When I first started with Wampler, all those years ago, the conversion about Midi was often happening… if I am being completely honest, we didn’t have the need for it because our corner of the market wasn’t really there yet – but as we’ve got bigger and far more in depth with all the technical ‘stuff’, it’s got to the point now where we feel it’s madness not to go down that route. This makes me really happy as I’ve been using midi controllable rigs on and off since the 90’s so for us to be going down this path it’s one that excites me massively!
Over the years we’ve gently asked our customer base about incorporating midi into our products and the one thing that always comes up from many people is either “wut?” or “I don’t understand Midi”… so, with the Terraform about to be released, I thought I would give an introduction, written in a way I understand and use it, to help you if you are in anyway confused about what it can do for you.
Midi is an acronym for “musical instrument digital interface”. What it does, fundamentally, (we won’t even go near Midi v2 that has recently been announced), is send control information digitally between various pieces of equipment. The best way to explain this is in terms of a keyboard. If you separate a regular keyboard into it's most basic elements will have two parts. The keyboard (user interface) and the sound module (the thing that produces the sound). The keyboard receives a command from you – usually “this key has been pressed and it’s been pressed this hard” and it fires off that information to the sound module via a midi signal. The module receives that information and then activates “that note, this hard” and you hear it from the speakers.
Midi is basically run on a numbers system from 0-127 and those numbers are what is transmitted. So, if key 40 is pressed at a velocity of 127 on a full size midi keyboard, you are going to get a middle C blast out at the highest velocity you can get. What gets really interesting is when the nerds start to sample instruments at 128 differing levels of being struck, which is where touch sensitivity comes into it. If it has 128 different samples of the instrument being struck at 128 ever increasing velocities… no touch sensitivity (heeelllloooo 1982) would be present and the note is either “on” or “off”. Touch sensitive transmits the velocity as well as the location… Hopefully, you are still with me!
What does this mean for guitar players? Well… firstly, I’m not going to go down the route of midi guitars here (although I truly feel that within a few years they will be FAR more common because technology is finally catching up to the concept from where it started in the 80’s, and it’s still my ultimate goal to have a completely midi guitar rig one day that acts and feels like my favourite guitar, but sounds like anything I can think of from a Strat, Les Paul, Telecaster, Nylon Strung etc etc), but more about how it can control multiple pieces of equipment simultaneously with patch changes, making your life a LOT easier.
We can start off by looking at my old rig (as I love any opportunity to talk about my gear, past and present). If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll be aware of it I expect, but in case you haven’t, here it is in a nutshell (effects section)… Signal chain:
One Control OC10 Looper, containing:
- Strymon Mobius, pre gain;
- Wampler Mini Ego;
- Wampler Tumnus;
- Wampler PaisleyDog – c2;
- Wampler PaisleyDog – c1;
- TC Electronics Quintessence;
- Strymon Mobius, post gain;
- Strymon TimeLine
- TC Mini HOF; and
- Wampler dB+.
Obviously, I had the pedals set and used the looper to bring in each when I wanted them (usually multiple pedals being brought in and out with the touch of one stomp). It was a massively versatile rig with those three gain stages and I could literally pull out any sound at any time and it would always sound amazing (humblebrag). When you add in the additional control I had via midi using the two Strymons, it very quickly got to the point where I was using upwards of 60 or so patches across 8 banks on a two hour gig. Obviously, you don’t need to do that, you can just use however many you like, but when the options of differing modulations and delays instantly available you can get waaaay deep, really easily. And I can tell you now, it’s a LOT of fun.
What has midi got to do with this? Well, the OC-10 is a midi controller looper and both the Strymon's receive midi commands. Here is how it was used. Before we go any further, I need to point out a little annoyance I have with some of the more complex pedals, and how they are not midi mappable…. Alright, OK, I’ve gone there, so here is what midi mappable is all about and what is unfavourable with some systems who don’t have it.
When you get into loopers, you create banks of sounds according to the band you are playing in and the songs you play. For example, my board was set up with Bank 1 (8 presets in a bank) for “general” which had a mixture of clean, dirt and dirty solo sounds in it, as that is what I used most of the night. Bank 2 was my “clean” bank, so that was clean stuff, slap back delays, vibes etc… Bank 3 was where I started to get into specific songs that needed specific sounds, so it was a real hotchpotch of tones including various sounds that had flangers, chorus’. Vibes etc etc. I know… get to the point, Jason… but this is exactly where I am going. When I was creating these tones, and because the units I was using were not midi mappable, here is how the pedals saved the patch information coming to them… My first modulation sound on my board was bank 2, patch 3 (clean vibe sound). My second was bank 3, patch 4 (dirty vibe sound). Then was Bank 4, patch 1 (clean big chorus), Bank 4, patch 8 (dirty solo sound with the same big chorus across it) – it was like this all the way up to bank 8. As the units were not mappable, that means that my first Mobius preset was saved on patch 23 (bank 2, patch 3 on the OC-10), my second was patch 34 (bank 3, patch 4 on the OC-10), the next one was patch 41 (Bank 4, patch 1 on the OC-10) and so on. So, if I was playing around with the Mobius away from my rig I would get 22 blank user patches, then one of mine, then nothing to patch 34 and so on… It becomes really bloody annoying when you are messing around with the unit on its own.
