There's nobody quite as far 'out there' as Electro Harmonix when it comes to stomp-box effects. Their latest offering, the cheekily named Ravish, is being promoted as a sitar emulator for electric guitar, but it is far more customisable than that description suggests and it allows the user to coax some very musical abstract sounds from it.
A sitar has between 11 and 17 'sympathetic' strings that aren't plucked, but instead drone in sympathy with the main strings, and it's the resonant sympathetic string feature that's arguably the most important part of this pedal. Electro Harmonix have combined their impressive 'Freeze' infinite sustain technology (used in their pedal of the same name) with some clever filtering that allows you to set the scale key, so only notes in the chosen scale excite the sympathetic strings. Up to nine user presets can be stored, and you can select from ready-made major, minor and 'exotic' (Indian) scales in any key. You can also store custom scales of up to 17 notes, so you can include quarter-tones. A subtle, user-adjustable modulation can be added to the sympathetic strings to create a tambura-like drone and, as with the Freeze pedal, pressing a switch allows you to hold the droning sympathetic string sound indefinitely. If not held, they die away a few seconds after the original note has faded. There are separate outputs for the main and sympathetic voices, which could be handy if recording, but you can also use a single cable to provide a mixed output.
The Ravish pedal offers the user plenty of control over the sound. Of the five conventional control knobs on the device, three govern the levels of the original guitar sound, the sitar-processed lead sound and the sympathetic drone sound. The other two control the respective timbres of the lead and sympathetic drone sounds, making them progressively brighter and more harmonically complex as they're turned clockwise. Further timbral changes can be made using the Resonance control, of which more in a moment.
Other important functions include using the rotary encoder to select the musical key and scale type, the decay of the lead sound, the amount of modulation on the sympathetic drone sound ( a slow and subtle chorus-like effect) and the resonance (when both the decay and mod LEDs are lit) of both the lead and drone sounds. This control is also used for saving user settings. The leftmost footswitch can be tapped briefly to scroll up through the presets (all of which can be overwritten), while holding it down during performance causes the sympathetic string sound to sustain indefinitely, even if you unplug and set fire to the guitar! In the key mode, you can also hold this pedal down to input new scale notes directly from your guitar.
The rightmost switch bypasses the pedal, with the guitar signal being buffered before reaching the output. With a pitch pedal connected, the pitch-bend range can be set anywhere from one semitone to an octave upwards in pitch. When the left switch is pressed to freeze the drone strings, you can still adjust their timbre using the other controls. Furthermore, a pedal connected to the drone jack can both adjust the level of the drone strings and initiate the Freeze function. You can also control the volume of the sympathetic drone using a pair of optional expression pedals.
In terms of sound and performance, the sitar emulation is best considered an approximation — the hex-pickup systems from Roland and Line 6 probably do a better job in this respect. The lower strings sound more convincing than the higher ones, but all this said, the general impression of 'sitarness' is still pretty solid and it responds well to playing technique. The decay can be adjusted from a very short pluck to a much more extended note, while the timbre can go from warm and gentle to an almost synth-like resonant twang. Mix this with the main guitar sound, possibly processed, and the creative possibilities can seem endless.
The real icing on the cake is the smooth way those sympathetic strings pick out the scale notes and drone away in the background. If you play a chromatic scale, you can definitely hear that only the scale notes excite the resonances. Used on their own, these can be used to create synth-like pad sounds and washes, so their application goes far beyond mere sitar emulation. There's a somewhat spring-reverb-like character to the drone strings — but because the Freeze pedal used a modified infinite reverb algorithm this is not unexpected, and the result sits nicely beneath the lead sound. There's no 'all notes' chromatic drone scale as standard, but you can create and store one to allow the Ravish to be used more like the Freeze.
I love the sheer creative audacity of the Ravish pedal, and I certainly wouldn't use it only for making sitar noises. In fact, it can actually get pretty close to sounding like a genuine guitar synth, and it could easily form the basis of some rich pad sounds on stage or in the studio. Teamed with plug-ins, it could also provide the basis in DAW recordings for a much more warped and layered sound. I've been very impressed by both the Freeze and Ravish pedals — so let's hope they're just the thin end of Electro Harmonix's creative wedge! Paul White