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Tremolo Pedal Reviews

by Jack Orman

The tremolo pedals were subjected to listening tests in one marathon session so that each could be given a fair comparison. Although some testing was done with a Les Paul and a 5w EL84 Class A amp, the final tests were made using a Fender Stratocaster and a Tech 21 Trademark 60 amp set up for clean sound so that the true sound of the pedals could come through.

A tremolo pedal should pass the full range frequencies without dulling the tone and importantly, have no throbbing or pulsing caused by the internal low frequency oscillator modulating the power supply or feeding through to the output. Also, if the pedal is noisy, the signal will have a faint cyclic hissing sound. While not audible on a typical noisy stage, it could be a problem while recording. Click here for a sample of the LFO throb sound. Please realize that this is highly amplified for demonstration, but it is definitely coming from the pedal since the throb matches the pulsing of the LED and changes when the Rate knob is adjusted.

Many of the tremolo pedals tested have a common problem in that the range of the rate control has the fast frequencies all bunched up near one end of the control range making it hard to get a quick and accurate setting of the tremolo frequency. This is caused by using a linear taper pot for the frequency control when a reverse taper (hard to find) would be more appropriate.

All of the pedals in this test make a decent tremolo sound. They are more similar in sound than different. I'm not going to dress up the reviews by using a bunch of colorful adjectives like "buttery smooth" and the like. Some were slightly smoother than others but it is very difficult to tell the difference. I'll concentrate on the items that are most important to the sound - residual noise, loss of tone and distortion. Anything much beyond that is getting too subjective to be beneficial.

Many thanks to everyone who sent me pedals for use in this review session. Now, on to the reviews!

Danelectro Tuna Melt

  • Price - $39.95
  • Two knobs: Speed and Depth. 1 footswitch for Bypass, 1 toggle switch for Hard/Soft
  • Don't you hate the names of these Dano mini pedals? They are also very tiny and the knobs are hard to manage if you have big fingers as I do. Otherwise, this little gem performed quite well. It throbbed slightly but did not suck tone. Not true bypass. The "hard" setting of the oscillator could have gone a bit deeper. No distortion noted even when hitting the strings hard. Considering the price, this was a good performer.

Diaz Tremodillo

  • Price - $189.95
  • Two knobs: Rate and Dwell. 2 footswitches: Bypass and Speed
  • Of all the pedals in the test, this was the most disappointing when you consider the excellent reputation that it has. It is not true bypass (and not buffered) and seems to suck tone both when engaged and bypassed. About 50% of the range of the Dwell control is useless. It throbs slightly and does not have an external power input. There is a hint of distortion when you hit the strings hard. Even though this unit has a sine wave oscillator, the sound was not as smooth as I expected and was the only one where the asymmetry of the LFO oscillator was noticeable. There is no square wave modulation setting available.

4ms Tremulus Lune

  • Price - approx. $155.00 as tested ($135 - $175 depending on options)
  • 5 knobs: Spacing, Smooth, Depth, Speed, Fine Speed. 1 footswitch: Bypass, 1 toggle switch for Ramp
  • Easily the most complicated pedal in the test. It's major flaw is that there is a distinct tone loss in the tremolo signal. It performed better with humbucking pickups than with the Strat. The bypass footswitch is very fragile looking and would not hold up under heavy use. This is an older model of the Lune and 4ms can customize a new model as you like. I spent a long time tweaking the knobs on this one and it does a good job once you get the feel of the controls. It's definitely not for someone who likes to plug-n-play, but if you like having full control over the effect parameters then this is the one for you. The company recently changed its named from 3ms Pedals.

Rocktron Surf Tremolo

  • Price - $59.95
  • 5 knobs: Rate, Depth, Hush, Enhance, Compress. 2 footswitches: Trem and Compress
  • The Rocktron has several unusual features. It is actually a dual effect with a Compressor in series before the Tremolo. The Compressor was not used in the tests. It also has a knob labeled "Hush" that controls an internal noise reduction system. Even though the pedal throbbed, careful setting of the Hush control could eliminate it. The Rocktron also has two output jacks; one for the triangle wave modulated signal and another for the hard square wave modulation instead of a switch to select between them. The tone sucking was hard to judge since the "Enhance" control seems to operate like a tone control and extra high frequencies could be dialed in to compensate. This pedal was fairly noisy and only the noise reduction made it useable. It may be discontinued and you could pick one up at a bargain price.

