Review: The Farmer's Mill from Crushsound
Inspired by the kind of brown or muddy tones produced by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on tracks like Loaded from the 1996 album Rhythmeen, Jedrzej Lewandowski of Poland's Le 2 Workshop architects created the Farmer's Mill, which was unleashed, appropriately enough perhaps, on April 1 2012. The second generation has now been released. It's a little bigger than its predecessor, a lot better, and is now available in orange as well as white. Gizmag has spent the last few weeks making guitars wheeze, cough and splutter like they've been smoking 40-a-day since birth, and walks way mighty impressed with the destructive capabilities of the Mark II Electric Mud Grinder.
Ever since I watched (and listened to) Jimi Hendrix burn, bash and smash his guitar during his memorable finale at the Monterey Pop Festival, I've been intrigued by the creation of unique tones from the ashes of destruction. Crappy cables, dodgy amps, ancient stomps and faulty pickup switches have all helped to a degree, but success in recreating that glorious overdriven crackle and hum have all been fleeting, and usually ended in the abrupt death of one or more of said ingredients.
Last year, the twisted minds at Crushsound reached the end of a long voyage of chaotic discovery with the release of the Farmer's Mill guitar signal destroyer. Lewandowski and company have been noisily tweaking, refining and improving the design ever since, while also looking for a way to bring the stomp to market at a significant lower price point than the hefty original street price of around US$360.
"I had a vision of making it more affordable and functional while less predictable," the mastermind and driving force behind the pedal's creation tells Gizmag. "Thus I spent a lot of time working on the whole True Random Technology thing and many more improvements. I used to pay many different people for the prototypes, and some of them even decided to rip the whole idea. All of this put together resulted in this fine Farmer's Mill, which reproduces all the sounds I've had in mind since the early years with the guitar. The most important thing about the upgrade is that it's very musical and offers 10 times more than it used to."
"The earlier edition turned out to be limited in terms of chaos and lacking in functionality (only momentary switching; Mill knob was a four position switch, now it's all analog and tweakable; electric polarity was reversed, now it's using a more popular power source; also it's production ready, we can make any amount of these)," he adds. "I rather think of it as the new standard, the original idea came from me/Crushsound and the plan is to make it the best possible. "
The refreshingly analog second generation stomp comes in at just €99 (about $130), although the price of admission is set to increase a little in 2014.
In the box
At the moment, every purchase comes with a free Crushsound ceramic guitar slide. "We plan to have a printed manual in the future, but for now we didn't want to add more additional costs for the customer," explains Lewandowski. "You simply get what you pay for – a heavy duty and high quality guitar pedal."
The first thing I noticed when lifting the 1.156 kg (2.5 lb), 18 x 15.5 x 3 - 5 cm (7 x 6.1 x 1.2 - 2 in) Farmer's Mill from its cardboard box was the solid construction and attention to detail. From the 1.5 mm thick steel housing to the delightfully smooth action of the chicken-head knobs, it's evident that this stomp is the pride and joy of its creators. It also looks like it can take a good deal of on-the-road abuse and still kick out the jams.
The Farmer's Mill (its moniker a play on Miller's Farm, the flip-side of ZZ Top's 1969 single Salt Lick) has been set a simple enough task – to destroy, mash or otherwise damage a guitar's signal. And it certainly does its job well, something akin to a drunken tremolo pedal in a real bad mood repeatedly slashing at the signal with a machete as it tries to travel from instrument to amp. But that's only part of the story.
A quick tour
In contrast to the random chaos caused by this imposing effects unit, the upper face has a very ordered look to it, with three knobs lined up vertically to the left, a stomp that's positioned right in the center of a clipped windmill graphic, three status LEDs, and a TNT dial.
The Mix knob determines the overall influence of the stomp's wild coloring of the output. It can serve to add a little spice to a drab sound, or pretty much obliterate all attempts to play with coherence. The latter may appear to be the complete opposite of what you might want, but it actually presents an interesting challenge to the player and, when you get it just right, can sound pretty amazing.
As you might expect, the Rate knob determines how slow or fast the input signal is broken up, though there do seem to be a few places along the journey where the parameter appears to follow its own rules (as you'd expect from a pedal designed for chaos, I suppose).
Mill is the knob that dials in the influence of something called True Random Technology. The blurb says that this knob allows the player to control the parameters of the pure analog chaos, but rather than start a pointless discussion on whether it's possible to control chaos, I'll simply state that turning the knob to the right increases the random nature of the signal breakup. TRT ensures that the crackle and crunch produced never sounds the same twice, so if you're the kind of musician who needs to precisely replicate the same sound over and over again, this is probably not the pedal for you.
