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Organizing a complicated rack can be frustrating and tedious. Typically you're limited to pre-deter-mined chains of effects, and rearranging them requires wrestling (usually on hands and knees) with a tangled web of cables. To add more complication, some players need instantaneous switching between multiple basses, each with their own EQ, effects, and amp requirements. A sophisticated routing device can help manage today's complex systems.

Instead of simple in/out switching, the Switchblade GL employs a programmable matrix network, which provides complete routing flexibility for 16 inputs and 16 outputs. Simply plug your instruments, pedals, rack gear, and amp inputs into the back panel jacks, and then handle the routing chores electronically via the front panel. Any combination of series or parallel effects can be programmed and later easily rearranged. The days of crawling behind your rack with a flashlight are over!

The GL can store up to 75 presets. It accepts both balanced and unbalanced lines, and can manipulate and store each device's gain level. For seamless effects transitions you can adjust the switching time from 0ms—1000ms. Four programmable mechanical relays can act as on/off switches to activate auxiliary functions on your amps and other gear.  

The Switchblade GL can be controlled externally in several ways: The simplest uses a footswitch to step through the presets stored in any of the 20 banks, although you can add a second footswitch to step through the banks as well. A MIDI foot controller permits easy access to the presets; a continuous controller can also manipulate fades, cross fades, multi-amp panning, and more. Four internal LFOs can be employed for automated sweeping.

The Switchblade can also interface with your PC. Sound Sculpture's WinBlade software adds on-screen graphics to make it easier and more intuitive to use.

A peek under the hood reveals the GL's no toy—there are almost 100 1C chips neatly packed inside its sturdy steel chassis. It uses individual op amp buffers on every input and output, and routing changes are implemented via CMOS FET electronic switches. The 1Megohm input impedance ensures conventional passive pickups will not suffer from input loading. Ideally, piezo pickups prefer higher input impedance and would benefit from placing a pre-amp before the GL.

Nothing's free in the cruel quest for tone. The Switchblade GL adds a barely perceptible touch of hiss, and in direct comparison to a straight cord, we found it sacrificed a minute bit of roundness and imparted a slightly drier texture to our basses and effects. Considering its virtually unlimited flexibility, sacrificing an almost imperceptible amount of tone seems like a reasonable proposition. Bottom line: The Switchblade GL is the cutting edge of rack-management technology.

EDITOR'S CHOICE AWARD WINNER 1995 - SOUND SCULPTURE SWITCHBLADE-16

Reprinted in it's entirety by permission from Electronic Musician Magazine, January 1995

Written by the Editors of Electronic Musician

MISCELLANEOUS HARDWARE AWARD

"Miscellaneous" categories are weird, because it's hard to compare radically different products. However, we wanted to reward two worthy products—Aquila Systems' MR2 MIDI wireless system and Sound Sculpture's Switchblade 16 MIDI controlled audio switcher—that don't fit in a conventional structure. Both deserve to be winners.

Sound Sculpture Switchblade-16 ($2,299)

Sound Sculpture's Switchblade-16 isn't the first MIDI-controlled audio switching system, but it's the best by far. If you've always wanted totally automated, flexible effects routing and have the budget to swing it, this is your best bet. Any combination of its sixteen inputs can be routed to any combination of its sixteen outputs, with automated gain control. Four internal LFOs can be swept to control gain in various ways.

The MIDI implementation is superb; you can even use SysEx and Control Changes to set up the connection and control matrix. Continuous controllers can handle gain changes, including a reverse slope for panning and crossfades. EM reviewer Peter Freeman dubbed the Switchblade the "Rolls Royce of commercial effects-switching boxes" and is using it as the heart of his bass effects rig for the current Seal tour.

Sound Sculpture - Switchblade 16
Product Review

Reprinted in it's entirety by permission from Guitar Shop Magazine, February 1995

Written by Buck Dharma

Here's a niche product that not every player may need, but probably everyone with a complex guitar setup would want. When players accumulate more than a chain of stomp boxes, they're faced with the problem of how to connect all the different guitar amps, preamps, rack effects, wah-wahs, vintage stomp boxes, and other electrical ingredients they've found to get the true tone in a usable fashion. Some of the more well-heeled among us seek the services of a Bob Bradshaw or a Pete Cornish for a customized switching and routing setup. The Sound Sculpture Switchblade 16 is a D.I.Y. alternative.