Voodoo Lab Tremolo

  • Price - $109.95
  • 4 knobs: Intensity, Slope, Speed, Volume. 1 footswitch for Bypass
  • I tested this pedal repeatedly and there seemed to be just a very mild loss of tone when it was engaged but it was really hard to hear. It was also the only pedal in the tests that did not have some LFO throb. The tremolo was nice and smooth. No distortion on hard strums. The only thing missing from this pedal is a second footswitch to alter the speed range of the tremolo. Excellent sounding pedal.

Ibanex TL-5

  • Price - $39.00
  • 3 knobs: Level, Speed, Depth, 1 footswitch for Bypass
  • The plastic body Ibanez was the noisiest pedal in the test - it sounded like the surf was rolling in. It also had the oscillator throb. Not true bypass but it must be buffered because I couldn't detect tone loss when it was disengaged. It would be a decent pedal if it wasn't so noisy.

Monster Effects Swamp Thang

  • Price - $225.00
  • 2 knobs: Speed, Intensity, 2 footswitches: Bypass, Speed
  • They must have named this Monster Effects because the box is so big! It is easily the largest pedal tested... I have amplifiers smaller than this pedal! The Swamp Thang is a modification of the basic Diaz Tremodillo circuit and just changing a few component values did little to improve its shortcomings - the best change is that it is true bypass and the Tremodillo is not. There is a noticeable loss of highs and the tremolo cycles somewhat asymmetrically. These factors may contribute to the perception by some that this circuit has the sound of a vintage amp. Compare the Swamp Thang against the Voodoo Lab pedal in this MP3 clip and see what you think; two chords through the Swamp followed by the same two chords through the Voodoo with only the footswitches toggled between them.

Demeter Tremulator

  • Price - $184.95
  • 2 knobs: Speed, Depth, 1 footswitch for Bypass
  • The first rounds of tests were done with a Strat but then I switched to an Epiphone Casino. The differences in the pedals really came out at this point. The Demeter does not like humbuckers. It definitely had a less rich tone compared to some others when driven by the Casino. Reasonably priced an versatile.

Empress Tremolo

  • Price - $249 Canadian, about $225 US
  • 4 knobs: Rate, Depth, Rhythm, Gain, 2 footswitches: Bypass and Tap, 2 toggle switches
  • This is by far the most versatile tremolo that I have tested. It has a tap switch so that the rate can be easily set by hitting the switch in time with the music - a welcome addition! It is quiet with no noticeable hum or noise. The sound is very good with only the slightest loss of upper frequency sheen. The downside to this pedal is that it has to be powered by an external power supply - no battery. There is a PIC microprocessor inside that is providing all of the cool features and the audio signal goes through an OPA2134 low noise opamp. It is a well engineered design that gets a hearty recommendation.

The Bottom Line - The Danelectro is good if you are on a limited budget, don't expect a lot of features and won't be too hard on the plastic case. The Voodoo Lab Trem is an fine choice but if you like to diddle knobs then the Empress is the way to go. The Voodoo and Empress sound nice and are well constructed. The Ibanez is too noisy and the Diaz is only a mediocre performer, especially if you consider its cost.

All of the pedals were tested on more than one day, using three guitars and two amps to get a better feel for their response. The results given here are a non-scientific listening test and the results with your guitar and amp may be different.

Danelectro Tuna MeltGood modulation, hard sound available, no tone loss LFO throbs, tiny knobs, plastic case***
Diaz TremodilloSolid construction, Speed footswitchMild LFO throb, some tone loss, not true bypass **½
4ms Tremulus LuneMost control options, unique LFO ramp switch LFO throbs mildly, noticeable tone loss***½
Rocktron Surf TremHUSH noise reduction, dual outputs LFO throbs***
Voodoo Lab TremoloSmooth modulation, No LFO throb, nice rich soundVery slight tone loss****½
Ibanez TL-5Small size, inexpensive, no tone loss, LFO throbs, noisy**
Swamp ThangSolid construction, Speed footswitchMild LFO throb, some tone loss, very large box, cost **½
Demeter TremulatorSmooth modulation, rich soundMild LFO throb, no hard LFO ***½
Empress TremoloQuiet sound, very versatile. Tap tempoNo battery power ****½
  LFO = low frequency oscillator

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