The Genius Of… The Gamechanger Audio Plasma Pedal
The first distortion pedal to really put the high voltage into ‘high voltage rock ‘n’ roll’ remains one of the most innovative and unique gain pedals of recent years.
Back in the 1940s, distortion was considered an undesirable side effect of various technical issues such as overdriving amplifier tubes or malfunctioning speakers. However, in 1962, distortion was harnessed within the circuitry of a conventional pedal – the Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which gained worldwide fame when it was heard on The Rolling Stones hit, Satisfaction in 1965. After that, many companies offered variations of the circuitry that would evolve into classics such as the Fuzz Face, The Tube Screamer, BOSS DS-1, Big Muff, and many others.
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These pedals all take an input signal and run it through circuitry to clip the audio wave, giving us a distorted signal. Minor tweaks to the circuitry produce different forms of clipping that we hear from different distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals. However, it is rare for an effect unit to come along and change the game of how we create distorted guitar signals. Enter the Gamechanger Plasma Pedal.
The designers of the pedal, Ilja Krumins and Martins Melkis, started Gamechanger Audio back in 2015. Since then, they have created a line of innovative effects units that bring stompbox technology outside the conventional box. In 2018, they created the Plasma pedal, which focused on a new method of creating high voltage distortion.
From a technical standpoint, the Plasma pedal works by using a tube as a medium for an electrical discharge to happen. The discharge gap is much wider and built into the tube, with a spark gap of 35mm. The medium that the electricity travels through is not air but a noble gas called Xenon. The Xenon gas reduces the voltage breakdown because it is a semi-conductive gas. It can ionise at certain voltages, helping the electricity to connect through a much wider spark gap and avoiding acoustical pops.
After the discharge happens, we cannot use the signal because it is not an audio level signal. It can get up to 3,500 volts. The way to reconstitute the new audio level signal is by picking up electromagnetic impulses with the use of an antenna, which then gets demodulated in the same way an AM receiver might perform the task. For the prototype, xenon tubes from old camera flashbulbs and a transformer from a plasma ball device were used. In production models, custom-made transformers and tubes are used.
The pedal’s most notable feature from a visual standpoint is the electrical arc that occurs across the 35mm gap. The blue/purple electrical arc responds to the signal that you put into the pedal. The harder you play and the more output signal you put into the pedal, the more vibrant the arcs will be. There is also a natural hard noise gate that occurs when the signal is not strong enough to jump the gap.
The resulting sound can be shaped from an industrious growl to a high-pitched electrical bumblebee, offering a wide array of uses. The sound is unique and instantly discernible from other fuzz and distortion pedals. The only drawback might be for those who do not like a noise gate and the fact that the tones all land on the extreme side of electrically infused distortion. For this reason, it may remain a niche pedal, but it did forge new sonic ground and has been embraced by many artists who do not mind the challenges of venturing into strange new soundscapes.
“We tried a bunch of different combinations to try to achieve a yellow discharge. After about seven or eight samples of custom-made tubes, we decided that we couldn’t achieve a good balance between the visual effect, the sound quality, and the voltage levels needed. So we stuck with the xenon but we did a simple hack where we just put a filter on the glass that made the spark look yellow.
“Actually, that was Jack White’s idea. We were reporting back to him and saying, ‘We can’t get it to be fucking yellow. Can it please be blue?’ he said, ‘No, it needs to be yellow’. Finally, he got tired of our excuses and said, ‘Just stick some fucking yellow Plexiglas on the screen’. So that’s what we did, and it worked fine!”
It is fascinating to see how engineers continue to push the sonic spectrum beyond its limits, providing artists with new tools to enhance their creativity. The innovations that await us in the future are beyond our imagination.
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