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Analog Outfitters Scanner

'Upcycled' Hammond Organ Effect
Published January 2017
By David Greeves

Analog Outfitters Scanner

Built from reclaimed Hammond organ parts, the Scanner is an unusual electromechanical effects unit that sounds as classy as it looks!

Hailing from Champaign, Illinois, Analog Outfitters began as an amp repair company before branching out with their own line of guitar amps. Highly rated by pro guitarists including Wilco’s Nels Cline, their quirky line of heads and combos is big on vintage values and boutique appeal, all tube and no frills. Their biggest distinguishing feature is the use of reclaimed parts from vintage Hammond organs, principally the transformers and casework, making each amp a unique piece of ‘upcycled’ history.

Though it’s as big as a 100W head, the Scanner is not an amp but a stand-alone vibrato and reverb effect, built around a reclaimed Hammond vibrato scanner and spring reverb tank. While the latter is a familiar feature of guitar amps, the vibrato scanner is rather more unusual. Developed by Hammond in the 1930s as a means to add pitch variation to their tonewheel organs, the scanner is, like the instrument it was part of, entirely analogue and electromechanical in operation, and pretty darn ingenious too. The incoming audio passes through a delay line which sends nine different phase-shifted versions of the signal to 16 capacitor plates arranged in a circle around the scanner drum. A spinning rotor in the centre of the drum picks up the signal from each plate in turn to create the vibrato effect.

While the mechanism would have originally revolved at a fixed speed, Analog Outfitters have added a brushless DC motor that allows you to vary the speed — via a knob on the front panel or by attaching an expression pedal — and the whole assembly is displayed in all its spinning splendour under the easy-to-clean Perspex top. The spring reverb tank, which is the long, Hammond/Accutronics Type 4 design, with two sets of two springs, is attached to the Perspex behind the scanner so that the springs are visible from the rear.

A Scanner Darkly

The Scanner has two sets of inputs and outputs, with quarter-inch jacks on the front panel and XLRs at the rear. The front-panel jack input features an instrument/line pad switch to accommodate both guitars and keyboards. Next to this, the second slider switch is an input selector, switching between the quarter-inch and XLR line inputs, while both outputs are live all the time. This means that, in a studio setting, you can keep the Scanner permanently patched in using the XLRs and use the front-panel connectors to use the device with different instruments and amps as required.

At the rear, you can plug in a standard expression pedal to control vibrato speed and attach the included footswitch to turn the reverb and vibrato effects on and off independently. On the front panel, there are controls for vibrato gain, reverb mix, XLR line out level and vibrato speed. The vibrato level knob essentially sets the overall output level when the effect is on. Unity gain is somewhere around two o’clock, meaning there is some scope to boost your level via the Scanner.

While these controls are fine as far as they go, there could have been more on offer here — a vibrato tone control and mix/depth knob, for example. Early prototypes of the device appear to have featured more extensive control options, so perhaps Analog Outfitters decided that these options added little of use in practice; at this price, you wouldn’t expect the cost of a few potentiometers and some extra circuitry to be a sticking point. Similarly, the reverb lacks the Fender Reverb-style tone and dwell (reverb drive) controls found on most stand-alone spring reverb units.

The protective perspex cover allows you to see the scanner in action — as well as sounding great, it can certainly provide a conversation piece for your studio! The protective perspex cover allows you to see the scanner in action — as well as sounding great, it can certainly provide a conversation piece for your studio!

In terms of construction, this is a very solid and well-made unit but not without its quirks. The control legending is printed on a strip of metallic tape stuck onto the front panel, for example, and on close inspection the finishing of the cabinet could be a lot neater, which leaves this reviewer feeling ambivalent. I can see the appeal of the boutique aesthetic and reclaimed materials, and an unusual, niche-appeal device like this, handmade in small numbers, is never going to be cheap. But at the same time, I perhaps expected something a little more polished at this kind of price. What is certain, however, is that the Scanner is a real head-turner; it has elicited curiosity and comment from everyone who has seen it.

