Switching It up with an Effects Loop Box
Want to play different pedal sequences in a flash? These handy boxes provide more tone solutions than you might realize.
There is no right or wrong way to wire a pedalboard. It’s really a matter of personal taste and what our ears find pleasing. Every musician has their own thing, and our pedalboards are certainly an extension of that. For some, reconfiguring the pedalboard is a lifelong process, and adding a new device often means something has got to go, because real estate is crucial!
Whether you are a fan of effects loops or not, they can be useful tools. One of the go-to pedals in my collection isn’t an effect. It’s a standalone effects loop order switcher, which is basically a pair of dedicated effects loops (A and B) in an aluminum pedal enclosure. There are quite a few companies that make a version of this type of device. Some of these units have many other options included and some are very basic, with no knobs at all. I like to have a somewhat simple one hanging around, with an input, an output, and two sets of send/return jacks. Each channel needs a volume knob, a foot switch, and a bypass indicator light.
A loop switcher can be an especially useful tool when putting together a pedalboard, or even just adding a new stompbox to the mix. Signal paths can be auditioned to see how pedals will interact together before committing them to Velcro. I find it is also super fun and handy to use a switcher when doing sound explorations and, ultimately, in my writing and recording processes. There are so many more options sound-wise, depending on how effects are ordered. The rather simple unit I made allows for quick changes, which helps me economize my time. In fact, it’s so useful that I have one living full-time on my pedalboard, in a really accessible spot, so I can plug and unplug on the fly if something isn’t working out sound-wise.
Fancier loop-switching devices can have true bypass switching, buffers, lots of sends and returns, knobs, signal paths routed any which way.... The options are nearly endless. Plenty of pedal builders out there can build custom units for a reasonable price, tailored to anyone’s specific taste. You might even go the rackmounted, pro-audio hardware route if you want to get extra fancy!
There are several different commercial A/B loop switcher units available that are on the simpler end of the spectrum, like the JHS Switchback A/B Effects Loop Switcher ($102 street) and the MXR M196 A/B Box Pedal ($59 street). The EarthQuaker Devices Swiss Things Pedalboard Reconciler ($249 street) is an awesome utility pedal with a few more helpful options. My absolute favorite simple go-to is the Boss LS-2 Line Selector Pedal ($113 street). It’s got a small footprint and does all the basics. Plus, it’s Boss, so it’s built like a tank. Mine has survived 20 years of abuse so far.
Whether you are a fan of effects loops or not, they can be useful tools.
Some pedals sound totally different when inserted into an effects loop instead of being inserted directly in line. It’s really informative to be able to hear those differences. I feel like a whole new world opened up to me when I started using the LS-2. Some of my favorite sounds that I have been able to create came from putting pedals in the loop that normally get chained up in line directly. Give it a try! And for those who DIY, check out Beavis Audio Research’s awesome site. There are several different iterations to build.
Quick Hit: RJM Mastermind LT Review
An affordable, high-quality, and easy-to-use MIDI controller that isn’t the size of Saskatchewan.
Pedalboards are growing. Interest in better controlling them is blossoming, too, which means increasing diversity in cost and complexity of switching systems. The MIDI-enabled Mastermind LT is from the streamlined school of switcher design, but simplicity conceals a flexible, potent device. Our test LT came on a board with MIDI-enabled effects like the Eventide H9 and Strymon TimeLine, so we could explore the ease of accessing, storing, and recalling presets from pedals with deep functionality.
The interface is simple and elegant in execution and practice. The display is easy to read in just about any light. Better still, programming presets (you can create as many as 768 using up to 16 connected devices) is simple, logical, and easy to swing on the fly if you discover new sounds at soundcheck or practice. And the contrasting worlds you can create and navigate using just a few MIDI-enabled pedals are impressive. The tag of $399 isn’t cheap, given that you also need to purchase a loop switcher (ours came with RJM’s $349 Mini Effect Gizmo). But if you want a switcher with a smaller footprint, the easy-to-use LT is a high-quality and highly creative tool.
