Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Poly Effects Beebo review: A versatile and complex touchscreen guitar pedal

This virtual modular synth in pedal form is deep and rewarding, but a little buggy.

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It’s not enough to have a pressure cooker, you need an Instant Pot that’s also a slow cooker, and a rice cooker, and a yogurt maker. Your video game console is also now a media center and live streaming platform. And if your printer doesn’t also make copies and send faxes, then what are you even doing with your life? This obsession with do-it-all gadgets has even hit the world of music gear. While there were certainly earlier examples, it really started to take off in the ‘90s with the emergence of the groovebox. Two decades into the 21st century, it’s not enough to have a few synth sounds and a drum sequencer in a single box. We want the freedom to build the instruments and effects of our dreams, virtually. We have the ZOIA, the Organelle, MOD Duo and now, the $449 Poly Effects Beebo.

The Beebo is a rather ambitious project built largely by one person based out of Melbourne, Australia. It was already pretty powerful when it was released earlier this year. But just a few weeks back Poly Effects merged the Beebo firmware with its other modular pedal, the Digit, creating one super pedal.

Beebo is essentially a virtual modular synthesizer in a guitar pedal format. That makes comparisons to the $499 Empress ZOIA unavoidable. The most obvious difference between the two, though, is the interface. Whereas ZOIA has a grid of 40 RGB pads that represent the various modules and patch points, Beebo has a five-inch touchscreen. While it’s definitely on the small side and you’ll have to do a lot of delicate pecking, it’s pretty easy to navigate.

Pressing the plus button at the bottom adds a module, the disk icon saves and loads presets and the various in and out ports are aligned along the edges of the screen and clearly labeled. Pressing a module and then tapping another one connects them. While long pressing them, you’ll see icons pop up at the bottom to copy modules, break connections and delete them. Quickly tapping a module opens up the expanded view where you can change its various parameters.

That’s it. That’s the interface in a nutshell. If you can use a smartphone, you can probably handle the Poly Effects Beebo.

Poly Effects Beebo
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The general look of the interface is nice, too. That said, it can be a little inconsistent when you hop into individual modules. The colors are bright, with small attractive icons and rounded edges. Some of the modules also have rather elaborate graphics, but most are just simple sliders. (There are some modules where you can enter parameters manually with a number pad, and I really wish that would be expanded to all variables.) It’s not an experience-breaking detail, but it is a reminder that Beebo is still a work in progress. And I don’t mean that as a knock against it. Poly Effects is constantly updating the Beebo, squashing bugs while adding modules and new features. The company says it issued about 50 firmware updates in 2020. In the time that I’ve been reviewing it there have been two.

While it’s great that Beebo is constantly updated (and I wish more companies would be as proactive about improving their products), it’s a bummer when bug fixes feel necessary. There are still a few modules that don’t always behave as expected. For example, I’ve had LFOs simply stop modulating, only to start up again on their own. And sometimes modules I’ve added simply won’t appear at which point I have to re-add them. The bugs aren’t frequent or severe enough to be dealbreakers, but they’re there.

Before we start really digging in on the software, though, let’s pause to talk about the hardware. I still have my concerns about how a touchscreen would stand up to rigorous use on a pedalboard, but the three footswitches and two endless encoders mean you’ll have to go out of your way to stomp on it.

Poly Effects Beebo
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Around back you’ll find a USB port for loading firmware updates, as well as impulse responses (IRs) for the convolution reverb and cab simulator. Unfortunately it can’t act as a USB host for MIDI controllers. Instead, there’s mini-jack MIDI in and out ports, and Poly Effects was kind enough to toss a couple adapters in the box. The most unique thing, though, is the four TRS stereo jacks: two in, two out. That means that the Beebo has a total of four audio out channels and four in channels. Just remember, most instruments, mixers and audio interfaces use separate left and right audio ports, rather than combining them in a single stereo one. That means to use Beebo in stereo you’ll either need an adapter, or use channels one and three in mono mode.

