Pedals In The Studio
'Guitar-style' effects pedals are frowned upon by conscientious recordists but, surprisingly, some can yield very good results as we discovered.
The use of 'guitar style' effects pedals as studio signal processors is often frowned upon, but some units yield surprisingly good results. Technical Editor Paul White weighs up the pros and cons.
In general, guitar effects pedals are designed with a high input impedance and a reasonably low output impedance which means that they can be pressed into service at the sort of line levels encountered in budget mixers (-10dB).
The output from a powerful guitar pickup may well peak at levels higher than this so there is adequate headroom to accommodate transients without incurring distortion, providing that the levels are sensibly set.
This presents the first real problem as these pedals have no sort of level metering so you will have to do a few tests to see exactly how much signal level you can handle without distortion. If you have a conventional mixer with VU meters, you can feed a pure tone from a synth or test oscillator into the pedal via the mixer whilst monitoring the pedal output. By increasing the signal level until distortion is heard, the meter reading can be noted and used as a future guide.
If you don't have such comprehensive metering facilities, you can do a similar check with the device connected into the effects send and return loop of the mixer and then noting the position of the send controls at the onset of clipping. This test should be done after optimising the channel gain control, and your subsequent use of the send level control should allow a healthy safety margin to prevent distortion occurring during transients.
As an aid to memory, try writing down the relevant settings on a sticky label and fixing it to the bottom of each effects pedal.
As all good Ben Duncan fans will know, careless earthing of mains powered equipment can result in some pretty nasty hum problems, but if you use battery power, all these problems are neatly side-stepped.
That being said, it might therefore be a good idea to invest in a few NiCad PP3 replacements and a mains charger. You don't, of course, need reminding to always check that the batteries are in good condition before you start recording, so I won't mention it - OK!
Some pedals are ideally suited to studio use whilst others are equally unsuitable, but whatever you use, make sure that it is a good quality, low noise pedal such as a Boss or other reputable make.
These devices are designed to directly follow a guitar and are not really suited to use as a processor directly connected to the mixing desk. They rely on the limited frequency response of guitar speakers to mellow up the sound and tend to make an unpleasant gritty noise when heard through full range studio monitors.
Though not generally useful in this context, some misguided youth is bound to like the sound and use it. Each to his own, as they say.
These utilise a fairly short delay to produce the required effect and consequently have a respectable bandwidth. The better models have built-in noise reduction making them very suitable for studio use.
A dynamic stereo effect is easily created by splitting the signal and panning the dry version hard to one side of the stereo image and the treated version hard to the other side. If the levels are balanced, the overall effect is of depth and movement, and is particularly suited to bass, guitar or virtually any type of keyboard.
The same comments apply here as apply to the chorus pedal, though some modulation sweep noise is generally evident at high settings of the feedback control.
This is only an embarrassment during silent sections and so the ideal solution is to put a noise gate directly after the flanger, setting the gate release time just long enough to accommodate the natural decay of the programme material.
The poor man's solution is to use less feedback or to manually shut down the channel gain during silent sections. The noise level produced by different makes of flanger varies so much that it really pays to buy a good one.
The use of the flanger also extends to vocals and drums but as flanging is quite a dramatic effect, it should be used sparingly. Surprisingly, analogue flangers often produce better results than digital ones!
Although these are generally quiet enough for semi-pro recording, the limited bandwidth (between 3 and 4kHz) gives them a rather dull, lifeless sound whilst the maximum delay time on offer is usually restricted to around 300ms or so.
At a pinch, they can be used to fatten up the sound of vocals, but a good tape or digital echo will give much better results.
These are generally too sensitive for use at line levels and should not therefore be purchased if you only intend to use them for recording at home. Having said that, if you already own one, it can be pressed into service providing that you keep the input level fairly low or pad it down with a couple of resistors.
For satisfactory results, the models featuring a variable decay time are essential but again, the fixed decay type (such as the old MXR gate) can be used successfully on short transient sounds such as individual drums.
You'll know if your gate is too sensitive, because even at its least sensitive setting, the background noise alone will be sufficient to open the gate. Bad news I'm afraid.
Like the noise gates, these are too sensitive for line level use, so you will need to pad down the input with a couple of resistors (or a potentiometer - value about 50k) and then make up the output level by increasing the mixer channel gain.
As there is usually no sort of metering, you'll have to go largely by ear when setting levels, but these pedal units can be used to even out vocal tracks without any serious side effects.
A good compressor is really one of the first things that you need to consider buying after a reverb unit, so aim to get a proper studio compatible device as soon as possible.
The rack compressor-limiter featured in Paul Williams' project series (HSR January 85) offers amazing flexibility for a very modest outlay and is easy to assemble if you are capable of basic, neat soldering.
The only pedal units of this type that I am currently aware of are the Boss DD2 and the JHS Big Foot. If you own either of these, you will be able to obtain good results without any difficulty.
The advantage over analogue delay is the increased delay time and wider bandwidth, offering the opportunity to create really clean sounding delay effects.
There are other pedals such as phasers or miniature graphic equalisers which can be usefully employed in the home studio if you already own them, but if you are looking for new equipment, always buy the best that you can afford and always buy something that's designed for the job in hand. This way, you won't be trying to trade in unsatisfactory gear only a short time after buying it.
Still, the motto 'If you've got it, use it!' is as true as ever, so try out your pedal collection and you might be pleasantly surprised.