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August 16, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»digital

My pedalboard is hyperthreaded

You start with the small stuff: the bundled plug-ins for Krystal, or maybe trying to find a better Audacity reverb. Then you get your hands on a real recording interface, which comes with a basic commercial DAW--Ableton Live Lite, or Cubase LE. The rush goes right to your head, especially when you stumble onto KVR Audio. Thousands of VST plugins, for free! Reverbs! Distortion! Even MIDI-controlled soft-synths. They make 12-step programs for those.

Still, you tell yourself you're just doing a little recording. You can stop any time you want--you just don't want to.

But one day you realize that these plugins are running in real-time--that they don't have to be applied to pre-recorded audio. They could even be used like guitar pedals--but cheaper, and all contained in a laptop. You find yourself researching virtual pedalboard technology until two in the morning.

Trust me, I know. And I'm your enabler, kids.

Is it actually a good idea to switch from standalone pedals to VST effects for an instrument signal chain? It depends on your circumstances. Virtual Studio Technology has many of the advantages of multieffects boxes--it's extremely tweakable, flexible, and cheap. It even has a step up in modularity--unlike a Digitech RP-100 or similar box, if you don't like a VST distortion, you can just replace it. There are plenty to choose from. And there are lots of specialized VST plugins that you can't really get in a stompbox form, like bitcrushers and vinyl simulators. Imagine it as a build-your-own multi-fx kit.

On the other hand, you might not actually be saving any space or money. You need a laptop, an interface, and some kind of controller (unless you plan on pecking away at the keyboard while you play, which I don't recommend). At least one of those probably has to be on wall power. Reliability could be a concern: the OS probably won't crash, but the plugins or their host might. The tools are complex--a lot of them are designed almost like an analog synth. And of course, you get to be the dork with the laptop onstage.

If you decide to give it a shot, remember that you don't need top-of-the-line hardware to run VST effects. It's always nice to have more power, but I've run multiple plugins without noticeable latency on a 366 Celeron laptop. Having a good sound driver is much more important than your processor speed if you're just going to use four or five effects.

Obviously, the question for me is not "can it be done?" but "can it be done cheap?" The answer is a reserved maybe. The effects may be free, but you need a VST host program to run them, and you need to be able to bypass them individually. That seems to be easier said than done. I've spent some time searching, and here's what I've found:

  • If you've bought a keyboard or a cheap recording interface in the last year, you probably own a copy of Ableton Live or Cubase LE. Cubase isn't worth it--my experience with the bundled version was that it introduced unnecessary latency into effected monitoring. Ableton Live Lite is a great program, but it only supports one VST on a track at a time, and it requires modern hardware to run properly. You can get around the former limitation by using either MultiFXVST (seems more flexible, free) or Chainer, (much more stable and supported, $60). But loading Ableton just to run a plugin or two is kind of overkill.
  • For the same performance-oriented philosophy, but geared less toward tracking and more toward hosting, I've heard really good things about Forte. It's not a recording/looping/whatever tool like Ableton, but was originally designed to be a complete multi-set software synth host. I know several people are using Guitar Rig or Amplitube with it. It's not free, but at $129 it's not outrageously expensive, either, and the MIDI control and routing options are formidable.
  • On the other hand, Niall's Pedal Board is completely free, and if you can get past its goofy-looking interface it allows for MIDI-controlled bypass of individual effects, even if they don't offer a bypass option themselves. This really is like using a pedalboard--there are no presets or fancy routing options--but the price is right and the functionality is hard to find anywhere else. It also includes joystick input, in case you're like me and you can't stop hooking dance pads up to your laptop.
  • Finally, a conditionally-free option is DSound's RT Player Express. I say conditionally, because it's a free download to anyone who owns an M-Audio sound card (including the low-end USB Jamlab and FastTrack units). A lot of people already own these, so it might be a good deal for them. It only supports 4 VST plugins at a time, but you can probably fool it the same way as Ableton, using another plugin to subhost multiple effects. If you have a qualifying sound card, this may be your best choice. Otherwise, I'd probably recommend Niall's Pedal Board, which should be able to handle most VSTs without crashes.
  • Once you've got a host, you need effects. A good place to start is the SimuAnalog Guitar Suite, which claims to actually model the physical signals for several vintage pedals and amps. It's free and includes a Tube Screamer, two Boss distortions (SD1 and DS1), a phaser, and a Marshall amp. Sadly, they don't have a bypass option for host control, so you'll need a host that can do this for them.
  • CamelCrusher does have its own MIDI learn function, so it can be used with hosts even if they don't handle automation. Comes with distortion, tone filter, and a compressor.
  • And of course, I have to include a looper. Loopy Llama has an awkward control setup, but the loop functionality is excellent, including undo, wet/dry output, Frippertronics-style fading, and tempo sync. It also has its own independent MIDI control capability, including the ability to trigger from note or CC messages. If you have enough switches on your controller to handle it, this is probably the best loop plugin available. Hard to believe it's free.
  • For more plugins in all kinds of flavors, be sure to search KVR Audio, a huge database of software. There are lots of options I found there that I didn't include here because I thought they were too awkward or they're inappropriate for this specific task, but you might find a use for them.

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