Are you sick of tap dancing on your effect/stomp boxes while you are playing a show, when you would much rather be focusing on playing and performing? In this post, I will attempt to explain how you can literally automate all of your effect changes for your live show.

I’ll draw from my own experience in how I automated all of my effect changes for an entire live set’s worth of songs.

(Note: this can apply to any instrument, even voice, as long as your effects have a method of being controlled via MIDI commands.)

First thing is first: do you need to automate? I’m personally a fan of the different effects one can acheive when using signal processing and effects on my guitar signal. For most of the bands I play in, I have a different set of effects per song. I sometimes like to switch between different channels of my guitar amp as well, depending on what part I’m playing. Basically, a good way to determine this is if you have to switch multiple effects and amp channels on and off at the same time. It is absolutely possible to do manually, but you literally have to plan out your effect changes. For me, it’s no fun having to think about the part that is coming up and prepare to switch over in steps (ex., because I have to switch delay 1 off, switch on delay 2 and some reverb and change my amp channel to clean in a matter of a couple of seconds or faster). If you are dealing with all of this there is a big chance that you could benefit from automating your effect changes.

There are a number of ways to achieve this, but the most simple and least expensive option is to use one or two main effect processors; plan out your effect changes, load up your favorite midi sequencer and map out each of your songs to a click track. Then, you can sequence all of the required MIDI commands for your effect changes per song. (I’m OCD about this in a major way – I even have my sequencer triggering my guitar tuner for periods of downtime that I’m not playing).

Important: the only way to make this work correctly is if you sequence your song to a click track – which means you need to establish a static (or dynamic) tempo per song. Finally, your drummer needs to play along to this click so that all of your changes are automated.

In addition to automating effect processors and pedals with MIDI, there is also the option of automating amp channel changes as well via using switching systems. You can do seriously amazing things with some (somewhat) simple MIDI programming. The more complexity you have in terms of effect processors and switching systems will obviously add more complexity to your system, but the concept remains the same: pre-plan your effect changes, program your song tempos and then map all of your changes in via MIDI commands.

Before you start, you will have to figure out what your budget is for this, as that will determine the amount of programmability that you will ultimately have. For myself, I didn’t have the hugest budget (and most musicians don’t have much money to throw around.. but that’s a story for a different blog), which is why I only use a Line 6 M13 to handle all of my guitar effect processing. If you have the budget, you can control analog guitar effects with a switching system like the Rocktron Patchmate or SoundSculpture Switchblade. Those switching systems also can control your amp channel by using analog relay switching, which is also MIDI capable.

Planning out your live system

First of all, you need a solid platform to act as your sequencer/click track. I personally use a MacBook Pro, an old DigiDesign 002 rack, Pro Tools 10, and a MIDI cable to connect to my Line 6 M13 stomp box modeler. Your live system truly needs to be hardened and tested. When I first built my system out, I tested it for about a month, tweaking almost every aspect of the setup to perform flawlessly. The last thing you want is your system to fail mid set – but in the case that it does we will have a contingency plan!, which we’ll go more in depth below. Remember, always have a backup of your backup, and if worst comes to worst, know how to do a ‘manual override’.

Another question to ask is if anyone else in your live band could benefit from have automated effects. Something that I’ve been wanting to try out forever would be to automate live vocal effects. Additionally, in addition to automating effect processing, you can actually use MIDI to control a syncopated light show! The world is your oyster with this kind of setup. Especially if you are technologically inclined, this might be a very lucrative way to up the ante on your live show.

Research Your effects

What kind of MIDI capabilities do your effects have? Most effect processing units have a decent MIDI implementation. If you are using analog effects, you will have to go with a programmable effect loop switcher – basically a piece of hardware that takes your stomp boxes in and out of your effect loop depending on what kind of MIDI commands it receives. Some effect loop switchers have the ability to change your effect routing on the fly, and also have the ability to put your effects into your loop either parallel or serial. If parallel, you can then have the ability to adjust the ratio of wet/dry. Finally, what kind of control do you want to have? It is no fun automating absolutely everything! I recommend that you hook up (at minimum) two controller pedals so that you can perform with your effects (for example, you can setup the current part of your song to map one controller pedal to your delay mix and the other to your feedback amount. And that’s just a very basic example! The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and ingenuity).

Usually, by doing some basic research you can figure out what MIDI commands will turn on/off individual effects (usually MIDI control change messages) and how to change complete patches (usually MIDI program change messages).

Sequencing your effect changes

before you even get to programming your MIDI changes, make sure you have all of your effects and changes for each part all set up within your effect processor(s) (or if using analog stomp boxes, remember the effects that you used for different sections). This process can be done as you program your sequencer, but it’s easier having an idea of what you are going to program before you sit down to actually do it. Don’t forget any amp channel changes as well – if you are using an amp channel switcher, make sure to note the MIDI channel and control codes/program changes needed to switch your channels.

This is probably the most complicated and time consuming part of the process. Using your sequencer of choice, you need to figure out how to map each song out with tempos and click tracks, and sequence out all of your effect changes. I recommend doing this with your complete rig set up as you play along to each song. Go through each section of the song and program your MIDI effect changes accordingly for each section. Even think about when you could switch on your tuner – it makes life a lot easer when you don’t have to manually switch your tuner on. Trust me, after playing like this for a couple of times you won’t have to even think twice about tuning, you’ll just do it at the same place, every time, in and in between each song.

If this is your first time going through this process, trust me, it’s a pain in the ass at first. You are literally engineering your entire live show (well at least for your rig) – but in all seriousness, since everything will be on a click track you will have to make sure that the spacing and timing between songs is favorable to a good performance. If you can play your entire set from start to finish without stopping you will definitely have a really smooth running show.

Testing

Now that you have all of your effects sequenced out, it is time for testing! When I first started programming the set for my band, I initially used a PC laptop. It was really solid and reliable (so I thought); I tweaked the hell out of it and tested it under unfavorable gig-like conditions (heat, spilling beer, etc) and it stood up.

The real testing is, of course, practicing the set live with your band. You will definitely have to go back afterwards and reprogram a lot – I can guarantee you that. But once you’ve gone through the process a couple of times, your system should be ready for a real live performance.

Make sure to have a fallback effect ready to go just in case your entire systems craps out during your show. No matter how awesome technology may be, make sure to ALWAYS have a fallback plan.

Congratulations! You now have completely automated your effects. If you want to try this out and have any questions, please feel free to contact me @ scott [@] hackingthesound.com if you have any questions. I’m an absolute nerd when it comes to this stuff. Until then, enjoy and please spread the love!

PS. make sure to sign up for the Hacking The Sound mailing list to receive updates and future product offerings. I promise that I won’t harass you. ;)