Those additional audio channels mean you can use Beebo in all sorts of interesting ways. You can create external effects loops, or run an instrument through two parallel effects chains, or use the internal modules to create a drum track and then route your guitar through a separate channel. I’m sure there’s plenty of uses I couldn’t even fathom. One of my favorite tricks has been to run my clean guitar signal out one channel, and use the pitch detection module to trigger a heavily affected synth pad on another.

The three footswitches are assignable, though footswitch C toward the far right defaults to bypass. Physically, my one complaint is the endless encoders at the top. They control whatever parameter you touched last: the one on the left for fine adjustment and the right for coarse. But, they have almost no resistance and the knobs themselves feel sort of cheap. Again, is this a dealbreaker? Absolutely not. But it’s a shame when the rest of the package feels so well put together.

Alright, but the most important part is what’s inside: the software. Despite a few warts, it’s largely a success. Yes, the UI can be a bit slow to respond. And yes, it’s much easier to chew through the DSPs power and max out the CPU than you might expect. But the modules are all pretty useful, easy to use and sound great. There are 97 of them ranging from simple VCAs, to amp emulators, to ports of Mutable Instruments modules like Plaits and Clouds.

There’s obviously no way to cover all of them, but let’s talk about a few highlights. The ports of the Mutable Instruments modules are all excellent, but I find Grids (called Drum Patterns) and Clouds (Granular) to be the most useful. Clouds is a granular “texture synthesizer.” In short, it chops up incoming audio in realtime and spits it back out as an almost unrecognizable mass. Until now, if you wanted to get Clouds on your pedalboard it would have meant sticking something extremely fragile like a eurorack case or an Organelle on there. So this is a big deal for guitarists with a more ambient or experimental bent.

Poly Effects Beebo
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Grids is a sort of automatic drum sequencer, and it’s great for quickly putting together rhythms. But you can use its outputs to control anything that will accept a CV (control voltage) input (which is most of the modules). So you could create rhythmic interplay between a delay and a bitcrusher where different parameters are accented at different times.

Speaking of bitcrushing, the Bitmangle module is stunning. It makes some of the best sputtering and ugly noise I’ve heard. It’s not a standard bitcrusher, and instead combines cross modulation with the usual bit-based degradation. Just one thing to be aware of: It is loud. It’s highly recommended that you combine with a compressor, noise gate and a VCA after the fact to keep your levels in check.

The best thing about these modules is they all play nice with the internal CV controls so you add LFOs, or a 16-step sequencer, or the Chaos Controller to add movement to the parameters, so your effects never stay static. And yes, you can even combine those modules with Grids constantly changing patterns of parameter modulation. (For example, an LFO can slowly change the drum pattern on Grids, which in turn rhythmically maxes out the time on a delay in an evolving way.)

  • In this basic example and LFO is being used to pan between two different effects — a pitch shifter and a chorus. The first half is a slow sinewave LFO the second part of the demo is a square wave at 320bpm with a temp ratio of 320x, creating an almost ring modulated effect.

Poly Effects Beebo
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

My one gripe is that there’s no visual feedback as to what the modulation and sequencers are changing. If you connect an LFO to the time of the delay, you don’t see it change, the slider just stays where you left it. This means you really need to track down any problem areas with your ears.

Perhaps the things I used the most were the amp sim, cab sim and convolution reverb modules. The two power amp sims are pretty decent. They’re not the best amp simulators I’ve ever heard, but they’re not bad either. I’d love to see Poly Effects expand and improve on these offerings. Still, between those and the cab sims, the Beebo makes a solid DI (direct input) box. I don’t know that it could completely replace my amp, but it’s definitely better than the builtin amp sims in Ableton.

The cab simulators are IR- based, and Beebo comes loaded with a whole bunch of IRs to get you started, including those recorded from classic amps like a Fender Bassman and a Vox AC30. But you can also load custom ones that you’ve downloaded or even recorded yourself.

