Thinking outside the (stomp)box

We are living in a time where the tools to make music are abundant. Markets are flooded with audio instruments and electronics in every price range. Free DAW’s and plugins can turn bedrooms/rehersal spaces into budget recording studios.

But all this progress doesn’t mean it’s any easier to actually make music. So when the creativity hits a stall, some of us have a habit of strolling around the internet to search the next inspirational gadget. But instead of spending your time doing that, you could spend it looking at your excisting gear with a different angle.

In this article, being a pedal nerd, I will focus on pedals but the basic theorem can be adapted elsewhere. After all this is not a specific tutorial, more of a mental exercise.

So, what if you would approach your pedalboard as a rudimental modular synthesizer? Most of the basic synthesis building blocks can be found in pedal format. All you need is some sound sources, modulation and audio garnishing to get your inner sonic artist going.

 

No input feedback loop diagram

Sound sources

No-input feedback loops. This is the basis of many experimental sound projects. The idea is to feed back the output of a electronic device into its input. Even without any signal present the device starts multiplying its inherit noise and escalates to a loud oscillation. This kind of a loop can be easily done with mixers and their many ins and outs. But in the pedal domain we need a way to split the output so that it can be fed back to the input and be heard at the same time. This can be achieved in several ways:

  • Many volume pedals have a tuner output that also send input signal.

  • A/B/Y signal routing pedals in Y-mode will send the same signal in two places.

  • Some pedal tuners have an extra output for bypass

  • Pedals with pseudo stereo out

  • Pedals with separate direct outs

  • Most stereo pedals

  • Dedicated feedback loop pedals and splitters

You can chain several pedals in a feedback loop or pick just one. Depending on pedal/pedals the results will vary, and often surprise.

Self oscillating effects. Many delay pedals have built-in feedback loop to determine the number of repeats. Cranking this up will result in oscillation and usually without any input signal. Pedals with resonating filters will most likely oscillate too.

Noises. Touching the tip of a guitar cable while amplifying it will provide rythmic hum. Some hi-gain pedals will produce white noise -like signal when turned up.

As soon as you start experimenting, the next thing you’ll probably want is a way to sum signals. Mixers would be the obvious choise but there are some cheap tricks in pedal format. Volume pedals often have “tuner out” jacks. If the pedal is a passive design (ie.doesn’t need a power), the “tuner out” is most likely just a wire from the “input”. Therefore it can be used as a second input, forming a crude signal summing. Some stereo pedals also let inputs to be summed as one output and of course there are dedicated mixer pedals.

Modulations

Imagine having just a static note playing, it sounds pretty boring. But if you add a slow moving sinewave to the amplification gain, creating a tremolo, the whole mood is changed. In the synth realm there are waves that you can hear and waves that animate those heard waves. The act of doing this is called modulating. In modular synthesizers you can modulate almost everything but the classic sources would be amplitude, pitch and timbre.

Many guitar effects are derived from synthesizer tech so these modulations are quite familiar to us pedal heads, they are just named differently. Tremolo is a cyclic amplitude modulation, vibrato is a cyclic pitch modulation, chorus can be created by gently modulating a slapback-type delay time… and the list goes on. So acknowliging this, we can apply it to our pedal-board-synth thinking.

In this application even the craziest settings can sound good. Really fast tremolo can introduce new harmonics to other plain sounding sound sources. And you can use your hands to manipulate the controls in real time, like playing an instrument.

Garnishing

After achieving the raw electric sound with no-input feedback loops and hardcore modulations, it’s time to drown them in galaxy wide reverbs and start the journey to other dimensions. There is something very rewarding when determining a artificial space to the other worldly sounds. Also phasers, choruses and filters are stable choises in the end chain garnishing.

Sometimes crazy magic can happen when devices are getting a signal they weren’t designed to hear. There is a lot of uncharted ground to explore with pedals when placed in a “wrong” order. Distortions after reverbs, octavers after phasers or freeze after delay.

Full circle

The grand idea of all this rambling was to tickle your creativity. There´s lots of interesting things you can do with a few pedals. I myself am planning to build a dedicated electro-ambient-board to record some weird/scary backing tapes for our band´s live playing.

Other ideas are to make a full album with this approach. Record odd sounds track by track like they used to do before commercial synthesizers, using only tape loops and lab equipment. Or use it as a sound design tool for the next soundtrack project. Or dive deeper in the theoretical basis of musique concrète as a compositional practice.

Or just have fun finding new sounds!

Olli Heikkinen
Weird sound connoisseur

22.4.2021