With granular processing, pitch manipulation, reverb, modulation and a looper, this isn’t just a tool for guitarists.
The Microcosm is a truly unique pedal from Hologram Electronics, but that’s hardly surprising — unique is precisely what we’ve come to expect from the masterminds behind the Infinite Jets pedal! This pedal is many things: a looper, granular sampler, delay, reverb, pitch modulator, filter... The list goes on, but at its core it is a granular processor which can reinterprate and reform your sound into something sounding more magical, be that expansive pads, deep drones, tempo‑locked rhythms or loop‑based ambience. In total, the Microcosm features 11 effect algorithms and 44 preset variations. Alongside these, you can shape your sound using built‑in modulation effects, gorgeous stereo reverb (with four selectable modes), a resonant low‑pass filter and a stereo phrase looper, which can capture up to one minute of audio. You also have a freeze function, extensive MIDI support and expression‑pedal support too.
Based on this list of features, you may already be pigeonholing the Microcosm as ‘one for the ambient guitarists’ but, while it may well be a wonderful tool for them, this pedal also has plenty of potential as songwriting tool, and it could be a wonderful secret weapon for producers too. You may also already be thinking that the Microcosm promises to be an overwhelming experience, but Hologram have done a great job of making this pedal seem very logical and straightforward to use; hidden features are kept to a minimum and there’s an excellent manual.
The Microcosm is a beautiful thing to behold, a real centrepiece for one’s pedalboard. Similar in size to Strymon’s larger offerings, such as their Timeline and Big Sky, it’s actually slightly wider. You’ll find a quarter‑inch TRS mono/stereo input jack and separate left and right quarter‑inch TS output jacks on the rear panel, and I can only assume that the TRS input was chosen to save space. Still, most guitarists will use a mono input and for the rest of us it’s easy enough to use a TRS cable or Y lead, so I see no issue with that decision. The input is also switchable from instrument to line levels via the global menu. You have the luxury of full‑size MIDI DIN in and out/thru connectors, and there’s a conventional quarter‑inch expression input jack. Finally, there’s a standard 9V DC centre‑negative power connector; the Microcosm works perfectly well with typical power bricks, but Hologram also include a power supply in the box — something which always seems to please synth players, who are less likely to have a pedalboard‑style supply to hand.
On the top, the simple but elegant aesthetic design and futuristic lights certainly demand your attention, but the three footswitches and eight control knobs are what’s important in practice, and Hologram have been smart with their control choices. The central footswitch is a bypass, the left one is used for tap tempo and the right controls a Hold effect, which freezes your most recent piece of playing into a continuous playback cycle — a nice effect in its own right, of course, but it would also be great for transitions between songs.
When it comes to the knobs, there are familiar parameters such as Filter and Mix, but there are also more vague labels like Space and Activity. The reason for this is that some knobs are macro controls — in other words, one knob governs multiple parameters, to allow for easy editing and musical experimentation. For example, the Activity knob controls the density of the selected effect algorithm, and when turned clockwise always adds complexity and variety to the sound. But the specific functionality behind Activity actually varies from preset to preset — in short, you can treat it as a ‘do more or do less’ control. Like Activity, the Repeats control affects different parameters per preset but essentially determines the effect duration or frequency, and it works in tandem with the Activity control to provide access to a huge variety of sounds. The manual gives a good example of this using the Tunnel algorithm, for which Activity controls the depth of the sample and filter manipulation, while Repeats adjusts the amount of time it takes for the drone to decay.
The Space control mixes in the Microcosm’s stereo delay and reverb effects, again with both effects controlled by a single knob. The secondary feature (accessed by holding Shift) allows you to change between four different reverb styles, each varying in length and character. All of them sound amazing — while they can seem quite heavy‑handed in large amounts, that suits this pedal and you can turn Space fully clockwise for a 100% wet effect or dial it back for less.
Filter controls the frequency for a low‑pass filter, which is useful for taming the effects or, with hands‑on manipulation, for sweeps. The secondary control, of course, sets the resonance. The Mix knob’s primary purpose is a classic wet/dry blend control, but hold Shift to access its secondary function and it becomes a master volume. The Time knob can be used either to control the musical subdivision of an effect or, if Tempo is selected by pressing Shift, as an alternative to tapping the tempo on the footswitch. (The tempo of the pedal can also be set using a MIDI Clock).
On the Shape control, there are different areas that you can dial in for different wave shapes. These are used to apply a contour to certain characteristics of the effect, such as volume or filter envelopes. Its secondary function is to change the modulation frequency, and the modulation depth is controlled by the Repeats knob’s secondary function. I found that each waveform behaved differently in each patch but everything was always eminently usable and, importantly, easy to change for on‑the‑fly experimentation.
One of the controls you’ll use most is the Preset Selector, which scrolls through algorithms or presets, and can be pushed to change the direction, while a press‑and‑hold allows you to save user presets. Speaking of which, the Microcosm’s User Preset section has 16 save slots split into four banks, and presets retain any parameters and loops that were active at the time of saving. Any overdubs will be mixed down into a single loop file, so that additional overdubs can be layered on top in future performances.
