Bring out the big guns
It’s one of the perks of writing these articles for Dawsons that we get to try out a lot of different gear. Loads. At any given time we have a list as long as your arm of new and exciting bits of musical equipment that we need to, for want of a better word, play around with. Then, after weighing up our opinions and double-checking our facts, we set about writing these review articles. It’s only right that a review article is written by someone who has used the gear in question, right? We can’t lie though, it’s not exactly a burden on our time. As proper gear-fans, it’s probably one of the best gigs out there. But every now and again, something comes along which makes us feel truly lucky to be in the position we’re in…
We’ve done a lot of pedal reviews of late. Loopers (lots of loopers), delays, reverbs, you name it we’ve either done it or have it on the list to do. So you could say we have a pretty good feel for the strengths (and occasional weaknesses) of most of the major pedal brands. Dawsons recently started stocking pedals from the American brand Strymon and, it’s fair to say, we’ve all fallen pretty deeply in love with them. Yet the biscuit has well and truly been taken with this article’s subject. The Strymon Big Sky is the company’s top of the range, flagship reverb pedal and it’s every bit as good as we’d hoped, and then some. For the sake of our editorial integrity we’ll try and keep this post balanced but, well, it’s hard when you come across something this good. Without further ado, here’s our Strymon Big Sky review.
Readers of the blog will know we recently posted a review of the Big Sky’s smaller sibling, the Strymon Blue Sky. That pedal has us gushing over its deliciously warm, versatile and inviting reverbs, which made for ethereal soundscape heaven in a box. The Big Sky, which is slightly longer in size than the Blue Sky, takes the base level of tonal qualities and craftsmanship and adds even more potential for sonic adventure.
Across the top of the pedal you’ll find three footswitches, which allow three different settings to be called up instantly. The switches can also be programmed in to control the Big Sky’s freeze and infinite decay settings, which take a snapshot of the signal and loop it infinitely to create never-ending drone sounds over which you can add layers to create something monstrous.
A master knob, surrounded by green LEDs, lets you know which of the reverb types you are using, while a value knob lets you control some of the unique settings for each reverb type. It’s in here that users will be able to dig deep into the characteristics of a reverb and meld it entirely to their own liking with a range of interesting parameters. Three knobs across the top control the decay, pre-delay and mix of the sound, while underneath sit four more knobs which control the tone and modulation, along with two which can be programmed to control any two of the unique parameters for each reverb.
To the back of the unit are the usual 1/4″ jack connectors, both in stereo, along with an output for an expression pedal and, interestingly, full MIDI I/O. There’s also a switch which gently filters the output sound according to whether you’re playing through and amp or a PA.
Sound-wise, the Big Sky includes 12 different reverb algorithms, or ‘machines’ as it calls them, running the whole spectrum from subtle sound expanding room ‘verbs through to cavernous, unearthly ambience. There are the usual room, hall and spring settings that you’d find on most reverb pedals, so we won’t dwell too much on those here. Safe to say they are of the highest quality, so if playing it safe is your thing then you can rest assured that the Big Sky has your back. But playing it safe isn’t what this pedal is about, which is where the other machines come to the fore.
Swell and Bloom are similar in their appeal, acting as though a volume pedal was running as part of your signal chain. By upping the pre-delay setting, you can change the gradation between the dry signal and the reverberated signal, allowing the wet tone to slowly develop over the top of your playing. Cloud is a gorgeous, big delay which Strymon claims was designed using techniques developed in the late 70s, while chorale adds subtle vocal choir effects to the reverb. The exact sound here can be altered between vowel ranges, and also the size of the venue in which your choir is ‘singing’. Shimmer is the same as seen in the Blue Sky, only here there are even more options for tweaking and customising. Magneto is more of an echo effect, and through digging into the settings you can truly blur the lines between reverb and delay. Non-Linear is the obligatory backwards reverb, although there are plenty of micro-options in here to find something of use, while Reflections, the final machine in the list, enables you to accurately tweak the reverb as if you were moving your amp to different parts of the room, along with changing the shape of the virtual room.
There’s always been debate in the pedal world over the benefits of using true bypass; the Big Sky gets around this by offering you the choice of either true bypass or a high quality analogue buffer built in to the pedal. You can also set whether you want reverbs to spill over, meaning you might have a long tail setting on one bank, and don’t want to sound to cut out and sound unnatural when you switch to something more subtle.
All told, this is a pretty amazing pedal. It feels almost daft to write the article just saying how good it is. Let’s be honest, it’s not a cheap/inexpensive piece of kit, so if you’re considering buying it you obviously know what you want and are taking the fact it sounds good as a given. What’s probably of more interest if that’s the case is the sheer versatility of the Big Sky. Each and every setting is tweakable, manageable, movable and intuitive, and can be accessed with the minimum of fuss. We’ve played other high-end pedals before and have often found you can get lost in a sea of menus and sub-menus, yet with the Big Sky, as with all of the Strymon pedals, everything just seems so straightforward.
There are two main things we took away from our time with the Big Sky. One is that anyone who buys this will likely never need to buy another reverb again. It’s that versatile and sounds so good that you won’t need to look elsewhere. The other is that just playing with it inspired us to write new things which simply wouldn’t have been possible without the glorious tones included in this big blue box. If you’re a reverb fan, you simply must check the Strymon Big Sky out.