The same is true of the convolution reverb unit. There are a bunch of impulse responses already included from vintage analog and digital reverbs, to real spaces like the London Palladium and Pool of the Black Star in Winnipeg. You can also easily find free reverb IRs online to load yourself. Or, if you want to have some real fun, you can load any 48 kHz .wav file and use that as a reverb. Your results will vary, depending on the sample you use, but I had a lot of success with a bong rip harvested from Elektron’s free Aotearoa sound pack and a recording of a strange rhythmic HAM radio broadcast. You can use a drum break and get a patterned delay, or run drums through the reverb with a melodic sample loaded as an IR and get chaotic cascades of whatever you’re using as an IR.

This is the real strength and joy of using Beebo: the ability to experiment and do things that just aren’t possible (at least without thousands of dollars worth of gear) in the real world.

The one glaring hole in the module lineup is the lack of a looper. There’s a looping delay module, but it’s pretty barebones. Poly Effects is working on a rather robust looking multi-loop module, but there’s no concrete timeline for when it’s expected to land.

  • While the Beebo currently lacks a true looper, the delay effect can be used in creative ways to create looping sound collages.

Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself less drawn to the synth side of Beebo than I expected. That’s not because it’s bad; I just have more convenient ways of getting many of the same sounds. My MicroFreak has some of the oscillators from Plaits (Macro Osc) and the Organelle has a port of Grids that I can load up with my own drum samples. If you’re exclusively a guitarist, but wouldn’t mind having a way to dabble in the world of modular synthesis without dropping a bunch of money, this is a great way to do it. But, I likely wouldn't buy it for the synth sounds alone.

While you can use the pitch tracking module or the built-in 16 step sequencer in combination with the quantizer to play the resonator or macro oscillator, it really demands an external MIDI controller to make the most of it. This adds a whole other layer of complexity to the equation that you may or may not be ready to embrace.

This means either going all in on MIDI integration for your board or leaving the Beebo on your desk. Neither is wrong, but it’s something to be aware of. I recently took the plunge and rigged my pedalboard up to take advantage of MIDI, but the Beebo still found a home on my desk more often than not. And that’s largely because I found myself using it quite differently than I would the ZOIA.

With Empress Effects’ modular pedal I generally find myself loading it with new presets once every couple months. And I design a new patch about as often. But with the Beebo I was far more likely to start from scratch each time. The interface is much more immediate and it’s easier to navigate complex patches and make tweaks.

Empress Effects ZOIA
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Which brings us to the big question many people are probably asking: Should you buy the ZOIA or the Beebo. And the answer is… both? This might sound like a bit of a copout but, even though they’re similar in concept, the execution and feature list is different enough to say it’s not necessarily an either-or scenario.

But, if you have to make a choice (and I get it, they’re not cheap), here’s what I’ll say:

If you want the world’s most powerful multi-effects pedal, with an insanely active community sharing new presets every day, go with the ZOIA. There are people far more talented than I am building new and unique effects and sharing them on patchstorage.com — nearly 800 as of this writing. Its reverb algorithms are second to none, it excels as an experimental looper, and it easily serves as the MIDI master of an adventurous pedalboard. ZOIA is a perfect end-of-chain do-it-all pedal and would definitely be on my desert island list.

Poly Effects Beebo
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

But, if you’re more interested in exploring modular on a small scale and plan to constantly tweak and customize patches, go with Beebo. Its interface is much more conducive to on-the-fly virtual rewiring. It can basically replace your amp and the IR-based reverb is a source of endless fun. Plus, the ports of Mutable Instruments Eurorack modules are among the most unique things you can find in a guitar pedal.

Beebo isn’t perfect. It can be buggy. And even though the interface is intuitive, it’s still a complex device. But, it’s also a wholly unique and unbelievably powerful piece of music gear. For the relentless sonic experimenter its draw will be undeniable.

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