The best guitar pedals to buy in 2021: 12 best pedals for ambient music

It’s time to drone on and shimmer out.

Ambient Pedals 2021

Playing ambient guitar opens up a whole new way of connecting with your instrument. It’s an almost meditative practice where building layers of abstract sounds, focusing on mood and texture takes precedence over rhythm or melody.

The argument that your whole rig is an instrument is strongest in the context of ambient music: coaxing textures, drones and shifting patterns out of your gear becomes an art in itself. To do so, however, you’re going to need the right pedals. We’ve compiled a list of stompboxes that are sure to aid you on your soundscaping journey.

What makes a pedal good for ambient music?

Some ambient players rely purely on sustain and space from lengthy reverbs, while others prefer to use layered guitar sounds to create an abstract soundscape. In either case, an ambient pedal’s key feature is transformation. The inherent sound of an electric guitar note is not particularly ‘ambient’ in itself – there’s a strong transient and then a relatively fast falloff. So, in order to create a fuller ambience, the general approach is to do two things: soften the attack of a note and extend its sustain.

These two things can be achieved in countless ways. A note’s attack can be hidden by EQ-ing out high end, or by rolling up your volume control (or a volume pedal) after strumming to create swells. Sustain can be extended ‘naturally’ with overdrive, distortion or harmonic feedback, but delays and reverbs also extend a note or chord, and can offer some interesting ways to manipulate it. In this context, too, delays and reverbs are often favoured for their cleaner, less abrasive approach to creating sustain.

There are countless other creative ways pedal makers have allowed guitarists to create ambient sounds, so let’s dive in.

The best ambient guitar pedals at a glance:

  • Hologram Microcosm
  • Earthquaker Devices Afterneath V3
  • Death By Audio Rooms
  • Electro Harmonix Freeze
  • Chase Bliss Mood
  • Champion Leccy Swan Hunter
  • Collision Devices Black Hole Symmetry
  • Strymon Night Sky
  • KMA Machines Tyler
  • Old Blood Noise Endeavours Dark Star
  • RaingerFX Drone Rainger
  • Ernie Ball VP JR Tuner

Hologram Microcosm

Hologram Microcosm

+ Huge amount of options and effects
+ Versatile operation with a lot of connectivity
– Control set might be overkill for some

The Hologram Microcosm certainly capitalises on the promise of transformation: making use of granular sampling, it slices your signal up into tiny samples, and then rearranges them to create incredibly gorgeous and unique delay, reverb and glitch effects. Thanks to the nature of granular sampling, your sound becomes strongly abstracted from the idea of any sort of guitar.

The phrase looper can also help create meaningful repetitions within more abstract soundscapes, and if you’re not feeling in the ambient mood, the pedal is capable of some more traditional effects, too.

Price: $449 (direct from Hologram Electronics)
Description: Granular multi-effects unit with phrase looper
Controls: Effect selector knob, knobs for ‘Activity’, modulation shape and frequency, filter frequency and resonance, mix, delay time, delay repeats, reverb space and time, loop level and loop fade time, bypass footswitch, tap-tempo/rec/play/dub footswitch and hold/stop/erase footswitch
Mono or stereo: Stereo

Earthquaker Devices Afterneath V3

Earthquaker Devices Afterneath V3

+ Pitched reverb can be very synth-like and musical
+ Added expression support in V3
– Pitch-shifting can get a little much

The latest version of EQD’s Afterneath takes a tried and tested digital reverb algorithm chock full of ethereal spaciness and pitch-shifting oddness and adds yet more features.

The pedal’s big selling point is the interaction between the Mode control and the Drag control, with the former adjusting the latter’s behaviour. The Drag control, now adjustable via an expression pedal, sweeps your reverb trail up through a certain set of pitches. The Mode control introduces varying amounts of quantisation, meaning you can have completely smooth drifting all over the place, or some arpeggiation locked to a certain scale.

The pitch-shifted reverb trails are excellent ingredients for cooking up a soundscape, and if you so please, can completely take over your signal. The extra control and quantisation also lets you adjust how wild and atonal your creations are.

