The Big Review: Will Universal Audio’s entry into the guitar pedal market send boutique brands scurrying for cover?
The Astra Modulation Machine, Starlight Echo Station and Golden Reverberator claim to deliver “sonic authenticity far beyond other stompboxes” – but can they live up to the premium-priced hype?
When an established company moves into the pedal market for the first time, our interest is piqued. When that company has the pedigree of Universal Audio, it’s not so much piqued as blown up to bursting point like a party balloon.
Quite aside from its long history in professional studio equipment and software, this is the name behind the Ox, the award-hogging device that lets you capture the essence of your loudest amp at neighbour-friendly levels. So UA’s decision to launch multi-mode modulation, delay and reverb units promising studio-quality tones in stompbox form? It’s quite the big deal.
Of course, there’s an awful lot of competition in the ‘premium digital’ sphere. The approach here, then, has been to keep things relatively simple: the UAFX pedals look a lot like traditional compact stompers, with minimal controls and no menus or secondary functions to navigate. And forget MIDI control – you can’t even store more than one preset.
Oh, and another thing you can’t do is enjoy the reassurance of proven build quality – they’re made in Malaysia. Given all that, you might find your interest-balloon deflating a little when you notice they’re £355 a pop. But what you’re really paying for is UA’s meticulously modelled algorithms… so it all comes down to the sounds.
“If you’re after rich stereo chorus with impeccable clarity and absolutely minimal operating noise, you won’t find better”
In the case of the Astra Modulation Machine, that means chorus and vibrato borrowed from the old Boss CE-1 plus classic flanging and amp-style tremolo. Connect the pedal to a PC or Mac via USB-C and you can also download a couple of bonus effects: a vintage phaser and a vibey harmonic tremolo.
The Starlight Echo Station mimics an Echoplex tape delay, a Deluxe Memory Man and a clean-edged digital type, with just one downloadable extra this time: a lo-fi delay emulating the hosepipe-based Cooper Time Cube. Yes, we said hosepipe. Google it.
With the Golden Reverberator your choice is between springs, plates and a range of rooms and halls from the Lexicon 224 – one of the digital reverb units that defined the sound of the 1980s. Again there’s one more model you can get via a free download, offering some extra plate and chamber sounds from the 224.
Before we begin, here’s one potential issue to flag up: compact they may be but these units each demand 400mA of current, so you’d best check your power supply outputs before clearing a space on that pedalboard.
Despite everything we said earlier about simplicity, navigating these pedals is not entirely intuitive. Firstly, the controls behave very differently depending on which model is selected, and in some cases aren’t used at all – the Astra’s shape knob, for example, is only active with the flanger and the harmonic tremolo.
Secondly, the model switch itself is a bit of an oddity. It’s non-latching, so it springs back to the middle position after you’ve nudged it up or down to move through the list; three red LEDs tell you which model you’re on. As they’re optional, the bonus sounds are not labelled – you just have to watch for an LED to turn green. It all feels a little awkward and compromised.
Anyway, we said it all came down to the sounds, right? Well, the Astra’s are phenomenal. The full array of five models, each with A and B modes accessed via a toggle switch on the right, adds up to 10 distinct modulation effects – and you’ll struggle to make a less-than-lovely noise with any of them.
“The gently degrading repeats and dreamy modulation are so bang-on it’s almost funny”
If you’re after rich stereo chorus with impeccable clarity and absolutely minimal operating noise, you won’t find better. The flanger is equally likeable, creating some nicely metallic textural tinges at lower intensity settings, while the valve-y tremolo throbs away sweetly – with a choppy square-wave variant broadening your options in mode B.
Not fussed about the two downloads? Be fussed, they’re downright essential. The first offers two flavours of MXR Phase 90 swirliness (script logo and block) while the second is arguably the pick of the whole bunch, letting you flip between a deliciously phasey tremolo and something more like a Uni-Vibe, each with the option of setting the trem speed to respond to pick attack.
