Top Phasers of All Time

I love phasers—the swirling juiciness of a good phaser is one of the best sounds in the world. The way they chew up the signal is as aurally appealing as a babbling brook or the swish of a basketball net. Many famous players liked them as well: From David Gilmour and Eddie Van Halen to Paul Simon and Jean-Michael Jarre, the phaser is quite the ubiquitous modulation effect. Its presence is strongly felt in music; the tone is unmistakable. And much like chorus, the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw a phaser boom where hundreds of manufacturers were cranking them out. Somewhere along the line, phasers were separated into two types: Field Effect Transistor (FET)-type and Operational Transconductance Amplifier (OTA) type. Some even use a photocell-and-lamp arrangement (sometimes called vactrols), much like the old Uni-Vibes.

For as long as I’ve been into effects, I’ve been into running synthesizers into effects, and the search for the perfect synth sound led me deep into the world of phasers. I’ve worked in several guitar shops and I’ve played quite literally 95 percent of phasers ever made. Granted, there are some I’ve never played, like the Seamoon Studio Phase and the Ampeg Phazzer, but they’d have to be pretty magical to crack this, the top 10 phaser pedals of all time.

10. Lovetone Doppelganger

From Lovetone, short-lived manufacturer or some of the most collectable pedals around, comes the Doppelganger, a very ambitious take on the classic phase shifter. For me, this particular unit crams almost too many features on one unit, a reason why (spoiler alert) the Prophecysound Infinitphase didn’t make the cut. This unit features a switchable dual-LFO (low frequency oscillator) which can give the user some pretty otherworldly phase combinations, especially when the LFOs are set to conflicting intervals. The unit also features a blend control as well as a feedback control (almost a must; see number 4). The Doppelganger loses points with the intensity of the sweep though; I found that even with the Blend and Colour dimed, the sweep never got “intense” enough. It’s a great phaser for subtle warbles, and as subtle as a dual-LFO can be, so by virtue of the feature set, it finds itself at number 10. Some players may really enjoy the subtlety, so your mileage may vary.

9. Roland AP-7 Jet Phaser

After watching Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone) absolutely shred one of these on bass, I had to try one. Unsurprisingly, the pedal is truly great. It’s basically the step between the original Roland AF-2 Phaser and AP-5 (Phase Five), though the model number is higher than either. The Jet Phaser featured a fuzz (Jet mode) that ran before the phaser for some truly wild phase tones. A rotary switch in the center of the unit features four Jet modes and two Phase modes (for those that prefer just phasing). It seems almost unfair to choose the AP-7 over the AP-5, simply because the Phase Five features a touch sensitivity mode where the player’s input signal determines the intensity of the phasing. That’s a pretty unique feature given the fact that the Phase Five came out in 1974. However, the Jet side of the AP-7 really seals the deal on this one; it’s raw, it sounds great on any instrument, and it’s really unique; only the A/DA Final Phase features another dirt circuit in series with a phaser, and it’s a much more subtle overdrive.

8. Loco Box Rotophase

Loco Box Rotophase

This pedal is basically what the Phase 90 should have been; a chewy ‘70s style phaser with a feedback control. Unfortunately, it’s also the rarest pedal on the list, and since releasing its first line of effects, Loco Box quickly got lumped into the OEM boom of the ‘80s, where the same pedal was sold under five different names. Soon after releasing the Rotophase, Cosmochorus, et al, Loco Box’s name was found on many pedals by many different names: Guyatone, Gig, Aria, Cutec, Coron, among others. If you’ve ever flinched at ‘80s Loco Box pedals at your local mom and pop or pawn shop, don’t let that experience override the goodness that is original Loco Box. Although eight Loco Box pedals were released in the ‘70s, the Rotophase in particular was the star of the show, with speeds that go lower than a Phase 90 and a juicy Intensity knob, which allows the Rotophase to sound about as close to a Leslie as a phaser can. They provide a subtle tonal boost when engaged, which makes up to the perceived volume drop many people hear with other phasers of this time period. They’re rare, but they’re out there.

