stompbox effects

General

There is a very wide variety of hardware effect boxes on the market. They are mostly designed for guitars, but with the right setup (gaining, balancing) guitar effects can be used to manipulate any incoming audio source. In the next table we summarize some of the pros and cons of using effect pedals.

pros cons
relatively limited in options
plug and play expensive
intuitive
reliable heavy-weight when bundled
hard to misuse

You probably noticed that we consider their limitation to be an advantage as well as a disadvantage. Compared to many software plug-ins they do have fewer controls, which make them less usable for certain applications. On the other hand, their limitations enable us to use them intuitively.

Note to self: Pedals are instruments that can be used in very personal ways. Sometimes the intended use of a pedal is not necessarily what you're trying to accomplish.

Pedals have specific behavior, carefully chosen by the manufacturer, that allows us to have a straight forward kind of control with feet and hands. 

There is much to learn about how pedals are designed. Many of them are very successfully balanced and make them handy and versatile in live situations. Therefore their design and usage inspires us to develop our own custom tools.

For people that use a computer on stage it can be interesting to use stompbox effects as well. It speaks for itself that the use of pedals can reduce the CPU rate of your computer. In theory a computer can do everything, but it suffers from doing multiple things at the same time. If there’s one particular thing you like doing a lot and it’s available as a pedal, it’s worth considering the purchase. For example, in Hendrik’s setup there is a send-channel on the mixer (on the very end of the signal chain) routed to an Eventide H9, used only as a reverb device. In this way there is tactile hands-on fun in making the total sound dry or reverberated.

Time-related effects

As mentioned in the tools section, we got specifically interested in the features and limitations of time-related effects. Next to the (somewhat conventional) delay type of effects, there is a number of stompboxes that allow us to hold, repeat, loop and sample sounds as if more players are involved.

Freeze

Whereas a volume pedal is commonly used to get rid of the attack of a sound, a freeze pedal is an effect that adds sustain to it. This can cause an artificial retaining of any moment in time. Funny enough this pedal is so well-built that it seems that there is a bit of movement in the static freezings.

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only one moment a time can be frozen with the Freeze pedal

Inspired by the sustain pedal of a piano, the Gamechanger audio PLUS pedal sustains sound much more organically and controllably. Sustained sounds can be stacked together and the volume is set by how far down you press. A Superego pedal is another creative freezer that has an ability to glide from one frozen part to another, transforming the audio into a moving landscape.

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multiple frozen layers can be obtained with controllable volume with PLUS pedal

This demonstration video below shows us that there is a thin line between freeze and softened stutter effects. By freezing a moment of a sharp attack or a piece of audio with quick transitions, you can get very short micro-loops. Even though it’s not what the PLUS pedal is made for (smooth seamless textures), it’s also capable of producing these rhythmic densities.

Stutter

Stutter effects are a bit underexposed, probably because they sound quite unnatural compared to other effects. However these effects can also be used in subtle ways. The concept is essentially a short delay with high volume and feedback rates. Therefore anything that can record short and stable loops can be used as a stutter (like a Boss Digital Delay or an EHX Memory Man).

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from left to right: King of Gear Mini Glitch pedal, Hexe electronics Revolver, Red Panda Particle 2

The first two stompboxes shown here are somewhat dedicated to stuttering, both having an auto function that can randomly pop in and out of engagement. The Mini Glitch has a feature of choosing a desired sample size and overdubbing stutters, resulting in electronic glitches. The Revolver pedal has more capabilities in the territory of granular delays and fading stutter effects. This brings us to the Red Panda Particle, the king of granular delay effects. The second version of the pedal has a momentary freeze switch, leading to similar results as the Revolver. The Particle has an interesting feature of controlling when recording occurs with the dynamics of your playing (with a threshold set by turning a knob), allowing you to play along with a loop and only record/overdub when you wish (by playing harder).

Loop / sample

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from left to right: Line 6 dl4,  Red Panda Tensor, montréal assembly Count to Five

As mentioned earlier, a stutter effect can also be obtained using a delay or a looper. The advantage of using a looper as a stutter is that you’re able to control the exact size of the micro-loop (recording the buffer by pressing twice). Any standard looper can be used for this. For more than twenty years one of the most popular delay/looper pedals is the Line 6 dl4. It is primarily a delay but it has a single loop sampler mode that is pretty unique. Using the ‘play once switch’ you can trigger a loop as a one-shot recording, allowing the player to treat loops more like samples (playing them selectively instead of constantly). There is also a switch for reversing the loop and octave down (twice as slow) or octave up (twice as fast). The Red Panda Tensor pedal can be described as a looping tape machine with granular possibilities. In contrast to the Line 6 dl4 there is independent control over pitch, time and sample size. Another feature is the intelligent randomization possibilities that introduce glitches and pitch shifts. The Count To Five pedal has the fascinating ability to turn a loop into random patterns as the playhead jumps from place to place.

The functionality of each stutter/looper/sampler pedal is different and unique, providing it a personality and specific usability. However, we dreamt about this all-in-one sampler pedal: a multitrack looper device that has independent control over pitch and time with granular capabilities, one-shot sampler functionality and playhead jump features. Hendrik and Vitja started to make their own custom devices in MAX MSP that meet those requirements, each equipped with special features.

Much more pedals were used but none of them plays an indispensable role. The focus moved more and more to the use of computer processing and the development of custom made electronic devices in Max for Ableton live.

Routing

When chaining multiple pedals together the signal path is pretty important because it determines the output sound. For instance, a fuzz-to-delay chain is different from a delay-to-fuzz chain. In the second case you’re tearing apart a delayed (denser) signal while in the first case you delay a teared apart clean signal.

There are conventions about routing pedals together, but there are no golden rules. The conventional signal flow is shown here.

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traditional approach to effect box chaining

The signal flow of an effects chain usually stays unchanged during a live performance. However there are special designed stompboxes that manage signal flow matter, such as line selectors, pedal hubs and loop switchers. The latter allow you to engage or bypass multiple pedals at once to create presets of combined pedals, reordering them on the fly. Another way to work around this limitations is by using a computer + interface. For Vitja’s solo album Day at Half Speed, he put several pedals in different chains connected to the interface, giving him the possibility to have a flexible signal flow. For instance, he can send his dry signal to two separate synth effects without influencing each other and later on those same effects are used on an organelle (sample-player) that is played with the toes. The use of Max For Live enabled him to make these chains automatically fade in and out when triggered, without the need of a dozen volume pedals.

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Vitja’s Day at Half Speed setup: all ins and outs of the interface are in use for multiple routing possibilities