Price: $199/£199
Description: Pitch-drifting reverb made of cascading delays with support for expression and CV control over pitch
Controls: Length, diffuse, dampen, reflect, drag (pitch drift), mix
Mono or stereo: Mono

Read our full review here.

Death By Audio Rooms

Death By Audio Rooms

+ Huge immersion, especially in stereo
+ Alt switch function for control-morphing
– Not for those looking for a clean reverb

The Rooms is a strong candidate for addition to your ambient board: it’s stereo, it has a multitude of controls, core sounds and expressive capabilities, potentially infinite sustain and of course, that lick of Death By Audio’s signature sonic chaos. There are some traditional sounds on offer, the majority of the six sounds the pedal has on board are designed not to emulate the sound of a particular space but instead to create distorted, glitchy and dynamic ambiences. Notably, some of the controls have secondary options, which are morphed to when the Alt footswitch is pressed.

In classic Death By Audio fashion, when the Rooms was launched in 2020 its marketing copy included the phrase “control the Spice, control the universe.” So if you’re looking for a pedal that will make you see through time, this is it.

Price: $395 / £425
Description: Multi-mode digital reverb pedal, voiced for experimental and glitchy sounds
Controls: Mode selection rotary switch, Frequency, Depth, Time controls (plus F, D and T secondary controls), dry mix, wet mix
Mono or stereo: Stereo

Electro-Harmonix Freeze

Electro-Harmonix Freeze

+ Very affordable
+ Lots of stacking opportunities
– Needs to be combined with other pedals for best results

The Freeze is an unassuming little pedal, but it could prove to be the missing piece of your ambient rig. Its function is simple: press the footswitch, and whatever note or chord you were playing will continue. Forever, if you use the ‘latch’ mode.

Even on its own through a clean amp, it can be used with some tap-dancing skills to create a lot of immersion. Where it excels, however, is when it’s combined with other pedals: place it after any reverb to get infinite trails. Pair it with a volume pedal for lengthy cello-like swells. With a little compression and some reverb after it, you’re given a pedal note that gets out of the way of your playing, but blooms back in when there is room.

Price: £109 / $135
Description: Sample-and-hold-pedal that extends a chord or note for however long you hold the footswitch (slow and fast modes) or indefinitely (latch mode).
Controls: Slow, fast or latch mode switch, freeze level control
Mono or stereo: Mono

Chase Bliss Mood

Chase Bliss Mood

+ Characterful approach to looping
+ Endlessly experimental
– Steep learning curve

The Mood from Chase Bliss is pretty far from the one-knob simplicity of the Freeze. It’s a two-channel looper, with each channel sporting some different effects. There’s a lot of complex interconnectivity between the two sides of the pedal (one designed by Old Blood Noise Endeavours, the other by Drolo Effects) far too much to detail here, but in short: you can play a phrase, and then listen as the two sides of the Mood pass it back and forth, adding woozy reverb and modulation until a gorgeous soundscape is created.

The central clock control slows or accelerates both sides of the pedal simultaneously, in harmonised steps. This can be used to shift your loop out of the way of your playing, turning it into strange warbles or deep, noisy atmosphere.

While the complexity of the pedal leads to a steep learning curve, it’s perfect for experienced tone tinkerers looking to up their looping game.

Price: £349 / $349
Description: Granular micro-looper / delay
Controls: Dipswituch bank, OBNE side: Time, Modify, mode selection. Drolo side: Length, Modify, mode selection. Both: Clock, Mix, input routing selection switch
Mono or stereo: Mono

Champion Leccy Swan Hunter

Champion Leccy Swan Hunter

+ Tonnes of character
+ Ducking allows for on-the-fly sidechaining of pads and melodies
– Not for those who want pristine reverb and delay

The Swan Hunter combines reverb and echo, and while that in itself is not particularly groundbreaking, neither are your common or garden time-based effects. The two aspects of the pedal interact in a multitude of ways: there’s the Confluence knob, which blends between having the reverb in series or parallel with the delay.

