By Phil O'Keefe
Boss has been making Pitch Shifter and Harmonist pedals since they first introduced the PS-2 Pitch Shifter / Delay way back in 1987. I've been a PS-5 Super Shifter owner for a couple of years now, so I jumped at the opportunity to check out its replacement - the PS-6 Harmonist ($241.50 MSRP). The PS-6 (Fig. 1) is housed in the familiar Boss rugged metal compact casing, and uses the standard silent FET switching and buffered bypass that is found on all Boss compact effect pedals. It has a mono input jack, and two outputs, labeled Output A (mono) and Output B. It also has a EXP (expression) pedal input jack for use with an optional Roland EV-5 expression pedal. The PS-6 retains most of the features of its predecessor, while offering more processing power and better converters, tracking and overall sound quality.
Fig. 1 The Boss PS-6 Harmonist pedal (click to enlarge)
The PS-6 has four knobs:
The function of the first three knobs varies, depending on the selected mode. In some modes, the Fall Time / Key knob has no effect on the pedal's sound.
The PS-6 has four "modes":
PS-5 owners will notice there is one less mode available on the PS-6, with Flutter being the one effect from the PS-5 that is not carried over to the PS-6. It simulated the effect of a quick "slap" of the guitar's vibrato bar to drop the pitch, followed by a rise back to pitch and then a vibrato that lasted for as long as you held the pedal down. The vibrato speed and rise time were controlled by the same knob, so if you wanted a fast rise time, you were stuck with a fast vibrato, and vice-versa. While I'm sure some users will lament its loss, I personally won't miss it very much; I never found much use for it. The good news is that, compared to its predecessor, the PS-6 gives you up to two pitch shifted notes instead of only one - which opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of three part harmonies, dual bends, and three note detune effects.
Super Bend (S-Bend) is analogous to the PS-5's T-Arm effect; it's similar to doing a "dive bomb" drop with a guitar's vibrato arm. However, the range is far greater than what you can do with a guitar's tremolo bar, or even than what was available with the PS-5 - up to four octaves up and three octaves down; user selectable in one octave increments. The Rise Time and Fall Time controls set the rate the notes "swoop" or "bend" when you activate the built in switch on the PS-6. The dual pitch shifting capabilities of the PS-6 allows you to also have one pitch dropping two octaves, while the other one rises two octaves - which is impossible to do with a guitar's vibrato arm! S-Bend is polyphonic in some settings, and will bend both chords and single notes, while other settings in this mode are monophonic, and only support single note playing. You'll want to keep the manual handy until you memorize where your favorite interval settings are located on the knobs.
The PS-6 features an outstanding detune effect, and can detune the input signal (chords or single notes) up or down up to 20 cents, in 5 cent increments. All of the PS-5's detuning capabilities are still available with the PS-6 - indeed, with the ability to provide two pitch shifts, the effect is greatly improved. -10 / +10 cent pitch shifting sounds much "sweeter", more balanced and less "out of tune" than a single shifted note at -10 cents or +10 cents alone does. +5 / -5 and +15 / -15 cent dual detuning settings are also available. The sound is similar to a good chorus pedal, without the modulated pitch "warble". It thickens the sound and adds dimension to chords and arpeggios that I find extremely addictive; providing a pseudo double or triple tracked effect. I can foresee many people getting a PS-6 for this sound alone.
PITCH SHIFT MODE
The Pitch Shift mode works equally well with chords and single notes. The Shift knob selects the pitch shift interval, and the Balance control allows you to control the ratio of direct and pitch shifted sound. The Key knob has no effect in this mode. You can use the pitch shift mode to transpose by a specific static (constant) interval - but unfortunately, not all intervals are available. For example, there is no 2nd, so if you wanted to set the Balance control to full and use the pedal to "detune" your guitar to Eb, you're out of luck.
The available Pitch Shifter interval choices are:
As you can see, you do have a few choices where two simultaneous intervals are produced based off the source sound. If you use the stereo outputs and select one of the dual pitch options, the two "generated" or "shifted" notes go out separate outputs. The original input or "source" sound is routed to both outputs, and the ratio of direct and shifted sounds is controlled by means of the Balance knob.
Harmony mode allows you to generate real time, two and three part harmonies. As with all diatonic ("intelligent") pitch shifters, it's essential that your guitar be properly tuned to A-440 to assure proper tracking. While the older PS-5 has pretty good tracking, I found the tracking in this mode on the PS-6 to be noticeably improved. Slides, fast runs, string bends, quick interval jumps - the PS-6 tracked all of them easily and smoothly, with none of the occasional glitching I had with the PS-5, and a much more natural sound quality to the harmonies overall.
The available Harmony mode choices are:
These are all monophonic (i.e., you can play only single notes - not double stops and chords), and are key dependent. All major and minor keys are available, and are selected with the Key knob and the Major / Minor settings on the Mode control. As with the Pitch Shift mode, when running in stereo, dual pitch options route the separate pitches to individual outputs, and the source sound is routed to both outputs, with the ratio of input to pitch shifted sound controlled by the Balance knob.
The PS-6's simplified control panel labeling is both a plus and a minus - it simplifies operation and makes reading the controls much easier than with the PS-5's cluttered control panel labels, but again, you'll need to keep the manual handy until you memorize your favorite interval settings for the Pitch knob. Boss might want to consider adding a pitch knob quick reference sticker (similar to the PS-5's Mode Label sticker) that users can attach to the side of the pedal for reference when the manual isn't nearby.
The pitch shifting of the PS-6 is greatly improved, and the annoying vibrato that the PS-5 added, even when shifting small intervals, is happily gone now. When in the "constant on" S-Bend mode, the sound quality is significantly improved compared to the PS-5's T-Arm mode, with a more natural sound quality on the uneffected guitar signal when you are not actively using the switch to "bend" notes. As you'd expect, you still hear some digital pitch-shifting artifacts with larger intervals such as octaves, but thirds and fifths sound quite realistic and natural, even when you have the Balance control set to 100\% effect. When blended with the source signal, the sound is quite convincing and realistic.
Boss has a real winner on their hands with the PS-6 Harmonist. The only real omissions compared to the PS-5 are the lack of the Flutter Mode and the inability to pitch shift by any desired interval, such as a 2nd. For most users these will not be significant, and in actual use, I really didn't miss either one, although some people are bound to feel differently. But considering the major improvements in overall sound quality, tracking, bypass, and the ability to do three-part harmonies, I can see a lot of PS-5 users deciding to upgrade to the new PS-6. I feel it's definitely a better pedal overall, and if you're looking for a compact pedal that can create real-time harmonies and other pitch shifting and detuning effects, this is one pedal you definitely need to try.