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Any time you've heard a certain effect and thought "Wow, that's cool, they sound like they're underwater" you were hearing the tremolo effect.
But you've heard it in a lot of places you aren't aware of, because more often than not it's used as a subtle effect.
Sometimes it's tossed on to add a sense of rhythmic complexity. At other times it can simply be an overtly apparent and fun effect.
And depending on the context it can be very dramatic, creating tension and unease. Or you can use it to create a very ambient and soothing soundscape.
The choices are endless and are all options you most definitely want to have in your arsenal. This simple wavering of your amplitude can be the effect that takes a well-played, yet boring, riff and turn it into an attention getting performance.
Our goal today is to explain exactly how the various types of tremolo work, how to use it in your signal path, and which features you want to watch out for as you begin evaluating a purchase. At that point you'll know all you need to know to make an informed decision, and we'll get you started by sharing our top picks out of the current modern line-up.
The tremolo effect is a regular pulsation of the amplitude of a sound, resulting in a rhythmic increasing and decreasing of the volume. This effect is continuous, creating a constant waving of volume that many describe as the "underwater sound effect." The earliest records we have for this effect reach back to 1941, and by the 1950's Fender was including it in their guitar amplifiers.
Leo Fender created the confusion between tremolo and vibrato (a regular pulsation of pitch) by calling the vibrato arm on his guitars a 'tremolo arm' and misnaming the tremolo effect on the amps as 'vibrato.' Why this happened is unknown, but vibrato was not remotely a new term at that point and now vibrato pedals are as ubiquitous as tremolo ones. It has been in the English language since 1876 and comes from a Latin term that's been around much longer.
We've all heard this effect in rock music, especially associated with surf music coming out of California in the 1960's, and later being heavily used by psychedelic rock and folk musicians to achieve a sound to represent a mind-altering feeling. Although classically this effect's main component, the wavering of volume, has followed a sine wave pattern, modern pedals and plugins have offered more complex patterns.
Beyond the obvious of needing a pedal built like a durable tank, because you'll be stepping on it, you'll want to consider if you want a bigger pedal, a standard size, or a nano size. This is all standard, but there are other tremolo-specific options you'll want to think about.
The wavering of volume can be performed in time with the tempo, which can sound nice. In the case that you want to pull this off, you'll need a pedal that has a tap tempo built in. But it's certainly not necessary and many if not most don't feature a tap tempo. I'd say it's only really necessary if you use the slowest rates.
Most have the option to change the shape, as well as the depth and rate, of the waveform of the effect. Others have extra features such as slowly ramping up the rate of the effect from slow up to the defined amount when you turn it on, or a hard/soft selector which is another type of waveform selector. You'll need to decide if you care about these extras or not. If they aren't crucial to your performance, I'd choose entirely based on the resulting sound quality and tone.
Tremolo is a strange effect that, while we know what it sounds like, we aren't sure how to achieve that in terms of placing it in the part of the signal path or even tweaking the knobs. No fear, let's explain real fast.
Your guitar pedals do have a very specific order they need to come in based on types, not only based on logic but as defined by nature if you want it to sound professional and natural. The order goes like this:
Tremolo is a type of modulation, which regularly alters the waveform. In our case, we're talking about warbling the volume. This means you need to go ahead and get all of your amplitude-altering and amplitude-dependent effects out of the way first, and this includes filters and pitch shifting since some of the amplitude effects require that to be done already. The only thing that should come after your modulation effects (tremolo, flanger, chorus, phaser, etc.) is delay and reverb.
Some companies want to rename all their tremolo knobs with weird names like Duty and Delta. We're not going to discuss those, because if you choose one like that it'll become evident which ones are analogous to the more sanely-labeled knobs.
In general you find four knobs and a tap tempo. Tap tempo lets you enter in the BPM of the song you're playing by tapping your foot so the warbling of the volume is rhythmically in time and feels right to the audience. Many pedals have hidden features where you can hold down the tap tempo button to cut in half or double the speed of your tremolo. That's kind of fun, like maybe doubling during the chorus.
Otherwise, you find Speed (sometimes called Rate) that lets you define how fast or slow the cycle of the volume changes are, Depth that controls how deep and high the cutting and boosting of volume is, and a lot of times you get a knob to change the waveform Shape such as sine, square, sharkfin, etc. Beyond these, you get your typical Volume and Mix knobs to control how loud the effect is and how loud your original signal remains.