The Fore/Aft switches for both the reverb and echo change how your trails duck in and out as you play: in Fore mode, the repeats or reverb trails can be heard when you play, but when you stop playing they decrease in volume. In Aft mode, the opposite takes place, with the effect stepping in to fill the gaps between phrases. This feature is great for ambient players who want to impart a little bit of melody over an oscillating reverberation, and have its memory persist onwards into the drone.

The gritty character of the reverb and echo, along with the low-pass filtering add up to some gorgeously filtered lo-fi tones, as if your guitar is coming from an AM radio someone’s lowered into a well.

Price: $275, direct from Champion Leccy
Description: Lo-fi reverb and echo, with independent ducking of the wet signal
Controls: Reverb side: Confluence (series/parallel blend), Fog (feedback) Brake / Break footswitch. Echo side: History (main delay time), Haunt (feedback), Memory (tape-style echo repeat time). Both sides: Fore / Aft switches, Ballast control (for ducking sensitivity), Fret low-pass filter switch
Mono or stereo: Mono

Collision Devices Black Hole Symmetry

Collision Devices Black Hole Symmetry

+ Gorgeous, destructive sounds
+ Individual footswitches per effect
– Some might want more control over each aspect

The Collision Devices Black Hole Symmetry collects three effects into one enclosure: fuzz, delay and reverb. The time-based side of things offers up some oddness – the reverb can warp the signal in pitch, up to a fifth. Its decay also approaches almost infinity as you turn the knob to max. The delay is a modulated one, and excels in how it balances disintegrating into complete oscillation and keeping the repeats tangible.

The fuzz, or ‘disintegrate’ in this case, allows for the addition of some more abrasive textures to the soundscapes you’re creating. When combined with the sustaining, shifting nature of the Black Hole Symmetry’s time-based effects, it all adds to something – appropriately enough – otherworldly.

Price: £285 / €282.50
Description: Echo, Reverb and Fuzz pedal, with each benign individually footswitchable
Controls: Reverb: Echo (time), Mix, pitch amount, pitch mix. Echo: Modulation amount and speed, feedback, mix and time. Fuzz: Disintegrate (volume).
Mono or stereo: Mono

Strymon NightSky

Strymon NightSky

+ Enormous amount of control
+ Different character to the more common BigSky
– Some might prefer a more straightforward reverb

As the name suggests, the Night Sky is a darker, slightly more experimental counterpart to Strymon’s Big Sky. It’s got several features that make it great for ambient music – it’s stereo, for one, which already ups the immersion. Separate mix controls for wet and dry signals let you fine-tune the sound further, and a dedicated Infinite footswitch captures any given sound and extends it out into space forever.

While traditional reverb sounds are on offer here, the pedal also excels at woozy, unique sounds. A huge preset bank and the ability to morph between two sounds at the press of a footswitch further cements the NightSky as an ambient ‘workstation’ rather than just a pedal.

Price: £399 / $429
Description: Multi-function stereo reverb with analogue dry-through
Controls: Modulation speed and depth with buttons for target and shape; decay length and size/pitch with buttons for texture and quantize; tone low cut and high cut with button for filter response; voice interval and shimmer level with buttons for shimmer type, glimmer and overdrive; reverb and dry output levels; preset/sequence buttons 1-8; footswitches for bypass, favourite and infinite with secondary functions; instrument/line input level switch
Mono or stereo: Stereo

Read our full review here.

KMA Machines Tyler Deluxe

KMA Machines Tyler Deluxe

+ Extensive controls
+ Opens up endless stacking and tone-building opportunities
– Doesn’t do much without other pedals

Like the Freeze, the Tyler is a little more of a ‘utility’ pedal that just so happens to be incredibly helpful for ambient rigs. What does it do? It uses a high-pass filter and a low-pass filter to chop your sound along a certain point in the frequency spectrum. It then sends these signals through two different effects loops – meaning your bass frequencies can be put through one set of pedals, and your treble frequencies through another.

