Updated for 2020. When this UX snob of a pedal junkie caught the tremolo bug, he started referring to himself in the third person and made a spreadsheet comparing 30+ different tap tremolo pedals. …Then he blogged about it.
If you’re lazy or impatient, use these links to skip to a juicier section of the tremolo pedal roundup. But keep in mind: my trem criteria, while not so odd, might not be the same as yours. Spoiler alert: I initially got the EHX Super Pulsar, but found reasons to replace it with the superior Swindler Effects Red Mountain V2. Couldn’t be happier.
- What is tremolo?
- My tremolo criteria
- Other tap tempo trem features to consider
- Results: Best tap tremolo pedals
- The 30 tap tempo tremolo shootout chart
Quick Intro: Different types of tremolo?
Tremolo, in the classical sense, is a rhythmic wavering of a note. E.g. like that produced by a violinist rapidly shaking the bow hand. But then some doofus decided to call the electric guitar vibrato system “tremolo,” a misnomer which caused a few generations of guitar wankers to not understand what tremolo means. (“Whammy bar” is a much better name for guitar vibrato, anyhow).
In the effect pedal sense, which is why we’re all here, there are two main types of tremolo.
Amplitude tremolo changes the volume of the signal at a specified speed and depth. From abrupt on-off-on-off square-wave chop, to a subtle waveform barely imparting a warble, and everything between.
Harmonic tremolo chops the signal in half, treble (high pitches) and bass (low-end), and modulates them out of phase with each other. …Which is to say, it’s more of a tonal wobbling.
All of the pedals in this tremolo pedal roundup can do amplitude tremolo; only a few of them can also do harmonic tremolo. So if you’re stuck on a harmonic tap trem, your choice is much easier. Me? I got the Swindler Red Mountain V2 in part because it is dual-mode. I like it both ways. 😉
Tap Tempo Trem Criteria
First I thought I wanted a tremolo pedal with the ability to control the tremolo speed via an expression pedal, but I quickly realized that easy, onboard tap tempo was more important. As I dug deeper, I found other things I cared about. You likely have at least slightly different tremolo criteria.
To be considered a contender for my tremolo affections, a pedal has to have all of these features:
- Dedicated, onboard tap
Pedals with dual-purpose tap buttons aren’t welcome here. TC Electronic Pipeline Tap Tremolo and Line 6 Tap Tremolo both use tap buttons for other commonly used tasks. Sure, it allows for a smaller pedal footprint, but usability suffers.
Tap tremolo pedals relying solely on an external tap button or expression pedal were similarly nixed. (Entries from: Moog, Strymon, Supro, Earthquaker Devices, and Source Audio)
And the Ernie Ball Expression Tremolo pedal also fails to make the cut, but it’s an expression pedal form factor, so if that’s your thing, check it out. Oh, and Matthews Effects The Conductor v2 might lose here because they put the tap right next to other controls. And while an astute reader noted in the comments below that the tap switch is significantly higher than surrounding controls, making it less likely you’ll knob-mash, I’d have to play with one before endorsing this unconventional UI choice.
- Dotted subdivision/interval (or a way to fake it)
Sometimes it’s fun to do rhythmic things that don’t fall on a downbeat, an upbeat, or the “and” between them. Enter the dotted eighth note tremolo subdivision.
Scant few tremolo pedals have native dotted divisions. (See the spreadsheet. First link in this post, above).
We can bend most other tap trem pedals to our dotted whimsies by setting the div to “triplet” and then tapping half-time. (On the one and three, instead of on all four beats). …Which is good enough for me, in a pinch.
But a scant few candidates failed completely here, e.g. the Fulltone Supa-Trem2 and the otherwise lauded Zvex Sonar.
- Volume knob
People often mention a perceived drop in volume when using amplitude tremolo. Most candidates use some sort of clean boost/gain knob to counter that.
But the Dedalo Tres Tap Tremolo Pedal does not have a volume knob.
- Dedicated rate and div knobs
The fewer different parameters a knob is responsible for, the smoother the user experience. Effect pedal UX is especially important for me because I often have friends using pedals, and I loathe doing technical support when I could be making noise with people.
Several high-profile tap trem pedals fail here by combining rate and div into one knob. …And I can’t even fathom that “saving space” was a real concern, because they then need to add another controller to switch the function of the rate/div knob. If you’re always going to use it one way or the other, then you might not care about this. But I sometimes use my pedal boards for noise projects, and lazy me can’t be bothered to deal with the design shortcomings of: Empress Tremolo 2, Seymour Duncan Shapeshifter, Copilot Polypus, et al.
- Easy access to shape shifting
Want to go from a mellow sine wave to a mad-blinky square chop, on the fly? Me too!
This is another place the Zvex Sonar doesn’t shine; it can only change wave shapes via hidden controls. I.e. you have to hold down a “shift” button and use a knob for this unlabeled purpose.
- Reasonable power requirements
Almost every trem pedal passed the bar here, but the Stone Deaf Tremotron fails twofold.
It requires a whopping 300ma of power and their website claims it’s picky about voltage. They say it doesn’t work with a Truetone 1 Spot power supply. …One of the most popular, high-amperage 9v power supplies. No thanks.
- Other UX concerns
Many features on the Chase Bliss Gravitas Tremolo pedal require flipping the pedal around to toggle one of its umpteen dip switches.
E.g. you have to pick between having access to subdivisions 1,2,4 OR 3,6,8 via a dip switch. Want to go from harmonic to amplitude mode? Yep. Dipswitch. Etc. Yes, you can sort of work around this using presets and/or midi, but that’s not what I’m looking for in tremolo UX.
