Living Outside The Box Born-Again Techo-Geek Renaissance Man

5Jun/140

MIDI Controllers: Not Just For Keyboards

I've been working on my new guitar pedalboard, with the idea to have a 1U rack space and two rows of pedals. This should give me more possibilities in less space than a monster controller pedal, using stuff I already have. However, with a rack effect unit (and even some pedals now), you need some way to control it.

(This picture is a bit different than it will look when finished, but you can see the 1U rack unit. The MIDI pedal will go where the Roland interface is in this pic)

Pedalboard

Next to go on the board is some sort of MIDI pedal that is capable of sending Program Change signals to the rack unit. Ultimately, I'd like one that does Program Change, Continuous Controller, and a tap-tempo MIDI clock. As far as I know (and I've researched it endlessly) I can get two of those features in a pedal, but not all three. It just doesn't exist as far as I know, outside of custom $1000 setups.

Well, if I had to choose between two of those features, one would have to be Program Change. And as far as MIDI clock tap-tempo, I only know of a few pedals that can do that. The cheapest and most flexible would probably be the Molten Voltage "Tempode" pedal. I also discovered that Molten Voltage offers a pedal with the same functionality, plus simple up/down program changes called the Master Control. For the price of a Rocktron MIDI Xchange, I can get the same functionality with tap-tempo MIDI clock and start/stop.

So, how exactly does this MIDI stuff work, and what do PC, CC, and MIDI Clock messages do, exactly? And why do you need them? It depends on what you have on your board, and how you want to control it. Lots of new effect pedals can use MIDI too, including ones from Boss, Strymon, TC Electronics, Line6, Eventide, and so on.

Program Change: Most decent multi-effect units can store more than one "program" or setting. They usually let you move back and forth between them, which gives you the option of having more than one sound or effect available. Most bigger units (and almost all rack units) will allow you to select which "program" to use by sending it a Program Change message. If you send it a "PC" message with the number 0, it will switch to the first "program" or sound preset. It's sort of like switching channels on an amplifier, but you can have 128 settings. PC changes can be on one of sixteen channels (0-15) which lets you send that controller's commands only to a specific piece of equipment.

Continuous Controller: These messages are continuously sent, and have two numbers: the controller #, and the controller value, which ranges from 0 to 127. If you've ever seen a pitch or mod wheel on a keyboard, that's a CC controller. These are used to change effect parameters on the fly. You can use MIDI CC commands to make an EQ into a wah, or change tremolo speed, delay time, reverb depth, etc. with a pedal or a switch. Some pedals let you assign switches to a CC command, which basically just toggles them from 0 to 127 and back. This actually works well for turning individual effects on or off without changing Programs. These messages also can be set to a specific channel, to go only to a certain piece of equipment if you want.

Let's say you have a rack unit like mine, and you can put tremolo, reverb, and delay all in one program. Well, that's awesome. But if you map a CC to the tremolo's "depth," you can essentially turn the tremolo off (by sending it a value of zero) without changing to a whole different sound. This is a very efficient way to manage effects, if you can find a controller that does it. This way you can have one program with multiple effects, instead of having eight presets for every different combination of effects. It basically lets you use the multi-fx units as stomboxes. You can also do crazy things with a CC pedal, like morph between sounds, and so forth.

MIDI Clock: This type of message is exactly what it sounds like. It sends a "clock" heartbeat that other MIDI devices can use to get tempo information from, as well as Start/Stop messages. Each quarter note beat has 24 clock "tick" messages. Now, before you shake your head and wonder what the use of that is, let me give you an illustration.

Let's say you like delay effects. You love The Edge and all those cool echoes? Well, how do you get the echoes to stay in time with the song you're playing? You could make a different Program for each tempo in each song... or you could use a MIDI clock to sync it all. Let's say, you play a few songs that require eighth-note echoes. You create one program with delay time set to 12 clocks (that's half a beat, an eighth note) and you can tap the tempo to change the actual delay time. Triplet delay? Set it to 16 clicks. Or, you could sync it to a backing track! Anything that can send a MIDI clock would work, like drum machines, sequencers, laptops, and a few hardware pedals.

Not a fan of delays? What about tremolos? Reverbs? You could even use MIDI clock to sync other effects like the Boss SL-20 Slicer, the Strymon Timeline, or use a Clock-to-Expression converter to automate your old-school effects to sync with the drumbeat... automatically. If you have a hardware pedal to generate a clock, it can also send Start/Stop messages, which let you control drum machines and sequencers too! Very slick stuff. You could have an entire performance set in a drum machine, and a matching set of effect programs, and trigger them all... perfectly in time... on the fly without needing your hands, while you play.

Clock commands are not channel-specific, they are broadcast to anything connected to that MIDI controller.

Other Stuff: There are other MIDI messages, like "note on/off" and "sustain" and so forth. These were really meant for keyboards, but they're just signals. Some software or processors can use them, some can't.

The possibilities are pretty much only limited by your imagination and your pocketbook. If I wanted, I could use a larger pedal for PC and CC signals, and get a standalone MIDI Clock generator.

If the controller has an "In" and "Through" jack, then you can even daisy-chain controllers to get the functionality you need. Or you could use a MIDI splitter/combiner to do the same thing.

I'm pretty excited about the capabilities that MIDI opens up for the performance musician. It's not just for keyboard players! If you do a little research, the possibilities are endless.

For the record, there are even guitarists who install MIDI controllers into the guitar itself, and use that to send PC or CC signals! There are also wearable MIDI controllers! Check out the XY MIDIPad and the Hot Hand.

Posted by Jeff Hendricks

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