Friday, August 15, 2014

MIDI PedalBoard and Guitar Effect Essentials

MIDI PedalBoard Basics

MIDI, pronounced “middy”, was created in 1983 so electronic musical instruments could talk to and control each other.  For a long time, it was used for synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines.  However, in the last few years MIDI has caught fire with guitar players who now control entire pedalboards, synchronize multiple effects, and switch amp channels with single buttons.

Keyboard players use MIDI for all sort of functions, including playing back sequences of notes and triggering samples.  Guitar players only really care about 3 or 4 things that MIDI can do:

1) Switching effects on and off

2) Calling up presets on MIDI-enabled effects

3) Synchronizing time-based effects

4) Using MIDI expression pedals on effects

All these things are done using a MIDI Controller.

MIDI Controllers

The basic function of a MIDI Controller is to tell effects and switchers what program number to use.  The controller does this by sending a simple “Program Change” when a button is pressed.

Basic MIDI Controllers don’t require any programming, and include Tech 21 MIDI Mouse and Diezel Columbus.

Other MIDI Controllers are more versatile and use an expression pedal to send “Control Changes” for effect parameters like volume.  Examples include the VooDoo Lab Ground Control and Rocktron MIDI Mate.

Still others like Molten Voltage’s Master Control send MIDI Clock to synchronize time-based effects.

On a well-designed pedalboard, a MIDI Controller is the only thing you’ll stomp.

MIDI Switchers

MIDI switchers switch effect loops on and off so you don’t need to tap-dance between songs.  Normally a “Program Change” from a MIDI Controller causes a MIDI Switcher to simultaneously engage or bypass different effect loops.  Examples of MIDI Switchers include Lehle D.Loop, G-Lab 4x Loop, and Molten Voltage Node.

Pro-tip .:. Nearly all MIDI Switchers use mechanical relays to bypass effects, so you won’t compromise your tone.

Some MIDI controllers, such as TheGigRig G2 have a number of effects loops built in.

One huge advantage of MIDI switchers over stand-alone switching units is that your rig becomes expandable.  An unlimited number of MIDI Switchers can be linked together.

What this also means is that your pedalboard can be modular.  Imagine having a primary pedalboard with your “go to gear” for gigs, as well as a “studio only” side-board for your vintage pedals.  When you get back to the studio, a single MIDI cable re-connects your rarities to the main rig.

MIDI Amps and Effects

A growing number of guitar effects use MIDI Program Changes to call up settings - as if you’re magically turning the knobs.

Distortion pedals like the TC Electronic Nova Drive and Source Audio’s Soundblox Pro Multiwave Distortion have been showing up on professional pedalboards for a few years.

Even amp builders are embracing MIDI.  The Marshall JVM410H, Carvin VL300, EVH 5150 III, and Kemper Profiler amps all switch channels and effects using MIDI.

Pro-tip .:. Non-MIDI amps can use products like the VooDoo Lab Control Switcher to automate channel switching.

MIDI Clock

Beyond switching effects on and off, MIDI’s greatest pedalboard benefit comes from synchronization of time-based effects such as delays (Moog MF-104M Analog Delay), phasers (Empress Phaser), tremolos (BOSS SL-20 Slicer), loopers (Pigtronix Infinity Looper), arpeggiators (Eventide PitchFactor), modulators (Strymon Mobius), and sequencers (Z-vex Super Seek-Wah).

These days players expect a “tap tempo” button on any pedal that can use it.  The benefit of tapping in time with the drummer to sync up your delay is obvious.

MIDI Clock takes tap tempo convenience to a whole new level.

Pedals that sync to MIDI Clock lock onto the incoming signal and adjust their tempo.

What’s more, MIDI Clock allows you to seamlessly sync multiple effects with a single button.  Even if you don’t think you need your phaser in sync with your delay, having a single “tap tempo” button for all your gear lets you focus on making music instead of remembering which pedal to press.

Finally, MIDI Clock pedals like Molten Voltage’s Tempode can remember the tempo for each program.

Five years ago, only a handful of guitar effects could sync to MIDI Clock.  There are now 59 effects by 22 top manufacturers that can!

What’s more, classic effects with external “tap” input jacks, including the BOSS PH-3 Phase Shifter, Moog MuRF, JHS Panther Delay, and 26 others can now sync to MIDI Clock using Molten Voltage’s CTL-Sync.


MIDI cables have a round, 5-pin “DIN” connector at each end.  They are sold at most music stores.  You can connect either end of the cable to a MIDI jack.

There are 3 types of MIDI Jacks:

1) MIDI OUT - sends information out to MIDI-enabled effects

2) MIDI IN - this is where the MIDI information enters the effect or switcher

3) MIDI THRU - copies and repeats MIDI IN information - used to daisy-chain MIDI devices

Pro-tip .:. Often an effect’s MIDI OUT jack can be set to act as a MIDI THRU jack

Connect the MIDI OUT or THRU of one device to the MIDI IN of the next device.

If you need to send MIDI information to additional devices, you can use a MIDI Splitter such as the G-Lab 3x Splitter M3S or Molten Voltage’s MIDI Splitty.

MIDI Glory!

MIDI guitar effects have finally entered the mainstream.  Manufacturers are racing to release MIDI-enabled pedals, and players are quickly automating their pedalboards and simplifying their systems.

Stay tuned, because the future just showed up!

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