Tested: Source Audio Orbital Modulator

You want a flanger for your pedal board, right?  And a phaser too, right?  Crap… Well, two new pedals isn’t so bad.  You know, that Diamond phaser is really nice… but you probably want a Phase 90 for everyday use.  That’s like $400 in phasers.  Weren’t we talking about a flanger too?  How often do you really use any of these?

I’ve had that same conversation with myself.  Which is why I’m insane, and also why I got turned on by the Orbital Modulator from Source Audio.  At first, I was looking at various combo phaser/flanger pedals, but it seemed silly to spend so much for a multi-effect pedal that really just does two sounds.  I thought about a Mobius, but I don’t love modulation THAT much1.  So I looked to the Orb2.

Serendipitously, my moderate popularity lead to getting to demo the Orb thanks to the fine folks at Source Audio.  The internet is a fantastic place sometimes.

Essential info

First off, Source Audio does DSP.  That’s a good thing in my mind, because it means you’ll get consistency and a lot of flexibility.  It’s also the only way you’re going to cram so many sounds in a small enclosure like this3.

There’s 12 unique effect options, selected by the center knob.  Two choruses, five flangers, five phasers.  One of them, labeled “Classic” is essentially a combo chorus/flanger.  Speed up the delay time and it will sound like a flanger, slow it down and it’s a chorus.

The cool thing is, it’s not 12 effects trying to copy something already on the shelf.  I don’t mean that they are so incredibly unique, but that you’re not going to find yourself nit-picking how it sounds compared to an A/DA flanger or Leslie speaker – you just have to ask yourself whether the effects sound good or not.

For knobs, controls and general features, there’s plenty.  The manual covers it all in great detail, so I’ll just run through the important stuff with a few thoughts added.

  • True or buffered bypass.  I love getting the option here.  And even more so, I love when you just have to hold/press a button to switch.  This is the one feature I figured I’d have to open the pedal up to access.  No sir!
  • Multi-function “Option” knob.  This can be a little annoying, just because you’ll forget to push the selector button enough times and end up adjusting the feedback instead of volume or something.  But it definitely allows for an easier control layout.  Six options from one knob, all of them useful.  I wish the volume & mix controls were at the top as I use them most, but it’s no big deal.
  • Mod Source. Underrated feature in my mind.  There’s obvious benefits to being able to select a sine or square wave LFO – but the envelope followers are sneaky cool.  In my demo video below I use this to kind of amplify the modulation with louder playing – but you can get plenty of wild sounds as the modulation frequency jumps around to your picking attack.  Try it out, it’s slick.
  • Inverse mix.  When the mix knob is at 12 o’clock, it’s 100% dry.  This is weird.  As you turn it clockwise, it obviously has more of a wet signal introduced.  As you go counter-clockwise, the same happens, but with an inverse wave pattern.  This produces some unusual sounds.  I can’t decide if it’s a gimmick or really useful.  Maybe both?  I think most users won’t go left of 12, but there are probably fun sounds to be found there.
  • Setting locator. Something you’d never think about, but will be glad to have.  The physical position of the knobs are meaningless as soon as you switch effects or presets.  So when you’re trying to tweak a setting and need to know the starting point, you can start with the knob full counter-clockwise, turn on the preset, slowly turn the knob up and it will blink when you hit the currently programmed position.
  • Tap Tempo. Hold down the preset until the opposite preset LED blinks.  Use the opposite footswitch to set the tap speed.  I say this all the time, but nobody should ever sell a delay or modulation pedal without tap tempo.  I’m glad the Orb has it.
  • Expression & midi control. Lots of options here… the Hot Hand controller lets you adjust a lot of parameters with your hand motion.  The expression pedal let’s you modulate any parameter as well.  With midi, you can have more presets than you’d ever want.  Expandability is the biggest advantage of DSP in my mind.  Endless potential here…

The Sounds

I should mention here, that when you try this on your own it’s tempting to just scroll through the various effects and see how they sound.  Several videos out there do exactly that, and they usually stink.  That’s because the settings for a chorus effect won’t necessarily sound good on a phaser.  The Source Audio folks realize this, and built in a quick way to get a solid sound for each preset.  They call it the “Beam me up, Scotty”4 option.  Holding the Option Select button for a few seconds gets you to a recommended setting for each effect type.  It’s a good starting point for further adjustments or simply to get a feel for a given effect.

Chorus

To be honest, I don’t care about chorus.  I think it’s used in such lazy ways that I’ve lost the ability to look at it objectively.  But regardless, it sounds nice.  The irrational fears that some people have about digital pedals seems to be around what happens to dynamic range, headroom, etc.  So playing the typical clean guitar into the chorus effects is where I thought I’d notice these sorts of things, were they to exist.  I know it’s more common to worry about this with distorted tones, but I feel like on older/crappier pedals it’s an issue clean when you’re strumming hard and your amp is starting to break up.  Either way, I didn’t have any issues here.