Rather than the four predetermined positions of old, the current model allows players to dial in the random dropouts over a wider frequency range. "When set to minimum, it sounds more homogenous, and when on max it's more random and varied," says Lewandowski. "We do not generate patterns as everything is happening live. So you never know what's going to happen."
To the top right is a TNT dial. This can be used as an output boost to fatten up the sound, while also giving the Mill's effects a more musical edge. With the mix turned right down, TNT is useful as a mildly flavored boost, adding a moderate slice of tube-like distortion. The TNT is only active when the Farmer's Mill is engaged.
The first of the LEDs to the left of the TNT dial flashes to show the effect of the Mill. The middle light simply indicates system readiness, and the remaining LED comes on when the TNT dial is turned on.
Pushing down the footswitch once and holding acts as a momentary switch, so the devastating Mill effects are pretty much removed when you raise your foot from the stomp. When the pedal was not engaged on the production prototype I was sent for review, I did notice some slight clicking present in the output which, depending on how the signal chain was set up, kind of sounded like I was playing on an old vinyl record. Lewandowski reports that current production units do not suffer from this minor issue. Double-tapping the stomp turns the pedal on all the time, meaning that everything you play comes under the Mill's spell.
On the rear of the pedal is a 9 V DC input port. The Farmer's Mill can run on a 9 V battery for about 20 hours, but you'll need to unscrew the housing to access the battery connections. The battery compartment is positioned to the left of a rather nice-looking triangular circuit board. A 0.25-inch instrument input jack (the unit powers on into standby mode when a cable is inserted into the input jack) is mirrored by the output to the amp, and a three-position chicken-head switch sits in the middle.
The latter allows players to completely remove the pedal from the signal chain or select either Full or Low Range modes. Low Range mode applies the Mill's magic to the lower end of the output, while the Full mode lets the Mill run riot over everything played.
Turn on, tune up and dropout
I started simply enough, just my Strat, the Farmer's Mill and either a combo or Vox tube amp. I subsequently tried various configurations of an EHX Little Big Muff, a Dean Markley Overlord, a Biyang Fuzz pedal, a DOD Overdrive, a Boss Noise Gate, a Dunlop Cry Baby, a Danelectro Dan-o-wah, an MXR Phaser, a Danelectro Milkshake, or a Zoom 3030. I also threw a humbucking Yamaha guitar into the stew for kicks.
Positioning the stomp early in the signal chain allows you to flavor the effect with what comes after, and lessens its overall influence on the output. Placing it just before the amp gives it the most prominence. I personally found the former more useful, but either way, there's no getting away from its evil authority.
The expressive range on offer is impressive, and I found the knobs and dials offered pretty decent control over the Mill's influence on the broken tones coming through the amp – from sounding like a guitar that's being played through a vintage amp in need of some love, right the way through to almost-unplayable haphazard dropouts.
The most useful aspect of the pedal for me was the ability to zone in on the low end using the Low Range mode switch. Setting the knobs so that the chaos only appeared as the picked notes started to die away is another aspect that found favor.
Playing around with parameters is always good fun, but I suspect that, like many stomps, you'll find a favored setting or setup and stick with that. Then you can just leave it to get on with its job.
In the end, I didn't quite manage to recreate the Reverend Willy G's cracked up, and cranked up, tone from the Rhythmeen years, or throw my pick into the Hendrix melting pot, but I had a whole lot of fun trying. Unfortunately, recent computer and connectivity issues prevent me from sharing some audio examples of my endless noodling, but Crushsound has a ready supply of samples on its website (from extreme breakup blues to the soundtrack of the demo video below, and even some with the Farmer's Mill hooked up to a Hammond organ).
I can see this box of odd tricks providing some unusual flavors to well-worn classics when played in a live setting, but the random nature of the unit's TRT technology could make studio work a nightmare, where players are often required to reproduce exactly the same piece of music numerous times. This is simply not possible with the Farmer's Mill. It's certainly not a showstopper, and hasn't prevented units flying into the hands of the likes of Jack White, Rammstein, Henry Kaiser and The Mars Volta, but is worth considering if you spend a lot of time being shouted at by producers and engineers.
On the other hand, if you're the kind of player who has the freedom to experiment and is looking for something with more edge than U2, the Farmer's Mill might be just the kick you're looking for. Even though I've spent a good bit of time tweaking and playing, I still feel that there is much left to explore and many unpredictable delights yet to be discovered. Highly recommended.
Product page: Farmer's Mill