Why on God’s green earth would a person use a horrid little guitar stompbox with all the effects processing horsepower of the present day DAW? Of course, I’m not recommending eschewing all those wonderful plug-ins you’ve spent your hard-earned dosh on, but guitar stompboxes—especially the analog variety—offer a brute-force sonic overkill that digital recreations have yet to touch.
Cheapo realtime control over audio mutations is another real plus. Trying to manipulate virtual knobs in real time can be akin to trying to pick your nose using one of those giant foam #1 fingers—an exercise in true frustration. However, by simply placing your thumb and forefinger on a knob, the stompbox can tweeze your tracks with a subtle variation or a full-on audio mutation. And when it comes to forging some unique sounds that can save an otherwise anemic track from digital mediocrity, many of today’s top artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and the Fiery Furnaces reach for a stompbox.
Admittedly, you may run into a spot of trouble when incorporating guitar effects into a mixing medium. Depending on your system, you may have to run pedals through an outboard aux send/return or another mixer bus (and returning on a separate track). You may also need to plug a pedal into a direct box to match the high-impedance, unbalanced line level of the guitar pedal with the balanced, low-impedance input of your recording system, preamp, or other interface. There are also some guitar-oriented audio interfaces that provide unbalanced “guitar inputs”—which can be used to route stompboxes into your DAW. You may need to experiment—and read a manual or two— to get your system conversant with guitar pedals, but once you do the work, you’ll have a whole other universe of sound modifiers at your disposal.
Cool Sounds & Apps
Fuzz, Distortion, Overdrive. Fuzz is generally nastier square-wave sounding, while distortion and overdrive pedals tend toward a distorted tube-amp tone. Great for the ubiquitous industrial distort-o-vocals, these pedals are also great for pumping up a wimpy organ or clavinet patch on older digital synths.
Delay. This effect comes in two flavors: analog and digital. Analog pedals generally have shorter delay times and a warmer tape-echo sound. Digital delays are cleaner sounding, and they often have longer delay times, as well as freeze and loop functions that repeat endlessly. Playing with the delay time and intensity controls can conjure trippy Dub effects that would make King Tubby choke on his spliff.
Pitch Shifters. Use these to twist and bend tracks to your will. Analog models such as the Boss OC-2 feature sketchy tracking that can turn the sweetest female vocal into Beelzebub’s girlfriend. The incredibly groovy DigiTech Whammy includes a control pedal you can manipulate to create wicked, elastic grooves from drum loops.
Ring Modulators. Takes just about any source input and converts it into clangy, metallic dissonance. Experimentation is the key here, as it’s hard to predict what the sound coming in will sound like coming out. Makes boring old drum tracks sound like the Timothy Leary Memorial Steel Drum Band played them.
Phase Shifter/Flanger. Designed to recreate the swooshy/swirly sound of complex studio tape manipulations, phase shifters work great on most traditional keyboard sounds, imparting a woozy vibe that will get you pretty dang close to Pepperland. Flangers are the more extreme animal, delivering deep, powerful “flying through a tube” sound that is really cool on vocals.
Envelope Follower/Voltage-Controlled Filters. An automatic wah effect that changes timbre in response to your playing dynamics. An envelope follower creates instant ’70s Stevie Wonder when plugged into a Clavinet or Rhodes synth patch. Lay it on a bass or bass synth, and you too can be funkadelic. Rub on the patchouli oil, shoot some drum loops through it, and pretend you are Jerry Garcia—but as a rave DJ.