There was a time not so long ago in effects history, one where shimmer reverbs dominated the market. Any big-name digital number cruncher had a shimmer pedal. In case you’re not familiar with shimmer, it’s a reverb effect in which it sounds like the “particles” of sound generated from reverberation are pitch-shifted with successive octaves. The result is a twinkling, lush sound that could only be described as shimmer. But to us pedal geeks, shimmer was something we’d heard before. Line 6 Echo Park? No, further. Digitech Space Station? Further. I’m talking about the Boss PS-3, the first shimmer pedal that I believe ever existed.
I’d like to say I’ve been down since day one, but that’s just not true. Instead, I found out about the PS-3 much like most people did; from listening to Cave In’s 2000 album Jupiter, 35 seconds into side one, track one.
While that sound is not the fabled shimmer, it is just one of many sounds found on the PS-3. And though the pedal’s full name is “Digital Pitch Shifter/Delay,” the shimmer is in there, hiding within one of the PS-3’s 11 modes.
The PS-2 was the first pedal in the PS series, featuring just six modes strung across delay and pitch shifting modes. Three of the six are delay ranges, one of the six is a bewilderingly useless “Manual” pitch shift mode, leaving just two modes for actual pitch shifting. And while the pitch was definitely affected on these modes (+1 and -1 octaves), there wasn’t a whole lot of “shifting” going on. Essentially, it was a digital octave machine, which was pretty novel back in 1989 when it debuted. Lacking the finickiness of analog octave down and the MacGuyver-like approach to rectifying octave fuzz circuits, the PS-2 did what many players always wanted—give a clean mixed two-part harmony. No fuss, no muss.
When the PS-3 was released in 1994 to bat clean-up for the PS-2, the advances in the semiconductor industry were on full display. Now there were 11 modes, with the first three occupied by the same delay patches. Rather than giving the digital delay equal stage time, the PS-3 more than doubles down on the pitch shifting to spectacular results.
Across eight different modes, the PS-3 uses different combinations of two independent shifts of up two two octaves in either direction from the fundamental, as well as pitch detuning effects on certain modes. Some of these modes are extremely straightforward; Mode 4 implements a simple chorus-like pitch detuning, Mode 5 gives standard pitch adjustment across four octaves with no latency, and Mode 6 serves up the same but with a built-in “lag” for a more striking effect. While Modes 8, 9 and 10 serve up more of the same but with dual shift amounts, Mode 7 is where the money is. Cave In thought so, using Mode 7 across the aforementioned Jupiter, so much so that God City engineer and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou told Stephen Brodsky of Cave In that they had ruined the effect for everyone else.
This mode is denoted by Boss as “+/- 2 octave inverse” and more or less sounds like that. In doing so, the pitch shifting blooms and swells while adding a slight lag time and twinkling top end. On paper, it sounds like shimmer, and it sure sounds like it. But there’s something to this sound that plays tricks with one’s perception of these early effects.
Oftentimes, through the power of revisionist history, we’re able to revisit and judge these old digital effects through the lens of their successors. Sometimes, the limits of old digital tech has an endearing quality on the sound, such as Boss’s DD-2 and some DD-3 models that use converters that inadvertently cuts treble from successive repeats, giving a pleasing “half-digital, half-analog” tone that is rather unique. Oftentimes though, it’s a grisly sight. Some old reverb pedals are just dreadful, and many delays are nothing if not uninspired. However, the PS-3 is the rare case where Mode 7 is pretty much how I want shimmer reverb to sound, even 28 years after mine was made; March of 1994.
The PS-3 also serves up stereo outputs and an expression out, two big peripheral upgrades over the PS-2’s tuner out jack. The expression pedal is strictly for Mode 11, which shifts between the two pitches dialed in on the face of the pedal. A footswitch installed in this same jack will simply jump between the two knob settings.
Due to the fact that almost nobody with whom I regularly congregate knowing who Cave In is, I can safely say that them ruining the PS-3 is either never was or is no longer true, and everyone that plays my PS-3 agrees with me after about three notes. When paired with a delay pedal of some sort, the PS-3 and delay work in tandem to serve up pure sonic bliss, a term I don’t use lightly. Some time ago, PS-3 prices were a little out of control, but they’re now again in reach of the everyguitarist. Seek one out and thank me later.