Empress Reverb, Strymon BigSky & Eventide Space Shootout

In search of the ultimate digital reverb pedal? Gary Walker pits two established heavyweights against a new challenger from Empress.

For several years, guitarists looking for the ultimate digital reverb pedal have, broadly speaking, been drawn to one of two camps. Providing you can afford to spend the equivalent cost of a well-used family car on a single stompbox, you’re either Strymon or Eventide. Eventide struck first with the Space, released in 2011 and crammed full of high-quality effects from the company’s H8000FW and Eclipse V4 rack processors.

The Strymon BigSky, made by the people behind the Damage Control brand and hailing from Westlake Village, California, emerged from the blue corner two years later.

The Big Two’s dominance is under threat, however, from a pretender to the ambient throne. Led by electrical engineer Steve Bragg, Canadian brand Empress Effects launched its simply titled Reverb pedal last year, with 24 algorithms, vivid sounds and simple usability. It’s seconds out as G&B puts all three units through their paces and crowns the reverb champ…

Usability
All three pedals offer buffered or true bypass, MIDI connectivity, tap tempo and an expression pedal input. The smallest of the trio, the Empress has 12 reverb types, each with sub-modes reached simply by turning the Mode dial – a small LED shines blue, red, yellow or green to indicate which setting is engaged.

The Empress has the fewest presets – 35, although you can expand on those via firmware updates using an SD card. There are two modes for preset selection – Scrolling and Bank, with the latter working in the same way as the BigSky – press the right and middle switches to bank up, left and middle to bank down.

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The Space’s operation is simpler still: the middle and right switches scroll up and down, and left selects the preset. Where the simple layout of the Empress loses points is due to the lack of a digital display. Remembering what bank you’re in, or what parameter its Thing 1 and Thing 2 controls relate to during the heat of live use can be confusing.The Space wins big here, looking like a device from a 1980s sci-fi film, with an impossible-to-miss, bright-red LED screen across the middle of the unit, and 100 appropriately named presets, including some from artists such as Sigur Ros. The learning curve, however, is as steep as the manual is vast.

The BigSky has a staggering 300 presets, with an understated display above the Type dial that shows simply the number of the bank you’re in or any parameter you begin to edit. Pressing down the Type knob reveals a range of sub-menus with mind-boggling options. As all three units are digital pedals, the knob positions don’t correspond to the current values of the preset.

So, for example, if you switch to a Hall preset which has minimal decay, but previously the Decay knob had been at max, when you attempt to tweak the decay, you will begin from the point of 100 per cent, causing a disconcerting jump. The Space has a clever solution here – the Catchup feature, which means that turning the knob has no effect until you reach the point the preset is set at.

Traditional sounds
Explaining each pedal’s plethora of modes would stretch to dissertation length, so we’ll focus on three here – Spring, Plate and Hall. The Empress has three Spring sub-modes, but far fewer tweakable paremeters than the other two.

The Bright setting is an emulation of a Fender Twin Reverb, and it’s arguably the pick of the three pedals. It also has Dark – a Fender Deluxe emulation – and Overdrive, a cool idea that gets rather nasal with our Fender Hot Rod Deluxe after 2pm on the Mix control.

Compared to the Hot Rod’s onboard analogue spring reverb, in Dark mode the Empress sounds wetter and a little less defined.

The BigSky held its own against the Hot Rod, and then some. With the decay and mix up above noon, it’s a big, natural-sounding splashy spring. It goes deep, too, with low-end and pre-delay controls and the ability to select the number of springs – from 1 to 3. Each time you add a spring, you hear a subtle noise a little like the sound of a spring-reverb tank vibrating. Nice.

Under the Dwell sub-menu, we get the option to switch between Clean, Combo, Tube and Overdrive. The Overdrive mode is voiced better than on the Empress, sounding a little like the gritty preamp of a tape delay.

The Space offers even more room for adjustment, with not only the number of springs to the decimal point(!), but also spring tension, tremolo speed and interval and resonance controls – Eventide’s attention to detail is staggering. However, for our money, the BigSky sounds just a little richer and more appealing than the Space, and offers more versatility than the Empress.
In Plate mode, the Empress again delivers highly realistic, high-quality results, with two settings: Classic – modelled on the EMT 140 reverb unit – and Studio. There’s control over the pre-delay time and early reflection level, and it sounds clear and present.

