Part One, The Overview
Some things just magically go together; baseball and hotdogs, peanut butter and jelly, and apple pie and ice cream (or cheddar if you’re over 30). I’ll add phase shifters and minor seventh chords to the list as well. Perhaps it’s my roots, as my age of musical discovery was the early to mid seventies when the phase shifter defined the sound of that era. Phasors could be found as a subtle enhancement or more often, boldly defining a song’s signature riff on a variety of instruments, sometimes even including drums and vocals. My favourites were invariably involving either guitars or electric piano and pretty universally, the minor seventh chord…. It just works. It actually works on any chord…or sound for that matter..
Over time, the phase shifter became the Cinderella to other more glamourous modulation effects, specifically flanging and rotating speaker effects. The technical requirements to create a phase shift effect were far less complicated or expensive than setting up and recording a large Leslie speaker or syncing up 2 reel to reel machines and then recording the result to a third machine. Flanging effects then became more attainable thanks to bucket brigade technologies that provided time delay in the analog domain however the holy grail of flanging, the through zero effect, remained unattainable without tape decks until the arrival of digital processes. While there have been many attempts to mimic the rotating speaker, including several adaptations of the phase shifter, this effect has only become completely available in a true accurate form most recently via digital technologies. With these accomplishments getting all the attention, the phase shifter became the neglected stepsister, for some, a tacky time stamp that defined what was uncool 70’s excess.
It has only been very recently that the phase shifter has been rediscovered as the great effect it really is. There has been a resurgence with new versions and re-issues from boutique as well as the old guard pedal makers, and some 10x+ price increases on certain prized vintage units like the Mu-tron Bi-Phase. In the past year, we have also seen a number of plug-in developers offer their take on the phase shifter, which for me is a great thing.
I would invite you to search for the technical details regarding the manner in which phase shifters differ from other modulation effects. There are vast resources out there so there is no reason to repeat them here other than a few basics. Phase Shifters use multiple all pass filters to create a modulating comb filter. The filters are called stages and phase shifters typically (but not exclusively) use an even multiple usually starting from 4 up to 12. The shape of the LFO modulating the filters also define the character of the result. All this to say, all phase shifters are not created equal and a true connoisseur learns the subtle nuances to match the right process to the right element in a recording.
Logic Pro X’s own pair of phasors are no slouches with lots of options and a very respectful nod towards many of the classics. The MicroPhaser packs a whole lot of punch with a simplified parameter set that will be perfect for many applications. One of the features that is unique to Logic Pro X's Phaser is the filter whereby the effect can be dialed in to only affect a certain frequency range. This is great for getting cymbals to sparkle without affecting the rest of the drumkit or keeping the low end of a bass grooving while adding some motion. In my opinion, it is a keeper since we have it but as we are driven to modulate, why stop there?
There are many new offerings available to add to one’s plug-in library and this is not a complete list, rather just a few that piqued my interest and now have joined the family.
The TC XII Phaser is part of a collection of digital emulations of the first pedals TC Electronics produced in the late 70’s. This plug-in features a GUI of a pedal that has seen more than a few barrooms…. In fact it, along with the rest of this collection are my only relic’d plug-ins…. As far as I can tell, the sound is not affected by all the chips and dents. What one gets is a wonderful rich and dreamy trip back in time, deep enough to remove any doubt about the modulation effect but without getting excessive and phasing for phasing’s sake. In my opinion, glory is when one backs off the effect until it is barely audible and then sneaks it back in just a hair.
Sinevibes Whirl was just launched as an endless phasor aka barber pole or Bode phasing effect. The barber pole concept is far more well known as a filter concept whereby the sweep regenerates to create an illusion that is always rising instead of sweeping back and forth. Sinevibes is typically known for more radical EDM stepped gating and granular effects so this was a bit of a departure for them, but as soon as I saw “barber pole”, I had to get it. There’s a song in every pedal and we can extend this to plug-ins too.
ArtsAcoustic Big Rock specifically replicates the 70’s Electro Harmonix Small Stone pedal. It delivers a sonic signature that is truly unique, not attained by units with a far more seemingly complex feature set. Unlike the pedal, one can access an expert control panel with a mouse click and create a whole new range of tones that are also great classic phase effects
Audio Damage AD008 Phase 2 emulates the Mutron Bi-Phase with a GUI matching the original unit including replicating the expression pedal functions via continuous control and the ability to route the 2 6-stage phasers in series or parallel. It should be noted that the continuous control option gets overridden in the AU format. Logic Pro X offers several alternatives for real time control.
Blue Cat Phaser is great because if you don’t like it, you can get your free back. Often certain free plugins are a throw away or are somehow limited so you get pulled to the cart to spend some money. Not the case here, this one is top level, very versatile, thick and rich with an amazing feature set. It is a great way to learn to hear the resulting differences between the various pole configurations.
Soundtoys Phase Mistress is perhaps the deepest implementation amalgamating the spectrum of vintage phase shifters into a single plug-in and then porting modern automation and control options. Of course, one can just use the factory presets, of which there are several times the combined offerings in all the other plug-ins I just mentioned. The real fun is below the hood with the advanced panels activated in particular, accessing the details in the shape and syncing of the modulator.
Really good phaser shifters also exist nested within effects sections in virtual instrument and guitar pedal processors and some of these are available as insert effects as well. You may already have more phasers that you originally thought and it is worthwhile to experiment and discover new sounds. I’ll present some examples of the above in a Logic Pro X session in Part Two coming up shortly.