When most people think of boutique effects, they think of small-batch builders that dared to step away from the established circuit designs of the big boys. As one of the first “boutique” pedals, the Fuzz Factory perfectly encapsulated the essence of mid-’90s rock guitar; it offered up an incredibly unique circuit that constantly blurred the line between well-established pedal norms and wild performance tools. Some players, however, didn’t really feel like waiting for these tools to be built, and would-be tonal spelunkers sought out alternative ways to mangle their signal.
Because only a handful of brands were making guitar effects in the mid ‘90s, if you wanted something truly unique, you had to expand your palette beyond traditional effects. For most, that meant expanding into the ever-budding tabletop effects scene. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably weren’t one of those people, so it may come as a surprise that there was a whole scene of effects that were meant to sit atop a table with many other effects and activated with pushbuttons and the like. I’ve written about the Alesis Bitrman in this very column, and that’s precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about. But Alesis went on to manufacture a great deal of products, while other manufacturers of this equipment stuck to their guns. This is the Sherman Filterbank.
Sherman makes one product, and this is it. With that said, there’s a reason why it’s been in production since 1996. In that year, multi-instrumentalist Herman Gillis designed and built 40 Filterbanks along with nine extremely rare instruments called the Chaosbank. However, those never gained traction beyond the initial nine and Gilles decided to use his stage name (Sherman) as the brand name and really dive into the Filterbank. The next year, Sherman shipped five times as many Filterbanks, with a very small fraction headed to the States. Though those slow American sales figures would steadily increase in the coming years, stateside Filterbank enthusiasts were a rare breed.
Among the known users of the Filterbank series are heavy hitters like Nine Inch Nails, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Underworld, but none were perhaps as important to our purposes as Greg Edwards (Autolux) and Tim Gane (Stereolab). These players not only saw the Filterbank infiltrate their records but also their touring effects setup. And for as unknown as you may think these folks are, there are countless questions about their equipment plastered around the Internet.
Calling these guitarists “explorers” or “innovators” doesn’t really do these folks justice if you take the time to read the Filterbank manual. Right up front, after a brief treatise on the fundamentals of effects inputs, Sherman informs you that when set the wrong way, the Filterbank can absolutely annihilate your entire rig, room and space. As stated on page 10 of the manual, the Filterbank can output signals as low as one Hertz, causing guitar speakers to potentially burst into flames. However, you can adjust the lower bound for this and probably should before noodling around.
With occupational hazards aside, the Filterbank is an exceptional piece of kit. Unlike its name would lead you to believe, the Filterbank isn’t just a bank of filters. However, it does have quite a lot of them. There are high-pass, low-pass and band-pass filters, which can be twisted together in all sorts of ways. More familiar effect types can be found too, from ADSR filters, a sweepable band-pass filter and an envelope follower. The real meat of the effect is that many effect classes can be replicated with subtle filter animation. For example, turning the band-pass filter down while raising high- and low-pass filter amounts creates a notch filter, and when that notch is animated with an LFO, it turns into a phaser. And this phaser sounds excellent.
Paired with a fuzz pedal and processed by the Filterbank, you can get some pretty wild and powerful synth tones. However, you can almost get there with the Filterbank’s onboard gain circuit. The VCA of the Filterbank was designed by Mr. Gilles to emulate the sound of old tube gear. Cranking the VCA and dialing the filter circuits just right can deliver gooey valve-like breakup in addition to all the tone sculpting.
I’d like to say that as a musician, sometimes it pays off big to step outside the box so to speak, but I’d be a liar. It always pays to step outside of the box. Maybe someday, 20 years later, hordes of people will be asking the Internet about the gear you used.