When Were Phasers, Compressors, and More Classic Effects Pedals Released? | First Effects

This article is the third installment in our series on "first effects"—which looks back to when classic and beloved effects were first created, put into the form of a pedal (or similarly portable device), and used by guitarists and other musicians. Read the rest of the series here:

Many of the first guitar effects of the '30s, '40s and '50s were large, clumsy, electro-mechanical devices designed to reproduce sounds that occurred in nature, such as the echo or reverberation of a large, reflective performance space. Given the available tech, the only way to re-create such sonic effects was to literally delay or reverberate the sound, by recording it on a tape or wire that was played back a fraction of a second behind the original signal, or sending it down a coiled spring that added a lush, wobbly effect when blended back in.

As the late '60s rolled toward the early '70s, though, major improvements in transistor technology enabled entirely electronic—and far more compact—re-creations of desired sound effects, and the industry exploded as a result. This next installment in our series of historical looks at first effects digs into four debutante sounds enabled by the transistor revolution and the related boom in more compact electronic components: the phase shifter, compressor, envelope filter, and overdrive pedals.

Phase Shifter

Arguably the distinctive sound of the phase shifter, or phaser for short, arrived in the form of a pedal that did not carry that label, some three years before the unveiling of any unit that did. The Uni-Vibe was designed by Fumio Mieda of Japanese manufacturer Shin-Ei around 1968 for the Univox brand, and sold under the umbrella of New York merchandisers Merson Musical Products. It was intended as a solid-state representation of the Leslie rotating-speaker sound (for use with keyboards as well as guitars), but the circuitry that achieved it was indeed a four-stage analog phaser employing photo-electric cells.

If we want to pin this "first" on the first pedal to wear the name, however, let's look to the Maestro PS-1 Phase Shifter, released in 1971 (which became much more widely available in the PS-1A production model). The PS-1 was housed in a rectangular bent-steel box with brightly colored switches for Slow, Medium, and Fast speeds, but it still was not a "stompbox" as such—there was no footswitch on its top, and it was intended as a "desktop" (or "keyboard top") unit, operated by hand. There was, however, a connector on the back face of the unit to which a three-button floor switch could be attached.

Designed by legendary synthesizer maker Tom Oberheim, the PS-1 is a superb sounding unit based on a six-stage phaser using field effect transistors (FETs) to tune its filters. Unlike most phasers that would follow, switching between speeds induced the PS-1 to ramp up or ramp down gradually, just like the Leslie it was intended to mimic, producing an evocative effect, which remains a major part of its appeal.

It's worth noting that this joined an impressive number of "firsts" (or at least "most significants") in the effects department for Maestro, the electronics brand that stood alongside Gibson under the big Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) umbrella. Back in '59 Maestro had revolutionized portable echo with the Echoplex, and had released the first commercial fuzz pedal, the Fuzz-Tone, in '64.

Thanks to the PS-1, phase shifting became a major guitar effect to chase in the early '70s, and the use of Maestro's groundbreaker by both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and Alex Lifeson of Rush, among many other major stars, secured the effect's must-have status.

The genre was made more compact and more convenient by MXR's Phase 90 in 1974. Housed in a conventional pedal with built-in footswitch, its lush sound is heard slathered all over the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album, and on several tracks on the Clash's London Calling album. Around the same time, Electro-Harmonix unveiled its compact Small Stone Phase Shifter with one knob, one slide switch, and a footswitch, and soon every manufacturer worth its salt was putting out its own phaser.

Isley Brothers - "Who's That Lady?" (1973), with a Maestro PS-1 on the lead guitar.

Compressors were originally designed for use in recording studios, where they're indispensable for smoothing out the dynamics of individual tracks or mixes as a whole. As such, the original intention was more utilitarian than sonic-enhancement, but engineers and musicians alike soon discovered that certain compressors could also add desirable artifacts to the signal passing through them—sustain, shimmer, warmth, body—and guitarists inevitably wanted to take that sound with them to the stage.

Likely most people's first reference point for compressor used on guitar comes from Roger McGuinn's work on the Rickenbacker electric 12-string with The Byrds in the mid-'60s, as heard in the swirling jangle of the 1965 hit "Mr. Tambourine Man" and several other hits. McGuinn's sound was achieved, however, recording straight to the board using a studio compressor, rather than by playing through a compressor pedal as we understand them today—which didn't yet exist, in any case.

For several years guitarists sought a means of achieving that sound on stage, often resorting to studio rack units out of necessity. Then, in 1972, MXR released the Dyna Comp, a compact red pedal that reduced the size of the average compressor by a factor of about 20, while also greatly simplifying the user interface. In place of the studio compressor's confusing controls for functions such as Ratio, Threshold, Attack, Release, and others, the Dyna Comp presented simply Sensitivity (amount of compression) and Output, with a footswitch.

These knobs governed a clever circuit that included buffered input and output stages sandwiching a simple but effective transistorized operational transconductance amplifier (OTA), which imparted a soft, rich, juicy tone to the guitar signal in addition to the swell, sustain, and intended compression of the effect. In addition to all this tone, an old Dyna Comp usually kicks out some noise, too, but that's in the nature of most compressor pedals (since they kind of "inhale" and then expand the quiet passages between notes, which is where you hear the noise anyway), and many players are willing to live with it.

