One of the many things the 1970s bestowed upon the world of music was electronic phasing, or phase-shifting. Sonically, this special effect had its roots in earlier musical animation processes such as the rotary speaker, the electronic wah-wah pedal, and the tape-flanging of the late ‘60s which physically offset the timing of one tape-recorded signal against another for a kind of resonant filter sweep effect. Boss, however – makers of the device covered in this retrospective – said the phaser was initially created with the specific intention of electronically replicating a rotary speaker sound.
The Phaser created its sound by duplicating the input signal, and then offsetting the phase of the duplicate signal against the original in a perfectly regular, electronically-controlled cyclic motion. This created something similar to the sound of a variable notch filter, cyclically sweeping up and down the frequency spectrum and sucking out different chunks of the basic tone over time. As an animation technique – a way of creating added interest in a musical note or chord – it was effective, but not without its drawbacks. Perhaps the greatest drawback was the inevitable loss of tonal balance, and the consequent difficulty in sitting an ever-evolving, phase-shifted guitar sound into a mix.
The first phasers, arriving in the first half of the ‘70s, were basic devices with pleasantly subtle levels of tonal variation. They worked well on sustained guitar chords with the cycle rate set either slow or fast. The effect could be likened very roughly to that of a Leslie organ cabinet with a single rotating speaker. Set with a slow rate, the phaser would produce a sort of synthetic and more one-dimensional version of the Leslie chorale setting. Set with a fast rate, the phaser would produce a similarly synthetic version of the Leslie tremolo.
But as time moved on, guitarists began to use phasers in a more individual way, which departed from the standard fake Leslie approach. Particularly in the field of reggae and other highly rhythmic musics, phasers came into their own in the second half of the 1970s. I first heard one in use on a live stage in 1982 at a UB40 gig. Ali Campbell, the band’s singer and rhythm guitarist used a Peavey Mk. III amp with a built in phaser. With the phaser activated, each rhythm stroke he played on his Telecaster had a very noticeably different tonality, and that really added excitement to the music. Campbell appeared to have adopted the idea from ‘70s reggae artists such as Lee Perry and The Upsetters, but it was he who introduced me to the power of a phaser in a live band situation.
The phasers on those Peavey amps had plenty of depth, and I loved the exaggerated sweeps the (then) newer phasers enabled. Later in ’82 I discovered and began to follow a local ska/reggae/rock band who used phaser-equipped Peavey Deuce amps, and almost three years later when I was finally in a position to buy my first decent guitar combo, it was a secondhand Peavey Deuce, with a built-in phaser, that I chose for my own use.
But by that time in 1985, there was an even newer breed of phaser on the scene. The Boss PH-2 Super Phaser was the third in a series of phase-shift pedals from guitar FX giants Boss. The original Boss PH-1 of the late ‘70s was a standard phaser with a fairly subtle sweep. Taking over from the beginning of the 1980s, the PH-1r added a resonance control to the original format, allowing a more exaggerated sweep. But in the run up to 1985, Boss took things a big step further with their PH-2 Super Phaser. The PH-2 not only increased the 4-stage (or 4-phase) architecture of the PH-1 and PH-1r up to a standard mode of 10 stages for smoother performance and greater depth, but it also added an extra two stages on a separate mode, increasing the depth of phase even further. The technology in the PH-2 was still analogue – it wasn’t in any way a digital effect.
The versatility of the Super Phaser was clearly superior to that found in either of its predecessors. I owned a PH-1r (the immediate predecessor) at one point in the ‘80s, and what I didn’t like about it was that you had to use the resonance control in order to gain any real depth in the sweep. Ideally, you want the depth to be naturally produced by the main circuit – not artificially generated by feeding back the already treated signal and treating it again, which is basically what resonance does. Resonance is fine as an effect facet in its own right, but it shouldn’t have to compensate for insufficient depth in the phase-shifting. I felt with the PH-1r, that it was necessary to use the resonance as ‘compensation’, because the depth in itself was in my view insufficient for an early ‘80s phaser.
But the PH-2 Super Phaser did have an abundance of natural depth, and could easily produce extremely powerful sweeps without any resort to the Res knob. The resonance was there too for when it was required, and the Rate control allowed a very wide range of cycle speeds. At around the £100 mark in the mid 1980s, the Super Phaser certainly wasn’t cheap, but for those interested in the widest array of phase-shift applications, it was a very difficult floor pedal to beat in 1985.
PH-2 Super Phaser saw over a decade and a half on the market, and could still be found brand new in the shops during 2001 – although by then it had essentially been replaced by the digital PH-3 Phase Shifter. Perhaps the saddest thing about the PH-2 was that it came too late to really define itself as a classic. The era of the phaser as a must-have effect was coming to an end just as the PH-2 was introduced, and Boss themselves kind of acknowledged that by completely omitting any kind of phaser from their landmark 1988 ME-5 processor. Had Boss created the Super Phaser in 1977 rather than 1984, it would, I’m sure, have been associated with a huge raft of influential late ‘70s and early ‘80s guitarists. It was easily a good enough product. But by 1985 there were so many other elements of tech wizardry to grab guitarists’ attention, that a phaser, however good, was never going to get the celeb associations which drive a piece of musical equipment into folklore.
You can find lots more retrospectives on Boss pedals (incorporating lesser known info) on this site. The Boss articles are grouped together under PICKUPS, GUITAR AMPS, FX AND GADGETS on the Guitar Reviews and Retrospectives page.