Key Issues: Stompbox Fever

Hey! Let’s get out of the box for a while. Steal your guitarist’s pedals, and use them to create your own original sounds. It’s not too hard to do, and you’ll be that much more original. In fact, if you are an engineer or producer, you might just look like a seasoned innovator!
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Back in the ’70s, Jan Hammer—whose career did not begin with the music he composed for the original Miami Vice television show—used external effects to create some of his keyboard sounds. Many players of the era did this in the prog, pop, and fusion worlds, but Hammer was exceptional in his ability to really push it like a guitarist. Armed with ring modulators, delays, and phasers, he traded solos with stage mates, and when he used distortion coupled with his Moog, it created a sound that was as powerful as any multiple-Marshall roar.

There’s a lesson to be learned here.

So I set up a recent session with some friends, and I hijacked the guitarist’s pedal array: a Line 6 MM4 Modulation Modeler and a DL4 Delay Modeler, a volume pedal, a wah-wah, and a Boss Blues Driver—all running into a Fender amp. At this point, you might be saying, “But my keyboard has built-in effects—why go to all this trouble?” Well, I don’t feel that going through tons of menus to find effects parameters is as conducive to creativity as simply turning a (very) few knobs on a stompbox.

Let’s experiment with a less-than-ideal source sound, such as a preset that’s somewhat dry or has a short decay. Perhaps you’ve always blown right past that program on your synth because it just doesn’t do it for you. But think of that sound as your building block—much like an electric guitarist would consider a dry amp tone. Now, get your foot on a delay pedal and play with the delay time and mix level until you find the perfect blend of a wet/dry signal to lift your solos up to the “awesome” point. If the pedal offers preset delays—echos, slapbacks, long repeats, ping-pongs, etc.—try them out, as well. The sounds you hear might even inspire a new song! The beauty of this pedal approach is that it not only improves sounds you think are bad, it also enhances sounds you already feel are great. With the right delay working for you, your tones can sound bigger, wider, and more dimensional.

Of course, you can combine pedals just as you can layer effects in a DAW or keyboard workstation. I used the Line 6 Modulation Modeler’s chorus and tremolo quite a bit, and the ring modulator is so hot that it made my basic Rhodes sound seem like something out of, well, Jan Hammer’s tone library. In fact, every sound I put through this box either commanded more attention, became more intriguing, or morphed into something more musical.

I really had fun when I hit the Blues Driver in concert with the wah pedal. Many players may still think of wah-wah as the sound that drove disco music, but don’t forget that Hendrix and Metallica were/are wah lovers, and they ain’t no disco darlings. I clicked in this signal chain for a repeating three-note lick on a clavinet sound, and even the guitar player seemed a bit jealous of the thick, meaty tone I was getting.

The trick to getting pedals and keyboards to work best together is (aside from making sure levels are matched properly) to send the signal chain into a guitar amp in order to get the right crunch and warmth. A keyboard amp usually won’t do, because they are typically designed to deliver clean and articulate sound reproduction. You want a tube guitar amp that can deliver the rage! If you desire the best of both tonal worlds, you can use a splitter (or stereo processor with two outputs) to send your signal to a right nasty tube amp and a pristine, full-frequency keyboard amp. Or you can even send the effects (delay, modulation) to a clean amp, and use another amp for overdriven and distorted tones. Checking in with your guitar-playing friends for setup options, and experimenting with a number of pedal chains should provide you with tons of new sound-sculpting ideas. I can’t say enough about the fun I’ve had stepping on stompboxes—it makes the whole experience of being a keyboard player even more exciting. So get out there, get busy, and rock and roll!