Much of the time, effects are sprinkled over the top of a song or recording that add depth, texture, or movement. On more seldom occasions, effects are used more like extensions of the instruments being played in order to reach the desired outcome. The latter is the case with the Retroverb Lancet.
This is a one-hundred-percent analog effects unit with a multi-mode filter (we are given the option of high, band, and low pass settings); a real spring reverberator (which can be set in the unit’s signal flow either before or after the filter; a low-frequency oscillator with a variety of modulation wave forms and routings; envelope generator; and a voltage controlled amplifier which can respond to the LFO or envelope generator, and can even be driven to distortion. Each of these functions seem a bit random to have been grafted together in one box, but in practice they work together to create some serious magic.
A few years ago I began doing sound design for a scary Halloween themed installation, and I experimented with recording found objects being struck and scraped by miscellaneous other found objects. This was taken a step further when I decided to loop these recordings into rhythmic patterns, and route them through the voltage-controlled filter on one of my analog synthesizers. That was great fun, but there were a few hiccups along the way: the MicroBrute has a 1/8th inch input socket for incoming audio, and in my experience those cords don’t last long before they start hissing. Also, the MicroBrute does not have a “gate latch” or similar function to let the envelope hang open, so a key must be depressed in order to hear the affected sound coming out the other side of the filter. I remedied this by strapping one of the keys down with a length of Scotch tape. Another issue was the fact that the amp in the MicroBrute does not sound good when it’s overdriven, which makes feeding external audio into it a laborious task of tweaking levels until everything sounds decent enough to record (forget live performance). None of these problems were major enough to dissuade me from using the MicroBrute as an effect; though the experience did get me thinking: what if I had an effect pedal that gave me the joyous sound of an analog filter, without the limitations and frustrations of being hard-wired to a budget keyboard? Thus, my quest began.
I did a hefty bit of internet research: watching demo videos and reading reviews of several of these “filter-in-a-stompbox” thingies, and I was dismayed by the number of “filter envelope” pedals in existence that force musicians to satisfy themselves with a semi-adjustable automatic “wah” effect. There were only a select few devices which provided the programmability that I craved. The cheapest one I came across was the Waldorf 2-Pole, though I much preferred the depth of a four-pole, Moog-style ladder filter. Not to mention, I never liked the look of those little plastic Waldorf boxes. I waited. The Moogerfooger Ladder Filter was an obvious option, but I thought the omission of an LFO was a bit of a deal breaker. I finally discovered the Filter Lancet from Vermona, and, though it was the most expensive one apart from the possibly-overpowered Sherman Filterbank, I felt myself drawn to its compact, rugged look and smooth, juicy, Moog-like sound. I talked with some people who had used it, and they told me to spend the extra money and get the Retroverb: “It will change the way you write music”, they said. So, I did. And it did.
I had never really considered myself a spring-reverb-kind-of-guy, personally harboring a fondness for pristine digital reverb units like the Boss RV-2 or the Alesis Midiverb. However: I have been won over by the little metal springs inside the Retroverb. They sound fantastically gritty when cranked, and provide a subdued, roomy texture when used in moderation. The “tone” control gives us the option to roll off the top-end frequencies in a kind of basic high-pass filter, leaving behind a low rumble which can be a bit much if you’re cranking the resonance on the lowpass filter in conjuction with the “balls” knob being set past fifty percent. It would have been nice to see a simple “high” and “low” EQ section for the reverb letting us dial in the precise tone of the springs’ output pre-filter. Nevertheless, I find the spring reverb here to be wonderfully suited to giving a little headroom to damn near anything with a quarter-inch output (especially drum machines).
As stated before, the filter section is sweet and musical, with a real Moog-esque character. I assume this is the same filter present in the Mono Lancet (Vermona’s monophonic synthesizer desktop box), which I owned years ago and thoroughly enjoyed for the most part. Setting the resonance above fifty percent and sweeping the cutoff provides that “singing filter” phenomenon where it grabs on to frequencies in harmony with the frequency of the input audio. It is much more kind to the ears than the Steiner-Parker filter in the MicroBrute, which I believe is a twelve-decibel-per-octave design. It could have something to do with that; as far as I know, twenty-four-decibel-per-octave filter designs have a wider frequency range and must therefore have a “deeper” sound. Correct me if I’m wrong.
My final statement on the Retroverb Lancet is that it has transformed me from being the kind of person who prefers a pristine, clean sound to a person who thoroughly enjoys a saturated, grainy, overdriven, and slightly dirty sonic character. The amp sounds great when driven to distortion; the reverb, despite its obvious limitations, provides a kind of physically aggressive reflection that could be described as intimidating, and even menacing at times. The Retroverb has absolutely changed my sound as I find myself using it on everything. It has a magical, gritty crunch that I simply cannot get enough of, as it has the uncanny ability to make polite electronic devices sound instantly “rock ‘n’ roll”, if you follow me.