A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, and music.

Impedance, Effect Pedals, and Sound Design

Posted: June 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear, music, sound design
pedalShelves

I favor discrete effects loops on rackmounted shelves, since I’m not a stomping-on-stage kind of guy.

As evidenced by a few recent posts here on Noise Jockey, I think the most exciting way to use guitar-oriented effects pedals is thinking of them as modular synthesizer units. (Indeed, it’s no accident that many boutique pedal makers are now issuing Eurorack versions of their stompboxes.) My workflow usually involves recording signals dry, then running them through the effects as sends. This gives me maximum control when composing, designing, and mixing. I keep my pedals in two distinct loops: One for sculpting and distorting tone, and one for filtering and modulation.

However, just sending signals out to pedals as effect sends from an audio interface doesn’t always work very well. Most effect pedals expect guitars at their front door, not synths, virtual instruments, samples, or field recordings. Most guitars with passive pickups, of course, are high-impedance instrument-level signals, not low-impedance line-level signals that one would expect from hardware synths, virtual instruments, or pre-recorded tracks that are coming back out via an audio interface. This can mean that the effect return might be extremely low, distorted, or noisy/hissy, depending on the signal and what specific pedals are in the effects chain.

So, there are basically two ways to address this problem.

  • Use pedals that natively support line-level signals. This usually leads one to higher-end pedals like the Moogerfoogers, and they can be expensive. Rackmount multi-effect units often handle line inputs just fine, but many of those units are also expensive and, in my experience, lack the character and flexibility of a more modular approach of individual pedals. My bigger issue with this approach is that it seems silly to limit one’s creativity based on the vagaries of electrical engineering.
  • Use a device in the effects chain to properly match impedances of the sent signal to the effects in the chain. This approach gives the designer, artist, musician, or engineer the best balance of creative freedom while correct managing signal level to optimize frequency response, gain, and noise levels.

DI (direct injection) boxes won’t solve this problem, since they usually output at microphone level – still a high impedance signal. No, dear friends, what you really want is a re-amping device, a box that takes any pre-recorded signal and sends it to a guitar amp or effects chain as a high impedance signal. These are as expensive as decent effect pedals themselves, but worth their weight in gold to treat your audio right and send any signal to any effect. A most egalitarian piece of electronic equipment. Many reamp devices exist, even as 500 series modules!

But remember my two-loop effects chain? Ostensibly I’d need a re-amp on each chain; that sounded expensive. Or so I thought, until I discovered the Pigtronix Keymaster.

keymaster

There is no impedance, only Zuul.

Besides the obvious bonus of being named after a Ghostbusters reference, the Keymaster has two dedicated re-amping loops, each with a send and return and individual loop output gain knobs. PERFECT. Heck, it even sports XLR I/O for the fancy lads and lasses. As an added weird bonus, it actually has a crossfader between each loop, should one want to switch between the two in real time. While I have used this myself musically, most of the time this large green and white box stays in the back of my effects back near my  power supply, silently channeling and impedance-matching my dry signals into mangled layers of noisy glory.

Many other re-amping boxes exist, and single-channel units are cheaper, but for maximum creative weirdness and flexibility, the Keymaster has become the core of my externalized sound design and musical effects chain, even when it’s simply a silent partner in making noisy things happen. Heck, it even  lets me run them in serial or parallel, and freed up some I/O plugs on my patchbay and audio interface.

So, if you’re interested in experimenting with effects pedals and stomp boxes as external effects devices, grab a re-amping box and hit eBay or your local guitar shop in search of fun stompboxy goodness. We’re in a golden era of boutique audio hardware creation, so there’s no better time to experiment with literally out-of-the-box noisemaking.

Today’s sound is an extremely simple drum loop, but using a bunch of effect pedals, all managed through the Keymaster. First you’ll hear a rhythmic start with just a Dwarfcraft Robot Devil pedal, with only its starved circuit creating the rhythm, being run through a Red Panda Particle pedal set on delay. Then you’ll hear a hi-hat run through a Snazzy FX Wow and Flutter pedal. A dry kick drum then starts, and the snare eventually gets the Red Panda Particle treatment as a super-wet granular delay.

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Windy Chaos

Posted: June 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

garage

It’s been an inordinately windy spring, even for the infamously windy San Francisco area. A previous post captured the sound of my fence swaying in heavy winds, and recently I discovered that my garage door not only creaks and groans in heavy winds, parts of it start vibrating.

So, into the garage with my MKH 50 I went…this high-pitched hiss in the background are leaves on a camphor tree just on the other side of the door. (I freely admit that while I was using a mid-side pair during recording and, ummm, well…I only had one track on my Sound Devices 702 armed to record. Sounded great in mid-side, but ya know what? You get to hear it in glittering, stunning mono!)

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Guitar Pedal Rentals from EffectOrDie

Posted: June 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: gear

eod1
I’ve been rekindling my relationship with outboard sound devices…the tactility, oddness, instability, and organic nature sometimes either can’t be reproduced by a plugin, or no self-respecting coder would choose to emulate such strange circuits, so virtual equivalents don’t exist. When buying such devices, sure, we all check online for demo videos and the like…but many of these devices are deep. Even testing one for an hour in a shop won’t really unveil its true potential…if the shop even has it in stock, given how the best sonic manglers are made by fiercely independent makers. And then what? You’re really going to bring a laptop to a guitar shop to test a Kontakt patch through a fuzzbox? Or your field recording of a dawn chorus through a delay pedal?

Remember, too, that some film sound design has been done using effect pedals, like (the great-sounding but otherwise forgettable) Terminator: Salvation.

This is where rentals come in handy. My recent searches for strange effect pedals led me to discover Mike Galen’s company, Effect or Die. After having purchased a couple of pedals, he pointed out that they have an effects rental program, and invited me to give it a try. I took him up on his offer, and took the opportunity to do some research into effect pedal rentals.What follows is a result of my trial, and my research into renting such equipment. To be clear and transparent: Effect or Die provided me with a free rental period in order to test the service.

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Creaks in the Wind

Posted: June 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects
bbCmic01

Contact mics are bloomin’ fun.

They say that wind in the San Francisco Bay Area doesn’t blow, it sucks. Actually, that’s physically accurate.

When California’s Central Valley heats up, the Sierra Nevada mountain range prevents the air from moving east, so it goes straight up. The cool, heavy air from the western coast then rushes in to fill the gap. This is what causes San Francisco’s famed summer winds and fog, creating summers that feel colder than winters.

Depending on what you’re trying to record, this can be a blessing or a curse. When I saw part of my fence moving about in 15-20 knot winds, I figured something interesting was happening. I could hear some subtle creaking, but if my ears were hearing it, I figured more was going on beneath the surface.

Windy days, of course, are great times to pull out the contact microphones. (Coincidentally, Tim Prebble just announced his second contact microphone sound library at the time of this writing.) No windscreens, no infrasound distortion, nothing. When I placed my contact mic on a fencepost, I got not only wood creaks, but the strain of metal wires tied into the fence to promote upwards growth of roses and vines. This added a metallic overtone that’s quite interesting.

It feels evocative of the strains and groans of a ship heaving at sea, or a castle gate straining under the weight of many warriors or beasts of war (recorded as always at 192khz, this kind of material sounds great pitch shifted -2 octaves). It’s been nice to get back to the world of contact microphones! Posted with no processing whatsoever, so you can actually hear some nearby windchimes in the background if you listen carefully, whose vibrations must have been picked up by the planks in the fence.

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