When this became even more annoying was when you get into the delays… I like to use a LOT of delay, and I don’t mean have it overbearingly loud, but it is on everything. A small amount of delay just gives me a lovely element of width. As most of the tones within my board were splittable into two sections “basic rhythm” or “ basic lead” (obviously, there were ones outside this), I would say I had about 30 individual patches set up that were EXACTLY the same within the TimeLine. That being a basic rhythm delay setting. On top of that about I had almost the same amount of the same patch duplicated over for solos… All because the units were not mappable and they created a new patch location every time I used a new preset on the looper.
Here is the point (…to loud cheers from the readers…) If they were mappable ALL of my rhythm patches for rhythm would have pointed to ONE patch only on the TimeLine instead of creating 30 or so duplicates. So, across the first bank of my controller that had 5 rhythm patches (clean, clean loud, dirty, dirtier and filthy) all using the same delay, 5 different patches were saved on the TimeLine. If they were mappable, all 5 patches on the looper could have pointed to the ONE patch on the pedal. As you can imagine, when you want to tweak ALL of your rhythm delay lines a fraction for any reason, having to change 30 patches is a pain in the arse. It’s much better if you only have to change one…
This is why you are seeing a LOT of new midi controllable pedals come out that appear to have a lot fewer preset locations on them, because – quite frankly, the VAST majority of people just don’t need 128 or 256 locations as most of them will be duplicates (note that numbers, 128 and 256... because midi sends numbers between 0-127). Once you get into providing 128 patch locations you start to get into the realms of needing display screens on the pedal, you start to get into banks and banks of duplicate patches, which can be solved with basic midi mapping.
Obviously, as the Terraform has 8 saveable preset locations, we have jumped straight in with midi mapping. The terraform will recognise 128 different commands coming into it (presets commands from your looper), and then allocate the desired patch from the 8 saved to that command. So, Bank 1, preset 5 (on the lopper), Bank 1, preset 6 (on the looper) and Bank 3, preset 2 (on the looper) etc etc will all be able to point to a single patch within the Terraform. We have worked extremely hard to make how this is handled on the Terraform as easy as possible – so much so that when I explained how we are doing it to a good friend of mine who is of the attitude “I don’t get midi, it’s so confusing” he understood it instantly and said “Yeah, I get that, it’s easy”. So, all those who are considering going down the midi controllable looper route, we’ve made this extremely easy for you.
The midi in and out/thru (thru is essential as you can run multiple units in a chain that all receive the same command from the controller, making it so you can change multiple units from the press of one button) are right there on the back and are in the format of a TRS mini jacks (WHAT???!!!??, I thought they were 5 pin plugs??)… it has ALWAYS baffled me why most units have a 5 pin midi plug on them, as the cable itself only uses two of the pins – 2 and 4 with 1, 3 and 5 not connected at all (there is probably a historic reason for this, but I am unaware of it). So, as the industry moves forward with the mini TRS cable, so have we… those 5 pin ones are huge and effectively a complete waste of space and as one of the major concepts of design with the Terraform was pedalboard real estate, we are not wasting a single millimetre on oversized, unnecessary plugs.
There you have it, a VERY basic guide to midi for guitar pedals, midi mapping, and players like me. If you have any questions about this, feel free to hit me up on social media, I’m pretty easy to find, especially in our Tone Group on Facebook!
As you may (but you probably may not) know, I use somewhat of a complicated pedal board for the band I play in. We are just a pub band that generally play to a couple of hundred people, with at least 50% of those are generally too drunk to care about what they are hearing. But still, every gig I walk into the venue with literally thousands of pounds of gear. I know a lot of people will say “why bother”, but I do it because it makes me happy and I want to have great tone. So, let’s nip that one in the bud before we get started!
However, an incident at a gig a couple of months ago has made me relook at a couple of items on my board and made me realise I bought a lot of my gear because it’s considered to be the industry standard and it was expected to have that piece of gear if I wanted the feature set. Yes, this means I play each gig with a Strymon TimeLine and Mobius. Before I go any further I do want to say that I bloody love the both of them, they are incredible pieces of kit and it’s easy to see why they are considered to be the industry standard and sell so many every week, month and year.