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Now that we understand the features to watch out for and how to use tremolo pedals in general, it's time to check out what the current marketplace has to offer us for our well-earned money. Our overview of the best choices below is not ranked in any order, though we do point out which our top pick is. You can find the two other "best in class" options in the table at the top of this article, but do take the time to consider all of the pedals below. If they made this list, they exceeded our expectations and may catch your eye due to our differing preferences.
When you want a top notch pedal without breaking the bank, you can always look to Boss, and the Boss TR-2 Tremolo is right there with the rest. These indestructible pedals offer everything you need for this effect and nothing more to confuse or distract you. The best part of it is, for its affordability, it's still among the very top in the niche in terms of quality. Boss doesn't let you down.
So what are we looking at here? Inside the tank of an enclosure you'll find three knobs: Rate, Wave, and Depth. The rate controls the speed of the oscillation and Boss hooked it up so you can go faster than even their old classics like the PN-2. The wave knob lets you change the waveform of the LFO, so you can choose styles like triangle, sawtooth, and square. And of course there's Depth where you can choose the intensity of the effect.
What you should realize is this pedal is for guitarists and bassists. If you're looking for something for keyboard where you can create full-on synthesizer effects, then scoot on down the list to the EHX Super Pulsar. This is for the stringed instrumentalist looking for the classic effect with plenty of working room, but nothing that goes into outer space.
In the tremolo class of pedals, you don't have to pay exorbitant prices to get the best. In fact, the best here is about half the price of some of the others. I'm talking about none other than the Fulltone Supa-Trem ST-1. This bad boy does two things that others don't while still staying in the realm of expectations in terms of sound. It provides what the listener has come to expect, but does so in a way that gives you more options.
You're not going to be playing with waveform shapes here on a knob. They take care of that for you. You may think you'd miss that but not many people play with those features. They set their style and forget it, and that style is nearly always 'the classic style,' which is what you get here times two. There is a Hard/Soft switch that takes you from a smooth sinusoidal waveform to a harder square wave, but nothing in between. That's your two basic choices everyone lands on, so they cooked it in for you while still providing a Speed knob. In turn, they give you four extra options that you will actually appreciate and use.
The first of these is the Mix knob. The Supa-Trem ST-1 lets you keep some of the dry signal if you want, if not most of it. This way you can even keep your tremolo always on but keep it subtle so you have character and depth to your tone. Next you also get a volume knob to control the output amplitude, which is extremely convenient when used in a pedal chain. You also get a Half Speed switch. Say you set your Speed knob to 3 o'clock for most songs, but one slower, more emotional song would require you to bend down and tweak the speed. Here, you can just step on the Half Speed switch and the speed cuts back to around 9 o'clock. Perfection.
The icing on the cake is the LED lights and the true bypass. If you see the blue LED lit up, that means the vintage-style photocells are engaged. When it's off, you're in true bypass with zero tone or volume loss. If you see the red LED then you know you have the half speed engaged. It's simple, easy to read on a dark stage, and even simpler to use. But the above only matters if the quality is there, and oh boy is it there. It earned it's slot on the list for that reason and that reason only. The rest just sweetens the deal.
Some of us need a good tremolo and that's that. We don't care about the high-priced extras. Just give us one that does its job as good as the others and isn't going to make the wife cry when she sees the bill. That's the mini-sized Mooer Trelicopter pedal.
This micro pedal packs it all into it's small chassis. You get your main speed knob that controls the rate of the effect. You get your smaller depth knob to control the intensity. A unique feature here is the Bias knob, letting you dial in the amount of coloration you enjoy instead of always playing transparent. You'd think they'd have to cut other conveniences out due to the size but no, there's still the LED indicator as well.
Looking at this pedal, you can tell it's all business. It focuses on being the best tremolo pedal it can be without trying to expand out to other effects like the more deluxe options do. I appreciate this because I don't like jack-of-all-trades. They're often the master of none. But as far as those that I'd class as the cheapest in price go, the Trelicopter takes home the trophy. If you need a tremolo and price is of concern, this is what you need to aim at. Go lower and you'll regret it. Get this beast and you're set for life.
