Fig. 1. Set up SoftStep 2's MIDI I/O to work with your computer. KEITH McMILLEN’S SoftStep filled a niche in the live-performance market by introducing a solidly built MIDI foot controller with functionality that belied its compact size. Version 2 takes it further with cruciform footswitches that make it easier to operate the x/y axis control, and more user-friendly programming software. SoftStep 2 can control software on a laptop or iPad, and provides MIDI hardware control through the use of the (optional) KMI MIDI Expander. For this tutorial, we concentrate on controlling plug-ins in Ableton Live.
First, connect SoftStep 2 to the computer with the included USB cable; the class-compliant pedal is quickly recognized as a controller. We now see SoftStep Share in the input menu at the top and under MIDI ports, as well as SSCOM (Port 1) and SSCOM (Port 2). Use SoftStep Share as the input and SSCOM (Port 1) as the output (See Figure 1).
Controlling software on the computer requires opening the SoftStep editor, which you can download from Keith McMillen’s website. Though the Basic Editor allows control over a wide range of the pedal’s functions, we want to be able to control Live’s Looper plug-in, which requires the Advanced Editor (See Figure 2).
Fig. 2. Advanced Editor allows control of Live's Looper plug-in. We will create a patch programmed to control an Audio Effects rack (See Figure 3) that simulates a guitar multi-effects. The rack contains Live’s Saturator, Auto Pan, and Reverb plug-ins, as well as a free third-party plug-in, TSE Audio’s 808 Tube Screamer emulation, and an amp modeler. Here we have Studio Devil, but you can use Live’s Amp and Cabinet modeler plug-ins. We will also control Live’s Auto Filter plug-in, and two Live Loopers.
Fig. 3. Create a patch to control a simulated guitar multi-effects rack. Keith McMillen properly calls the footpads “keys” rather than footswitches because they do more than just switching. To program the first key to toggle the Saturator on and off, first click on its number (1) in the Advanced Editor window. This opens up the Key Modulation Window (see Figure 4). The lines with the buttons labeled 1 and 2 are called Modlines—here we determine how Key 1 functions. The numbered buttons can be clicked to enable or disable each Modline. Depending on how many functions you want the Key to perform, you may use one, two, or more Modlines (you can add more by clicking the plus sign at lower left).
Fig. 4. Program keys using the Key Modulation window.Fig. 5. Ableton Live's Auto Filter effect For our purpose, we use one Modline, where we set the Mode to None and the Value to 0. Next comes the Data Sources section. Here we determine the type of sensor data to use—key pressure, foot on, foot off, etc.— from a long drop-down menu of possibilities. To create a latching switch in Ableton Live, we use Foot On as the source. The next box to the right, Raw, indicates the level of data coming from the source. Anytime you step on Key 1, this figure will jump to 127. You can modify the incoming data with Gain and Offset, but for the footswitch function, leave the Gain at unity (1) and the offset at 0. We want the Key to toggle the Saturator on and off, so set the Table to Toggle. The Min(imum) stays at 0, and the Max(imum) at 127. We don’t need any Smooth(ing) or Delay. The ultimate value will be 127. The Message Type will be CC, or Continuous Control (other options are Note, Program, etc.). Select a CC number (in this case 21), as the input channel, Softstep Share as the output port, and we are done with the SoftStep Editor for now.
Back in Live, hit command M, click on the Saturator’s on/off button, step on SoftStep 2’s Key 1, and Live automatically recognizes the pedal as sending on/off info on CC# 21. To toggle the Tube Driver, Tremolo, and Reverb on and off, copy Key 1’s Modline and paste it to Keys 2, 3, and 4. You need only change the CC number for each to have four effect on/off footswitches at your disposal.
Fig. 6. Pressure is the source used to control the Auto Filter's frequency.Fig. 7. Ableton Live's Looper effect. We also want to use SoftStep 2 to modify the frequency of Live’s Auto Filter in real time (see Figure 5). For this we take advantage of the pedal’s key pressure sensitivity, which requires setting up Key 5’s Modline (see Figure 6) differently. You can see the Source has been changed to Pressure, instead of Foot On. This effectively turns the Key into a pedal: like a wah, or expression pedal. Note that the gain is now set to 3. The amount of gain will determine how hard you need to press the Key to create the desired change of frequency. Higher gain means less pressure is needed. You should experiment with different amounts: You might need more gain if you are sitting, less when standing. For Table, we chose Sine; also available are Logarithmic and Linear. These determine the arc of change, whether even throughout, quicker at the beginning or end, etc.
You can leave the Min and Max at 0 and 127 and adjust the frequency range in Live’s MIDI section, or adjust it by increasing the minimum and/or decreasing the maximum in the Modline. The Smooth option comes in handy here: The transition of the frequency can get jumpy without smoothing; here it is set for 20. Choose 25 as the CC number, perform the MIDI learn operation in Live, and it is time to move on.
Controlling Live’s Looper plug-in (See figure 7) is more complicated. When using a mouse, the first click on the big virtual button on the left starts recording, a second click engages looping mode, and a third puts the looper in playback mode. To get Key 6 (See figure 8) to go through these steps involves using Foot On as the source, pumping the Gain up to 127, setting the offset to -1, the Table to Linear, and picking a CC number. To operate the Looper’s Clear button, just set Key 7 identically. Then just cut and paste this same Modline configuration into Keys 8 and 9 for a second Looper and Clear function.
Fig. 8. Here, we program Foot On to control Live's Looper. Clicking the box in the upper-right corner (labeled Led + Display settings) in any Key modulation window lets you type in a name for that key (i.e. “Fuzz” or “Loop”) and determine the action of its accompanying LED.
There you have it: a guitar (bass, keyboard, DJ, or vocal) laptop looping system controlled by SoftStep 2. Of course you can modify this with different effects, or fewer effects and more Loopers. This tutorial should get you started with enough info to employ SoftStep 2 in a number of ways.
Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville who contributes to guitarmoderne.com, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar, Electronic Musician, and Sound on Sound. He is the author of Getting Great Guitar Sounds and All About Effects.