Other than ring modulator, there may not be a more polarizing effect than the simple flanger. Today, we know flanging as the effect that completely overpowers the guitar’s tone and turns it into a jet. However, like many other effects, it was devised by one Les Paul.
Paul “discovered” flanging before the process involved the tape flange for which it’s named; Les used record players and acetate discs. It wasn’t until Gold Star Studios first manipulated a tape machine in the late ‘50s that the masses were exposed to the sound, and John Lennon actually later coined the term—inspired by audio engineer Ken Townshend, who manipulated the sound by physically touching a tape’s flange.
In these days, “tape flange,” as it is now called, consisted of using two tape machines running in parallel, with one signal delayed, often by manually slowing down a flange with one’s hand. The sound is a far cry from deep, enveloping modern pedal-style flange, which sounds like a jet airplane taking off. So apt was this description that Ibanez eventually released a pedal called the Airplane Flanger, a riff on Maxon’s old Jetlyzer.
The first-ever flanger effect was released by Eventide back in late 1974, as BBD chips were invented in 1969 and proliferated in the coming years. After Eventide and MXR released rack-mounted flangers, 1978 saw the widespread use of BBDs and every company suddenly had a flanger. That said, the “first” pedal flanger may forever remain a mystery.
As of this writing, the flanger pedal is 38 years old, though if you listened to music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you’d guess it was only 28 years old. Like chorus, the ‘80s was a flanger playground. And again, like chorus, the sound itself is incredible when properly utilized. As it stands, though, the pedal flanger has an illustrious history. Here are the top 10.
The unquestioned king of vintage flange tones, the A/DA Flanger goes by just the one iconic name: Flanger. A/DA offerings tended to dress up the effect type—for example, the Final Phase—but the Flanger stands alone, unmolested by egoic superlatives. For the time, A/DA’s flanger offered two more knobs than almost anyone else: Threshold and Manual. The Manual knob allowed players to manipulate the “flange position” with the Speed set to zero. This created a locked-flange tone that really livened up lead lines. Also, the Harmonics switch never again saw the light of day until HBE copied it with the Frostbite Flanger. It completely changes the character of the flange, offering a more tape-like settings that pros everywhere coveted.
Subdecay Starlight DLX
There may be no greater modulation maker than Subdecay, whose phasers, ring mods, filters and vibratos are exceptional pieces of kit. Also included in this grouping is the Starlight series, which unfortunately now begins and ends with the Starlight Flanger. Once upon a time, though, Subdecay produced “DLX” versions of three different pedals—only the Prometheus DLX remains—and the Starlight DLX was one such pedal. In fact, the Starlight DLX may be the most “DLX” of all—it’s a huge behemoth of a pedal—much bigger than the others. The Starlight DLX featured a mind-bending control set with several waveform options, tap tempo, a hold mode, feedback modes, and unique knobs such as Warp and Gate. There was also an envelope option in any direction you’d like, in addition to several submodes and hidden features—and it sounds great.
Electro-Harmonix Flanger Hoax
While most companies seek to eschew large enclosures in favor of more compact offerings, Electro-Harmonix isn’t most companies. With the Flanger Hoax, EHX has the largest pedal it currently makes, and of course, it’s a flanger. The Hoax features nine knobs and four toggle switches. To be fair, three of the knobs are switches as well, though two of them have five positions and the other has two, for 50 possible combinations. Factoring in the toggle switches gives an astonishing 1,200 combinations, not to mention the extra tweaking done with continuous potentiometers. Using this massive control scheme, players can unearth everything from pseudo-phaser tones, coughs and sputters of feedback, broken robotic squelches, and above all else, pristine flanging.
Coron Jet Flanger & Filter Matrix
Though early Coron gear is marred by its later iterations as a company that got crushed in the gears of the great Japanese clone machine of the ‘80s, the first Coron pedals are great and highly collectible. Much like old Guyatone boxes, Coron pedals have their dedicated followers, and perhaps no pedal is as highly touted as the Jet Flanger & Filter Matrix, one of the only Coron boxes to not come in an MXR-style enclosure. This pedal has a separate footswitch for “Jet” which kicks the flanging into high gear, with an accompanying knob for Jet Level. Other than this, the Coron has a relatively standard feature set, but the tone is immaculate and definitely worthy of a spot on this list. The one problem: because Coron gear is collectible right now, finding one may prove to be a bit of a sticky wicket.
