This post was updated on April 22, 2020.
See also our article about the Best Pedals for Synths with CV In/Out.
The Best Synth Pedals with Tracking Oscillators – A Guide
Synth pedals are among the most misunderstood devices in the stompbox universe. Maybe because they are toys for musicians (guitar and bass players) whose job description doesn’t necessarily imply an understanding of synthesis in all of its deepest subtleties.
This page focuses on stompboxes that track and convert your guitar signal into a simpler wave produced by an oscillator.
To shed light on the various kind of synth pedals on the market, we published this article, which is highly recommended for those who are looking to buy their first synth stompbox. As you will find out, some pedals promoted as “synth” ones are mostly just filters and/or filter + fuzz combinations, i.e. effects applied on the guitar’s own signal that were already used by guitarists in the ’60s (like the classic Hendrixian fuzz + wah combo).
This page you are reading will instead focus on stompboxes that entirely replace the guitar signal, tackling the first category of pedals listed in the aforementioned article: the “Analog-Style Synth Pedals That Track Your Signal And Feed It Into An Oscillator.” Let’s quote here the paragraph that describes what these pedals do:
There is no analog synthesizer without an oscillator, i.e. a device that generates an electric wave whose pitch can be changed depending on how quickly it oscillates. The stompboxes that come closer to being true analog synths are the ones that track your guitar’s signal and converts it into a similar sound generated by an oscillator. These devices will then process that resulting tone through other circuits typically found in traditional analog synths, such as resonating low and high-pass filters and an LFO (modulation). A filter that cuts some of the signal’s frequencies (like a wah pedal) is the foundation of “subtractive synthesis,” upon which an overwhelming majority of analog synths are based.
These effects can be simply organized in two categories: Monophonic (pedals that can only track one note at a time, generating bass lines or lead parts) and Polyphonic (pedals that, if necessary, can also track two or more notes playing at once, like chords).
BEST POLYPHONIC SYNTH PEDALS
If you’re looking for deep, analog-style synthesis options with support for chord tracking (true polyphony), there actually aren’t many choices. This is due to the fact that the ability to track more than one note at a time directly from the instrument’s signal is a technology that’s been developed in recent years.
Click the arrow to read more about these pedals:
Boss, whose 2015 (huge) SY-300 was the first polyphonic synth pedal ever released unveiled its compact cousin SY-1 in the summer of 2019. Both pedals are feature tunable oscillators (the SY-300 has three, the SY-1 has one), giving deep control over several synthesis parameters. The SY-300, thanks to its size and LCD screen, offers also a multi-effect section, step sequencing, comprehensive routing, and a variety of user patches, and factory presets. Its four footswitches allow to adjust several parameters on the fly, an important feature since the most fun thing about synths is to tweak them live.
In late 2019 Boss announce the monstrous SY-1000, an eight-footswitch pedal presented as the most powerful guitar/bass synth and modeling processor ever made. Based on a new synth engine with custom DSP and 48 kHz/32-bit processing, the SY-1000 provides three simultaneous instrument types and advanced real-time signal processing, including an extensive effect section.
This is a machine for the “more is more” kind of artist: if you have an infinite curiosity for sonic exploration (and a bunch of time to invest in it), we can assure you the SY-1000 will keep you happy for a long time!
Electro-Harmonix, one of the manufacturers most invested in pedal synth technology, released the Synth9 in 2017. This is a truly polyphonic synth pedal that emulates the sound of classic vintage analog synths but features limited effect tweakability with just two variable “Ctrl” knobs. Guitarists who are not too familiar with typical synth controls and synthesis might find this pedal a lot more straightforward and satisfying.
Late in 2018, the Meris Enzo stole the show with its new technology, offering multi-voice capability, tight tracking, and a full synth palette of multimode analog-style filters, modulation, pitch shifting, and filter envelopes (among other things). Its synth tones were also very well received, so much so that it was voted “Best Pedal of 2018” in our aggregated chart of YouTube charts.
In late 2019 Mooer came out with the first synth pedal in mini format, the polyphonic E7, which packs 7 different analog synth sounds and an arpeggiator function. Seven led lights on the left side of the pedal indicate the chosen patch, which can then be edited through the four top knobs: Attack, Speed, High Cut and Low Cut. The Speed knob controls the speed of the Arpeggiator.
Polyphonic Synth Pedals with External Tracking Devices
The Boss GP-10 and the Roland GR-55 are also polyphonic synth pedals but are based on older technology. They require the proprietary GK-3 pickup, which mounts to virtually any guitar and requires no modification to your instrument, but at about $220, it is an additional investment. On the bright side though, these boxes allow greater sonic manipulation.
