Some gear is bold, others just break the mold. One effect that defies all categories of description, however, is the Ludwig Phase II. As a synth-like guitar pedal built by a drum company, it’s a cross-over of the most bizarre and brilliant sort.
From the outside, it looks like something you might use as hipster carry-on luggage. Yet when you flip down the top handle to reveal a flashy set of controls and flop open the front panel to reveal an expression pedal and four funkified footswitches, it’s pretty clear this is a personal item that would even throw the TSA for a turn. So what is it?
I’m a guitarist yet even I know Ludwig is a drum company. Yet back in 1970-71 they branched out, diversified, and thought outside the box by building a stompbox. The Ludwig Phase II was the result of this exploration in expression. Even glancing at this thing requires some explanation.
The pedal (if that’s even the right word!) is often described as a synth-style effect, yet it is really a blend of a few different styles of effects to provide frantic and spaced out sounds. The effects on board are essentially a blend of fuzz, filters for gating, and modulation. These are controlled both atop the effect as well as using the controls revealed by the open front panel.
Let’s start upstairs. The control panel includes sliders and button controls. These include a slider for “Fuzz Mix” and three for “Animation.” Arguably the most enigmatic of controls, however, are the three buttons labelled “A,” “B,” and “C,” under the heading “Format Trajectories.” When the effect powers on, all these controls glow with multi-colored backlights. How could you not want to pilot this thing into outer space by playing with all these controls?
In the basement suite, the pedal’s controls are foot-controlled. The expression pedal sure shows Ludwig know a thing or two about making music with your feet. The sweep of the pedal provides an almost blended talk-box and modulation sweep that creates an unmistakable “ya-yow-ya-yow” type of vocalic sound. This is what they mean by “animation” up top.
If that’s not funky enough for you, engage any one of the four mushroom-like footswitches off to the sides of the expression pedal. Probably the most impacting of these is the fuzz, which gives the “ya-yows” a grunt and growl that is surprisingly usable and closer to the more familiar wah territory.
Yet for all this creativity, the Ludwig Phase II never really caught on. With an extremely short run and limited exposure, even the term “cult following” would be a generous way of describing the number of fans and users of the Phase II. So even if you haven’t seen one, where might you have heard it? The quickest and most apparent places are the intros to both Sonic Youth’s “Diamond Sea” from the album Washing Machine (1995) and Beck’s “Cold Brains” on the album Mutations (1998). In both cases, your ear might hear a guitar wah. Yet the hard truth is the effect was engineered by company of drummers!