attempt to use the second out as a softer distortion or some kind of wacky sustain generator, the Compressor utilizes the second out as a “mellow” compression channel, but if and only if the pedal is also adjusted to a long Attack setting. It’s completely bizarre and barely stereo in any way, but it’s actually a great sounding compressor, if a little noisy.

DCF-1 Digital Chorus/Flanger

As the years went on, Arion found itself struggling to compete with companies branching out of the compact format and into more feature-laden units. Arion quickly followed suit and released a line of pedals wide enough to accommodate more knobs, modes and the all-important stereo out. Five such boxes were released, and the DCF-1 Digital Chorus/Flanger is one of the finest—why Arion’s metal distortion line got a slice of the double-wide pie is anyone’s guess. The Chorus is modeled after the SCH-Z, the same pedal that can be transformed into the coveted SCH-1, and the flanger circuit remains unchanged from the original SFL-1 Flanger. The most noteworthy features of the DCF-1, however, are the Tone and F-Repeat (feedback) knobs. The SCH-Z contains the Tone but not the F-Repeat control, and the SFL-1 contains the F-Repeat control, but not the Tone control. This means players can have their cake and eat it too: a flanger with a tone control and a lush chorus made lusher with a feedback control—the latter of which is quite the aural experience.

DDS-1 Digital Delay/Sampler

Arion actually made this pedal twice—DDS-1 and DDS-4 were released, and there’s no discernable difference between the two. Perhaps the story behind this is akin to the curious case of the Boss DSD-2 and DSD-3 (also delay/sampler pedals), which had literally the exact same circuit inside. At any rate, the DDS-1 is an incredible piece of equipment, though it’s rendered somewhat obsolete in today’s post-‘90s-digital landscape. In its day, the DDS-1 was quite an advanced machine: At its heart, it’s a slightly dirty digital delay, with requisite time modes adjustable from the far-right knob. However, it’s the Rec/Play and Play modes where the magic happens. In Rec/Play mode, the user can tap the footswitch, play a passage, and then store this passage. When set to Play mode, the sample can be recalled via remote trigger. This allows players to sample a short riff and then trigger it rhythmically for some interesting textures. The opening seconds and chorus of “The Fix” by Minus the Bear utilizes this effect heavily, except that band uses a Line 6 DL-4—basically a DDS-1 on mutant steroids. There’s still some charm left in the DDS-1, as the digital technology is primitive and isn’t crystal clear like most digital delays—think the Boss DD-2, also known as the foundation for Pete Cornish’s thousand-dollar TES Tape Echo Simulator.

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