I’d love to discuss every single preset in detail this review, but that could fill a book! The 11 algorithms are separated into four sections, categorised by effect type. Micro Loop works by creating layers of short loops and playing them back at various speeds; these combine to form new rhythmic phrases and tonal colours. A stand‑out algorithm in this section is Mosaic, which makes overlapping phrases play back at different speeds and octaves, according to which preset variation you choose. Playing a simple chord can create a cacophony of textures, which dance around the audio that was played in. This is one of the simple joys of Microcosm: you can just pick an algorithm, input simple audio and be rewarded with some real sonic interest.
The Glitch section creates real‑time rearrangements, with the incoming signal played back at random or controlled intervals. Algorithms include Blocks, Interrupt and Arp. Interrupt glitches your dry signal with pitch‑shifted bursts, micro‑montages, and various other modifiers. When set conservatively it adds small controlled artefacts and glitching — thoroughly enjoyable on a clean, washed‑out guitar. It’s equally fun when used on a drum machine, with which I’ve been using it to create interesting fills.
Granules is where you’ll find your new favourite granular effects. Haze uses clusters of grains that create a wash of sound, ranging from short diffused samples to a mixture of normal‑speed and half‑speed grains. Tunnel uses cyclical micro‑loops to generate hypnotic drones, a favourite setting of mine being ‘D’, which is envelope‑triggered, and compresses and lengthens the drone sample length. Strum uses rhythmic chains of recent note onsets to create cascading chains and phase effects. Multi Delay houses two settings, Pattern and Warp, both using a delay line with a selectable number of taps to create a wide variety of rhythmic and textural effects. Pattern uses the delay times to create rhythmic patterns, while Warp manipulates the delay taps with pitch‑shifting and filter effects.
Lots of pedals now include a looper as part of the design, but sometimes it can feel a little ‘tagged on’. Microcosm’s looper does not feel this way. You can record and play back up to 60 seconds of a performance and keep recording to the Overdub Layer upon loop playback. Loops can also be saved in user preset banks. The Phrase Looper is activated with a small button on the front of the pedal. While this isn’t ideal for live performance, if this is particularly important to you, it’s easy to set up a MIDI controller to send an on/off message. The Microcosm’s manual has a clear and easy to understand table of MIDI control change messages.
Lots of pedals now include a looper as part of the design, but sometimes it can feel a little ‘tagged on’. Microcosm’s looper does not feel this way.
Once activated, the left footswitch can be used to begin record mode. The indicator lights will glow red while recording and the Phrase Looper button will blink during the last five seconds of available recording time, which is a nice feature. Press the left footswitch again to close the loop and immediately begin playback. You can repeat this to record overdubs on top of your initial loop, and if you don’t like your latest overdub you can undo it by holding the left footswitch. The right footswitch is used to stop the looper’s playback — on a press it will retain your loop, and if you hold the switch down you can erase it.
Now, I have to say that I’ve not been a frequent user of loopers, but I found the Phrase Looper in Microcosm so easy to use that I’ve been playing with it a lot — and have ended up writing music that I just wouldn’t have made without it. Loops can easily be thrown into Reverse with a dedicated switch, and you can also record a loop with Reverse activated, so that it begins playback in Reverse. The Looper playback speed is controlled by the Time knob and can be assigned to predetermined playback speeds or free tempo changes, resulting in a fluid speed shift anywhere from 1/4 to 4x.
The Phrase Looper has several configuration options, and these can be toggled at any time without disrupting playback. With Pre‑FX enabled, the loop is placed before the Microcosm’s effect algorithms. Quantize mode synchronises your loops with the tempo of the effects section — this can produce complex compositions, as sequences and interlocking rhythmic elements can be continually layered while remaining in sync. Burst allows for the creation of fast, one‑layer loops; the left footswitch will record a loop only while the left footswitch is depressed. Depressing the footswitch again will immediately delete the phrase and begin capturing new audio. I found this to be enjoyable for creating on‑the‑hoof glitching and short phrases. Looper Only mode allows you to mute the effects and use the pedal as a traditional looper.
The Microcosm is one of those pedals that I had really high hopes for. It exceeded them. While I already knew that it was a device many ambient guitarists loved for its spacey pitch and reverb‑drenched effects, I wasn’t expecting to find so many practical uses outside of that stereotype. The Microcosm’s real strengths lie in the combination of its clever algorithms and the immediacy of its macro controls. But it can be a more ‘passive’ effects box if you wish. It can lay subtle ambiences under synth pads and be useful for incredible vocal effects and beautiful underlying textures — in fact, I was recently commissioned to do a remix and, almost exclusively, used Microcosm for my vocal processing and sound design. Thoroughly recommended.
- Stunning array of granular‑based effects.
- Always easy to use, despite dual‑function knobs.
- Nicely thought‑out looper.
- MIDI controllable.
- Dual L‑R input jacks would be nice.
This surprising and wonderful pedal certainly ticks the boxes for ambient guitarists, but it’s good for so much more than that!
$459 direct from manufacturer. Shipping and VAT calculated at checkout: UK total price was $610.80 when going to press.
$459. Available direct from manufacturer only.