The BigSky sounds deliciously 3D and wide for classic, low-decay plate sounds. The accepted wisdom that this is a pedal only for ‘artificial’ sounds beloved of offset-toting hipsters is short-sighted – it does ‘traditional’ very well, too. Again, the Space has more controls to play with: Diffusion, Distance, High and Lo Damping, as well as the usual tone and mod controls.

In this mode, all three pedals do a great job of creating massive ambient washes for tremolo picking with the Decay cranked and a helping of external fuzz, with the Empress and BigSky sounding slightly wider and more lush. A pattern is emerging, then – the BigSky and Empress fight it out for the sweetest, most well-rounded sound, while the Space gives greater scope to delve under the hood.

Hall mode is tough to call. The Space wins for the sheer depth of its editability. Its decay rises to Infinite, and then Freeze, making epic post-rock atmospherics a piece of cake to dial in, with separate controls for the low and high end of the decay. However, the BigSky – which has two preset sizes: Concert and Arena, and just a Decay control – has an enchanting, intangible sonic sweetness.

With the Decay up near maximum and the Mix at around 1pm, the balance when playing arpeggiated chords or palm-muted notes to the huge wash beneath is perfection.

We’re really impressed by the Empress here, too, and it pushes the BigSky hard for the best, most ‘realistic’ hall sound. Its two modes: Concert – a large hall based on the modulation characteristics of the Lexicon 224XL with a long decay, and Modern – smoother with long tails with no modulation that sounds beautiful with plenty of decay – are right on the money.

The Early Reflection Level control housed in Thing 2 is a neat addition, enabling you to dictate how soon the atmospherics cloak your sound.

Ambient effects
Moving into ambient territory, the BigSky and Space start to pull into the lead. The Cloud mode is the jewel in the BigSky’s brushed-blue crown. Shrouding everything you play in a majestic glitter, it sounds utterly beautiful without getting intrusive – especially with the Freeze control activated.

Into a decent clean valve amp with a good boost pedal and a smidgen of tape delay to rough things up a bit, it’s this reviewer’s Holy Grail tone. If Cloud’s voluminous ambience becomes too much, the Bloom mode, where the envelope builds slowly, affecting the trails gradually, ensures individual notes remain clear and distinct. Swell, too, is jaw-droppingly good. Open chords played with fingers, or picked notes high up the neck become huge swathes of rising noise.
The Chorale setting accompanies your playing with an ensemble of human voices, with adjustability of the vowel shapes, depending on whether you’re an “oooh” or an “aaah” man or woman – or an “ooohaaah”… Magneto does a nice impression of a tape echo, with up to six heads, and the Pre-delay knob acting as a feedback control. It sounds gorgeous and means you could feasibly get by without a delay pedal on your board.

Nonlinear, meanwhile, gives you a choice of inventive backwards sounds: Swoosh, Reverse, Ramp, Gate, Gauss and Bounce modes opening the door to all sorts of psychedelic sounds.

The Empress has a mode similar to Cloud – Ghost, which sounds glorious, although it’s voiced differently; as you push the decay further, that becomes more apparent, with the modulated resonance becoming a spooky alien wind.

G&B’s favourite mode on the Empress is Delay+Reverb – a very usable digital delay with three modes that can do everything from dotted eighth notes to huge ambient sounds and, with the Feedback at max, self-oscillation. The lack of a screen is a disadvantage when dialling in delay speeds, but the Blendable Delay mode has that covered, with the Select switch doubling as a tap tempo.

Filtered Feedback Delay applies a high and low filter to the feedback of the repeats, and is a highly characterful effect that we got lost playing little arpeggios and lead parts with for hours.

The Lo-Fi 50s Radio mode is a really fun, crunchy overdriven AM radio effect that Dan Auerbach would surely approve of. The pitch-shifted Sparkle mode – equivalent to BigSky’s Shimmer – sounds lovely, and with the Decay up full and the Mix at less than halfway, we get coruscating infinite reverb drones that you can play over with your original tone remaining distinct. However, with only controls for the Sparkle level and length, the pitch-shifting options offered by the Empress are fewer than on the BigSky or Space.

Modulation covers modulation, chorus and flange, with tremolo being added in a later firmware update. The trem is the effect we’d use most often, so it’s slightly frustrating that it wasn’t included in the original featureset. Beer mode, slightly disappointingly, is an umbrella term for modes that don’t fit into any of the other categories.

Ambient Swell offers two modes – Triggered Swell, where the note is faded in, in relation to the attack of your picking, and Gate Swell With Octave. Turning up the Mix to full results in mournful volume swells, although we needed to back off our guitar’s volume to stop things getting overly boomy and, all things considered, we preferred using a Hall setting and employing a volume pedal.

