Granular synthesis fascinates me. I’m not sure I could tell you what it is or how it works in any clear-cut way. I don’t know if I understand it completely myself. I just know it allows some very unique and interesting sounds to happen.
Some months back I was digging around online to see if I could find any way of getting at some of what granular synthesis can do without needing a computer program to take me there. I found a few interesting pedals.
There was this:
Very cool, but impossible to get. Very few have been made. To this day I can’t even find any information online about how much it would cost if I could finagle a way to get one.
There was this:
Also very cool, but not musical enough to my ears to be something I thought I would get much use out of, outside of a select few settings.
(Random/not-random note: you should watch all the Knobs demos, because they are mind-melting in their awesomeness and make most other gear-related demos weep with inarticulate shame. The guy who makes them is kind beyond all reason, too. I sent him an email asking some pedal-related questions just for the halibut, not expecting to get a response, and he wrote back with some very thoughtful advice.)
And then there was this:
And my brain went, “OH MY GOD YES! GET OUT OF MY DREAMS AND INTO MY VOLVO!”
Montreal Assembly is Scott Monk. As far as I can tell, he liked making DIY pedals and messing with circuits and sounds, and sold very small runs to the people who wanted the things he made. Then the Knobs video for the Count to Five happened, and the interest in that one pedal grew to the point that it’s been the main focus of his operation for the past year-and-a-bit. Every time he does another run he has to make more.
There are two ways to get one.
You wait for a pre-order to open up. The best way to know when this happens is to subscribe to the Montreal Assembly mailing list. You pay a small deposit to reserve a pedal. Then you wait until the next run is built, you pay the balance, and you get your pedal.
The demand for this thing is such that people who’ve opted for Way #1 will turn around and sell their pedal for two or three times what Scott charges. If patience is something you struggle with and money means nothing to you, you can grab one of those off of eBay or Reverb or some such place.
I went with the first option. I suggest you do the same if you have any interest in this pedal, because (a) it feels good to support the independent guys and ladies out there, (b) you’ll save a lot of money, (c) it’s kind of neat to have something to look forward to, and they say waiting builds character, and (d) you might make a greedy douche who’s trying to rip you off cry.
I got in on the last run in September, paid my little deposit, and waited. Near the end of January I got an email saying, “The thing is done, now pay for the thing.” So I did that. It got here yesterday, early in the afternoon.
I didn’t get the chance to play with it right away. My pal Kermit grabbed it as soon as it was unboxed and ran upstairs. I found him in this compromising position:
When I asked what he was doing, all he would tell me was, “I’m counting to five.”
Took me a while before I could pry that blue box of magic out of his green hands.
The Knobs video probably does a better job of explaining what the pedal does than I can. The gist is, there are three modes. Mode 1 is the most insane delay you’ve ever met. It can make your guitar (or whatever you run into it) sound like a beached baritone whale is singing a duet with it, or like it’s being devoured by giddy birds. It can also be a normal delay, a modulated delay, a reverse delay, a pitch-shifted delay, chorus, vibrato, and many other things.
If the CT5 was Mode 1 and nothing more, it would still be an amazing tool worth more than the very reasonable price Scott charges for it. It covers so much ground on that setting alone, it’s eliminated the need for a few other pedals I was thinking about picking up somewhere down the road.
Mode 2 is sort of a slicing looper/sampler. You can record a few seconds of a thing and play it back the way it sounded on the way in, or you can chop it up, rearrange it, slow it down, speed it up, play it backwards, and control how fractured it gets.
Mode 3 is similar, but now when you sample a few seconds of a thing it’s split in three, and while you can’t chop anything up anymore, you can control the speed and direction of all three iterations of the thing. You can also layer additional samples on top of the first one.
That someone had the smarts and the skill to make a “guitar pedal” that can do all of this is unbelievable. And as deep as it goes, it’s very intuitive. I was a little worried that when I got it I wouldn’t know what to do without the online manual. There was no need to worry. Within five seconds of plugging it in I was already getting sounds that inspired me, that weren’t like anything I ever thought I would be able to make a guitar do.
Whatever Scott did to upgrade the circuit for this revision, the mild hiss/white noise you hear in a lot of the demos for earlier runs doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Some people who like noise might be a little miffed about that. But when you plan on doing a lot of recording with the thing (and I do), I think it’s the right move. I feel like he found the right balance between sound quality and not making it so hi-fi that it loses its funky personality and becomes sterile.
What I’m really excited about, and something I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people experimenting with, is running things other than guitar into it. You should hear the things it can do to a ukulele or some sampled vocals on the VSS-30. You should hear what it can do to a harmonica. I can’t wait to get another singer in here who isn’t a dude and see how many different ways I can warp someone else’s voice. I can’t wait to try it on saxophone. Holy cannoli. The sound possibilities it’s opened up are going to be a lot of fun to explore.
I’ll never part with this new blue friend no matter how much it might net secondhand. Not even Vampire Kate Beckinsale herself could convince me to let it go.