BEST MONOPHONIC SYNTH PEDALS
But do you really need real polyphony in your synth pedal? If you don’t, your options widen considerably, and if you’re looking for deep sound mangling for lead-only or bass parts (monophonic tracking), these devices could be just the thing. As mentioned in the intro, all these stompboxes feature an onboard oscillator triggered by the guitar, which then feeds any number of extras such as octave circuits, filters, LFOs and more.
Click the arrow to read more about these pedals:
The Pigtronix Mothership 2 features multiple synth voices created via octave and pitch tracking dividers while adding extra features for flexible sound synthesis. Five knobs allow for deep tonal control, including individual knobs for triangle, square and sine wave oscillators. With the ability to cover three octaves, this pedal also offers a glide function for super smooth pitch sweep effects.
The DigiTech Dirty Robot offers similar features in a stereo synthesizer emulation pedal, packing a fair amount of control over the various parameters to create filter sweeps, talkbox effects and much more. Two different synth types await prospective users, one of which is a formant style—unique to this list.
The TWA Great Divide 2.0 seems like an octave pedal on steroids, but what it does is wholly unique: It provides five independent voices, including a Syn[th] voice with four waveforms and a Sub[octave] voice, plus 12 internal controls to adjust various voice parameters. It achieves its tones by reading an onboard clock signal, splitting the signal, processing it and recombining it for a powerful multi-voice synth experience. Some of the Sub voices also allow harmonic intervals—that is, intervals other than octaves—for more complex tones.
For a different type of analog synth pedal experience, the Electro-Harmonix Mono Synth does just the trick. Featuring a highly evolved digital emulations of analog synthesis, the Mono Synth serves up extremely convincing models of several classic analog synth boxes, along with mode-specific control knobs to recreate all the idiosyncrasies of these legacy machines.
Keeley entered the market of synth pedals in 2019 with the rather uncomplicated monophonic Synth-1, a Synth Wave Generator providing three different waveforms (sine, saw and square, controllable through foot action). Controls are very straightforward with a big filter knob and smaller Level, Attack (4ms is the fastest it gets) and Blend. A Chaos switch introduces more unpredictable tracking and other special effects. The filter’s frequency can be controlled via an expression pedal.
In 2019, Boston’s Source Audio joined the small number of manufacturers offering a true synth pedal design with the release of the C4 Synth, which tracks a monophonic signal and feeds it to up to four parallel oscillators, each assignable to a choice of three waves shapes (sine, square and saw). Input/Sensitivity and Mix/Volume knobs are joined by Two Assignable Control Knobs. As with all of Source Audio’s One Series pedals, the front panel is only the tip of the iceberg. Additional features, accessible through the free Neuro Desktop Editor, provide access to the modular synth depths on which this pedal was built. The Neuro Editor offers a rich effect section that includes programmable sequencers, distortion, harmonization, adjustable envelopes, LFO, and 25 different filter effects.
The PandaMidi Future Impact V3 was originally made for bass but works well with most instruments and features four oscillators, two filters and deep functionality through the clever use of a “Parameter” knob that lets you use just one other knob (the “edit” one) to change settings separately.
The Red Witch Synthotron is a simple but very original pedal with two switchable synth channels, modulation, envelope filter and a unique sample-and-hold filter. Its oscillators can be finely tuned, then fed into an amplitude modulator and a sample-and-hold filter—two features rarely found in synth units. It comes with free software that allows you to forge new sounds from the comfort of your big screen.
The Subdecay M3 triggers three digitally controlled oscillators in a circuit inspired by the legendary Korg MS-20. An Oscillators knob makes the three oscillators interact with each other in 11 different ways, creating different source sounds based on a combination of sawtooth and/or pulse waves.
The Algorithm knob selects combinations of filter, amp and LFO settings. The Parameter knob tweaks a different function depending on the selected algorithm.
With its 8-bit µ-control synthesizer, the Dedalo FX Pixel transforms your guitar into your waveform of choice. You can get ascending or descending octaves and fourths, and mix your direct sound with the analog-dry-thru knob. Pixellate the sound with the aliasing control and generate harmonics that no distortion could ever get.
For lack of a better classification, we would be remiss not to mention the Zoia, from Empress Effects. Essentially comprising a guitar effect computer, the Zoia is what amounts to a modular synthesizer, letting you build a whole pedalboard on one device. The Zoia serves up oscillators, filters, LFOs and about 80 other things which can be mixed and match to your liking.
For a larger format experience, the Sonicsmith Squaver P1+ is a semi-modular, audio-controlled analog synthesizer with extra controls. It converts any analog input into a synth through an ACO100 oscillator and it’s able to extract gate, pitch, envelope and trigger CV from the input audio. The signal is then sent through several effects including a LP, BP / HP, 12 / 24db/oct resonant filter with CV input control.
by Paolo De Gregorio and Nicholas Kula
Here are a few synth pedal video shootouts!