The Z.Vex Ringtone lets you sequence through eight steps of ring modulation.
In the ever-expanding universe of way-out boutique pedals, Zachary Vex is a tireless innovator. One of his latest offerings is the Ringtone ($499), a ring-modulation pedal that offers something new in the realm of guitar stompboxes. Like all Z.Vex pedals, the Ringtone has high-quality components, an attractive hand-painted case, and extended battery life.
At the heart of the Ringtone is a sequencer with eight steps of independently tunable ring modulation. Each step of the sequence is indicated across the top of the stompbox by a red LED and is accompanied by a small black knob about the size of a pencil eraser. These eight knobs control the carrier pitch of a ring-modulator circuit.
For those not familiar with ring modulation, the effect accepts two signals and gives you only the sum and difference tones at the output, with none of the original signal present. For example, if the input signals are 800 Hz and 200 Hz, you would hear a 1,000 Hz tone (sum) and 600 Hz tone (difference) combined at the output.
With the Ringtone, an internal carrier oscillator — with a frequency range of 2 Hz to 1 kHz — is used to modulate the input signal, to create a harmonically complex sound. The ring-modulated output can range from a slow tremolo (when the carrier frequency's tuning control is turned fully clockwise to get a subsonic pitch) to a thick, and often dissonant, array of harmonics (when the tuning control is turned fully counterclockwise). At around the 11 o'clock position, where the carrier pitch becomes audible, the tremolo effect becomes fast enough to create modulation sidebands.
The Ringtone also includes a true bypass switch, the Random/Step switch, and the Run/Step mode switch. The sequencer speed is controlled by a knob marked SPD to the left of the eight tuning controls. The speed ranges from approximately three to ten steps per second. At faster speeds, and with higher carrier-pitch settings, the Ringtone can generate a sequence that sounds just like a cell phone ringtone.
When you are in Run mode — the R/S control is set to R — the left footswitch toggles between linear and “random” sequencing. In manual Step mode — with the R/S control in the S position — the left footswitch is used to cycle through the eight ring-modulation settings. Step mode greatly expands the versatility of the Ringtone, because it gives you eight ring-modulation “presets.” The online tutorial shows how you can tune each step to complement a particular chord in a song, but this setup suggests many other possibilities.
The Ringtone includes an internal trim pot that adjusts the balance between the input and processed signals. When the trim pot is fully counterclockwise, you hear only the unprocessed input signal. When the trim pot is set at the opposite extreme — fully clockwise, as set by the manufacturer — you hear only the processed, ring-modulated signal and none of the original signal. Whether bypassed or with the trim pot set to pass the input unprocessed, the signal quality of my custom Strat-Tele hybrid, which has single-coil and humbucking pickups, was clean and uncolored.
When used with an electric guitar, the Ringtone worked best with single notes, double stops, and triads. Dense chords created a thicker sound but also yielded a multitude of harmonics that tended to obscure the character of the chords. (In this situation, you may want to use the internal trim pot to reduce the ring-modulation effect by adding unprocessed guitar into the mix.) Adding a distortion box to the signal chain, either before or after the Ringtone, intensifies the sum and difference tones generated by the ring-modulator circuit. The pedal also delivers a credible tremolo effect at its lower carrier-frequency settings.
The audible carrier pitch, though necessary for the functioning of the circuit, can be a distraction. On the other hand, it is fun to set the Ringtone to play a self-generating pitch sequence on its own, although the output level is low and a bit noisy when the effect is used in this manner.
I had a blast running mixes through the Ringtone, matching tempos on groove pieces, warping sounds, and providing subtle new textures to drones and other ambient material. Besides being a unique guitar effect, the Ringtone has great potential for creative processing with bass, keyboards, and other electronic sources, including individual tracks in the studio.
Value (1 through 5): 4