Now let's look at some of the big boys, the deluxe options, starting with the Wampler Latitude Tremolo Deluxe. We will only settle for the top quality in terms of the effect itself, of course, but some of us want all of the options (frankly as many as we can get) too. That's what you get here. The Latitude gives you your depth, speed, and even output volume controls. You get to tweak your wave form to three choices (sine, square, and peak), you get the LED indicators, and you even get true bypass.
But what makes this stand apart? First of all you have a tap tempo switch, meaning you don't need to worry about dialing in your speed to match the song. You can tap it in with your foot and then move on to the next feature which is the sub-division selector. You can change your tapped tempo by choosing half notes, quarter notes, dotted quarter notes, and even triplets. Or you can turn that off and rock at the whole note speed. That in itself justifies this pedal.
On top of that, you get a Space knob and an Attack knob. You can take the top notch core tone and tweak it with these. The Space knob lets you choose the frequency of the oscillations, which is a very rare option that's pretty dang cool. You also also change the speed at which the volume jumps to the full peak of the oscillation and back down with the Attack knob. With these choices, you can go from the classic shimmering tremolo to the helicopter speed ones that are becoming popular, and even create your own signature sound. For the experimentalist and the classical guitarist, this digital/analog handmade pedal has it all.
The spicy pedal just above is nice, but don't jump the gun just yet till you take a look at the equally full-featured Electro-Harmonix Super Pulsar. This is a purely analog, colored pedal that produces a sweet, warm tone. Like the Wampler Latitude, this beast offers tons of features, albeit different ones. Let's find out if you might prefer this one more.
You get your volume output control here. You get your typical rate modulation and depth controls (and can even put these in auto-mode based on the input envelope). And that's where it stops being even slightly basic. First off, you can tap your tempo in and then sub-divide it using the 'tap divide' option. You get triplet quarter notes, triplet quarter notes, dotted quarter notes, eight notes, and triplet half notes. That's nearly endless while still sounding musical. You can feed the tempo from an external clock pulse too. Tweak your sound from there using the waveform selector from sine, triangle, and square plus nine other rhythmic patterns by using the shape knob in combination.
Top that off with the ability to plug in an expression pedal to control the rest of the options using the expression mode selector. These include the rate, depth, shape, phase, and volume. If that wasn't sweet enough, you can save up to 8 presets so you can recall your crazy custom setups on the fly. But wait, there's more! It can run in mono mode for guitar or bass and can take stereo inputs like keyboard or synthesizer. When you use the pedal in stereo mode, they offer even more choices like wave inversion and phase shifting to kill off any possible destructive interference.
It's hard to call it between this one and the Wampler Latitude. Both have an unbelievable amount of functionality with a lot of crossover but different features too. Wrack your brain and decide which is right for you if you're an experimentalist. It's one or the other!
To cap it off we're going to dial it back a bit but not all the way. Landing somewhere between the most simple options and the most luxurious is the Diamond Pedals Tremolo. We're talking about a fully analog pedal using an optoisolator like the old vintage tube amp. We're talking warm and colorful with true bypass.
As expected you get Speed, Depth, and Volume controls, plus a waveform selector switch that gives you access to sharkfin, square, chop, and sinewave shapes, shown to you by the color and pattern of flashing on the tap LED. You get a tap tempo, which is always a plus, that also acts as a half speed / double speed switch. Like the others above, you have some tap divide options that include different time signature options, including 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and 2/4 (you have to combine this with the double speed switch to get to some of them).
What's cool is you get three more rhythm choices. One is called Rhythmic Trem mode that has a more complex beat to it, another is Chaotic mode that randomizes the speed, and the last is the Manual mode that lets you control the tremolo using the tap switch in momentary fashion. This pedal is a serious contender that packs in a lot more features than is obvious on the surface. You'll have to read the manual, but once you get it, you'll realize just how much freedom you have with this deceptively simple pedal.
When it comes to tremolo pedals you have to make a choice. As a guitarist or bassist it's pretty simple. You get a "normal" pedal with all of the basic options plus a few more and call it a day. For a keyboardist or synth player you'll need to find a stereo option that can give you far more "out of this world" functionality. That trims your choices down fairly rapidly. Just remember to focus on the core effect and core tone produced and not too much on the extras. All of the above have a beautiful core tone and that's why they made it on our list of the best tremolo pedals.