First look: Changing channels with the Moon wireless switcher
A couple of years ago, Norwegian startup Aalberg Audio registered on our radar with a delay stomp that could be wirelessly activated and tweaked using a controller stuck to a player's guitar or attached to the strap. Even before that, the idea for a wireless channel switching device was being thrown around, but it wasn't until May of this year that a working prototype surfaced. Last month a short intro video was posted on the company's YouTube channel to give a taste of what to expect. And today, Aalberg has launched a Kickstarter to fund production of the Moon MO-1 wireless switcher. We've spent the last week or so playing with a pre-production prototype, along with a preview of the upcoming Aalberg Remote app.
The 3-inch long device that's used to turn Aalberg pedals on or off, and adjust their parameters, wirelessly is called the Aero. This chunky stretched out chunky guitar pick-like object has Velcro on the back that allows it to be attached to a convenient position on a guitar, or snapped onto the supplied strap/belt clip. And it's the Aero that gives a guitarist the potential to wirelessly change amp channels, activate or deactivate stomps (either Aalberg's own or pedals made by any other manufacturer) and cook some MIDI into the mix in partnership with the Moon MO-1.
The Moon channel switcher communicates wirelessly with the Aero controller up to a range of 30 m (100 ft) thanks to a Bluetooth 4.1 chip developed by Nordic Semiconductor. With a single Moon paired to an Aero, users can switch wirelessly between two channels (clean and overdrive, for example) on a guitar amplifier. A bit like a footswitch, but activated on the guitar instead of having to return to the pedalboard or amp each time a change is required. And, depending on the capabilities of the amp the Moon is plugged into, toggle reverb on and off.
In the not-too-distant future, players will also be able to connect the Moon to an ABY signal switcher to change the path that a signal takes through the chain of stomps – going from octaver-powered distortion, for example, to chorus-drenched, bright overdrive. Not only Aalberg's range of modulation effects, but any effects pedals routed through the ABY switcher. Also upcoming is the facility to activate or deactivate MIDI hardware.
Inviting more Moons to the party opens up mix and match potential, allowing users to switch amp channels or even amps, change pedalboard effects or dial in MIDI ... all from one Aero controller.
Fly me to the Moon
We plugged the supplied Y cable into the footswitch jack at the back of our combo amp and the other end into the microUSB port of the Moon (the cable also had a full-size USB connector, for mains power/charging). Aalberg is in the process of making its own cables to be used with the Moon, but for our first look we were supplied with a third party cable.
The prototype had an internal rechargeable battery, but the production unit will not. It will need to be powered by a 9 V/250 mA adapter. The thinking being that the Moon will likely be placed near an amp, pedalboard or MIDI hardware so there'll be mains power nearby, meaning that the user won't have to worry about keeping multiple Aalberg units charged up and ready to roll. The only device in the Aalberg universe needing battery top ups being the Aero controller.
The Moon is the same shape and size as the Aero, with almost the same button layout. The only significant design difference is the absence of the multifunction knob up top. In its place is a transparent disc that lights up to indicate status.
The buttons have different functionality of course. Pressing button one, for example, switched the channel on our amp from clean to overdrive. The action of button two was dependant on the amp we used. With our Marshall combo, it toggled the amp-based digital effects on and off. Our old Vox amp had the reverb activated or deactivated.
Either way, if you have to step up to a switcher attached with Velcro to the front of the amp to change the settings, you might as well do so on the amp itself or use a footswitch. The real Moon magic happens when the Aero is added to the signal equation.
From clean to dirty at the push of a button
New Aero controllers will be shipped with Moon compatibility cooked in, but existing Aero users will be able to wirelessly connect to a Moon switcher after a firmware update via the Aalberg Update app. The Aero that Aalberg sent us was running up to date software and already paired with the prototype Moon, the latter saving us from following the quick start guide to get the two devices talking to each other.
Pushing down the multifunction knob on top of the Aero instructed the Moon to switch amp channels, with a slight turn clockwise or anti-clockwise toggling the reverb/effects on or off. All worked as expected during our tests, allowing us to change amp channels and dial in amp-based digital effects from right on the guitar.
If there was any wireless latency in play here, we didn't detect it. All changes happened instantaneously.
Getting down and (a little too) dirty with the Trym
The same Aero controller used to control the Moon switcher can also be used for any of Aalberg's line of guitar effects pedals. We've had a Trym tremolo unit on our pedalboard for a while now and, after updating its firmware, paired it with the new Aero. After that, both the Moon and the Trym pedal could be controlled using the same Aero.
A steady white light on the Moon indicated that switching amp channels was possible. Control of the Trym's operation was simply a matter of pressing the forward or backward buttons on the Aero.
The light on the Moon went out and one of the parameter lights would come on, indicating that the Aero had dominion over the effects pedal. The multifunction knob could then be used to adjust parameters or activate/deactivate the Trym, and dial in saved presets.
As before, wireless actions were performed in real time and everything performed as advertised. Mostly. Unfortunately our prototype did appear to add a little hiss to the amp's overdrive channel when the Trym was engaged, which didn't occur when the Moon was not part of the setup.
Aalberg told us that this was likely due to an early beta testing quirk with the prototype. Such things will doubtless be sorted ahead of production, where each unit will undergo strict quality checks and be supplied with Aalberg's own cables (unlike the cheap and cheerful third party cable we were sent for system testing).
