Choose Your Weapon: A Player’s Guide to Polyphonic Octave Boxes

One of the best things about electric guitar is that its frequency range is similar to that of the human voice. It's what makes guitar such an expressive instrument and it's what makes so many great guitar parts hummable and singable. Thanks to the wonders of evolution, our ears are fine-tuned and predisposed to appreciate the frequency range of the guitar. But sometimes you might want to break outside of that frequency range. Maybe you want to mimic the low end of a bass guitar or the extreme low end of an analog synth. Or maybe you want to add higher octaves like a 12-string guitar, a mandolin, or maybe even a flute. When that's what you want to do the following eight boxes are your new best friend.

Up until recently, you either got monophonic analog octave shifting or if you were lucky, deep-pocketed or both, where you could buy a guitar synth and a special pickup to do polyphonic octave shifting. Thanks to the ever-advancing capabilities of digital signal processing (DSP for those playing along at home) there are now pedals on the market that can dissect an analog guitar signal and intelligently apply octaves (and often other intervals) to each note played.

EHX POG2

Electro-Harmonix was the first company to offer the aforementioned ability to generate polyphonic octaves in a floor-based effect pedal. The original POG debuted in 2005 and was immediately put to use by Jack White on “Blue Orchid.” The current top-of-the-line member of the POG family is the POG2. And just like you would expect from a flagship device, it has lots of bells and whistles (and quite frankly can even create the sounds of bells and whistles). The POG2 offers five voices: the unaffected guitar signal, one and two octaves below, and one and two octaves below. Along with all of these octaves, the POG2 also offers controls for attack, detune, filter resonance and tone shaping. If you're just looking for an octave up and octave down from your guitar signal, the POG2 is probably overkill. The sheer amount of tweakability of the POG2 can be overwhelming at times. Luckily, it comes loaded with eight fantastic presets that you can keep or replace with your own killer settings. And EHX is nice enough to include more sample settings via a downloadable PDF on their website. If you want to mimic organs, cellos, bass guitars, flutes, or even Theremin, the POG2 might just be your jam. And if that sounds like more firepower than you need, you can always checkout the Nano POG or Micro POG.

Digitech Mosaic

The 12-string guitar is a great idea on paper and can sound fantastic, but can also be a giant pain in the ass. There are twice as many strings to tune, a neck that is too wide or strings that are too close together, intonation difficulties, the list goes on. A few companies have attempted to mimic the sound of a 12-string guitar in a pedal. Many pedals get close, but always have one failing: on a 12-string, not all strings are tuned in octaves. The B and high E are tuned in unison. In other words, when you play those strings with an octave pedal the high octaves don't sound like a 12-string. The Mosaic offers the ability to de-emphasize the high octaves on the B and E and create a closer approximation of an actual 12-string. It works best on fast, staccato parts and strummed chords. Sustained single notes on the B and E still have a slight organ-like quality, but this is certainly the closest you'll get to a 12-string in pedal form.

EarthQuaker Devices Bit Commander

If you're looking for clean, pristine, polyphonic octaves, you need to run away now. Seriously, get the heck out of here. You can't handle the Bit Commander. While the name might be misleading (there isn't any bit crushing happening in here) the sound is massive. The Bit Commander offers up a square wave fuzz tone at standard guitar pitch, one octave below, a slightly glitchy two octave drop, and an Octavia-esque octave up. Each of these can be dialed in or out via a dedicated knob and there's a Filter control to tame the upper octave and the various overtones. The Bit Commander can be subtle or it can be HUGE. Crank the high octave and roll of your tone knob and you get your Octavia tones. Blend the Base tone and the Sub and you can mimic the Blue Box tones from “Fool in the Rain.” You can even do some analog synth lead tones especially when paired with modulation. Of course, with so many options available, the Bit Commander is a tool for creating your own sound. It doesn't track very well when fed more than a single note, but that's the nature of an analog octave pedal. But don't be afraid to try chords (especially with only small amounts of the octaves) you can get some pretty awesome glitches.

TC Electronic Sub N Up

Are you looking for a crazy amount of octave versatility from a single pedal? You know, a jack of all trades but master of none. If that's the case, the TC Electronic Sub N Up might be right up your alley. The Sub N Up offers one octave up, one octave below, and two octaves below your input signal at a very compelling price point. It has four knobs: Dry, Up, Sub, and Sub 2. The Sub N Up also has a handy three-way switch for choosing between Polyphonic octaves, TonePrint (more on this later), and Classic octave. Polyphonic is exactly what it sounds like. You get your base guitar signal along with one octave up, one octave down, and two octaves down. The four knobs let you blend amongst the four perfectly-tracked voices. The Classic setting hearkens to the days when octaves were monophonic and dirty. The tracking is glitchy, the octaves are a little dirty, and the tone is fat and freaky. Finally, TonePrint uses TC Electronic’s app or desktop software to allow you to load pre-defined patches onto the Sub N Up. It’s not as easy as just dialing in the knobs but many of the settings offer modulation and other bonus tones beyond just octave. The tones of the Sub N Up lean more toward organ and synth than they do guitar, but they track and sound great.

DigiTech Whammy Ricochet

In recent months, DigiTech has been hard at work taking the brains of the Whammy pedal and transplanting it into a family of smaller and more specialized devices. The Ricochet is sort of the Whammy pedal for folks who can't or won't use the full size Whammy with the treadle. The first thing you’ll notice with the Ricochet is that it’s much more sensitive to your pedalboard real estate—less than a quarter of the size of a standard Whammy pedal. The second thing you’ll notice is that it’s just as capable of nailing those Tom Morello, Jack White and David Gilmour tones. From looking at the Ricochet, it appears that it will be a stationary, “set it and forget it” fixed pitch shift (2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, Octave Up, Octave Down, Two Octaves Up or Down, and Octave Up or Down Plus Dry) pedal. Wrong. In place of the treadle of the Whammy, the Ricochet employs a momentary switch and a clever means of programming separate rise and fall times. Set fast for those quick “Killing in the Name” octave punches or set slow for mellow but deep dives and pulls for your slow jam solos. If you don’t want to Whammy, you can set the momentary switch to perform as an on-off switch and use the Ricochet to fake 12-string, bass, baritone, or even capoed or drop-tuned guitars. It’s pretty much the Swiss Army Knife of octave pedals.

So what are you waiting for? The world is your tone oyster and octave pedals are the pearls just waiting to be discovered. Grab one, plug it in, and take your playing to new depths.

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