Saving a preset is easy, and UA has wired these pedals so you can use both footswitches for bypass as well as flipping between manual and preset modes. The only exception is the Starlight, where you have to hold down the preset switch as it’s also used for tap tempo (though we’re told you’ll soon be able to customise this in an app).
“the Golden Reverberator sounds extra-majestic in stereo but is geared towards conventional ’verbs rather than overblown soundscapes”
Ah yes, the Starlight. What this pedal offers above all else is the perfect Memory Man. The gently degrading repeats and dreamy modulation are so bang-on it’s almost funny, while the ‘color’ control lets you push the input gain for uncannily accurate messiness or keep things more clean and hiss-free than an analogue original could ever manage.
And the other models are hardly any less compelling. The Echoplex effect is reliably superb no matter which of the three available tape-degradation states you pick – and watch out for the last two settings on the division switch, which send different delay times to left and right outputs.
That just leaves the Golden Reverberator, which also sounds extra-majestic in stereo but is geared towards conventional ’verbs rather than overblown soundscapes – it drips, but it doesn’t shimmer.
This is no less of an audio delight than the other two: it covers a range of springs, plates and halls with immaculate hi-fi quality, and you have plenty of control over tone, modulation and pre-delay as well as the sheer scale of the reverb – which can get truly epic. It does somehow feel like the least memorable unit of the three, though. Maybe that’s just the nature of reverb, destined to live quite literally in the background.
So how do these three pedals compare with the competition in terms of pure tone? Honestly, at this end of the market a fair chunk of that comes down to personal taste, but we will say that nothing else we’ve tried is categorically better… and we doubt many players would be happy to swap for anything cheaper after a day of getting to know them.
Universal Audio Astra Modulation Machine – 9/10 (Editor’s Choice)
- PRICE £355
- DESCRIPTION Digital multi-mode stereo modulation pedal, made in Malaysia
- CONTROLS Speed, depth, intensity, shade, shape; toggle switches for effect type, preset store and sound A/B, rotary mode switch; manual/bypass and preset/bypass footswitches
- FEATURES Mono/stereo inputs and outputs, USB-C for firmware updates and registration, Bluetooth for app control; switchable true or buffered bypass (via app); powered by 9-volt mains supply only (minimum 400mA)
- DIMENSIONS 141 x 92 x 65mm
- VERDICT An irresistible array of top-class modulation effects all stuffed into one tidy little box
Universal Audio Starlight Echo Station – 8/10
- PRICE £355
- DESCRIPTION Digital multi-mode stereo delay pedal, made in Malaysia
- CONTROLS Delay time, feedback, mix, time division, color, modulation; toggle switches for effect type, preset store and sound A/B/C; manual/bypass and preset/bypass footswitches
- FEATURES Mono/stereo inputs and outputs, USB-C for firmware updates and registration, Bluetooth for app control; analogue dry-through except with preamp coloration applied, switchable true or buffered bypass (via app); powered by 9-volt mains supply only (minimum 400mA)
- DIMENSIONS 141 x 92 x 65mm
- VERDICT A multi-mode delay with limited functionality but utterly addictive faux-analogue sounds
Universal Audio Golden Reverberator – 8/10
- PRICE £355
- DESCRIPTION Digital multi-mode stereo reverb pedal, made in Malaysia
- CONTROLS Decay, pre-delay, mix, bass, treble, modulation; toggle switches for effect type, preset store and sound A/B/C; manual/bypass and preset/bypass footswitches
- FEATURES Mono/stereo inputs and outputs, USB-C for firmware updates and registration, Bluetooth for app control; analogue dry-through, switchable true or buffered bypass (via app); powered by 9-volt mains supply only (minimum 400mA)
- DIMENSIONS 141 x 92 x 65mm
- VERDICT This reverb machine is easy to recommend in terms of pure tone, but it has many rivals
- CONTACT uaudio.com