EARTHQUAKER DEVICES BIT COMMANDER
BY CHARLES SAUFLEY
Analog synth sounds have a polarizing effect among musicians. For some
players, they are cornball relics—the sonic
embodiment of cheese. But while synth
sounds will remain synonymous with the
era of polyester-based tailoring and/or
anxiety about robots, time has proven that
the sounds of sines, squares, oscillators,
and filters working together can be musically powerful.
EarthQuaker Devices, an Akron, Ohio,
company that has made waves over the
last few years with a fast-growing line of
mean fuzz boxes and unique delay and
modulation units, seems to understand the
inherent musicality of synths. Its recently
released Bit Commander analog guitar
synthesizer has an amazing capacity for
enhancing melody lines, retaining definition in a variety of musical situations, and
making sounds that, in the right context,
sound just plain beautiful.
Part of the Bit Commander’s musicality is rooted in its simple architecture.
Rather than get carried away with multiple wave types, envelopes, or oscillators,
EarthQuaker based the Bit Commander’s
sound on a single square wave, the relative
level of which can be adjusted with the
Base control. The top three knobs control
the level of the octave voices. Sub is two
octaves down from the base tone. Down
1 is a single octave down, and Up 1 is an
octave up from the base. A Level knob
works as a master volume for the summed
effect, and the Filter control functions
more or less as a tone control.
Together, it’s an exceptionally well-executed layout that facilitates fast experimentation and tone tweaks on the fly. The
controls are also wonderfully responsive.
A Toneful Monster
One of the real pleasures of the Bit
Commander is how well the unit tracks
fingering nuance. Quick, full-step slides,
fast finger vibrato, hammer-ons, and legato
work all retained full harmonic detail and
percussive qualities, which few other synth
pedals or octave pedals can pull off with
The Bit Commander also displays an
impressive capacity for sustain—though,
like any synth or octave pedal, this isn’t
always a sure thing. I worked out a few lead
runs ending in dramatically sustained, full-step bends, only to have the bend fizz out
every third try. When it does work out, the
Bit Commander sings like a Frankensteined
fusion of tenor and baritone vocalists and
a Univox Super Fuzz—a combination that
sounds wicked in funky and strutting band
settings. That said, even the notes that hang
the longest ultimately cut out very abruptly.
The square base tone assures that there’s
a fuzzy haze to just about anything you play
on the Bit Commander. You can remove
much of it by rolling back the Filter control.
But in doing so you can lose the sweetest
you’re looking for funky and
futuristic sounds that are truly
responsive to the touch.
synthy tones make you squirm.
or scan this QR code with a
mobile device to hear audio
clips of this pedal at
aspect of the Bit Commander’s voice— a
warm, round fuzz that’s very much at home
in the context of melodic leads while retaining a nasty, funky buzz that sounds like
some future-shocked Marc Bolan.
The Bit Commander doesn’t escape all
the typical guitar-synth limitations, though:
Bridge pickups can create high-end spikes
that upset the harmonic balance of low
octaves, true chords are all but impossible,
and tracking notes much below the 7th—or
maybe the 5th—fret can get very glitchy,
too. However, it’s much less so than with a
lot of synth and octave pedals, and at lower
master volume levels, I was actually able to
play some fat and precise glitch-free bass
lines. In general, though, all the money is
up past the 7th fret for the Bit Commander.
You don’t often think of guitar synths as
pedalboard staples, but because the Bit
Commander is no one-trick pony—it has
the musicality to work as a sonorous octave
fuzz, a funky baritone substitute, or a secret
weapon for harmonized leads—it could
become one for a certain segment of the
guitar-playing population. The octave voice
controls all have an impressive range and
responsiveness that really makes experimentation rewarding. It’s also a very forgiving
unit built around an inherently simple circuit with a clear and powerful basic voice.
In all, it’s a delicious-sounding and elegant,
if demented, piece of work.