As a fellow effects geek, the news of Frantone’s return to the effects industry should pique your interest. Frantone, the company headed by Fran Blanche, is one of the original boutique manufacturers. Her circuits are all original and revered for their untouchable levels of quality. Fran even etched and drilled her own circuit boards and got custom knobs—everything about her pedals oozed a level of craftsmanship not equaled by another analog circuit designer. Ever played an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff after the year 2000? Fran designed that. Frantone’s pedals—if you can find them—hold their value extremely well and (some of them like the Bassweet below) will likely be buried with their owners due to their sound quality and general scarcity. In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to regale you, the reader, with the five best Frantone effects.
When viewed in the present day, Frantone’s Vibutron still stands head and shoulders above most other analog tremolos. Many manufacturers these days stick with one LFO wave shape; I can’t speculate as to why, but most signs point to “it’s hard.” Whatever the reason, most manufacturers offer sine wave tremolo, which is billed as “amp-like” and others offer square-wave tremolos and bill them as “choppy” or “percussive.” This is all well and good, as all lovers of tremolo can attest to, but Frantone asked “why not both” over a decade ago, and the Vibutron was born. Featuring not one, not two, but three waveforms (sine, square and triangle), the Vibutron packs a lot of features into one box. “Amp-like” is a term that gets thrown around all too often, and the Vibutron is at the top of the pile. Sight unseen, I challenge you to tell the difference between the Vibutron and any amplifier’s built-in sine or triangle tremolo. One of the most exciting things about the Vibutron isn’t what you see, it’s what you don’t see—the internals of the unit feature many rarely-seen parts, including a couple you likely won’t see in any other stompbox. It’s a real testament to the level of engineering present in the pedal, and just how far someone is willing to go in order to deliver the best analog trem on the market.
Recognizing a lack of bass-centric dirt boxes, Frantone released the Bassweet (related to The Sweet, more on that later), to much acclaim. Years later, finding one is quite a difficult affair. One can only theorize as to why, but my guess revolves around the idea that the Bassweet produces an unholy amount of low end that is sure to satisfy all four-stringers. The Bassweet is a take on Frantone’s lauded The Sweet fuzz, and keeps the tone of the original without sacrificing a drip of low end. The heart of the Bassweet is a germanium clipping section with a retooled diode arrangement. When compared with The Sweet, the Tone control of the Bassweet is altered for much more low frequency response. However, this Tone control isn’t like your standard Muff Tone control, and it’s different from The Sweet’s Tone control as well. Not content to just switch some coupling capacitor values, the Bassweet is actually a finely tweaked machine, made by someone that knows electronics inside and out, and as a result, the Bassweet is a beast all its own. And despite its harmless name, doom and sludge players should take note, because the Bassweet has the power to dominate even the mightiest amplifiers and leave them quivering in its wake.
If you, the reader, is more of a casual fan of effects, this might be the Frantone pedal of which you’ve heard, but not for reasons you’d expect. Some time ago, Danelectro released the Cool Cat fuzz, and the savvy DIY community soon discovered that the Cool Cat shared a striking resemblance to the Peach Fuzz, and players who had played both noted their sonic similarities as well. However, Danelectro couldn’t quite nail it, and the Peach Fuzz remains tops in its field, which is bass-heavy sky-rending fuzz tones. Personally speaking, the Peach Fuzz is among my favorite fuzz circuits of all time (shout outs to the Roland BeeBaa and Death by Audio Soundwave Breakdown). I’m not sure there’s a more harmonically rich fuzz on the market, and surprisingly enough, the pedal contains not one transistor! In fact, it contains three ICs, two of which are power amplifiers and one of which is a precision Texas Instruments op-amp of very high quality. The feeling of plugging into a Peach Fuzz, cranking both Fuzz and Tone to 10 and playing an open chord is akin to hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. That is to say, it is unparalleled.
Glacier Hyper Modulator
While most of the Frantone line centered on more traditional effects such as fuzz and overdrive. A couple compressors also snuck through. The Glacier, however, is by far the most left-field pedal in the Frantone codex; it's a ring modulator, though the pedal itself suggests “hyper modulator.” Since about thirty seconds after the ring modulator was invented, guitarists the world over have bemoaned the effect’s musicality. Some say that it's impossible to effectively wrangle in the context of a band mix, and others just plan don't like the sound. While the Glacier may not bend the most hardline of the latter group to its will, the former bunch’s tonal palette might greatly benefit from the Glacier. Proponents of ring modulator throughout history have defended it in one of three ways: it's a wonderful on-the-sly tremolo, it's great at making bell noises and it excels at textural applications. Ring modulator purists will be pleased to find that the Glacier excels at all of those, and due to the adjustable waveform via the Y-Select knob, three different flavors are accessible. For those tremolo fans, this also means three LFO waves for your volume modulating pleasure. What's more, there is a Y Input for a user-supplied carrier frequency. Players can plug in microphones, drum machines, tape loops and whatever else for their wave-bending pleasure.
Cream Puff Plus
This two-sided pedal combines two of the best Frantone boxes in one, with a bevy of switching options designed to run one, both or both in parallel—it isn’t a simple “two effects in one box” type pedal. Before The Sweet was released, Frantone sought out to craft a Big Muff, and took some real liberties with the design. Firstly, the clipping stages were reworked, with transistors two and three being changed to NTE103A, modern off-the-shelf germanium transistors. These pieces are extremely expensive because they’re engineered using modern technology which affords them less leakage and variance. The standard 1n914 clipping diodes were also discarded and replaced with 1n6263 diodes, a Schotkey type that clips less, for a more saturated, yet open fuzz tone. This isn’t to say that Frantone left the other transistors alone; Q1 was changed into a super-high-gain Darlington to let untold amounts of gain into the clipping stages, and Q4 was a mysterious “dome-top” Fairchild house-numbered transistor, similar to the ones used in the very first Big Muff circuits. Finally, the tone stack was completely refined, resulting in a tonal range that exceeds the normal “between 10-and-2” spread that most users bemoan about the Big Muff. Clearly, there’s a lot to take in here, but Frantone’s germanium-equipped Muff is the first germanium transistorized Muff on the market and I am absolutely shocked that The Sweet has been thus far immune to cloning—it’s one of the best sounding Muff variants out there, period.
The Cream Puff is a blatant misnomer in the best way possible—nothing about this unit sets you up for the sound it produces. From the white Bakelite knobs to its pastel pink color, up through the name and the “Fluff” knob, the Cream Puff might be misconstrued as a low-gain overdrive of sorts. Spoiler alert: it’s not even close. The Cream Puff will maul your amp within inches of its life—if you let it. The Fluff knob is incredibly versatile, ranging from something appropriately named to full on tear-your-head-off fuzztone. The Cream Puff is op-amp based, with a full LED clipping structure for raw open fuzz that every rhythm player should strive for. In fact, there may not be a better pedal out there for this purpose.