REVIEW: Electro-Harmonix SUPEREGO Synth Engine

You’d think that after more than six decades we’d be running out of ways to twist and tweak the sound of the electric guitar. Yeah, right! It’s a very exciting time to be a guitarist right now. The boutique boom isn’t slowing down, the digital revolution is on track to put an Axe-FX in every bedroom by 2015, and Electro-Harmonix is still releasing innovative creations like the SUPEREGO Synth Engine.

Ever played with an analog synth, or at least a good digital recreation of one? Well, for me, the best way to think of the SUPEREGO is as a component that converts part of your guitar sound into a waveform that can be twisted and manipulated in a similar way to an analog synth. I have to think of it that way, because it’s such an unusual idea compared to regular guitar effects that I need to hook my brain around it somehow! It’s in the same family of EHX effects as the Ravish, the POG2, and Micro Synth, but like EHX founder Mike Matthews, the SUPEREGO is its own man.

The SUPEREGO combines elements of sampling, synthesis and infinite sustain: essentially grabbing and repeating a tiny slice of your sound (and we’re talking teensy, tiny fractions of the note, rather than anything achievable with a delay pedal). And then it allows you to manipulate the sound in various ways – the most important and useful of which we’ll explore after we look at the modes.

There are four controls (Speed/Layer, Gliss, Dry and Effect). The functions of the Dry and Effect knobs are pretty self-explanatory, while Gliss controls the way the frozen note or chord morphs into the next – great for ethereal, eerie slides and faux-backwards-reverb sounds. The Speed/Layer knob has a different function depending on which mode you choose, and we’ll check that out in a second. There are three modes (Latch, Momentary and Auto), which you select with a small three-way toggle switch.

In Momentary mode, the effect is only active when the footswitch is pressed down, and the Speed/Layer control becomes a speed control for the attack and decay time of the effect – that is, the speed with which the effect fades in and out.

Latch mode means you can use the footswitch to grab a slice of sound and it will remain active once you turn the effect off – use it for psychedelic drone effects, ambient soundscapes, subtle pads and fun stuff like that. The Speed/Layer knob becomes a layer control in this mode, adjusting the volume of the previously

Auto mode detects each new note you play and sustains it automatically – and if you play too softly it won’t trigger any sustain. You can use this to your advantage by picking gently when you want your regular guitar sound to remain unaffected, but then you can dig in to introduce the effect. Double-tap the footswitch when you want the effect to end.

Ah, but what was that super-useful feature mentioned earlier? Effects loop! That’s where you’ll get the most mileage and creativity out of the SUPEREGO. Plug any effect (or combination of effects) into the SUPEREGO and it will rout its effected signal through them and back out to your amp. And the possibilities are limited only by your pedal collection and your sense of adventurousness. Here are a few great tricks I’ve been messing around with:

* An envelope filter (auto wah) in combination with Auto mode, and used within riff that combines restrained palm-mutes as well as more boldly-picked notes. The envelope filter only kicks in on the harder notes, which is great for adding some emphasis, colour and ‘studio vibe’ to a guitar part.

* Ice mode on a Strymon TimeLine delay, where the repeats shimmer off into higher and higher pitches

* Space mode on a TC Electronic Flashback X4 – there’s something hauntingly beautiful about staccato SUPEREGO being churned through a modulated, smeared analog-style delay.

* A fuzz pedal followed by a chorus and a reverb. When you get the mix just right this can add an industrial-vibed, keyboard-like sound which is great for pretending you’re a one-man Nine Inch Nails. I mean, I know Nine Inch Nails was essentially just one man anyway, but you know what I mean.

And here’s a cool thing to remember: you don’t have to return the effects send back into the SUPEREGO. You can send it to a completely different amplifier, mixing desk channel, iPad – whatever you like.

The SUPEREGO isn’t an easy pedal to get to know, but that’s because what it does is not really ingrained in the guitar lexicon the way that wah wah or delay or chorus are. But that’s also its biggest strength: you can pick it up with no preconceived notions of what you’re supposed to do with it. It helps that it’s a very interactive effect: what you get out is what you put in, and you’ll find yourself performing in certain ways to bring about certain responses from the pedal.