Guitar pedals were one of the catalysts for me getting into music technology. Through listening to various bands who created these non-guitar-like sounds I became fascinated in the guitar more as a vehicle for making weird noises rather than just being a traditional instrument.
Around this time I joined up to GuitarGeek (now part of Guitar.com) and starting collecting various oddities from eBay and second hand stores. I’ve always relied on pedals even when not playing guitar, spending years in a band playing keyboard made me seek out pedals to work with Rhodes sounds and create pseudo synth tones.
Years later I’ve got the pedals doing what I want them to. I now don’t play live at all and if I were to I’d probably build a far smaller portable pedalboard. The boards below are strictly for studio usage and would be hugely impractical to gig with.
So far I know I’m the only person who I’ve seen with kind of setup, probably due to the aforementioned hassle of transporting and patching such a monster but also it was a pain in the ass putting together.
Huge props go to Greg Michalik from Guitar Aid in London who built this for me exactly to my specifications even thought it would have been much simpler to cut corners. For anyone in the London/South East area I would highly recommend him, not just for guitars and amps but I’ve taken all sorts there, tape echoes, vocoders, keyboards, analog and digital synths, the lot.
My pedal collection is a mixture of old and new, digital and analog, traditional and non traditional. Naturally some pedals sound great in certain combinations and some less so. When recording on my own, with clients or friends I always found the plugging in of pedals a real time-sapping thing. Finding the right AC adapter, finding a cable long enough etc.
For some people, you might have a pedalboard with a single configuration and going in on one side and out the other is fine. This is a series circuit, signal flows from one side to the other. But what’s bad about this is if you’re just using one pedal right in the middle of the chain, without unplugging it you have to run through the whole board, picking up hiss and noise along the way.
Also changing the signal path can be cumbersome. This is why I wanted to build my parallel (semi) modular board. Every pedal would be plugged into a collection of cable snakes and have an insert point on a couple of patch bays.
I did some research and whilst this is common with rack equipment and other studio odds and sods I couldn’t see it done anywhere with pedals. Pedals are of course at instrument level (not line) so some considerations had to be taken with that. I bought two Radial ProRMP Reampers to convert line level signals into something a guitar pedal might accept.
This means I could run drum loops, synths, guitars or vocals from Live/Logic into the pedals without the signal being too hot. On the way out of the pedals, the signal runs either into a DI or instrument level input on my soundcard to convert it back to line level.
Let’s have a look at the boards:
This is the smaller of the two boards and contains mostly just distortion pedals. I’ve always loved distortion and the earth shatteringly different sounds you can get from running different level signals into a distortion. Placing it a filter before or after it can radically change the sound and it’s so versatile too.
From top left to bottom right:
- pulsemonger mk1. An unassuming but gnarly little distortion box. It works by converting the incoming signal into pulse waves with variable width which is CV-able too, so either an expression pedal or LFO can modulate it. Here’s some electric guitar through it. Hear how it breaks up into tiny pieces when the signal is low:
- Death by Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun. Another unforgiving fuzz pedal, a sound quite different to many classics. Characterized by it’s modern gated sound, the Fuzz Gun can also self-oscillate. Which is nice. Some more electric guitar for this example, a bit phatter than the pulsemonger, but equally as vulgar:
- Fender Blender (reissue). Smashing Pumpkins in a box. I’m sure connoisseurs will tell you the original sounds better but I don’t have that kind of money to drop on it. It’s a fuzz with a built in octave up which creates all sorts of strange sidebands and overtones not dissimilar in sound to ring modulation.
- Marshall DRP-1. Not a stompbox as such, as it lacks a disengage button, but this is the sound of a Marshall amp in a box, or as close to the much-sought-after JCM-800 type sound (amp nerds please correct me on this). More of a studio tool but that sits fine with this type of board.
- Danelectro French Toast. I originally bought this for my brother and it sounded so good I took it back (sorry bruv). A brittle high-gain fuzz with octave up capabilities, it cuts through even the most dense of mixes. For something which cost me next to nothing it’s been worth its weight in gold.
- Stone Deaf Effects PDF-1 (Parametric Distortion Filter). A clone of the Maestro MPF-1. Allegedly the Josh Homme distortion of choice. It sits somewhere between a transparent overdrive and a band-pass filter. Sadly I’ve never been able to achieve the types of distortion out of it that I expected from marketing pitch and online demos.
- Dunlop Way Huge Fat Sandwich Distortion. Not the most exciting pedal in the world but each control has a big impact on the sound. A good all-purpose, jack of all trades distortion.
- Danelectro Cool Cat Distortion. Weirdly I bought this by accident when I was demonstrating to my wife how to use eBay. You really can’t complain about that. It’s not a bad unit, especially when you find out it costs £8! As with other Danelectro units I have to say I was surprised with the quality of the sound. Better than expected.