There’s far more to the Empress than its simple interface suggests. It’s one of the best pedals of any type we’ve played in recent times, but the analogue feel, fewer parameters to tweak and lack of display handicaps it against the other contenders in this shootout, especially when you take the similar pricing into account.

So, the Empress is pipped to the post by the BigSky’s slightly sweeter, more widescreen sounds and its deeper functionality, but can the Space take the crown? If the number of ambient effects on offer is a deal-breaker, then yes, it’s a clear winner.

Its epic BlackHole setting, which houses the foreboding Cigaroos preset, produces huge, otherworldly noises with trem-like throb and delay into the bargain. It’s a phenomenally creative effect that’s further out there than anything on either of the other two pedals, with additional Gravity/Inv Gravity, Feedback and Resonance controls. With a violin bow or EBow it sounds immense.

ModEchoVerb gives you a wide range of modulation effects, with the FxMix knob moving between SwptVerb, Flange and Chorus – we love the SolarDelay preset for subtle echo-flavoured lead playing. Equally, the Reverse mode’s Continuum setting offers kaleidoscopic reversed repeats. DualVerb is a cool mode that pairs two reverbs with independent controls.

Throw in the ability to use the HotSwitch to max out the decay on either one, and the use of the combination of the X and Y and FxMix knobs to alter the decay, pre-delay and ratio of the A and B reverbs. It’s mind-bendingly complex stuff.

MangledVerb applies overdrive to the trails, from a soft clip to fizzy high gain, with the Ynob controlling the output of the overdrive from -18dB up to 6dB. With the addition of the FxMix knob for wobble, it’s possible to get something like scuzzy, lo-fi tape delay.

TremoloVerb is another big win for the Space, with triangle, peak, random, ramp, sine and square shapes. Just engage the Splitter preset, feed in some fuzz and prepare to grin like a fool! We could go on.

This is an absurdly in-depth pedal that’s way more than a reverb unit – it’s a multi-effects machine par excellence. Despite this, we just can’t look past the sheer ethereal tonal beauty of the BigSky – and for that reason, it’s our overall winner.

Empress Reverb key features
• PRICE £459
• DESCRIPTION Digital reverb pedal with 24 algorithms in 12 types, 35 presets & SD card for firmware update; true or buffered bypass; cab sim; 48kHz sampling, with 24-bit conversion and 32-bit internal processing; universal control port for expression pedal, USB & MIDI; powered by 9V DC adaptor. Made in Canada
• CONTROLS Mode, Decay, Mix, Output, Low, Hi, Thing 1, Thing 2, tap switch for tempo or infinite reverb; Select, Scroll, Save and Bypass switches
• MODES Hall, Plate, Spring, Room, Sparkle, Modulation, Ambient Swell, Delay+Reverb, Reverse, Ghost, Lo-Fi, Beer
• DIMENSIONS 144x95x44mm
• CONTACT www.empresseffects.com First Line Distribution, 01626 853019

Strymon BigSky key features
• PRICE £479
• DESCRIPTION Digital reverb pedal with 12 algorithms and 300 presets; stereo ins & outs; infinite sustain, freeze, spillover and reverb persist; LCD display; cab sim; true or buffered bypass; +/-3db boost/cut; powered by 9V DC adaptor. MIDI connectivity. Made in USA
• CONTROLS Type, Decay, Pre-delay, Mix, Tone, Mod, Param 1 & Param 2 controls; Cab Emulator switch; A, B & C preset switches
• MODES Room, Hall, Spring, Plate, Swell, Bloom, Cloud, Chorale, Shimmer, Magneto, Nonlinear, Reflections
• DIMENSIONS 171x130x44.5mm
• CONTACT www.strymon.net MusicPsych, 0207 607 6005

ReverbEventide Space key features
• PRICE £490
• DESCRIPTION Digital reverb pedal with 12 algorithms & 100 presets, including artist selections; tap tempo and MIDI clock sync/generate; USB port; true or buffered bypass; powered by 9V DC adaptor. Assembled in China
• CONTROLS Mix, Decay, Size, Delay, EQ Low & High, Preset, Xnob, Ynob, FxMix, Contour; Active, HotSwitch & Type switches
• MODES Room, Plate, Hall, Spring, Blackhole, Shimmer, Reverse Reverb, ModEchoVerb, DualVerb, MangledVerb, DynaVerb, TremoloVerb
• DIMENSIONS 190x122x54mm
• CONTACT www.eventideaudio.com Source Distribution, 020 8962 5080

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