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Expanding your tonal options with expression pedals

Expression pedals from M-Audio, Boss and Moog.
In this new age of digitally controlled processors, guitarist have the ability to craft sounds that morph and can be manipulated in real time. Unfortunately, most guitarists tend to be very traditional and “static” in their use of effects, often ignoring this ability. My aim here is to help guide you toward the creation of an expanded sonic landscape that will focus on floor-based or rackmounted multi-effects units. There are also stompboxes that allow for control voltage (CV) or expression control (exp), like the Moog Moogerfooger series, the Electro-Harmonix HOG, the Boss DD-7 delay, and the modeler series from Line 6.

Same as It Ever Was
Let’s start by looking at a typical effects lineup in a typical tune: a clean sound for intro and verse with compressor, chorus, delay, and reverb; then a crunch sound for the bridge with light effects, giving way to bone-dry heavy distortion for the chorus; then a saturated sound for the solo with delay and maybe a wah. You can insert any style of music or reverse the order so the verse is heavy and chorus is clean. Like many players, you can be even more “static,” leaving the same effects on from the beginning to the end of a song. In a word, it’s dull. No matter where you go in the world, it’s likely that the effects will be connected in the same order and will probably even have similar settings. Often, there isn’t a real connection between the effects and the dynamics of the tune; they’re just on or off. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Open up to a New World
If your effects device has an exp/CV pedal built in or a jack to accept such a control pedal, there’s a whole big world available to you, gentle reader. A control pedal looks just like a wah or volume pedal, but it can be assigned to control parameters such as wet/ dry balance, rate, depth, etc. Some control pedals are made of plastic and are dedicated to expression. Others are heavy-duty metal with an expression jack and can double as audio devices (also doing wah or volume, for example), or they’re multi-purpose kitchen-sink wonders, like my current favorite, the Moog MP201. Many players are good with one control pedal; some assign one for volume, one for wah, one for the effects parameters. With the Moog I use, I managed to get rid of four separate pedals, since I can select functions or assignments from the front panel.

To access parameter control in a multi-effect, you usually have to dig into the effects menu, a MIDI control menu, or sometimes a global menu. There you assign parameters and ranges to the effects you want to control, and also tell the unit which of the pedals it should react to in order to allow the changes to be heard.

So, we have the tools, what now?
Let’s take our example’s effects chain and develop it a bit. The control options range from as simple as straight volume control to controlling as many parameters as the effects unit(s) will allow to be accessed simultaneously. For example, you could set things up so the heel-down position on your control pedal is a completely unaltered tone, then program the chorus, delay, and reverb balance to become more prominent as the toe goes down. You could also use a control pedal to go from a clean, swirly, delayed sound with the heel down to a dry, heavily distorted sound at the toe-down position. We could go from multiple effects in control to none. Effects balance is just the beginning: vibrato depth, flanger feedback, and delay time are among a few of the possibilities. You could also add psycho-acoustic animation via panning or tremolo to provide subtleties that aren’t as in your face as the time domain or modulation effects. The combinations are endless—it really only depends on what your gear supports or provides—and can be as subtle or radical as your imagination will allow.

Note that the effects don’t have to change settings in response to the control pedal in unison. Some (like compression) may not be altered at all when you move the pedal. Regardless of the combination, anywhere in the pedal travel is a slightly more or less effected combination, which is much more sonically interesting and not at all static. For a more expansive rig, consider using a MIDI floor controller and multiple effects units. Even in this case, the principle is exactly the same: you’re assigning a control pedal to allow parameters to be changed in real time, as you’re playing. With more gear, it just requires a few more buttons pushes and menu assignments. And if you don’t want to use a control pedal, some devices allow your playing dynamics to alter effects parameters. Devices like the Korg KAOSS pad even give you control via your fingertips.

Check out David Torn, The Edge, Robert Fripp, Vernon Reid, Oz Noy, Matt Bellamy, and Henry Kaiser for examples of this non-static tonal style. Then crack those manuals and check the user forums to download presets for your gear and get tweaking!

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