Every pedal maker and his cousin soon had their own compressor on the market. Better respected, and more enduring, among the throng are the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer that came out a few years after the Dyna Comp (made by Musitronics in the USA, others in Europe), and the gray Ross Compressor released around '79. The Orange Squeezer is famed for its use by Mark Knopfler on early Dire Straits recordings as well as by both Jeff Baxter and Jay Graydon on Steely Dan tracks. The Ross Compressor, much copied today due to astronomical prices of originals, is best known for its use by Trey Anastasio of Phish.

Envelope Filter

Hold on tight—it just got a whole lot funkier. If there'd been no adequate technical moniker for the envelope filter (aka envelope follower), the term "funk pedal" likely would have done just fine, given these things put the instant Dr. Funkenstein treatment on just about anything they touch. That being said, the classic envelope filter pedal was also used by jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, godfather of jam Jerry Garcia, and the always explorative Frank Zappa, so they're more versatile than that might imply. Still, when heard beneath the feet of bassist Bootsy Collins, for example, that's where these things are arguably most at home.

The first commercial envelope filter of note was the Mu-Tron III, invented by Mike Beigel and manufactured by Musitronics in 1972. If you're not sure whether you've heard this thing before, you have: the most prominent early example came courtesy of Stevie Wonder's hit "Higher Ground", on the 1973 album Innervisions, for which he tracked several interwoven parts playing his Hohner Clavinet through a Mu-Tron III. Pretty soon, though, the Mu-Tron III was all over the place.

The term "envelope filter" refers to the way these circuits function to elicit a kind of frequency-determined "wah" sound as you play the instrument. The effect is induced when an envelope follower at the front-end of the circuit triggers a signal at a strength determined by the strength of the signal played into it. (In other words, it's a combination of the setting of the sensitivity control and how hard you pick the guitar or bass string, or hit the keys.) The trigger signal in turn opens a filter after it that peaks either gently or dramatically at a given frequency, producing the distinctive sonic effect. In even simpler terms: the harder you play, the more of that juicy wah sound you induce.

The popularity of the sound inspired DOD, Electro-Harmonix, MXR, and several other makers to develop their own envelope filters, although purists will argue that none sounds quite like the original Mu-Tron III. Other envelope filters have also sometimes been labeled "auto wahs," although that name has also been given to some later effects that were quite different from envelope filters, properly speaking.

Grateful Dead - "Estimated Prophet," live in '77 with Jerry Garcia using the Mu-Tron III.

Ubiquitous as they are today, humble overdrive pedals actually arrived relatively late in the realm of "things that make your amp sound more distorted." Conversely, the most extreme effects from that genus—fuzz boxes—hit the ground a full decade before overdrives came along. But while both are intended, in simple terms, to add distortion to your guitar signal, they clearly do things quite differently, the fuzz box slapping on maximum hair for an extreme effect, while the overdrive generally seeks to make you sound like you're playing through a slightly more overdriven amp.

If we agree with many players in determining that the MXR Distortion +, released in 1973, is really more of an overdrive than a distortion per se, then we can cite this as the first notable entrant in this category. On one hand, the compact, yellow, two-knob unit certainly sounds less extreme than later pedals that would be labeled "distortion" versus those labeled "overdrive"—producing a mildly fuzzy clipping induced by germanium diodes—but perhaps words do matter, too.

If we're going with the labels, then, the Maxon OD-880 OverDrive Soft Distortion of 1974, made in Japan by Nisshin, arguably takes the biscuit. Not only did it carry that crucial moniker (alongside, yeah, "soft" distortion), but it achieved a more direct example of what we have come to consider overdrive to be: a gently distorted simulacrum of the breakup of a semi-overdriven tube amp, which in fact sounds its best when plugged into a genuine tube amp that's just on the edge of breakup itself (or, in some cases, a little ways past it).

The Maxon OD-880 also deserves a nod for being the precursor to the most esteemed line of overdrive pedals ever created, the Tube Screamers, et al. These started their run as Maxon's own OD-808 before morphing into the better-known Ibanez housings, and evolving into the iconic green Ibanez TS9 and TS10 Tube Screamers, and eventually the several contemporary reissues badged with both the Ibanez and Maxon brands.

Examples of "that sound" are all over the place, and although we don't have numbers to back it up, Tube Screamers of one guise or another have likely appeared on the boards of more name artists than any other single model of pedal. Oft-cited is Stevie Ray Vaughan's use of a Tube Screamer to help induce his fat, singing blues tone, and although he purportedly started with a TS-808 it has been credibly noted that he also simply moved on with whatever was conveniently available, stepping up to the TS9 and TS10 models as they came out.

Find the rest of the series below. Excited to learn more about the past, present, and future of effects? Get ready for The Pedal Movie, Reverb's first feature-length documentary, arriving early 2021. Click here to keep up-to-date with the movie's release.

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