Sounds

Another certainty is that the Scanner is more than just a conversation piece for the studio that has everything. It sounds superb and quite unlike the average vibe effect. Most vibe pedals aimed at guitarists are modelled on the Uni-Vibe, a device designed to imitate a Leslie speaker rather than the Hammond’s in-built vibrato. Consequently, they tend to feature the churning, low-end throb that made the Uni-Vibe an all-time classic effect from Hendrix onwards but can tend to leave you feeling a little seasick at faster and deeper settings. In contrast, the Scanner operates further up the frequencies, creating a wonderfully organic and watery swirl with a deeply lovely treble sweetness.

At low speeds, it provides gentle modulation that adds depth and beauty to clean guitar lines. The effect’s Hammond-like qualities are most evident in the middle of the speed range, while top speed is psychedelic perfection. There’s some gentle chorusing going on throughout — this is definitely not pure pitch modulation — and it’s a complex, three-dimensional sound, but even at the highest speeds the effect is very pleasing and natural.

Given its motor and spinning rotor, I was expecting this mechanical device to be a lot noisier than it actually is. There is some hum and whirr, of course, but the noise level is more than acceptable. It’s a minor distraction in the control room and, if you have to locate it in the live room, the thing you’re recording (for example, the guitar amp) will most likely be louder by many orders of magnitude.

In terms of general sound quality, it’s impressively quiet considering the nature of the device and the age of its components. There’s a very slight loss of treble but overall the impression is of a warm, clear sound that’s in the best analogue tradition. The reverb is equally good, only becoming noticeably noisy at the highest mix settings. In terms of character, this is fairly smooth, open-sounding spring reverb, as opposed to the claustrophobic surf style you would get from a shorter spring tank driven hard. Had extra controls been provided, it might have been possible to explore this kind of territory too, but as it stands, everything that the vibrato and reverb sections serve up is extremely tasteful and eminently usable.

In addition to the front-panel instrument input and output, there are line and pedal inputs on the rear.In addition to the front-panel instrument input and output, there are line and pedal inputs on the rear.

With guitars, I found that the Scanner worked best when placed in the amp’s effects loop, between the pre and power amps. Here, both the vibrato and reverb sound at their clearest and cleanest. Plugging into the front of the amp works well too, though as is inevitable when running any modulation and reverb through the preamp, the effect can become more smeared and driven. I had no problems using the Scanner as an outboard effect via the XLR line connectors, though noticed that care must be taken to set the vibrato gain and line out level controls appropriately. It’s an interesting option to play with when treating synths and keyboard sounds, though compared with the numerous and powerful modulation options now available inside the box, this analogue device feels less convenient. For me, its greatest strengths are as a guitar effect, but then, as a guitarist, I probably would say that!

An expression pedal isn’t included with the Scanner, but attaching one is highly recommended as controlling the vibrato speed remotely adds lots of creative potential — any standard type will do. Just be aware that there is a delay as the motor ramps up and down in speed, so you can’t go from 0 to 60 instantaneously. This is the Scanner is a nutshell. By dint of its electromechanical nature, it’s slightly unpredictable, and perhaps even impractical, by modern standards, but it’s also exciting and inspiring for exactly the same reason.

Conclusion

So what are we to make of the Scanner? Unique, somewhat eccentric and undeniably expensive, this is an effect that could never be called essential. Yet for all the more affordable, more flexible digital effects on the market, I’ve not come across one that sounds quite like this. The reverb is great and a worthwhile addition, but the scanner vibrato is the main event, delivering a luxury dose of vintage vibes.

Alternatives

It’s fair to say that there is no direct equivalent of the Scanner out there — if you want a reclaimed Hammond vibrato scanner in a stand-alone unit, this is it! There are no dedicated hardware emulations of the effect that we’re aware of and only a couple of plug-ins (the Martinic Scanner Vibrato and PSP Audioware’s B-Scanner). If you want to get close to the sound, effects with a pitch vibrato mode (as opposed to chorus or rotary speaker emulation) are your best bet. I had some success using a Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe Jr, a high-quality pedal that lets you adjust the frequency sweep of the effect as well as the amount of vibrato and chorus.

Published January 2017