As of initial publication, two pedals on the list are lingering in development hell. The Luma Trueno and Coda Effects Montagne bot look great, but they’re both still preorder only. Some pedals (Waves, Semaphore) are discontinued and hard to come by. Not going to seriously contemplate something I probably can’t get.
Please note: As I eliminated pedals from contention via the criteria above, I usually stopped gathering data for the chaff. So there are several holes in the tap tempo pedal chart. (Send me a note if you want to add any data).
Other Tremolo Pedal Features to Consider
The features above were all chopping blocks for my decision process. The trem options below are added bonuses, frosting on the cake.
- Tap once to re-sync
I don’t know if I’d use it, but being able to synchronize the pedal to the downbeat of the “1” might come in handy.
- External tap jack
Maybe you want your trem high on the back of your pedal board, but want the tap tempo button easily mashable down in front.
- Expression pedal jack
Some control one parameter, some pedals can map an expression pedal to control one of many functions. Some can control many at once.
- Rhythms or patterns
A few trem mix it up with stock patterns. Some let you create and store your own. Some even have step sequencer-like controls of each beat with dedicated knobs.
- Harmonic trem
Want to switch from amplitude to harmonic mode, and back? No problem, for a few tremolo pedals out there.
- Hold a button for added functionality
Some tremolo pedals emulate a Leslie speaker brake when you hold down the tap button. Others use the tap tempo momentary switch as a kill switch or div-doubler when you hold it down. Some trem pedals turn the on/off switch into a momentary on-switch when held. Others still, use these pedals for saved preset controls.
- Other features?
Yep. Some trems have tone control knobs. Want to skew waveform symmetry? There’s a pedal or two for you. Dedicated space/duty controls? Yep. You can find that. Want to sync via VC or midi? Use your pedal as a global clock for other gear? Do you need stereo ping-ponging tremolo? Do you want built-in distortion or reverb? Yeah, well, there’s a pedal that can do that. …But it might not be able to do all the other stuff you want. #priorities
Results: The Best Tap Tremolo Pedal
Want a smaller, dual-mode, stereo tap tremolo with a great feature set?
Pros: The best feature set in a small (less than 3″x5″) pedal enclosure. Red Mountain is the only dual-mode (harmonic and amplitude tremolo) in the roundup. It stores one preset/favorite for later recall. Stutter mode. Stereo ping-pong. Etc.
Cons: Doesn’t have any rhythm settings, so you get clasic on-off-on-off pattern. Plain-Jane white paint with black text will be pure minimalist (and UX) bliss for some, but flashy-pedalboard folk might yawn at that. You might be able to find the discontinued “Signature” model, if you’re looking for something with more color.
Silver and Bronze Medalists:
Don’t mind a huge enclosure, 15 buttons/knobs, and amplitude-trem only?
Get the Electro-Harmonix Super Pulsar.
Pros: Features galore. Available below suggested retail on eBay. …which might hint at something?
Cons: All those features come at a cost. At almost 5″x6″, it’s considerably larger than the other tremolo pedals in this roundup, so make sure you have space on your board. Mediocre UX takes a while to learn, and longer to master.
Want simplicity, with a couple funky bonuses?
Get the Diamond TRM1 Tremolo.
Pros: It checks most requisite boxes with a couple bonus amenities (two rhythm patterns, kill switch, etc.) using only seven controls. …Which means it’s simpler than most. #UX
I liked the sound of its “chaotic” interval with a hard square waveform.
Cons: That simplicity comes at a cost. The Diamond Tremolo lacks extra features some may want: external control jacks, true dotted intervals, etc.
Tremolo Pedal Honorable Mentions
Want harmonic tremolo more than you care about other criteria?
Get the Walrus Monument or the Drolo Twin Peaks.
I’ll preface by saying both the Monument and Twin Peaks are up here in the rarefied air because of their harmonic tremolo options. They’re both great pedals, but they don’t tick as many of my criteria boxes as the pedals above, (or as many as some that didn’t even make the cut). They do however tick enough of the right boxes so they’d both be in the runner-up section (below) even if they lacked the harmonic switch.
Pros: The Monument is the simpler layout of the two harmonic tremolo finalists. But the Twin Peaks v4 offers tone and wave symmetry controls, if you prefer those features to a less dense control panel. Both come in geologic-themed tri-color designs, perhaps a breath of artsy fresh air on your board, compared to the options above.
Cons: Both the Monument and Twin Peaks lack rhythmic patterns. Neither has native dotted subdivisions, but because both have a triplet setting, you can fake it by tapping half-time. For me, the extra knobs on the Twin Peaks are (probably) more noise than signal; I wouldn’t use them much.
The other honorable mentions in this tap tempo tremolo comparison go to…
In no particular order:
- Wampler Latitude Deluxe
- Cusack Tap-A-Whirl
- Dawner Prince Starla
Even if your criteria is close to mine, you might find something about one of these to tickle your tremolo fancy. Look into them.
Many tap tremolo pedals not favorably noted in this review are great pedals beloved by countless people. I know that, and I don’t discount their quality and utility at all. They’re just not what I want in a trem. (Which is far from saying I wouldn’t use one if somebody gave me one!)
Is your tremolo pedal criteria vastly different from mine? You should check out the reddit comment thread about this tremolo roundup wherein people discuss other options. E.g. if you’re into menu-driven multi-effect options like the Modfactor, MD500, Mobius, etc.
Thanks for reading.
Dan Dreifort consults on UX and SEO when he’s not making noise with pedals and friends. (Check out synthband.com?) His favorite color is pizza.