Following on from the Summer NAMM highlights post and the standout Pigtronix Mothership 2 pedal, I decided to compile a top 9 list of guitar synth pedals. Some of these are a little highfalutin and over-large for my own pedal chain, but all have merit. There are a few pedal makers who dominate the ’Synth’ category of pedals - historically it has been Electro-Harmonix, and they still have the most offerings in this sector, more recently they’ve had to fight off a mini assault from EarthQuaker Devices who are the most synth-active of the newer makers.
To blur the boundaries a little, this category is often known as octave, pitch-shifting and synth pedals, and often includes bitcrushing too, for sure there is a significant overlap. For my purposes though I try to separate them out into distinct types, and have already an octave post in the making, and will probably do top 9 pitch-shifters and bitcrushers too - some pedals might find themselves overlapping categories, but we’ll see - and I will endeavour to keep them separate.
As always, I like to cover a mix of sizes, simple and complex / advanced, and different price points too. It is unfortunate that Mooer could not come to an agreement with Electro-Harmonix - apparently the Mooer Mooergan infringed on one or more EHX patents and the two sides were unable to reach agreement - meaning that it was withdrawn from sale after just a few weeks - this is a real shame, as the Mooergan is by far and away the tastiest mini synth pedal yet created and EHX still look unlikely to ever create mini pedals. They occasionally turn up no Ebay and Reverb - so grab one if you see it.
As reported, my pedal chain is rather extensive at the moment, featuring no less than 32 pedals, so for me form factor and footprint are essential. This is why I am likely to steer clear of the larger sized pedals and aim for regular or mini-sized ones. I have long had the DigiTech Dirty Robot in my sights, but this is now overtaken by the Mothership 2. I may likely get both eventually, and I also like the look of the Octasynth and Arpanoid.
NOTE - Pedals are pictured and listed alphabetically by brand, prices are the lowest I could find online for new.
In many ways this is the Mac-Daddy of synth pedals, being the size of a pretty substantial lunchbox, it nonetheless contains the most synth algorithms / voicings in its category (70 factory and 99 user-definable presets) with all manner of synth instruments, arpeggiations and cascading / stepped sequences. Unlike its Roland stablemate synth pedals, you need no specialist pickups for this - it tracks the input from any 1/4 inch input jack - meaning you can plug in any guitar or bass. This is great for studio use, limited live applications I would think owing to its significant footprint - obviously high price tag too, but you really do get a lot of sounds for your money - not really part of my current thinking, but nice to know it exists - I like the idea of it, it just takes up too much space for me at the moment - and I have more pressing priorities of course.
For a long time this was at the top of my synth pedal wishlist, it has only very recently been pipped by the forthcoming Pigtronix Mothership 2. This 2-voice synth is comprised of a voicing toggle and 4 dials, including 3 dual-concentric knobs - Mix/Mod | Start/Stop | Sens/Mod, and finally a Drift knob which morphs between Sub, Octave and Square waveforms - lots of versatility in a really neat form factor, and for really good value price.
For EarthQuaker Devices you could have picked various synth-type pedals, but I settled on the Arpanoid - which is closest in spirit to most of the pedals featured here. In essence this pedal generates a variety of arpeggiated sequences triggered polyphonically in major and minor keys. Not as full-featured as others on this page, but creates some really cool tones / effects nonetheless.
EHX are the grand-daddy of synth pedals, having nearly 30 different offerings within this category (Octave, Synthesis, Pitch) - including the HOG, POG, various 'X'9 pedals - e.g. Synth9, and of course my choice - the Superego. This pedal works off a sample and hold algorithm, grabbing, morphing and modulating incoming guitar signals polyphonically to create fantastic gliding synthesizer sounds. A great medium sized offering, only really outpaced by the Dirty Robot and Mothership 2 by the nature of their sleeker form factor. EHX make wonderful sounding pedals, they could do with focusing a little on engineering their enclosures more cleverly - to keep up with the current innovators.
Hologram are relatively new to the game, but already have two classics to their name, their debut 'Dream Sequence', and this in some ways even more impressive follow-up. Both are based on sample technology where the pedal grabs, processes and sequences and plays phrases back in a variety of ways. The Infinite Jets has 4 modes - Blur, Glitch, Synth and Swell. It's an unusual pedal for sure, but ambient players and the more adventurous will love it.
A really cool mini pedal that was barely on sale - and for which there are just a handful of examples in the wild. I've seen a few of these for sale on Reverb / eBay - but so far only after the fact. I believe Electro-Harmonix served Mooer with an injunction and the pedal was removed from sale before it really hit the major retail channels. It consists of a 3-way mode toggle - Shining, Hard and Vintage, with two small dials - Dry and Organ, and a larger Mod dial. For such a small pedal the vintage voicing in particular is awesome. I would definitely snap one of these up if I came across one.
Pigtronix have accomplished an amazing feat of engineering in capturing most of the functionality of their large Mothership pedal and carrying at across to a regular form-factor enclosure 1/3 the size. Most of the magic is a result of 5 sleek dual-concentric dials - Square Wave/Sub | Clean/VCO | Out/Glide | Dynamics/Tune | Timbre/Sweep, and then a Sync toggle and 3-way mode toggle - Octave | Manual | Unison. This is truly the synth pedal that is setting the pace. I thought the Dirty Robot was pretty fantastic, but this one doubles down on that - I will most definitely be getting one of these near enough as soon as they hit retail.
One for all you Super Mario Bros fans - this pedal has a distinctive 8 bit flavour about it - achieved via 1 or 2 octaves up and 1 or 2 octaves down. You then have some Tremolo / Oscillation controls, and finally sample and hold / filter settings - each 'effects bay' as such consists of a 2-way toggle and 2 dials. There are 2 footswitches on the pedal - one for Synth and one for Filter - allowing you to use the Filter Channel in conjunction with your dry guitar signal alone. Another really cool and simple to use pedal.
This is another pedal that has been on my radar for a while - and one that was running toe-to-toe with the Dirty Robot when I decided that I should likely get that. The Octasynth sounds fantastic with just 4 simple dials - Blend, Depth, Level and Resonance. When compared with the Dirty Robot, the latter offers a little more versatility with more control at a significantly better price - but the Octasynth is still a cool pedal - particularly if you want things to sound more spluttery and glitchy. I really like the glitchiness of this pedal, where some may want more predictable and smoother behaviour. This one is still on my wishlist behind the Mothership 2 and the Dirty Robot - and the Mooergan if I can get hold of one - that should suffice for a while. Will start with the Mothership 2 and see how I go.