Okay, so let me start with a question… What was the first integrated, programmable multi-effects unit for the guitar?… Easy: it was the Boss ME-5. Or was it?…
Well, you’ll certainly find a pretty unified consensus among older guitarists and music tech gurus that the ME-5 was the one that started it all. But actually, it didn’t. Not really. The ME-5 may have captured the imagination, garnered mass attention and built a mutha of a buzz, but it was in fact preceded by a lesser known and far less widely celebrated device made by Aria...
The Aria APE-2 was a rather tacky and cheap looking floor unit, featuring Distortion, Chorus and Digital Delay, and able to combine these effects in assignable patches. Only three patches, but patches all the same, and that technically made the APE-2 a programmable multi-effects box for the electric guitar. There was no doubt, either, that this unit was released before the Boss ME-5. The ME-5 hit the scene in April 1988, but the APE-2 was available at least as early as January ’88, advertised with a UK retail price of £329.
[UPDATE: I've now found a reference to an earlier Aria "programmable effects system", rather predictably entitled the Aria APE-1. It's referenced in print at least as early as mid 1986, but there's no information other than the nature of the unit. Since the reference comes in a magazine reader's letter, from someone who's trying to get more information about the product and is only given the distributor's address in response, I'm guessing the APE-1 had a low profile here in the UK. But you can see the APE-1 in this video, and it's clear that Aria were much further ahead of the curve than I first thought, introducing the concept of integrated, 'programmable' effects something more like two years before Boss.]
So now we come to the question of why the ME-5 has stolen Aria’s thunder, and of course once you start to examine things more closely, you see that the Boss and Aria units were very different. Semantically, one might be able to place the APE-2 and the ME-5 in the same category as programmable multi-effects devices for the guitar. But they were worlds apart in terms of sophistication and practicality. If the Boss ME-5 didn’t invent guitar multi-FX, it unquestionably redefined the concept to the exent that anything perviously in existence fell outside of the definition.
What, then, was the Aria APE-2, and what did it do? Well, to cite what it didn’t do first; it didn’t have any form of digital data memory, and the effects parameter controls were exactly as they’d be on individual, analogue pedals: knobs on the front panel. Once you’d set the knobs on the three integrated effects pedals as preferred, that was it. None of the paramaters would change until you adjusted the knobs again. All the programmable portion of the unit did was to combine the three available effects in different permutations. There was also an effects loop, so any outboard effect(s) could be budgeted into the overall sound, and the level of internal overdrive could be tailored from one patch to the next using a Turbo function. But this was really a programmable effects mixer. Overdrive aside, the actual effects settings could not in any way be stored within patches – only the on/off status of each effect.
That said, the Aria APE-2 was well received. The quality of the effects was good enough for gigs, and there was still a lot guitarists could do with this unit beyond what had previously been possible within one box. Whilst the row of switches on each of the patches only pushed the effects in or out of the signal path, this still meant that one tap of the foot during a performance could switch you from, say, a dry, distorted rhythm sound with no additional treatment, to a turbo-boosted lead distortion with thickening chorus and heavy delay. And since each patch had its own overall volume control, a level boost or cut could be dialled into your screaming lead or reserved rhythm sounds.
Unfortunately for Aria, though, there was only a very short time for the APE-2 and its bass-focused sister unit the APE-3 to enjoy the industry limelight before Boss killed the concept stone dead with the truly and fully programmable ME-5. Although it’s fair to say that in the APE-1 and APE-2, Aria did make products which could be construed as the first programmable multi-FX units for guitar, it’s easy to see why Boss get all the credit for their ME-5. Realistically, the Aria units were a stepping stone between individual pedal use, and a fully programmable multi-FX unit. The APE-2 was a good and innovative progression, but it wasn’t a revolution. The ME-5 on the other hand, did revolutionise guitar FX with digital parameter memory, and a complete restructuring of how a guitar FX combination should look and operate.
As a testament to how great a revolution the ME-5 was, here’s a key line from the APE-2’s review in Guitarist magazine, March 1988 edition… “I would have preferred more than three channels as this would have made the unit a lot more versatile, but having said that, more channels would mean a bigger unit, and as this one fits nicely into a gig bag it would defeat the object to some extent…” A logical notion at the time, and that’s what we all thought. Except Roland/Boss, who were about to prove us wrong.