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
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
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
- 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
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.
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
- 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.