February 29, 2020
Strymon Iridium: Less is More
Can The Engineering Geniuses at Strymon Get You to Ditch Your Amp for Good?
I have to admit, it’s very intriguing to see the recent meteoric rise of manufacturers taking not just interest, but serious, professional interest in amp modeling and solid state technology. 10 or 15 years ago, this would have seemed unfathomable. I first started playing guitar in earnest around 2004, and the common understanding was that if you were serious about your craft as an electric guitarist, you played through a tube amp. If you were using any kind of modeler or solid state rig, you were instantly seen in a different, less serious light. In a way, this is not so hard to understand. Around this time, amp modelers were a long way off from offering truly professional and convincing amp simulation. The options were the ubiquitous Line6 Pocket Pod and the lesser-known Boss GP-20 Amp Factory. Now, I might take some heat for saying this, but I find neither to be bad, but rather they’re extremely primitive, with virtually all of their models lacking a certain nuance which has since been mastered by the pedal powers that be.
So when universally deified pedal powerhouse Strymon announced an amp modeler and cab simulator, the Iridium, as its next pedal release, the news was met with not only immense interest and excitement, but something perhaps more culturally significant: this was a legitimization of amp modeling. That’s not to say that modeling was illegitimate before. After all, Kemper and Fractal have been doing amp models for a little while now, with their offerings being highly regarded. But let’s be honest, Kemper and Fractal have their audiences, but these brands do not seem to extend much at all beyond their audiences, perhaps because their offerings are limited in scope, whereas Strymon is a brand known and trusted across the pedal-buying spectrum. Sure, their pedals are priced in a manner that would categorize their brand as “aspirational,” but not nearly as aspirational as anything priced by Kemper or Fractal.
I was one of those aforementioned people excited about the Iridium upon its announcement. Having never even owned a Strymon pedal, but being very acquainted with their commitment to quality and painstaking R&D, I simply knew that these were going to be top-shelf amp models. The release also happened to coincide with a personal interest in models. I’m quite keen these days on lightweight rigs. I’m totally open to using an amp model of my favorite amp rather than lugging the 80-pound real thing around with me.
And to that end, I use the Iridium in a way that is actually probably not the most common. The Iridium is mostly meant to be used by guitarists in a live setting wherein the output from the Iridium will be fed into a venue’s soundboard so that the guitarist can “go direct” without the use of an amp or even a speaker cabinet. However, I’m still the kind of person who enjoys the “amp-in-a-room” sound, so I use the Iridium solely as a preamp that is fed into a clean power amp; in this case, a Milkman Sound power amp head going into a Vox 1x12” cabinet with a Bad Cat speaker made by Celestion.
The Iridium has three amp models: Round, Chime, and Punch. Respectively, these translate to Fender Deluxe Reverb, Vox AC-30 Top Boost in Brilliant mode, and a Marshall Super Lead 1959 Plexi. There are also nine pre-loaded cabinet simulators which span the gamut of the most-used real-life cabinet choices.
Now is where I would imagine a good deal of the potential audience for this pedal is filtered out. Yes, it’s true, this $400 pedal has 3 amp models. And it simply cannot be denied that at this price point, you’re only $200 shy of a Line6 HX Stomp which has an absolutely dizzying number of amp models, cab sims, microphone sims, effects, and deep editing capabilities. The choice between the Iridium and the Line6 HX Stomp or a Headrush Gigboard will require a bit of soul searching for what exactly you are looking for from pedals of this kind. I thought long and hard about which one to buy and landed on the Iridium. Why buy a really fancy breadknife when you could have bought a whole knife set for just a few bucks more? Well, maybe I just want to cut bread and I want the world’s best knife for the job.
As so, the Iridium is truly, at this point in time, the best at what it offers: extremely convincing and painstakingly developed Fender, Vox, and Marshall tones. Now, I’m personally a Vox guy, which makes finding an amp modeler somewhat challenging, because the amazing harmonic nuance of a Vox is hard to emulate. Fender amp tones are absolutely classic and timeless, but let’s be real; they’re not so hard to emulate. They’re warm, clean, loud, and slightly mid-scooped. A Vox amp, however, drips with a mystifying upper mid-range harmonic complexity, especially at edge-of-breakup. To be honest, I’ve tried many Vox-style pedals, and most of them fell pretty flat at emulating the real thing. So of course, upon plugging in the Iridium for the first time, I navigate to the Chime channel immediately. And I was very pleased pretty quickly. I greatly enjoy the simplicity of the controls on the Iridium, which makes dialing in your favorite amp tones quite simple. The Chime channel does a neat thing with the Mid knob -- it acts as the ‘Tone Cut’ knob on a Vox would, allowing for even more authentic Vox tones. I would simply be wasting my time and yours by using superlatives to describe the heart of my point: this is a thoroughly convincing model of a Vox amp, and definitely the best I’ve ever heard. It’s amazing to dial in the Gain to edge-of-breakup and get that classic crunchy and bright Vox sound.
Moving on to the Round and Punch channels after playing around on the Chime channel is a bit tricky, as the Chime channel has exquisite presence and articulation, whereas the Round and Punch and significantly warmer and more understated, making it a bit difficult to judge any one against the others. Round and Punch offer similarly great emulations of the Fender and Marshall sound, but they are quite similar to each other, I must admit. The Punch has more mid-range than the Round, and the gain structures and breakup are quite different, but if played clean, they are pretty similar. A Presence control would have been greatly appreciated to add a bit of spank to the Round channel. I know that Deluxe Reverbs don’t have Presence control, but this DR model is very warm indeed and a Presence control would have worked well. I find myself maxing out the treble on the Round channel to get it to brighten up a bit, but admittedly, I could just be used to the exceptional detail of the Chime channel, which would make any other amp model sound somewhat dull.
The cab simulators all sound excellent and authentic, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m mostly interested in the amp models on this pedal. Also, the cab sims are not created by Strymon, but other trusted engineers, such as OwnHammer, Celestion, and cabIR -- all the more reason why I will avoid going into great detail about them.
Aside from the lack of a Presence control, my only gripe about the Iridium is the somewhat cumbersome way to activate the pedal in cab-sim bypass mode, so it can be plugged directly into an uncolored power amp. The user must hold one of the footswitches while plugging in the power adapter simultaneously and then turn one of the knobs until one of the LED’s turns amber. Only then are you bypassing the cab sims. This process feels needlessly complicated, especially when compared to the as-yet-unreleased Vox preamp pedals that have a three-way toggle switch for plugging into a standard guitar amp, going direct with cab sim, or bypassing cab sim for plugging into a power amp. It’s not the end of the world by any means, but for a pedal that so magnificently simplifies the sometimes complicated world of amp models, the process of enabling cab sim bypass is too complicated. If such a switch was a question of real estate on the actual pedal, might I suggest replacing the Room reverb with a three way switch for bypass modes. The Room reverb is a nice high-quality effect, but if you’re using the Iridium, there is a 99.9% chance that you are getting your effects from other pedals going into the Iridium, making the Room reverb somewhat unneeded.
All this to say that the Iridium is an exceptional piece of gear. If you are like me and you enjoy the classic pedal layout without the complicated menus, deep editing, and all of the other superfluous features of digital rigs, I would highly recommend this pedal. There’s no denying that it is expensive for what it is, but consider the many hours of R&D that must have gone into this pedal to get the amp models so realistic. If you require the best models of the three most classic amp brands, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.
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