Some of the greatest inventions in the history of effects were developed out of necessity, but not the kind you’d expect. After various fuzz origin theories including intentionally punctured speakers and failing tubes within recording consoles, someone came along and served up this sound in a box so people didn’t have to damage their own equipment. More importantly, it was the concept of switching on the fly that became the driver for innovation; after all, you can’t un-puncture a speaker. But once the bar was set at “making instruments sound different by hitting a switch” and it proved profitable, the race was on to invent as many pedals as possible.
If ever there was a manufacturer that truly struck while the proverbial iron was hot, it was Maestro. To that company’s credit, it developed the aforementioned first commercially-available fuzz unit, octaver, compressor, filter and a few others I may be forgetting. While the fuzz is most certainly a legendary piece, the others fell a bit by the wayside despite having been the progenitor. Once such piece is the PS-1 series Phaser, of which the PS-1A is the most well-known
Like most companies looking to make a splash in uncharted electrical territory, the PS-1 series is massively over-engineered, and for that, there can only be one man: Tom Oberheim. In fact, like many Maestro effects of the age, Oberheim was at the helm.
It all began when Oberheim auditioned his Ring Modulator unit for a Los Angeles film orchestra, selling a handful of units. A couple years later, news of Oberheim’s freakbox caught the ear of an executive at Maestro’s parent company, and a partnership was born. Oberheim went on to design several units, one of them being the Phaser.
The concept for this phase shifter started out as an attempt to recreate the rotational elements of a Leslie speaker. A band that Oberheim was palling around with in the early ‘70s used a Leslie speaker for many of the members’ instruments, and Tom was bent on providing an alternative to schlepping around ornate wooden cabinets. Eventually, Oberheim sold this design to Maestro and the rest is history.
You may have seen these browsing through eBay or Reverb listings and thought the same as I did before I played one: Where’s the control? Why are the inputs and outputs on the front-facing edge? Why are the speed switches “rocker” style? Why are there speed switches at all instead of a knob? What’s with this weird plug on the back? These are all valid questions. One that might not cross your mind is “why is it so dang big?” If you’ve only ever seen pictures, words can scarcely describe just how monstrous these are. It all adds up to being “the first;” nobody was exactly sure what was going to fly in this new venture and what wasn’t.
Being a true attempt to approximate a Leslie speaker, the Phaser features preset speeds with a fixed time constant LFO. Essentially, this means as one jumps between speeds, rather than snap to this new speed like one might expect with a toggle or rotary switch, the speed ramps up and down as the switches are flicked. The pliable rocker switches aren’t robust like modern footswitches, because foot operation wasn’t necessarily the endgame. The underside of the pedal contains a threaded mounting plate, so that one might fix one to a mic stand and use it in live performance. While that doesn’t explain why the instrument cables hang from the front and the jacks are reversed from what would come to be known as the standard, these were very new times. After hooking it up and mounting it to a mic stand myself, my fiance said it looked “ridiculous.”
There are some semblances of control if one knows how to access them. The strange protruding connector on the back is a mystery to even the most eBay-hardened gear junkies, but it actually connects the Phaser to a three-switch auxiliary box, which lets players control the action of the rocker switches by foot, making it a much more guitar-friendly unit. Not a ton of these are floating around, hence the confusion about the unlabeled auxiliary port. I don’t have one, nor have I ever seen one in person. The later, rare PS-1B did add a Variable Speed control, and the “depth” control one might expect to find on a modern phaser is an internalized trimmer.
While there aren’t many documented users of the mic stand variety, the guitar community went crazy for this new sound, and it was used by players wanting a dynamic, performance-oriented modulation box. The range of styles of the PS-1 contingent is vast, from George Harrison and Waylon Jennings to Layne Staley of Alice in Chains and Martin Gore of Depeche Mode. Some even found their way over to Japan where the reclusive Takashi Mizutani of Les Rallizes Dénudés made great use of one (seriously, check these guys out).
If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing one, I can comfortably say that you’d join me in agreeing that the sound is just too good to leave off any pedalboard, even if it does take up as much room as six other pedals. There’s a high price to pay for uncompromising quality, and that is it.