7. Musitronics Mu-Tron Phasor II

Ah, the first controversial entry on the list. I’m sure several of you are set to dismiss the rest of the piece simply because the Mu-Tron II is at number 7. However, seventh best out of hundreds of phasers isn’t necessarily a bad ranking. There are several things to account for here; yes, the II is a great pedal. It sounds incredible, and it’s on several classic recordings, and to some people, it is the end-all be-all of phase shifters. However, it’s as big as a Yugo and is hard-wired for power, meaning it has an onboard transformer that makes the unit really heavy. Musicians gigging a whole board of hard-wired effects would quickly get tired of lugging all those transformers around. Non-sound issues aside, the phase sound is as chewy as any other on the list, it has a feedback knob which only enhances the chewiness, and the feedback knob causes the unit to self-oscillate at the highest settings, which I love. The unit is optical, with three dual-photocell vactrols for optimal smoothness. However, the peripheral gripes are just too taxing to rank any higher.

6. MXR “Bud Box” Phase 90

If I didn’t mention the Phase 90, this entire article would be amiss—it’s been a part of too many iconic rigs and classic records to mention. Not a whole lot has changed in the world of the Phase 90 since its inception, though some users claim the “script” versions (named so because the name “MXR” is printed on the face in a script font) sound better. That said, the “Bud Box” version of the Phase 90 is the very first incarnation, christened by collectors as such because MXR Innovations used enclosures made by Bud Industries before switching over to the heavy cast zinc boxes everyone knows. Simple is the name of the game with the Phase 90; there’s one knob: Speed. There’s no LED, no power jack, no frills, all tone. Though there’s no indicator LED, some players claim it has an adverse effect on the sound by drawing current away from the onboard FETs. Some say that the older ones sound better because the FETs were more precisely matched. And as far as the actual indication is concerned, as a friend of mine used to say, “When it’s on, you’ll know.”

5. Pearl PH-44

Another page out of the semi-obscure file, the Pearl PH-44 is Zachary Vex’s favorite phaser, a fact I’ve alluded to a couple times in my duration at Tone Report. Be that as it may, it’s found itself squarely in the middle of the countdown. Let’s start with the good: The phasing itself is really beautiful, and like any phaser worth its salt, it has a feedback control. Unlike any other older phaser on the list, it contains a “Manual” knob, which sets the frequency range, and an Input Level knob, which works in conjunction with the peak LED to ensure you’re not overdriving the pedal. This is a handy feature for us synthesizer players, as well as guitarists that run modulation pedals in their effects loops. What’s more, there are two different Speed knobs, which have a corresponding footswitch to toggle between both speeds. The unit also features a footswitch out as well as stereo outs. As for the bad: The unit is pretty big. One can’t help but think that Pearl could have made this half the size and still gotten away with all the same features. For our more aesthetically-conscious readers, the strange footswitch placement is a tad unsavory. The unit runs on an 18v adapter and features a proprietary Pearl chip that may be impossible to source. The writing’s on the wall for the Pearl phaser, as they’re getting rarer and the chips are nowhere to be found.

4. Subdecay Quasar DLX

Like the Lovetone Doppelganger, the Quasar DLX walks a tightrope between “too complicated” and “just complicated enough.” Five knobs and one rotary switch adorn the front, as well as a tap tempo footswitch (this is the only pedal on the list with this feature). While all of the phasers prior to this one employ what’s called a “sine wave LFO” to modulate the phasing, the DLX gives users control of that option also, offering a staggering 11 waveforms, including some atypical options such as a triangle-square mix and a Subdecay original, “argyle.” The speed control actually functions as a dual control of sorts; rolling the Speed knob all the way forward and back again extends the range of the knob. Halfway up the second stage of the Speed knob, the rate blurs the line between phaser and ring modulator; conversely, rolling the speed all the way down produces a tortoise-like crawl. Coupled with Voice and Freq knobs, the Subdecay makes no bones about offering users the full phasing experience. However, this many options and a lack of presets is a little disappointing, and the phasing seems a little inorganic. That said, the features more than make up for these gripes and it’s certainly worthy of the fourth spot.

