Review: Zoom MS-100BT

I recently acquired a ZoomMS-100BT pedal. The promise of a extensible multi-effects unit for less than $200 was intriguing enough for me to lay down some cash for it. Imagine how happy I was when I discovered that it actually sounded good. Let’s look at it in more detail…

The Facts

The Zoom MS-100BT is housed in a rugged “standard sized” stomp box form factor. It has a normal footswitch control for toggling effects on and off. Surrounding the footswitch are directional buttons, not unlike a video game controller. In addition to these, it sports three push-button knobs for fine-tuning and selecting effects and effect chains. Above all of this is a low-res monochrome screen (think of the old-school Gameboy) that displays the current state of the unit. Unlike most stomp boxes, the Zoom operates on two AA batteries, not a 9V.

The Good

For $150, I was really surprised at how good the effects sounded. The amp models that ship with the unit are all pretty usable. All of the “standard” effects like chorus, flanger, phaser, delay, etc. also sound pretty good. Now, of course, the big deal about this pedal is that you can buy and install additional effects and amp models via the free companion iOS app.

Here’s a sample of my Strat going straight into the Zoom and direct into Logic Pro. I have a Fender Twin simulator on with a little grit and a little delay:

The app has decent interface for browsing the various amp models and effects. Each one also has a nice long sample you can hear. Better yet, you can try out an effect for a limited duration (fifteen minutes, I think) to see if it works for your setup. The pedal talks to your iOS device over Bluetooth, so there’s a little bit of fiddly first-time setup to get that going. But once you do it all works quite well.

The unit has slots for about fifty“effects chains”, which are collections of amp models and effects configured in a particular order from input to output. It comes with about thirty built-in patches (which can be modified). It has also has an additional twenty or so slots for your own custom configurations. A good way to use these would be to create custom effects chains for specific songs. For example you could create an ”Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” chain that included a pre-delayed reverb and a flanger. The footswitch toggles the current effect, not the entire effect-chain.

The Bad

The form-factor of this pedal seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. In a lot of ways it’s much more sophisticated than any floor-bound stomp box should be. Of all the controls, only the toggle switch can be reasonably used with your foot—everything else requires your hand. So any tweaking is going to require you to squat down and fiddle with the pedal.

Call me crazy. Call me a purist. Call me image-obsessed. But I hate having to fiddle with pedals with my hands on-stage. I feel like it breaks the façade of professionalism one should try to project on-stage. Here you’re rocking out, showing everyone what you got, then at the end of the song you have to ungracefully squat down and twist knobs, looking like a big doofus. Gee, wouldn't it be great if there was some other device that was closer to your fingers that could do the work of the knobs? I dunno, maybe something about 3x6 inches with a touchscreen? Maybe something like an iPhone?

Yeah, Zoom really missed an opportunity to make something mind-bogglingly awesome. While the iOS app is good, it doesn’t do a whole lot with the pedal other than install new effects and amp models on it. It’s a shame that it can’t manipulate the finer controls of the pedal itself. Then you could mount an iPhone or iPad nearby (maybe on a mic stand) and have all the controls right at your fingertips. I desperately hope that Zoom adds this in a future update of the app, because it would turn this pedal from “good” to “must-have”.

Summary

As it is, the Zoom doesn’t suffer from this usability problem any worse than any other pedal. I have an EVH flanger pedal that requires some tweaking between various VH tunes. There again, I’m forced to squat down and twiddle knobs. Worse, I have to remember where they all need to be set for a particular sound. If I could simply recall the setting with a simple tap or swipe I’d pay twice as much for it.

The sound-quality was better than I expected. Usually something that does lots of things isn’t particularly good at any one of them. In this case though, the Zoom is a pleasant surprise. Another good way to use it is for those one-off sounds that you hate to have a separate pedal for (Octavia, anyone?) It also has a ton of very weird effects that are fun and kind of inspiring. Here’s another sample, this time using the analog synth patch:

I’m big on the present and future of iOS and, more generally, mobile devices for music-making. The Zoom MS-100BT feels like good first-step in that direction for guitarists.