- Electro Harmonix Vintage Bassballs. A gift from my good pal Matt. Electro Harmonix went through a weird stage of making all of their pedals really cumbersome, and this is certainly part of that range. Two controls but a lovely sound. Like the Tube Zipper it’s a envelope controlled low-pass filter with a distortion, though more subtle. Hear how wobbly the cutoff gets as the signal peters out:
- Electro Harmonix Tube Zipper. Very very cool envelope filter/distortion. Probably one of my most used gain units. It sounds fantastic with guitar, bass, synths, drums, the lot. Getting the resonance just right means you can achieve these pseudo pitch bend-like sounds when the filter closes. It’s bulky but I’d save it in the event of a fire. You can hear just why I love this from this audio example:
- MXR Blue Box (pre-LED). Such a fantastic sounding pedal. It’s a sub octave-come fuzz but the sounds that come out of it make it sound like a psychedelic mono synth. Really phat bottom end and squeals like noting else. Great on guitar and synths a-like. Only really does one sound though. Here’s my best Moog impersonation:
- Ibanez SD-9. Another one of my favourites distortions. Sitting somewhere between the TS-9 overdrive Ibanez dined out on and a higher gain distortion, this unit can offer than transparent overdrive at lower settings and a more brighter saturated tone at higher settings.
- Pro Co Rat 2. Another limited sounding distortion. Quite heavy and unforgiving but a classic modern high-gain distortion. There are numerous iterations of the Rat and I’ve not tried any others but I’ve heard that the filter pot works in reverse on some(?) odd!
- Boss OS-2 Overdrive/Distortion. Actually very versatile. Think this was also my brother’s but I picked it up after it wasn’t being used. Boss compacts are a bit hit and miss but this falls into the former category as far as I’m concerned.
- Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner. Everyone needs to be in tune right?
- [not pictured] Electro Harmonix Big Muff π. A staple in pretty much everyone’s board. This is the grunge sound popularised by the likes of Kurt Kobain et al. A gift from my good pal Tim – thanks bud! It’s nice and beaten up too which just adds to how class it looks.
This is the bigger of the two boards and contains most everything else. There’s a few stereo pedals here, which is great for usage with a DAW. Also is some older pedals, some synth pedals, modulations and delays.
From top left to bottom right:
- Dunlop Way Huge Aqua-Puss Analog Delay. Great sounding delay that self-oscillates into a washy mess. Good all rounder but I’ve used in a lot of ambient/shoegaze-y contexts to good effect. Some bleeps and blops through the Aqua-Puss:
- Electro Harmonix Small Clone. Another obvious choice on many a grunge pedalboard. Honestly I rarely use it with guitar as it’s such a trite sound to my ears, but it sounds great on synths and keyboards. Clean and subtle.
- Dunlop Tremolo TS-1. This saw a lot of use in my rhodes playing days. It can be run in stereo which was a huge bonus, but broke up a little too easily with line level signals (perhaps understandably). Good for converting mono to stereo signals too.
- Ibanez AF-2 Airplane Flanger. A novelty flanger effect. The size doesn’t really justify the sound but it feedbacks into a hazey noise nicely. If you have to have a flanger on your board, this is versatile but too large.
- Line 6 FM-4. A turning point for me. The FM-4 seeks to emulate such the Korg X-911 and Roland GR-700 guitar synths, Mu-Tron and Oberheim envelope filters, Z-Vex Seek Wah, Electrix Filter Factory and more. It’s stereo in and out, takes an expression pedal and allows up to four presets to be stored. It’s quite heavy but was a main-stay on my live board for yonks, especially running synths into it. I’ve knocked together a quick Nu Disco example (from a Sample Magic pack) to demonstrate a few of the FM-4’s capabilities:
- Mutron Phasor. Sadly not the Bi-Phase everyone dreams of but this a smooth, subtle phaser that sounds great as a send/return, on synth pads or hi-hats as well as guitars or as a mono return effect. Here’s some Rock With You through it:
- Marshall MG100DFX foot switch. Just a foot switch for an amp, nothing to see here.
- Digitech TimeBender. A discontinued stereo delay from Digitech that was out there to compete with the Boss twins and Line 6’s DL-4. I think this unit held its own and had some real class features such as the custom multi-tap repeat function and had a a great pitch shifter. Odd it never took off but the advanced delay pedal market was saturated and arguably the DL-4 won. Here’s a couple of examples (piano and synths) showing off some of the TimeBender’s sounds. Excuse the mains hum:
- Boss DM-2 Delay. A bucket brigade analog delay capable of short slapback echoes to marginally longer ones. Sonically quite dull and hard to replicate with plug-ins (SoundToys’s EchoBoy comes close), which for me makes it a favourite. Not hugely versatile but that’s no what you’d expect from these old analog units.