3. Maestro Stage Phaser

Maestro Stage Phaser

Bob Moog designed this pedal, so it has to be good, right? Well, he did design the Gibson RD Artist onboard compressor…so, no. But the Stage Phaser is a real treat—isn’t just an incredible sounding phaser, it’s also very innovative, especially for its time. In fact, the sound and features of the pedal are so great that I’m able to completely look past the ridiculously huge footprint. Like all Maestro pedals of this era, the entire pedal itself is the switch, and all facets of the pedal are foot-controllable, from knobs to rotary switches—a hallmark of this series. In the case of the Stage Phaser, the foot-controllable rotary switch controls ramping functions; setting the speed to “9” and rotating the switch to the left slows down the phase until only the original input signal remains. This is an incredible boon for guitarists and synth players alike, as it finally brings the start-stop functionality of the Leslie cabinets to other effects. The depth of the pedal is controlled by a knob labeled “Balls,” so you know it’s going to be good. And it is—the phasing is as lush and rich as you can imagine. It only loses points because in my opinion, the slowest setting just isn’t slow enough. For all the things Bob Moog designed, this pedal is one of his most sadly underrated creations.

2. Electro-Harmonix/Sovtek “Tall Font” Small Stone

Of course, the Small Stone is on the list, and I believe this to be the finest incarnation of the venerable circuit. Much of the detractors from the previous pedals are here: Yes, the footswitch is clunky and seemingly unnecessary. Yes, the pedal weighs a ton, and yes, the enclosure is huge and unwieldy. But oh, that tone! I’ve played or owned every single Small Stone variant—starting with the Bad Stone, “spaghetti logo” Small Stone, the “Issue J,” both EH4800s, the black Russian, the “bubble font” Russian and the Nano—and none can hold a candle to the richness of the “tall font” green version. It adds subtle touch of grit to the phasing, and it takes distortion like a champ. The sweep ranges from glacier-slow to raygun-fast—a most pleasing phaser quality. It accepts line-level signals as well as instrument-level, so effects loops and synth players can feast heartily on the sounds. The Color switch can be polarizing, with some players preferring to leave it off, but there’s one thing everyone can agree on: The toggle switches on these old Sovtek pedals are things of beauty—you’ll never want to flick another toggle again after handling one. It results in a chunky, satisfying tactility that really reinforces the sturdiness of the unit. Sadly, the aforementioned nags in conjunction with some really thin, brittle internal wiring keep it out of the top spot.

1. Maxon PH-350 Rotary Phaser

Well, here we are. Number one is the Maxon PH-350, the unquestioned pinnacle of phase shifters—quest-ender and the only phaser I currently own. Other than the Quasar DLX, no other phaser in this list offers a “stages” switch, and unlike the Subdecay, which has a switch for four, six or eight stages, the PH-350 offers four, six or 10 stages. The 10-stage mode, as expected, sounds particularly juicy, but is sometimes too much, and I have to say here and now, “too much” is always better. I love pedals whose end-of-knob positions are 100 percent unusable. To me, this means that the control has every possible value one could ever want. True to this, the PH-350’s Feedback knob oscillates wildly at either end. “Either” end, you say? Yes—with the PH-350, the Feedback knob at noon is actually the zero position. Turning the knob counter-clockwise provides negative feedback, a strange hollow tone, and naturally, turning the dial clockwise results in the more familiar positive feedback. The Speed knob gets crazy fast and incredibly slow, just like it should, and no setting on the entire unit seems a hair out of place (except for the aforementioned extremes of the Feedback control). The unit provides a sweet subtle tone boost when engaged, not cloying like some others, and gladly accepts a line-level signal. The most important facet of the Maxon PH-350—and certainly the tipping point for its position here—is that it crushes distortion and fuzz pedals swiftly in its gears, and spits out a highly pleasing assemblage of phased tone. No other phaser on this list takes even the highest-gain dirt so seamlessly. This facet combined with the subtle boost makes it the sweetest sounding phaser ever made.

Honorable mentions: Frequency Central Sonic Death Ray, Moog MF-103, Boss PH-1R, Musitronics Bi-Phase, A/DA Final Phase, Prophecysound Infinitphase, Electro-Harmonix Polyphase

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