Posts Tagged ‘effects’

I was in my local friendly music shop asking about other things and, for one reason or another, ended up playing with the Roland BOSS SY-300 Guitar Synth pedal. The guy in the shop was enthusing about how well it tracked guitars – including slides and vibrato and my  next thought was “yeah yeah, but how well would it work on a violin?” In my experience tracking a violin pitch is very very hard. I’ve seen nothing that would do it reliably in either hardware or software, and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time now.

To cut a long story short .. IT WORKS! it even tracks the octave violin (which is tuned an octave below a normal violin so, on a 5 string instrument, makes it go down to the bottom C string of a cello). I stayed in the shop for a couple of hours playing with my violins on the device and was simply astonished about how well it worked. It is possible to confuse it, either with bad technique or pulling too hard on the low octave C string, but those are hardly major problems for normal use. And by bad technique I don’t mean tuning – if you play out of tune, the SY-300 will simply play the pitch you hit, I mean not placing your finger cleanly on the string which makes a dull grinding note on the violin anyway. If you slide all the way down a string – the SY-300 will follow you, if you use wide or narrow vibrato – the SY-300 will follow you. If you play loud to soft to loud in a single bow stroke – the SY-300 will follow you.


The guy in the shop thought it worked even better with violin that guitar because of the expressive effect of the bow on amplitude, and the ability to play long notes easily, it turns the SY-300 into a very expressive synth. It’s interesting to note that playing a synth via a violin (or guitar for that matter) doesn’t sound like playing a synth from a keyboard, it transfers the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the instrument onto the sounds made by the synthesizer – so in no way is it a replacement for a keyboard synth, it’s something totally different.

You need good synthesis knowledge to get the most out of the pedal, a lot of the factory presets are very guitar-orientated, made for a plucked instrument and often with lots of distortions added, so to get the best from a violin you need to get in there and make your own patches. As a violinist who also plays synthesizers this is easy enough for me, but people less familiar with subtractive synthesis might find it hard work to get what they want from it. This really is an expert’s device/

The architecture is slightly odd. It has 3 oscillators (with the standard virtual-analogue waveforms) each with its own filter, LFO and sequencer. Yes, the LFOs, filters and sequencers are per-oscillator! There are also 3 global LFOs (called Waves) that can be applied to the built in effects as well as the oscillator parameters. There are 4 effects slots which can be placed almost anywhere you like on one of two synth busses or the dry channel, and are of very good quality – as you would expect from a BOSS device. There is a good range of the usual effects, delays, reverbs, phasers, flangers & distortions – all with a good range of options. And also there are combined effects (delay+reverb for example) so you can make full use of those four slots. Most of the parameters of the effects can be controlled from the Wave LFOs. Although the way you configure those is rather clunky.

There are a few downsides. While it has MIDI in & out sockets (including USB) it does not send or receive MIDI notes, only control change and program change. I would also have liked more waveforms than just the standard saw,triangle, sine, square and maybe some interaction between the waveforms (eg FM). Also the software editor doesn’t work on Mac OS/X Sierra. Even the driver (which is supposed to work) crashed my system … and WHY OH WHY do MIDI devices need drivers anyway when they should just be class-compliant?! sigh.

But generally I think it’s an amazing device and if you’re a violin player who’s also into synthesis I strongly recommend you have a look at it.

I made a video about it with more information and examples

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Effects Pedals

They say write about things you know love, or things you know about, so here’s one about effects pedals.

I have a bit of a reputation for being a ‘collector’ of effects pedals, and not without reason. My website (which is up-to-date as I write this) lists 30 of which I normally gig with 16 – two of which are loopers. That’s a lot by most people’s standards I suppose though I’m sure there are plenty of people with more. They are heavy, and expensive, and I need to keep checking the cables (power and signal) to make sure they are working properly and sounding right, and that the control knobs haven’t mysteriously changed position in transit or while the cats were asleep on them – this does happen.

Sometimes I look enviously at the multi-effects units that people make and wonder if one of those might be easier. All the presets digitally stored so they never get lost or accidentally changed. Hundreds of different effects all on one easily portable box. It sounds ideal really.

No, not really. I’d never swap my motley collection for one of those, not really.

Those pedals are the instruments of my orchestra. They all have their own characteristic sounds that I know and (mostly) love. I know, for instance, that when I press the footswitch on the MXR delay pedal that it will give me a different sound than the RE-20 delay, and I know what that difference is and why I should use it in any particular context. The 16 pedals on those boards are the ones that I have chosen out of the larger collection I have to suit the sounds I want for most purposes. I know the sounds they produce, intimately, they are textures I know and can trust. I know the sounds they make in combination and I know in what order they should go to produce the sounds I want. I also know, when a sound isn’t quite right, what knob on which pedal has been moved and where it needs to go back to to restore normality and how far I can twist it to get one-off effects for special colour.

I also like the array of lights that blink and display the state of the sounds as I play, and the dance I do while playing is almost as much a part of the performance as the notes. I often do ‘footpedal practice’ to make sure that my feet are as trained as my fingers to get the music coming out right. In fact I was surprised, when recruiting another violinist to play a piece with pedals that she couldn’t really cope with it at all. I suppose I was like that once.

I’m sure the multi-FX units are useful for certain types of people but I’ve decided that I like the ones I have – to change to one of those would be like sacking a factory of crasftspeople and replacing them with a robot. Maybe more efficient but with the loss of the soul and individuality that the people bring. Buying all my sounds from one manufacturer can make the sound homogeneous. Even though these multi-FX units emulate all sorts of different pedals from different companies, they never quite capture the essence of the real thing. Yes, I know the RE-20 is a digital emulation of a tape-echo, but it works extraordinarily well, and is made by the same company that made the original.

And, to be honest, I do like the looks of amazment, awe, suprise or incredulity as I spread my pedals out on stage, covering a large proportion of it in the process, and the “she’s got more pedals than <xxx>” jokes that often follow 🙂

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