In today’s effects-crazed world, it can be somewhat difficult to look up from the pedals and into some relatively obscure inexpensive rack equipment. Even more difficult is glossing over some of the more popular brands in favor of one that never really made a ton of them. One such brand is Yamaha.
You all know Yamaha, the company that makes waterslides, helicopters and robots. As I’m sure you know, another big part of the brand’s manufacturing also includes musical instruments, such as drums, guitars, pianos and whatever else. However, one area that Yamaha only slightly dabbled in is effects processors. Unlike most other companies in the ‘80s that leapt at the chance to flood the market with effects, Yamaha mostly played it cool and released a handful of pieces (though some were stellar, I’m looking at you, MagicStomp) However, Yamaha did put a little more effort into its rack gear, although even that skewed more towards synthesizers than guitar players.
Beyond the standard rack culprits such as delay, reverb and the like, Yamaha released a handful of half-rack units that leaned more towards budget-conscious players. And as much as I’d like to tell you otherwise, they mostly sounded like budget units. First and foremost, the bypass signal is legendarily bad. Disengaging all the effects gives off a very sterile, anemic tone that is very tough to reconcile. Some of the routing is a little screwy, and most (most!) of the distortion patches are just ridiculous sounding. However, there’s much more to these than meets the eye. These are the Yamaha FX500 series.
Even though most of the effects are iffy, the FX500 series—mostly the FX500 itself—have a lot to do with the shoegaze genre. 1993’s Souvlaki by Slowdive relied heavily on the FX500, specifically patch 40, named “Soft Focus.” It packs a lot of bang for the buck, with a 100 percent wet mashup of many different effects for a very interesting synth-like sound. Another setting on the FX500 (not a patch), called “Early Reflections” is a very close approximator to a handful of My Bloody Valentine tones. In essence, the FX500 is a shoegaze machine; it’s one box that basically forces you to use several effects at once. And while the onboard preamp leaves much to be desired, slamming it with literally any gain pedal takes the FX500 to a whole new level—and that’s exactly what Slowdive did.
The FX500 units are part of what Yamaha calls “Simul-Effects.” In essence, this means that the FX500 boxes combine five separate effects into one patch. These five effects cannot be changed, and only the order of the final two can be swapped. On the FX500, these effects are Comp[ression], Dist[ortion], EQ, Mod[ulation] and Rev[erb]. As one might expect by their ability to be swapped, the Mod and Rev buttons can be programmed to several types. As you cycle through the different presets, the corresponding lights illuminate to show they’re active. On some of these patches, you can use your ears, but on the aforementioned Soft Focus patch, it’s easy to get lost in the morass, especially since the Mod type used on this patch is the only mode with a name that may not be familiar to most players: “Symphonic.” This, according to the manual, “adds dimension.” Strangely enough, this is accurate; it’s something of a doubler effect that is a chorus with a super short delay time.
Other patches on the FX500 include “Fuzz,” “Metal Overdrive” and “Power Leads.” Those are self-explanatory enough, but others are named “Brass Energizer,” “Horror House,” and my personal favorite, “Monk Akka!” There are 60 patches in all, which feature varying degrees of the onboard effects, with some taking advantage of the FX500’s deep editing. These patches face a steep drop-off when the unit moves into bass territory; the FX500B contains just 30 patches, but a surprisingly more robust drive section, which the unit calls “O.D.” instead of distortion. It’s a complete anomaly in the effects world, as the FX500 series was released during a time when bass players kept effects processing to a minimum. Digital distortion wasn’t exactly a crutch that players leaned on, doubly so for four-stringers. Therefore, it makes almost too much sense that the final unturned stone contains the biggest treasures.
For the price these command on the used market, I’d recommend at least checking them out, for nothing else but reliving a time when having 100 pedals on the floor at every show meant you were the coolest person within 300 miles of the venue.