Up to eight connected devices can be linked to one Aero unit, and those connected units could all be Moons if desired, each having a different setup. By way of a multi-Moon example, Moon 1 could be set up to switch between two amps. Moon 2 might be used as a channel switcher on one of those amps, to go from clean to overdrive and back, and add reverb. A MIDI controller on the second amp could come under the control of Moon 3, while Moons 4 and 5 each look after ABY switching for analog stomps. Moon 6 might also be used with an ABY switcher to turn a bunch of chained modulation pedals on or off. A MIDI mixing console could be attached to Moon 7 for controlling audio or lighting, and MIDI control of vocals might be the responsibility of Moon 8. All wirelessly controlled from one Aero.
We weren't able to test the ABY switching and MIDI control aspects of the setup as the software wasn't finished at the time of writing. Aalberg is aiming to launch such things in Q2/Q3 of 2017.
Want more functionality at your fingertips? There's an app for that ...
There's one more new weapon in the Aalberg arsenal of wireless gear control, a mobile app. Though the Moon, the Aero and all Aalberg effects pedals will work without the app, the Aalberg Remote app for iOS (an Android version is planned for development and release some time in the future) is designed to give players additional control and functionality options.
"As the Moon is a wireless controlled relay, it will of course need to be controlled by something, but the user has the freedom of choice between the Aero or the Remote app or both," Aalberg's Mats Bakkebø told us. As with the Moon and new Aero, the app is currently in pre-release beta testing. The plan is to complete app development by the close of the Kickstarter.
After downloading a preview version of the Remote app, we added both the Moon and our Trym to the first preset slot, resulting in mini virtual representations of the Moon and Trym appear to the right. Tapping on these brought up a bigger version of each below.
The onscreen Moon has two buttons – one to switch channels and the other to toggle the reverb/effects. The digitized Trym has a slider for each parameter and on/off and tap tempo buttons. Moving a slider up or down gave more precise control over the parameter than using the multifunction knob on the Aero or using the dials on the pedal itself. Whatever action we performed on the iPad's screen was mirrored on the pedal, so pushing up the Speed slider raised the light in the Speed column on the pedal's face at the same time.
Only three user presets can be stored on the Aero, but the app allows for a good many more to be saved (the exact number will depend on your iOS device storage). And if your pedalboard includes all of the current Aalberg effects, you can choose exactly which ones are included in each preset. For example, one preset could include the Trym and Kor (a chorus/flanger unit), another might have the Moon on its own, and another still might have the Ekko (delay) or Rom (reverb).
If a setup includes multiple Moons, as outlined above, numerous configurations can also be stored as presets. A preset can be recalled quickly and easily, and pedals/Moons/gear within each preset activated or tweaked at will. It looks to be a much quicker and easier way to mix in different effects chains than using the Aero alone.
"One preset can thus in theory include everything from the lights changing, to the sound of both the lead guitar, rhythm guitar, the bass and the keyboard player changing with the touch of a button from the Aero and/or the Remote app," explained Bakkebø. "The possibilities are truly endless."
The app also means that a player can leave the activation of different presets to a guitar tech or sound engineer off-stage, while still retaining manual override capabilities using the Aero controller on the guitar. Nice. Future development plans include button assignment on the Moon via the app, and when ABY and MIDI control turn up to the wireless control party, app setups won't necessarily need to include only Aalberg units.
The bottom line
Even though the Moon and the Remote app are very much a work in progress at the moment, and our prototypes and previews exhibited a few niggles, we think this system has great potential.
We got to change amp channels without going anywhere near the amp to do so. Pushing the multifunction knob on the Aero resulted in an immediate response form the Moon.
Though we were champing at the bit to do so, we couldn't test the ABY switching, but can see it being a very useful addition to the Moon's capabilities. Not only will it allow players to toggle between different effects loops, but it will also cater for switching between different amplifiers. Similarly, controlling MIDI gear right from the guitar has the potential to throw open the door to sample/digital effects/synth fun or stage lighting control.
We did get to alter amp behavior and control the Trym pedal from the same Aero, though, allowing us to completely alter our sound without having to stand in front of the pedalboard stomping on pedals.
True, the prototype did add some signal noise into the mix, but it was nothing our Noise Gate couldn't handle and we're assured that this shouldn't be an issue in production systems. And if the quality of our production Aero and Trym is anything to judge by, we're inclined to trust Aalberg on this one.
Arguably the most useful part of our first look testing was getting to try out the app, which added even more levels of control and functionality and saved us having to frantically skip through Aero presets to get to the sound we wanted at any given moment, when we could simply recall the desired preset on the iPad.
We are looking forward to the Moon and Remote app becoming available. But, like everyone else, we'll have to wait.
To get the Moon and Remote app into the hands of guitarists, Aalberg has today launched a Kickstarter. Pledges for the Moon with amp switcher cable start at NOK 551 (about US$70). An early bird Moon and Aero package comes in at NOK 791 ($100). The iOS Remote app is included in all pledge levels, and will be available for free download by anyone when the crowdfunder has concluded.
If all goes to plan, shipping of the first batch on Moon switchers is estimated to start in February 2017. Have a look at the pitch video below to see what's on offer.