However… would you be surprised to know that the TimeLine has been out for 6.5 years and that is a LONG time in terms of tech. Granted, it’s received software upgrades in that time (currently on v1.84 as we speak), but from what I understand, the hardware on the new ones you buy in store today is the same as the ones that were first released. Let’s put that into context in a more accessible format. The TimeLine is like having an iPhone 4. Loads of people have them (including my kids) but it’s safe to say, it’s in no way considered to be the cutting edge of technology. If you were considering paying hundreds of pounds for a new phone, would you choose an iPhone 4? No, you wouldn’t. If we are being honest here, the display of the big three Strymons are straight out of a Nokia 3310 rather than an iPhone X.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of new products come out that challenge the mighty TimeLine as the first call MIDI controllable programmable delay pedal. BOSS have come out hard and strong with the DD-500 and to pick the one I have personal experience with, the Source Audio Nemesis is fantastic, albeit a very slimmed down version. I know about the Eventide and TC Electronic (haven’t we all seen endless arguments about which is better), but I’m going to stick with the ones I know properly, otherwise, this will be very long and very boring. When I first got my hands on a TimeLine, I spent hour after hour marvelling over what it could do, how amazing it sounded (I’m a big fan of the analogue through signal that many other pedals do NOT have) and spent literally hours playing with the ICE setting, The Filter, The Dual, Duck, Swell… well, you know, the list is endless. It was great, great fun.
BUT… (and yes, hardened viewers of Game of Thrones may chuckle at that, consider Ned Stark’s opinion of that word) when I had programmed my gig board (which if I am honest, generally only gets played properly at gigs) I realised I didn’t use any of that, I use the dBucket and Digital setting, regular quarter notes and a dotted 8th, and it never goes over 500 or so milliseconds. I have 6 patches I use and they are all pretty standard stuff. Now, if I played a lot of U2 songs or some of the more interesting Floyd stuff etc etc etc, I would use more, but I’m guessing that in so far as a regular gigging musician, I’m pretty much the same as the vast majority of players out there… So, why do I have this beast? It’s simple… because everyone else does and it’s considered, still, to be the best in its class.
To go back to something I mentioned earlier, there was an incident that made me rethink this properly and was somewhat of an enlightening moment for me. The lummox of a bass player that is in the band I play in dropped an XLR on the tap tempo switch of my Mobius and snapped it clean off. I was pretty horrified to notice it had a composite plastic shaft and broke extremely easily. I had a little trouble with Strymon when I tried to order a replacement, but they stood up to the mark and sorted me out, so this isn’t a bitter retort about customer service, but more of a contemplation on how we view and buy gear. I challenged them about the shafts and they said they were the best option for the pedals. Considering they sell replacements for them on their site for $4, I am thinking maybe they aren’t. But, that’s only here because it was the catalyst for my change of thought process.
Simply and honestly, I got the Strymon’s because everyone had one and G.A.S. - I didn’t really think about it.
A good mate of mine distributes Source Audio in the UK and let me borrow the Nemesis after I told him what I actually wanted rather than what I thought would be fun… and guess what, it does absolutely everything I need and no more – and, it’s also over $200 cheaper than the TimeLine in-store. I’m currently in the process of changing the TimeLine over to the Nemesis, and it’s almost hilarious the number of people who say “WHAT? WHY!!!?” when I tell them.
Let’s look at the Nemesis for a minute. It has all the silly stuff, including some interesting pitch shifting type features etc, but it appears to have been designed by gigging guitar players. There are no endless submenus through an awful display to get a decent effect, the selections on the ‘main delay type selector thing’ are incredible – for example, the slapback feature is sublime, the tape setting sounds much more tape like than the Strymon and everything is just there, and just right. Granted, if you are a tweaker, the amount of variables in the TimeLine is quite remarkable, but… for me… well, there is a reason I work for an analogue effects manufacturer I suppose, I just get pissed off with scrolling through things to tweak the lo-pass filter and the subdecaytrouserfilament etc. (on a crappy numerical LCD display - you may be sensing a theme here). I just want something that I can program in a heartbeat, using only the knobs on the top, and save it quickly to a location and then call up that patch via MIDI.
Since then, I’ve also got a BOSS MD-500 here that will probably replace the Mobius. Because for the price I can sell the Mobius for, I can replace with a brand new BOSS pedal (I know, if you are reading this and thinking “Bloody hell, how much do they sell for in the UK?” but I got offered a great price for one… so….) The BOSS outperforms the Mobius in absolutely every situation, much higher processing power, much stronger unit physically and the display is gorgeous, I can see everything I need to see in order to program the thing. So, pretty soon, I imagine I will be Strymon free.
Like I said above, this isn’t me knocking the Strymon, they are fantastic and have served me well. It’s just about time they updated them, physically – because pretty soon, their age and awkward displays are going to be outdated, if not so already. So, I challenge you Strymon, stop messing around with digital distortions and v2 the big three. Updated with OLED displays, increased processing power (as the Source Audio and everything else that is more reasonably priced has either the same, or more powerful, levels of processing) to refine the tones that are in there (at least attempt to put a decent tape emulator in, PLEASE) - because if you do, you will once again set the benchmark that other companies will take literally years to catch up on.
The Gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s leave 2011 tech where it belongs and show me something that will melt my mind… not with silly pointless effects, but something that a regular gigging guy (with a MIDI controller) can really hit ‘that’ mark and do justice to the G.A.S. your products are still kinda generating. If not a v2, but with maybe a streamlined TimeLine v2 to go with it… Because pretty soon, reputation alone just won’t cut it – your reputation is still there, just, but there are others are gaining momentum, and gaining it VERY quickly.