Flanger

I really like all the flanger options.  It’s easy to overuse them, especially with the resonator flanger options that really wash out your sound with massive whooshing sounds that just sound so nice.  It’s like the wind passing through a graveyard next to the ocean in Scotland or something.

The Shadow flanger is kind of an afterthought it seems.  Nothing about it stands out.  It’s nice, just not special.  Maybe I’m using it wrong?  The manual has a very brief and feature-focused description for this setting.  Not very exciting.

The opposite can be said for the Thru Zero flanger.  Tape style flanging that was super awesome on old recordings5.  Very responsive to all the adjustment knobs.  I’d buy this effect as a stand-alone unit.

Phaser

First off, let’s cover the basic phaser effects.  The Orb offers four variable stage phasers, with 4, 6, 8 or 12 all-pass filters.  I’m glad they didn’t go further than that, because it gets really obnoxious beyond 12.  Everything sounds as you’d expect from any phaser.  I don’t feel like there are bad options out there in this department, and this is no exception.  To my ears, the phasers offer the most potential for enjoyment with the expression pedal, probably because of the dramatic speed and frequency shifts that you can get.

Now onto my favorite, the Vibe setting.  There are exactly 1,837,682 variations of the Uni-Vibe pedal out there.  This is another – but while 99.9999% of those variations are exactly the same, the Orb offers some variety.  Simply the fact that you have additional parameters to control beyond the typical speed/depth is a good start.  But my favorite aspect of this Uni-Vibe remix is the ability to bring in some tremolo.  I love vibrato pedals and really really love the vibrato channels on black/brown-face amps.  While this isn’t exactly the same concept, it’s better in a lot of ways.  Again, more flexibility.  Cranking up the tremolo and easing off the depth gives you this blissful classic Fender sound.  It’s one of the better replications I’ve heard, and I’m not even sure it was intentional.  Like the Thru Zero flange option, I’d buy this as an effect on its own.  It’s really a delight to have included in with everything else.

Usability

As I kind of mentioned with some of the feature round-up, this pedal isn’t mega intuitive.  It’s not complicated either.  You just have to, well, read the damn manual.  That’s never fun, but it’s a short enough read.  Some of the explanations for things (like their Tap Tempo instructions – these confused me for a good 3 minutes) might take two or three reads before they make sense – but it’s because they’re trying to explain something kind of weird in writing that could be shown in 2 seconds visually.

With the multi-function knobs and small/compact control layout, you’re not going to be doing on the fly tweaking of knobs with your foot (as I find myself doing often enough with a lot of my pedals).  The two preset buttons are a little snug together, but I haven’t run into any problems with them yet either.  I could imagine on stage you may have to concentrate on what you’re hitting little more than you’d like – but I can’t foresee many accidental switches either.  Having soft-touch switches helps, in my mind, because it makes it that much quicker/easier to get in and out of a preset if you hit the wrong switch.

Quality

I saw the price ($169 at the big boxes) and assumed this thing would be in a plastic enclosure.  Nope!  Aluminum.  I haven’t opened it up to see who makes the switches and jacks, but they seem rugged enough.  Like the majority of DSP companies, Source Audio manufactures their stuff in China.  Some people won’t like this.  Those same people are probably using a phone, computer, TV, microwave, etc, etc, etc made in China.  What are you gonna do?  China has the infrastructure for detailed soldering work, we don’t.  The company is based in the states and that’s where the engineering happens.  Probably a smart business move, as it definitely allows these guys to scale a lot quicker than the competition.

I’ve got no reason to be concerned about the quality.  I’m not an electrical engineer, so I won’t pick apart little details, but I know when jacks are snuggly held in place and everything functions consistently.  Seems like QC is up to par.

Bottom Line

The Orb has definitely lived up to expectations and exceeded them in a few places.  I don’t know that there is a gold standard for usability in DSP multi-effect boxes, but while this unit is simple enough, it still will get you lost now and again.  The quality is really good and the effects are extremely good.  The options to customize your sound are exhaustive.  Definitely worth adding to your board.

4/5 stars overall.

  1. Except tremolo, which I have a fetish for.
  2. “Orbital Modulator is a kind of neat name, but it’s too long to keep writing/saying.  “OM” is kind of lazy.  I like calling it “the Orb” and that’s just what I’m going to do.
  3. I haven’t measured, but it seems similar to a Hammond 1590BB enclosure. More square, but still, compact.
  4. Even though it should be “Beam me up, Mister Scott”… man I’m a dork.
  5. Until bands like Journey made cheesy use of it