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Basic Sound Engineering with Guitar Pedals

You are the creative force behind your own rig. That means it's up to you to trial and experiment with stuff. Some suggestions, however, never go amiss.

In the search for the sound you want, you are not limited just to pedals. Think of what you can do with literally anything you have access to that lets the signal go right through and does something to it that you can make use of. There might be some amplifier with a pre-amp you can redirect out with a little soldering of new wires and jacks in the right spot. Note: don’t do this with the power on if you have any sense. Have a look at this unattributed quote about a set-up used by Mike Oldfield. It’s worth checking out this video of him demonstrating some guitar sounds – which I recognise from the 1990 album, Amarok.

It’s pretty common to see overdrive pedals with bass and treble controls on them. These should generally be situated before the drive circuit so as to alter the character of the overdrive, rather than after in which case they just act as tone controls. Imagine more control than that, with a parametric equaliser or graphic equaliser doing the same job as the treble and bass. You can achieve a lot that way.

There are effects pedals which have a stereo output – reverbs, a few delays and a trove of modulation effects. Its great to get that spacious, alive sound which stereo gives. Once you get immersed and focused, it can really take you to a new place. Stereo guitar amps are unheard-of, so two separate amplifiers are in order. It is possible to do this with 2 totally different amplifiers. Surprisingly, the tonal differences between the two seem to disappear unless they are extreme. You naturally want them to be the same, but I once had a big, chunky old bass amp with almost no top end and a cruddy, home-made practice amp at my disposal, a stereo flanger and a few other pedals and went for it for hours. It was a lot of fun.

If, on the other hand, you are still averse to spending big dollars on a clone of your existing amp, try this. Get a second hand (or old spare) amplifier from a hi-fi system or suchlike, and before your stereo effect, place a limiter to cut off dangerous peaks. Never, ever drive an amp from a home entertainment system. And if it is currently still in use for such, seriously, make sure you have money to replace it with a new one. I suggest using an amplifier and cabinet simulator too so as get a proper guitar amp sound. The limiter will save the delicate circuitry accustomed to gentle signals from DVD players and the like. Just a suggestion.

Pitch-based modulation presents an issue that annoys the heck out of me, although I suspect not everyone. In getting those ear-candy tones of a chorus, a flanger, a leslie speaker effect, or what-have-you, there is a constant rising and falling of the pitch of one sound component. It is not in time or in tune with the music, and so it is distracting on a solo, even while it makes the sound prettier in another way. There is a solution, though it is expensive. If you have a few of the same pedal on hand you can arrange them in series, each with different modulation rates. The effect of reaching the top or bottom of the modulation is broken up considerably. Keeping the modulation depth down is another useful trick, but a subtle echo also can be used to break up the sweeping effect still further. A simple non-modulating detune is yet another thing you can use to replace all of that. It’s much cheaper, although the sound is different.

One recent addition to the guitar pedals scene is the shimmer reverb. It is algorithmically fairly complex and produces a quite unique sound. I hesitate to define it as a reverb, though. It gives an impression of reverberation, but sounds to me more like an experiment with the basic concepts of a harmoniser and a loop-back. Criticism aside, though, it can colour your sound interestingly. Try experimenting with a shimmer reverb in series with a normal, smooth sounding reverb or with a series of echoes. This gives you a sound reminiscent of a traditional spring reverb.

There are reverberation effects which make a genuine attempt at mimicking natural ambience, both indoors and outdoors. Then there are reverberation effects that make no such attempt and which aim to please the ear instead. The spring reverb is one such thing from days of yore. But then there are a googleplex of possibilities starting simply with having no early reflection to colour the tone and no initial delay. Then you can have gated reverbs (80’s drum sound) or you can use an overdrive after a reverb to extend the decay and add colour of an unnatural kind and sound like you used cheap, old-fashioned equipment that couldn’t take the power level. A compressor could be used to comparable effect. If you are using a network of echoes with signal splitter cables and in-line mixers, then extra effects can be introduced into feedback loops to make something amazing and unique happen. (By the way, there are those who say you need a proper mixer to join two signals together. I have got away with just leads soldered together and I say as long as you are not combining signals that are virtually identical, you should be alright without mixers).

Signal splitting and rough mixing makes me think of another experiment. While there are a few pedals out there that do this, you can rig it up with any overdrive or distortion pedal. A lot of bands in the 1960’s used an overdrive with a constant bypass so there was a clean signal and a driven signal at the same time. On first inspection the sound did nothing for me, but it really has a lot of character, and nostalgic value. The clean signal will always peak louder during the attack phase of each note, which is a potentially annoying factor, and then, if the clean volume is down or the equalisation too mellow, it will fade into nothing during the sustain phase. Try using a compressor in parallel with an overdrive to overcome this.

Get into it. Experimenting with effects can be incredibly rewarding!

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