Test gear: Fender Champ, Fender Jaguar, pedalboard featuring Strymon Mobius, Strymon TimeLine, Eventide H9, Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini, Xotic SP Compressor, Mooer Juicer, and Mission Engineering Expression Pedal.
High quality. Easy to navigate.
Slightly expensive given lack of loop switcher.
RJM Mastermind LT
Ease of Use:
Boss MS-3 Review
A handy solution that combines pro-level switching with analog flexibility.
Gone are the days when you either needed to be a touring pro or the benefactor of a trust fund to have a fancy loop-based effect switching system. Over the last few years, loop switchers have become smaller, more affordable, and exponentially more powerful than those fridge-sized rack systems that were everywhere in the ’80s. We now have the Boss MS-3, a new multi-effects switcher that does quite a bit more than just saving you from tap dancing all over your pedalboard.
Tones in the Machine
The MS-3 is more than just a loop switcher. It is a multi-effects unit that sports three independent loops. Inside the MS-3 are over 100 different types of effects that range from the expected overdrive, delay, and reverb to the more specialized (and fun!) Boss-designed Tera Echo and Slicer. The idea is that you can loop in three of your favorite—or most essential—pedals and let the MS-3 cover anything else you might need. Handy, right?
Remember, we’re asking these minicomputers to do quite a bit of manipulation to the audio path, so forge ahead with an open mind and don’t get discouraged with turning knobs and exploring menus. I did find the free editor/librarian software infinitely easier than editing via the control panel.
The top panel of the MS-3 is rather simple, considering the power packed inside. There are five footswitches for moving through the various banks of presets, three knobs to control different effects parameters, and five buttons for navigating the menus and organizing the effects. When you fire the unit up, you enter memory mode, where each of four switches along the front activates an entirely new preset, and hitting the two on the left or right allows you to move through the banks. Underneath the three knobs sits a row of small lights that tell which effects and loops are engaged. This doesn’t indicate the order of the effects, which is an important distinction.
Tons of effects. Very good modulation tones. Rather small learning curve for a programmable switcher.
Can’t reorder the loops. Some distortion and overdrive tones are lackluster.
Ease of Use:
Prep Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Bringing a loop-switching system to gig isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. You need to prepare. After careful deliberation, I decided to bring my Strymon Mobius and Truetone Route 66 Overdrive/Compressor along with the MS-3. Since you can’t change the order of the loops in the MS-3, I put the Mobius in loop 3, the compressor side of the Route 66 in loop 1, and the overdrive in loop 2. Once the loops are in place, you can customize how all the internal effects flow around your physical pedals. With a simple turn of the knob you can move delay before reverb, add in an octave pedal, or even throw a harmonizer in the mix after a compressor. Moving the effects around in the signal chain to experiment was surprisingly easy and fun.
I setup four presets: clean tone with a bit of compression and reverb, crunchy distortion with a switchable phaser via the Mobius, an overdriven lead sound from the Route 66 with a bit of delay, and a rockabilly-style slapback setting. (Disclaimer: The audio examples included with this review only use the MS-3’s tones.) Immediately, I was pleased with the reverbs and delays in the MS-3. The tape delay was gritty in just the right spots and the plate reverbs are just metallic enough. Naturally, there are far more effects and preset slots than you’d ever need on a gig, but it just gives you comfort to know they are there, right? For example, there are 21 different types of overdrive and distortions available within the MS-3 that range from a simple clean boost to muff-style dirt. The higher-gain flavors tended to feel a bit more authentic to my ears and less digital sounding. I especially dug the octave fuzz setting. Bonus: Each overdrive and distortion setting has a dedicated boost feature and a direct level control to blend your dry signal.
The combination of multi-effects unit and switcher isn’t an entirely new concept, but the MS-3’s mix of affordability, flexibility, and quality gives it a leg up. Add in the myriad output and function controls in the back and it becomes hard to find an I/O setup that the MS-3 couldn’t slip into. The wealth of effects and routing options, not to mention the MIDI and expression control features, is an engaging mix that can lead to a rabbit hole of experimentation and discovery.
Watch the review demo: