MXR phase 100
So much has been made of MXR within the pages of this column, but for this one, I simply must make an exception. Though MXR has made a ton of killer gear in their pre- and post-Dunlop eras, there is something to be said for an old specimen of the effect that put them on the map and scored the first major victory in what I call “the color wars.” This is . . . no, not the Phase 90. This is the MXR Script Phase 100.
MXR formed in 1972 but didn’t put out anything until 1974. By this time, the Maestro PS-1 Phase Shifter was out, but that was engineered more for vocalists and keyboardists—they had a screw-on microphone stand mount built right into the enclosure. Only three pre-set speeds were available and those three options were only accessible via organ-style plastic rocker switch. Even though that unit sounds amazing, there are a couple problems; one such is that because the pre-set speeds ramp into one another, the full expressiveness of the unit isn’t realized unless one can manipulate the switches manually. But perhaps the biggest modern boondoggle is that the unit is big, as in much, much bigger than you think. While that was all well and good back then, MXR had standardization and brand loyalty in mind.
To that end of standardization, MXR released seven pedals in its initial “script” line. Each one was assigned a color; there was a wild CMOS-equipped octave-down fuzz (blue), a noise gate and line driver (white), a distortion, (dark yellow), a compressor (red), and three different phasers in varying hues of orange. The first stone was cast in the “color wars,” and MXR scored one point in this fracas; orange was and forever is the official phaser color.
Despite the ascending values, the Phase 90 came first, then the 45, and finally the 100. Each pedal also contains a different number of “stages” (we’ll get to that in a minute); the 45 has two, the 90 has four and the 100 tops the list with ten. The 100 also boasts two things the others don’t: a “wave selector” and the undying devotion of one Keith Richards.
Phase shifters work as such: When a signal’s phase is split and recombined, a signal cancellation occurs. Left alone, that becomes a notch filter. When you use a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) to animate the notch, it becomes a phase shifter. Adding more notches increases the strength of the effect. The Phase 100 serves up three such notches. The Phase 100 also derives its phase shifting in a different way than the other two. The 90 and 45 use FETs as a variable resistor, and the FETs are driven by the voltage generated by the LFO.
The Phase 100 uses something similar to a Uni-Vibe, but a more streamlined approach. While Uni-Vibes relied on an incandescent bulb and bare photocells in a metal shroud, the Phase 100 relies on a device normally known by the brand name Vactrol (like Band-Aid or Kleenex). A Vactrol is essentially an LED and photocell encased in epoxy to eliminate ambient light for maximum effectual depth.
The four “modes” are really just combinations of two different switch poles—on-on, on-off, off-off and off-on. One of these switch poles changes the intensity of the notches, and one of them changes the intensity of the LFO, an ersatz depth control, if you will. Using this knob, one can dial in rich, deep phasing or a smattering of shifting. There’s not much to dial in; pick your intensity and then set the speed. So long as you set the tempo of the LFO to be vaguely congruent with whatever you’re playing, you’re going to have a good time.
For all the good that MXR accomplished with its Phase series, there’s just one gripe. Anyone that’s ever cracked open a vintage MXR model can attest to the foam of doom. Presumably as a way to shield components from the enclosure lid, MXR installed a layer of dense foam in each pedal. Over time, that foam has disintegrated into a powdery mess. And because you have to root through the foam to replace the battery, having to cough up a mess of foam dust is a drag and you should almost hope that someone has done it for you before you purchase it, lest you crack the lid and end up looking like a freshly exploded Wile E. Coyote.
However, the foam is a minuscule gripe and hardly a barrier of entry to these fine pedals. They’re also worth acquiring even though none of the original Script versions of any pedal have an LED. But as a friend and fellow tone chaser once told me, “if it’s on, you’ll know.”