Guitar Effects Formats
By Chris Loeffler |
Guitar Effects Formats
Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese ...
by Chris Loeffler
Effects come in many different formats, physical and virtual, to accommodate different needs. While there are hybrids and always exceptions (see the EMS HI Fli), most effects can be placed in the category of stomp box, rack/console, or software plug-ins.
The original, most widely used effect format is a “stomp box” (also called pedal), where the effect is a discrete piece of hardware for sonic processing placed on the floor, and activated via foot switch. Potentiometers mounted on the case typically control of the various effect parameters, although some lesser-used, “set and forget” parameters use trimpots that are accessible only by opening the pedal. Additionally, some stomp box effects use LED display menus and toggle switches or buttons to access various parameters.
- Hands-free activation
- Quick access to adjusting physical parameters
- Easy to mix and match pedals from different companies
- Small size
- Possible signal loss as the signal works its way down a line of pedals
- Opportunity for increased noise
- The need to create a “pedalboard” to mount multiple effects
- Specific and sometimes confusing power requirements for each stomp box
A handful of stomp box pedals from newer HC community member Mick96
The rack format standardizes on the height (a multiple of 1.75”) and width (19”), allowing rack units to be placed in a common box. (Note that the panel for a rack unit is slightly less than 1.75" high to prevent binding against units above the panel.) A rack unit typically sits away from the player, and is controlled by a foot controller that generates MIDI control signals to activate effects and often, alter their parameters. Many rack processors are multieffects devices, meaning that they incorporate several effects in one box. Effects parameters and presets are dialed in (“programmed”) on the rack unit, or sometimes, with external software applications.
- Preset sounds can almost always be saved in the unit’s memory for later use
- With multieffects processors, settings and configurations of multiple devices (preamp, effect 1, effect 2, etc.) can be changed simultaneously on a per-patch basis, so a player could go from (for example) a lush, reverb and echo clean to a crushing distortion with octave down and a harmonized 5th delay with a single touch
- Unlike pedals, there’s a common power supply for all effects
- You don’t have to pay for multiple, separate boxes
- Neater setup—no patch cables
- Not conducive to on-the-fly tweaks in live settings, as most are menu-driven and the rack is typically a distance from the performer
- If you don’t like one of the effects, there’s nothing you can do about it
- Generally requires a MIDI controller to get the most out of it
- Can be more tedious to create sounds
HC Hall of Famer Etienne Rambert's monster rack
These are like overgrown stompboxes, with multiple effects. They have the same basic pros and cons as rack multieffects processors, with two major differences.
- They include footswitches and often, one or more footpedals—no need for a MIDI controller
- They’re in close proximity to the performer, which may allow some degree of tweaking
The Line 6 Helix being reviewed in Craig Anderton's Pro Review
VIRTUAL (SOFTWARE) PROCESSORS
This newest effects format removes traditional hardware, instead relying on loading software into a computer, tablet, or even smartphone, which then interfaces with your instrument and amplifier. The software provides emulations of common effects, amplifiers, cabinets, and the like. While traditionally used as a post-recording studio processor, musicians have been playing through laptops directly into a PA since the turn of the century.
- Software can make a huge number of effects and other emulations available—way more than would be physically (or economically) possible
- Software may be upgraded with new features or emulations
- Useful on stage and in the studio
- Easy, visual preset programming
- The potential for latency issues (e., you hear the note a fraction of a second after playing it) in underpowered computers
- A “closed ecosystem” that depends on a computer’s operating system; if the operating system changes, compatibility issues may arise if you upgrade your computer
- Most computers have sketchy onboard audio, so you will likely need an external audio interface
- Laptops are not necessarily designed for the rigors of the road
Guitar Rig from Native Instruments (screenshot from Craig Anderton's Re-Amping article)
WHICH IS BEST?
There isn’t a single, superior format for effects. Besides, the technology of effect creation crosses platforms: there are all-analog rack devices, and software-based or digital pedals. They also aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, a digital multieffects may have an effects loop where you can patch in your favorite analog stomp box.
That said, understanding the effects platform format that best suits your need is a strong first step to building out your rig. Here are some subjective, and not universally applicable, points to consider:
Reliability: Floor-based and rack processors tend to be the most reliable. Stompboxes are somewhat less reliable because of the numerous patch cords and power supplies. Computer-based setups were not designed for the road, and need to be “babied” somewhat.
Cost: The price of software is low, but factor in a computer and audio interface, and the price adds up. For simpler setups, though, a tablet or smart phone may be sufficient. The cost of a stompbox-based setup depends on how bad your stompbox addiction is, and whether you want to put together an extensive pedalboard. In many ways, a floor multieffects can be the most cost-effective.
Flexibility: Hands down, software gives the biggest range of sonic options, with multieffects coming in second…although there are some pretty heavy-duty pedalboards that seem to have one of every effect in the universe. -HC-
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.