Pedals, Cables, and Routing (Oh my!)
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
This post was supposed to be the end of the "TripTik" about my journey with Reaper. (Click bait working title: "I tried Reaper and you won't believe what happened next!") However a discussion with a group of friends prompted this quick post.
It started when my pal posted this question/comment:
So did any of you actually buy the "patch bay for your effects?" Still rethinking my approach to multiple effects on multiple keys, at the same time: 7-8 synths, as many or more pedals, etc.
...Currently have one effect or two per synth, blending into a sub mixer, rather than all the fx in line
...I like the effect of each synth having different delay or verbs, etc., but I'm in cable hell.
Back in October 2021, I wrote a quick piece on my approach to this. What I want to do here is provide more detail.
So towards the end of 2021 I got interested in pedals in a big way. I acquired quite a few in the latter half of the year. My main interest is applying them to non-guitar sources - synths and cello. As I accumulated more of them a couple of challenges immediately presented themselves.
The first was gain staging. You see, some pedals can handle both line and mic level signals. Many expect only mic level signals, and line level signals easily cause distortion. (Refer back to my earlier article to see how I addressed this issue.)
The second challenge involved signal routing. How could I hook all of this stuff up in a way that made sense and didn't drive me nuts? In any set up I wanted to be able to
Have everything connected at all times
Have everything available independently
Reconfigure pedal order on the fly easily
As I wrote previously, half of the answer was a patch bay. The other half are the external hardware effects plugins available in most DAWs.
How to Set Up a Patch Bay
I'll leave some links to original source articles at the end of this post. The diagram below shows what I did for my current set up.
It looks a lot more complicated than it actually is. Just think of the patch bay as a way to bring the 1/4" jacks on the back of your interface out to "front and center" to make them easy to reach.
Inserts or Sends: With External Hardware Plugins the Choice is Yours
This is where the fun part begins. Once you have the external effects on discrete channels in your interface, you can also use them as plugins in your DAW. There are several advantages to this. Automatic PDC (plugin delay compensation) is available in most DAWs; you can change the order of effects on the fly; you can use the external hardware as direct inserts on specific channels/tracks or set them up on efx busses; you can try some wild routing exercises (for the experimentalists out there), etc. Let me give an example of a couple of these.
External Hardware EFX as Internal Sends
Once these hardware effects are encapsulated as plugins, you can put them on dedicated efx busses in your DAW. Below is an example from Studio One.
Note that each hardware unit has a unique plugin delay compensation amount calculated.
External EFX as Channel/Track Inserts
This one is the most fun. Below is an example of the external effects being used as track inserts in Bitwig Studio.
In this rather extreme example, five external effects are applied to this track. Each has delay compensation calculated as before. The fun starts when you begin re-ordering these freely. Want to put the Zen Delay before the Microcosm? Easy: Drag and drop it. Don't like it? Drag it back...without ever touching a cable.
Also, it's easier to gain stage from one plugin to the other. In the above example, I dropped a utility plugin (A) into the efx chain to boost the level of the signal flowing into the H9. Very easy.
And lastly, don't forget that you can use regular VST plugins in combination with your hardware very easily.
Closing Thoughts...and a Few Things to Keep in Mind
This is huge my friends. With the above set up, you don't have to touch cables or constantly change your wiring. (Unless you want to swap out some pedals or synth modules.)
Keep in mind a couple of things:
Although you can have multiple instances of a particular external hardware plugin in your project, you still usually have only the one actual hardware effect. If you try to use multiple instances of an external effect plugin on multiple tracks simultaneously, all of the audio sent to the plugin will be returned on all tracks with that plugin. In effect, you would create a massive buss track and weird phasing and other issues can pop up. This could lead to some wild results but, if that isn't what you are after, it means that you need to print your tracks as you go if you want to re-use an external effect.
If you are going to use an external effect as an insert, pay close attention to the DAW's 'Mix' knob for the effect as well as the physical mix knob on the effect.
I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to leave a comment or question.