- Electro Harmonix The Worm. A huge chassis containing auto-wah, vibrato, tremolo and phaser circuits that range from subtle to extreme. This is another pedal Electro Haronix have since shrunk into a compact, so these bigger units can be picked up at bargain prices. Hard to justify the size for a live pedal board though.
- Boss SYB-5 Bass Synth. Another pedal liberated from my lil’ bro. A little phatter than the FM-4 but capable of fewer sounds. Has some rudimentary waveshaping and a fairly shrill resonant low-pass filter. Bass synthesis pedals were all the rage at one point, and this was about as far as they were pushed. Good for it’s size. Here’s some choppy fidget-like sounds with me hurriedly changing settings on the fly:
- MXR Phase 100. I used to own an Electro Harmonix Small Stone which was comparable to this, albeit more subtle. The Phase 100 is a little sharper than the Small Stone but smoother than the Phase 90. A pretty bland phaser over-all but I have a quasi fetish for phasers so…
- DOD FX35 Octoplus. Honestly the best sub-octave pedal Ive heard. It’s clean and genuinely sounds like a bass player doubling your riffs. Obviously it can’t handle polyphony and like other DOD products the construction isn’t that of Boss but fantastic sounding and cheap. Would highly recommend if you see one on the ‘Bay.
- Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer. My first pedal. What an odd choice looking back? The compression isn’t as classic sounding as the MXR DynaComp or the Keeley Compressors but a good work-horse, if not a little hissy. Running drum breaks and high energy vocals through it has given me more joy than guitar.
- Morley Bad Horsie. I can say I’ve tried a plethora of wahs but the Bad Horise is fine for what it is. Complaints are that it’s a little on the big side compared to Cry Babys and the wah cuts out when the expression pedal is at full heel position (which was a design feature they included). I think it’s better than Logic’s pedalboard or Guitar Rig if you can deal with the small amount of noise it adds back in.
- Akai E2 Headrush. Used this extensively in my keyboard pedalboard days before switching to the TimeBender (as it was stereo). Neat for dub sounding delays and the looper is one of the originals that many sought to emulate. Have made plenty of good ambient sounds with this. It’s yet another one of my brother pedals that found its way into my grubby hands.
- Lovetone Meatball. Your envelope filter’s favourite envelope filter. Lovetone is a company out of production (although they’ve spookily just set their old website’s homepage to under construction!). They produced pedals in the early nineties with outlandish names and excellent design. The Meatball was arguably one of their more commercial successes and it sounds sexy as hell, really squelchy when you get the gain-staging just right.
- Bespeco VM 18L Expression Pedal. Just a simple expression pedal. As everything is patched to inset points it can control the FM-4, TimeBender, Meatball, MoogerFooger, SYB-5 and even my modular!
- DigiTech XP-1000. I wanted the XP-300 for so long, and when this came up, I couldn’t resist. For some context, Digitech made four pedals in the XP range, the XP-100 Whammy/Wah, the XP-200 Modulator, the aforementioned XP-300 Space Station and the XP-400 Reverberator. The XP-1000 Jetpack mod is a hack that modifies the microchip to include ALL FOUR MODELS in one. I really only use it for the Space Station, which handles all sorts of effects including harmonisation, arpeggios, bit crushing and sample rate reduction, reverse delays and more. It’s simply awesome and I’ve heard very little like it. I’ve knocked together a fairly lengthy example but even this doesn’t do justice to what this machine can do. There no additional processing on this:
- MoogerFooger MF-101 Lowpass Filter. It’s just a low-pass filter yes, and it is large, but it really does sound class. Lots of CV option ’round the back but running drums, guitar, bass, whole mixes into this and slowly opening or closing the cutoff with a healthy slathering of resonance just sounds great. Shame it’s mono but I love it none-the-less. Here, I’m opening the filter’s cutoff slowly with different resonance settings:
- Boss FV-200 Stereo Volume Pedal. Just a volume pedal. Sadly it’s huge. Unsurprisingly Boss managed to shrink later models down a few sizes. I used this on my keyboard rig for years and it was stereo.
There’s a few bits that have been missed out here, some Alesis ModFX, a Heil Talkbox, the odd multi-FX unit and probably some pedals that have died but not yet been chucked, on the hope that they can be resurrected, but largely that’s it. I’ve also recently inherited another two boss compacts from I am Alice, a flanger and overdrive, but I’ve not had the chance to road test them yet!
I find this setup hugely useful for studio use for of course that’s as far as it can go. Apart from being incredibly heavy it’s not practical patching pedals live, so it’s very unlikely they’ll see more outside of these four walls.
Having this (as far as I can tell) uniquely patched system means I can change the order, routing, modulation and signal flow with ease. No more hunting around for cables, power supplies and spending time matching impedance. Let me know what you think!