Emulating synth bass on a REAL bass is not a new concept. Bass players have tried to use octave pedals, filters, modulation, drive or anything else they could get their hands (and feet) on for decades. But there are some dedicated bass synth pedals out there too…
In fact, the Boss SYB-3 was one of the first truly dedicated bass synth pedals around, along with the Bass Synth Wah from Digitech. These pedals opened up a whole new sonic territory to bass players, inspiring new ideas and bass lines from day one.
Just one thing to line out before getting started. This is a dedicated synth pedal, but as is the case with quite a few of the pedals we have reviewed so far, it actually fits into more than one category. In this case, setting 10 and 11 is actually labeled Touch Wah, and while is has a slightly different sonic flavor than most envelope filter pedals, it sits in that family of tones with these settings, so I have decided to add it to both the Synth and Filter & Wah pedal categories.
The Boss SYB-3 has 4 knobs, but 2 of them have inner and outer parameters. At the far left, the inner knob sets the EFFECT level and the outer ring controls the amount of dry, DIRECT signal mixed in. I guess, this could have been a single land or Mix knob, but this solution also works out fine.
The next knob have the same design, but this time the split makes perfects sense, as they each control a unique parameter. The inner knob is named FREQ and lets you set a frequency to with the filter responds. The outer ring is labeled RES, which refers to the Resonance of the filter.
The SENS / DECAY knob is sets the sensitivity of the response to the incoming dynamics of your signal – or how hard you dig in so to speak.
Finally, the MODE knob has 11 steps, and each of them represent a certain type of sound – or mode. There are 3 basic groups of modes.
1-7 are based on the pedals internal tone generator and the sound produced is not really coming from your bass, but the notes you play are used to trigger an internal oscillator that generates various synth tones: Saw, Square, PWM, Saw (1 octave down), Saw (+ noise), PWM (+ noise) and Saw (1 octave down + noise).
8-9 are based on the actual sound of your bass and you can choose whether the WAVE SHAPE should go up or down.
10-11 is called T WAH, which is short for Touch Wah, and essentially it turns the SYB-3 into an envelope filter.
There are no less than 14 rounds and more than 60 sound clips in this review. The first 3 rounds take a methodic approach, demonstrating the FREQ, RES and SENS knobs respectively at a quarter of a turn per sound clip. In each of these rounds, the other 2 controls remain at the 12 o’clock position at all times.
I am using the first mode (SAW) for these first 3 rounds, and that particular tone should be covered by then. In order to avoid too many sound clips, each of the remaining rounds (except for the last one) each hold 4 sound clips with various settings that show some of the diversity this pedal has to offer.
Up until the last round, all sound clips are set to 100% FX signal – no dry tone at all. But the final round demonstrates a handful of ‘blended’ tones across Touch Wah and synth tones.
- 1: FREQ
- 2: RES
- 3: SENS
- 4: SQR
- 5: PWM
- 6: SAW (-1 oct)
- 7: SAW (+ noise)
- 8: PWM (+ noise)
- 9: SAW (-1 oct + noise)
- 10: WAVE SHAPE (Up)
- 11: WAVE SHAPE (Down)
- 12: T WAH (Up)
- 13: T WAH (Down)
- 14: Blend
NOTE! Please use headphones or ‘real’ speakers. You simply can’t judge low-end material on laptop, tablet or phone speakers…!
NOTE! If you are on a mobile device, please turn it to landscape mode to see the knob settings of the pedal for each audio clip.
As you will know if you actually made it through all of the sound clips, you will find a ton of different tones in this pedal. One thing is the various modes within the internal oscillator that you can shape in many different ways using the FREQ, RES and SENS knobs, but the addition of an envelope filter you could use this pedal for multiple tasks. That said, the envelope filter does sound somewhat digital and less ‘phat’ than many other filter pedals out there. If you only use filter effects every once in a while, it might just be good enough, but if you rely on the funky touch wah tone a lot, you might not want to retire your existing envelope filter pedal just yet.
The synth tones alter your tone so much that you might feel a bit ‘disconnected’ to your sound. Especially when in mode 1-7, where the actual sound of your bass doesn’t even pass through the pedal, the physical aspect suffers and the feeling of a slight amount of latency is present. Therefore, the inclusion of an EFFECT/DIRECT design is a wise move from Boss. Even a little dry signal helps a lot when it comes to how it ‘feels’ to play with the pedal, and if you are careful with the amount of dry signal, the impression of a pure synth bass tone remains.
One thing that should be mentioned is that while the tracking is generally fine, you probably need to practice a bit and adjust your playing technique when using this pedal. Again, especially when in mode 1-7, ghost notes are interpreted as actual tones, and to be honest, the pedal takes a guess – and most often not really a good one. You can make some funny and unexpected lines if you try to use this deliberately, but you would never be sure that you could recreate the exact same end result.
If you use mode 8 or 9, the ‘feeling’ of playing is more normal, and the tracking is less sensitive, but sonic artifacts also tend to appear. Notes don’t really ring out naturally, but rather tend to break up and crackle a bit. This has to be mentioned, but at the same time, I actually also found this effect pretty cool on a nasty synthy sound. Some fuzz pedals can also be pushed deliberately to create a similar sputtering effect, so it is definitely usable.
As expected, the quality is on par with any other Boss pedal you might have in your collection, which basically means that it is sturdy and reliable. I have owned many Boss pedals over the years. Some have lost knobs and a few had to give up, but the majority of them remain solid. The SYB-3 has been discontinued (but you can get the new version, the SYB-5), so the review unit on test here is a pre-owned unit that has seen some good use, but apparently no abuse. It felt robust right from the start, and I see no reason to anticipate that the SYB-3 should have cut any corners in terms of quality compared to other Boss pedals.
The UI design works out OK. With 11 modes, it would get crammed printing it all on the top of the pedal, so the ‘table of content’ on the side is justified. Not so practical at first, but chances are you will memorize the numbers you like the most pretty fast anyway.
The physical design is what it is. I have never found the Boss pedals particularly ‘sexy’ or intriguing in terms of sheer appeal. But they usually work out great, and ultimately, I guess that’s the most important part. The SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer is no exception in that regard.
Today (2016), the SYB-3 has been discontinued, but has been replaced by the SYB-5 that has a few extra bells and whistles. I have not yet had the SYB-5, so I will not dig into further comparison at this point. Should I get one, I would probably do a direct shootout between the two and delve more into the similarities and differences. A new SYB-5 retails at around $169 today, but a used SYB-3 can be picked up at around $60-70, which is a pretty sweet deal for this pedal if it is a good condition and fully functional.
The SYB-3 is no longer available as new, but a pre-owned can be found for $60-70, which could be a great deal if you are looking for a synth sound in your arsenal. The sounds are cool and very versatile once you start tweaking.
There are a few issues, though, such as tracking (not a biggie, but also not perfect) and a small learning curve. Not so much with regard to the technical side or the user interface, but you may need to practice and refine your playing technique to avoid unpleasant artifacts and unintended notes.
While the SYB-3 does have an envelope filter effect that sounds OK, I wouldn’t buy it just for that, and I wouldn’t replace a ‘real’ filter pedal for it. But then again, I am a bit picky in the envelope filter department, and if you only use it once in a while, it may be good enough to fill out that function, but I recommend you at least hear and try that effect before you sell off your MuTron III and plan to kill two birds with one stone with this pedal.
Inspirational and good fun
Great value for money
Some tracking issues
You need to practice to really use it
Not exactly the most sexy pedal around