Battle of the oddities
It surely was a rare opportunity to be able to A/B the Keio and Jacques pedals, so this calls for an in depth review of both, starting off with the infamous Keio Synthesizer Traveler, which according to the manual is a “Machine permitting your “NOW” sound transform!”.
Founded in 1962 in Japan by Tsutomu Kato and Tadashi Osanai , Korg was originally known as Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo Ltd." and later "Keio Electronic Laboratories because its fledgling offices were located near the Keio train line in Tokyo. By 1967, as musicians became interested in synthesizers, an engineer named Fumio Mieda approached Kato, asking for backing to develop an innovative electronic keyboard. It was not until 1970 that Mieda finished a prototype dual-manual organ, featuring a range of new sound-generation ideas and some rather unconventional controls. The mini Korg 700 synthesizer soon followed, offering oscillator settings such as 'chorus I' and 'chorus II' (which produced rich, swirling tones), and with strange percussion/singing controls that created envelopes quite unlike those found in other keyboards of that era. The mini Korg 700 greatest strength was its 'Traveler', a low-pass/high-pass filter section that proved to be extremely intuitive and manageable by means of two slide controllers (filter cutoff and resonance). The 700 sounded great and ended up in the hands of many players such as The Cure, Kitaro, Human League, Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, The Cars and Paul Hardcastle.
Now, the Keio Sythesizer Traveler is a combination of the "TRAVELER" mode as developed for the mini Korg 700, with the addition of a nasty "FUZZ", and with an added “SINGING” feature from the organ prototype, which is a sine/square wave tone synthesizer that you control with your foot, along with the wah (low pass/high pass filter) and with the fuzz.
It is a huge pedal in a large grey metal casing, with 4 controls on the right, a wide foot rocker on the left, separate footswitches for the Singing and Fuzz modes and an On/Off footswitch in the heel position of the rocker for the Traveler mode. It has in- and outputs on the top panel and it only takes a single 9V battery to power this monstrosity. By rocking the pedal, the tonal spectrum can be gradually shifted from the low 250Hz up to the high 10,000 Hz range. To quote the manual : “Traveler is not a merely WOW machine you see”.
All the controls (Singing, Fuzz, Traveler, and Peak) are essentially volume controls for those functions. The On/Off switch underneath the pedal turns engages the effects, and you can use the controls to dial in how much (if any) of each effect you want. The Fuzz switch only works when the switch under the pedal is engaged. So the Traveler and Peak are always on and you have the option of having Fuzz or no Fuzz with it. The fuzz is a nice sixties style -chainsaw through a beehive- type of fuzz (in the manual it is referred to as a “zig-zag tone”). The Traveler mode yields a pleasant soft wah-wah sound. Especially the long travel (I nearly tipped over the first time I rocked that pedal all the way down, because of the slanted casing, the rocker travels further down as compared to the standard wahs), combined with the wide frequency range makes it an extremely versatile musical tool, for use with electric piano, organs, synths, beatboxes or even amplified brass and woodwind instruments. Unfortunately, it is not really all that great on guitar and at the risk of demystifying the pedal, the singing is not very much like singing at all. To quote the manual again : “When pressing this downward by your foot, SINGING is turned ON, and the continuous tone “Pi-Pi” will be transmitted. How do you use this ?”. Well, that’s entirely up to the player. It really is just a variable oscillator, and you can use the rocker pedal to vary the pitch. Perhaps this was Keio/Korg’s take on the siren effect of the more popular Shin-ei Surf/Siren/Hurricane pedal.
Any way you look at it, it’s an original multi-effector, quite innovative at the time, and it remains a stunning soundtool today, great fun too.
There’s nothing even remotely similar to the rare Keio Synthesizer Traveler. Well, there actually is another obscure pedal that was modeled after the Keio...
Only 150 of these were ever produced and distributed by French pedal guru Jacques. The Singing Geisha is a multi-effect pedal that can be used as either a straight wah, distortion or portamento monosynth or any combination thereof. The Singing Geisha works on either a 9V battery or can also be powered by a wall wart.
The effects are housed in a sturdy plastic wah casing, with a rocker pedal to operate the wah and/or singing effects, with 3 status LEDS for the Wah, Distortion and Sing modes. It has On/Off toggle switches on each side, to activate either the Distortion and/or the Sing modes. In addition, there are volume and gain controls for the Distortion on one side, and volume and range controls for the Sing mode on the other side.
The wah produces a peculiar, vocally sounding effect. It uses a noiseless optical potmeter, like in the old Morley oil-can pedals and the effect can be tuned by means of a Q control that is hidden under the rocker.
The distortion is more or less taken from the Tubeblower circuit (another Jacques distortion circuit), and it can be used as a standalone distortion effect, but it was particularly voiced to get along with the wah effect. With the gain and volume controls you can dial in anything from throaty overdrive to full blast distortion.
The best thing the Singing Geisha has to offer, is when you use the wah together with the Distortion. Jacques is a huge vintage pedal collector and he really managed to nail that typical Hendrix fuzz wah sound.
The Singing function of the Geisha is a musical instrument on itself. It is an analogue monophonic synthesizer which notes are determined by the position of the rocker pedal. The frequencies range from 82,4Hz (corresponds to a low E string on guitar) to 1319Hz (three octaves above low E). It is possible to adjust the upper note with the range control. It takes some practice and fine-tuning to use it effectively, but it can surely add an odd texture to anything you’re playing. It is pretty accurate and stable, not that you can play a melody, but it’s certainly more effective than the hurricane/siren effects on the vintage Surf/Siren wah pedals. A short range makes it easier to attempt playing melodies, a long range gives more portamento sythesizer sound.
It is not very practical to use, with the toggles and controls on the side for the Sing and Distortion functions, the Q-control hidden under the rocker and a tiny switch to activate the wah, but it sounds amazing.
The bottom line
The Keio Synthesizer Traveler F-1 gets extra points for being innovative, originality and coolness and ergonomics (yeah, it’s massive). The Jacques Singing Geisha is a more guitar oriented pedal, with a great standalone distortion that sounds stellar in conjunction with the wah, actually a very good sounding wah, the Sing mode is a nice gimmick as well and loses points for ergonomy, it would really have been much more user friendly if it had footswitches for Distortion and Sing, and all controls on the front, for instance like the EKO Multitone, that other bizarre seventies multi-effect. Hmmm, perhaps that one needs a review as well.
No winners, it’s a draw.