Almost everything Lovetone ever made will be in the top 10 of its respective effect type—the stuff was just that good. The rarest of all the Lovetone pedals is the ?, also known as the Flange with No Name. Every last Lovetone pedal is built as a tweaker’s playground, and the ? is no different. The ? contains four different LFO modes, as well as knobs labeled Reaction and Action, which control oscillating feedback. Lovetone was an early adopter of FX loops on pedals, as well as CV (control voltage) control, and the ? contains both, including some extremely innovative CV routing options for those players looking for more than just guitar interfacing. Of course, millions of features don’t mean a thing unless the pedal sounds good, and it does; features alone do not contribute to pedals costing over a thousand dollars on the used market, and they never will.
Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress
“That cad,” you might say. “He left out ‘Deluxe,’ he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Friends, in 1978, Electro-Harmonix offered two versions of its Electric Mistress. One is powered by two nine-volt batteries (or an adapter), and the other one is powered with a hard-wired AC cord, with a transformer built into the pedal, along with noise- and distortion-reducing tweaks. In 1978, having a hardwired AC cord was marketed as “convenient,” when these days, it is anything but. The regular Mistress is markedly more sweet-sounding, even with all its so-called “imperfections.” The Mistress line was the first to incorporate the “frozen flange state,” known to the Mistress lovers as “Filter Matrix.” This allowed users to pause the flanging at any spot for some cool filtered tones.
Chase Bliss Spectre
One look at today’s pedal landscape and it’s tough to not pen Chase Bliss as one of the kings of modulation. Four of the company’s five pedals are modulation-based, and owner-engineer Joel Korte has continually walked the line between what guitarists want and need. Today’s players want a ton of control options, but they also want a chiefly analog circuit, and the two rarely, if ever, overlap. The Spectre is Chase Bliss’s foray into flanger territory, and it sounds just as good as it looks. Featuring proprietary ModuShape technology, players can select both sides of the LFO waveform, as well as any amount of control via the DIP switch bank on the rear panel. Because of all this control, and due to the fact that the signal path is 100 percent analog, the Spectre can cop almost every flanger tone in the known universe, and several that fall outside that realm.
TC Electronic SCF Stereo Chorus/Flange
Though TC Electronic is known these days for colorful utilitarian boxes and looping, it began a downward effect-size trajectory that started with rack gear and got smaller as time went on. After the legendary 2290 delay, TC released a line of AC-powered stompboxes, and one of them was the SCF, or Stereo Chorus/Flange. This pedal has remained one of the top choices for “tape flange” since its introduction, and is still being manufactured today. Its inclusion on the list is based solely around its tone, which is captivating to say the least. A toggle switch on the face of the pedal switches between chorus and flange, but the flanger mode is where the SCF cashes its checks. It’s a buttery, smooth, yet never over-the-top flanger tone that’s been featured on countless records by guitarists who desire a little subtle movement in their rigs.
Foxrox Paradox TZF
It wasn’t until recently that the effects community became taken with the idea of “through-zero” flanging; an inevitability within tape flanging in which there is a “zero point” where the two signals cancel each other out. The through-zero sound can be classified as the tone being “sucked through a straw,” and this designation is reached by an intense attack started from a silent state. Dave Fox of Foxrox Electronics beat pretty much everyone else to the punch with the highly collectible Paradox TZF, whose name is a nod to the very effect. The TZF is a comprehensive flange machine that features envelope control as well as a TZF knob, which controls this exact “straw” feature, a relatively straight-forward means of accomplishing the task without having to set the knobs of a lesser unit in a precise manner.
Moog MF-108M Cluster Flux
In order to stretch its dwindling supply of bucket-brigade chips that normally went to its MF-104M analog delay, Moog instead decided to release the Cluster Flux, an all-analog modulation powerhouse. Though the previous blurb made it sound like the Cluster Flux is a hasty call-to-arms over the availability of BBD chips, it’s actually an incredibly versatile effect that gives players the best of flange and chorus tones with the wealth of features that Moog fans come to expect, including tap tempo, an expansive expression pedal patchbay, MIDI and tons of LFO options. Like TC’s SCF, the Cluster Flux excels at “low-key” flanger tones, but true to its name, it can blast your tone into the stratosphere if you’re not careful—the Feedback control is more than enough to send your amp into orbit—tread carefully.