For ambient music, this opens up a huge world of possibilities. Creating a full-frequency soundscape can have a lot more depth when you can add different textures to different ends of your frequency spectrum. Droning, deep reverbs can be reserved for the bass, and expressive, compressed chord strums for the treble.

The deluxe edition adds transformer-coupled send jacks. These eliminate the ground loops that can occur when using the Tyler Deluxe into two amplifiers, as the ground connection is no longer shared between them. Relatedly, both loops also have their own phase-invert switch, to compensate for any phasing issues that may occur down the line.

Price: $319.99 / £249
Description: Low- and High-pass filter pedal with effects loop for each frequency band
Controls: LP and HP frequency knobs, LP and HP cut and phase toggles, mix, main phase toggle, output level, clean blend, LP and HP FX loop footswitches.
Mono or stereo: Mono

Old Blood Noise Endeavours Dark Star

Old Blood Noise Endeavours Dark Star

+ Ambient pads right out of the box
+ Focused set of sounds, each with a lot of character
– Some might want more controls

The Dark Star is a reverb built for pads. Its sustain length is infinite, meaning either octave-shifted synth-like textures or endless, bitcrushed dronescapes. The pitch mode is particularly handy for ambient players, with the secondary footswitch offering some interesting extra pitch effects such as tape-like rewind sounds.

The Mix control also lets you kill your dry signal entirely, perfect for softening your pick attack. Notably, the infinite reverb doesn’t sustain cleanly – it wears down over time, decaying like a Basinski Disintegration Loop.

Price: £189 / $199
Description: Pad reverb pedal with infinite decay and three modes
Controls: Two multi-function ‘ctrl’ knobs, mode selection, wet/dry mix, reverb length.
Mono or stereo: Mono

Rainger FX Drone Rainger

Rainger FX Drone Rainger

+ Interesting stacking opportunities
+ A lot of control over the tone generators
– Constant drones might not be how you want to build a sound

The Drone Rainger is an analogue delay, which can create some lush, spacious sounds by itself, but also adds two controllable, pitched drones to your signal. Unlike the Electro-Harmonix Freeze or an infinite reverb, the drones here are not created by sampling your playing – on board are two actual analogue tone generators.

These can be pitched individually, with two footswitches affecting their sound. The Mix/Pitch 2 footswitch changes between a blend on the two drones or only the second pitch, while the Interfere footswitch does one of two things: it either drops the overall pitch and then slowly raises back up, or pitches the second drone up, and slowly brings it back down. Either way, it can sound like Boards Of Canada are trying to communicate with some nearby whales, which for this list is a big plus. While a constant drone might also be a tough sell outside of the world of ambient and experimental guitar playing, the musicality which the Drone Rainger can achieve is truly something else.

Price: £275, direct from Rainger FX
Description: Digital delay pedal with two tone generators
Controls: Delay level, modulation rate, feedback and level. Guitar and drone mix knobs, dron one and two pitch, fine tune control, interfere, bypass and mix/pitch 2 footswitches, dry guitar and interfere mode push-buttons
Mono or stereo: Mono

Ernie Ball VP JR Tuner

Ernie Ball VP JR Tuner

+ Buffered for best signal preservation mid-chain
+ Space-saving
– Not the most exciting pedal purchase

Another simple utility pedal that is easily reimagined as an ambient essential. While it by no means is the complete solution to a great ambient tone, a volume pedal can revolutionise your chord swells in two main ways. Firstly, it keeps you from having to free up your hand to roll up the volume knob, especially handy if your volume controls are in a hard-to-reach position.

Secondly, unlike a volume knob, a volume pedal can be placed wherever you want in your effects chain. If you use an overdriven sound and you swell with your volume control, you’ll notice you sweep through clean to overdriven sounds. This can be desirable, but if you place a volume pedal after your drives but before your reverbs, you get more control over each aspect of your sound as you swell.

The VP JR Tuner version is also on here just because it helps you save more room on your pedalboard; more room for more reverbs, essentially.

Price: £249 / $199.99
Description: Active volume pedal with a tuner on the face of the treadle
Controls: Treadle
Mono or stereo: Mono

Read our full review here.


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