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December 17, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»effects

The Other Kind of Loop

I enjoyed writing about the Loop Junky and DOD Envelope pedals from my collection last month. I think I'll keep doing it every now and then. I don't own any really amazing or exotic hardware, but I find that there's a shortage of decent commentary on non-boutique effects. Most of the discussion on them is at places like Harmony Central, a site that illustrates both the best and worst of crowd-sourcing, and could provide months of mockery (sample quote: "Even though i just tried it out in the store i can tell that it's not reliable." Someone get that man an engineering job!).

So if we're going to add to the Internet's collective wisdom on entry-level stompboxes, why not start with the one pedal that makes no noise on its own, that few people would consider, but should be one of the building blocks for any compulsive pedal-purchaser: the Boss LS-2.

The LS-2 is basically a foot-switchable, floor-mounted, battery-powered mixer. It's hard to understand the appeal of such a thing until you've used one--what's the point of a pedal that just connects other pedals? Leave the mixing to the sound guy! But the LS-2 isn't really just a mixer. It's a swiss army knife for musicians. It solves problems. And when you buy effects on a budget, you usually find yourself with problems that need solving.

Say you've got a pedal that's got a fantastic tone, but it creates a dip in volume: leave it running through the LS-2 with the mix gain up, and swap its loop in instead of activating it directly. Alternately, you've got a pedal that sounds great when cranked, but you want it to have that sound at unity gain: the LS-2 can act as a trim for it. Noisy pedals can be isolated in the same way. Your distortion (or other effect) doesn't have a wet/dry mix control: now it does. You want to be able to bring in multiple effects with one step, mixed together at arbitrary volumes: no problem, it can do that too. Multiple instruments into one amp (switched or mixed), selective multi-amp output, muting continous effects without halting them, or just quick volume presets, it's a versatile device. The one thing I haven't been able to figure out so far is how to get it to swap a pedal from one place to another in a signal chain, but it's probably possible somehow.

Of course, you can also use the LS-2 for its original purpose of routing signals from one place to another, and that's a valuable education in its own right. After all, having lots of effects is easy--it just requires too much money. But using them effectively means learning how to order them, and how to bring them in and out of the chain for a musical purpose. That's a lot harder to learn, yet it's a skill that's emphasized over and over again in audio. Unlike video or graphics production, which (in my opinion) stresses the composition of distinct elements as layers, audio is about basic operations processed in series and parallel, resulting in a final mix. Experiment with the LS-2, and you'll have a head start on thinking about production and synthesis.

My favorite routing use for the LS-2 is as pedalboard master controller. The ability to swap entire effects loops in and out basically gives you the instant complexity of multieffects patches combined with the flexibility and accessibility of individual stompboxes. For example, I used to run the MXR Bass DI+ and a chorus on the A loop, and a second distortion into an envelope on the B loop. By turning the pedals inside each loop on and off, and then switching between them, I could get from clean sounds to combinations instantly, or even switch between two very different signal chains, just like changing a patch--and yet, I still had all the knobs right in front of me for on-the-fly adjustments. It's the poor man's M13.

There are two things that are good to know when planning signal chains with the LS-2. First, the gain controls are on the return side of the chain, which is as it should be--otherwise it would be impossible to boost or cut volume-sensitive effects like distortion or envelope. Second, the send and return sides don't technically have to form a circuit: the active loop dictates where the input signal goes and which return is routed to the output, but they only have to connect if you want them to. The cases in which they don't are a relative minority, true, but they're useful edge cases regardless. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine using it to patch in a drum machine that lacks passthrough inputs, or to feed a recorder/house mix at an arbitrary point in the chain (say, before any reverb). Sure, there are better tools for doing that kind of thing, and if you have them handy, you should use them.

But if you don't... well, that's why you have the LS-2. It's the MacGyver of guitar pedals. It solves problems and makes useful stompboxes even more useful. And that's why it's one of the few items in my box o' gear that I would instantly replace if it were unavailable.

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