It's a one-rack space, AC powered (Hallelujah!) device with a substantial and unfortunately heavy metal case with 16 pairs of 1/4" phone audio ins and outs, four jacks for controlling on/off or channel-switching footswitches on your gear, a footswitch jack for itself, and MIDI in and out on the back panel and a two-row backlit LCD, three LEDs and four interface buttons on the front. The idea is to patch everything-your guitar or wireless, any preamps, any effects, any floor boxes, any amps and power amps/cabs (if you use more than one)-into the Switchblade, and it will do all the routing, volume setting, and MIDI program and footswitch changing for your entire gear inventory, allowing you to completely rewire and reset levels for your setup every time you step on one footswitch, should you so wish. Now that's flexibility.

For example, you could go from your two 4x12", MESA tube-power amps, three preamps (two in parallel and one in series with the others), several multi-effects processors (fed signal from different points in the chain and returning at all different pans and volumes) sound called "MEGA-Shred Deathstack," to just your guitar into a Big Muff and a Princeton Reverb with one stab of your boot toe. And back. Yow. Plus, there are two MIDI continuous controller faders that will sweep the volumes of any devices you choose. Cross-fade from Deathstack to Princeton. Princestack. Deathston. Whoa, I'm getting dizzy with all the possibilities.

Now on to programming. After plugging all your gear into the ins and outs, name each device-connection in the setup menu. Now you can create patches that refer to gear rather than numbers. Anything plugged into the Switchblade may be routed however your want. Each Switchblade preset is a complete configuration, with static connections and volumes and dynamic, sweepable connections between plugged-in gear. You decide where the signal goes, from which device in to which device out, at what gain, (unity, louder or softer), series or parallel, whatever, and where you want it all to come out. Input 1 offers a special clean gain stage for bringing a guitar or mic up to line level before entering the Switchblade circuitry. Add program change commands for your MIDI stuff and channel switching/reverb/tremolo footswitch command for your amp heads and you're done. Next preset.

Your can call your presets with a MIDI program change, or use the Switchblade's preset manager, a 20-bank memory, each bank holding up to 10 of your favorite patches. A single momentary footswitch will cycle through up to 10 of your patches, the second switch will cycle through up to 20 of your banks. Each bank may contain from two to 10 patches, and the switches cycle only the banks you've entered and only the patches you've entered for each bank. The internal memory may be dumped to or loaded from a MIDI sequencer for storage. Interface difficulty: No particle physics experience required, but decent reading comprehension and clear thinking are recommended. You'll need the manual.

How does it sound? Great. This box lets you add or remove gear from the chain at will. Whatever sound you're looking for, you need never go through unwanted gear in the Bypass mode. The Switchblade goes far beyond effects loop switchers, letting you patch things in ways impossible with cords. The signal path is always the shortest necessary to do the job. The audio quality is bolt clean with tons of headroom. Overload indication for every device patch is available during preset programming. Connections made through the Switchblade sound as good as using a cord (with gain, if you want). The drag is, it's expensive. Cheap by custom-rack switching setup standards, it's still a pro piece at a pro price. However, if you insist on having all your favorite gear available in any combination on stage and you want the capability to "morph" between different sounds, all with the highest fidelity, the Switchblade 16 is probably it.

Sound Sculpture 
Switchblade Switching System
Profiled by Zenon Schoepe
in Studio Sound Magazine

Building on the success of the MC8 switching matrix, Sound Sculpture has released the Switchblade matrix switching system which doubles number of inputs and outputs that can be connected to the unit to 16 each and offers 8 programmable relays through 4 stereo jacks which can mimic the action of push on/push off or momentary push on/release off footswitches for such things as guitar amp reverb switching.

While the unit will immediately appeal to guitarists as a sharp way of reconfiguring a rig, its use extends well into the realms of studio automated routing and expanding desk aux sends, for example, and any other application that requires fast and efficient rerouting and mixing of numerous inputs and outputs.

Cosmetic and operational tweaks to the Switchblade over the MC8 include a larger better-lit LCD, 75 programmable presets and a wider programmable gain range plus MIDI continuous controller influence on gain. Apart from more than twice the number of unbalanced standard jack sockets on the back of the 1u not a lot else has changed externally. A Mode button on the front panel steps through menus, Select moves a cursor (unfortunately still only in one direction) around the screens, and Up/Down increment buttons alter values.

The MIDI in port permits the unit to be driven by a MIDI pedal board while a MIDI Out allows daisy chaining to effects units, set to receive on different channels, for patch change information which can be programmed into a Switchblade preset along with its routing and gain data.

The 75 presets can be arranged into 20 banks of ten for performance purposes and their selection can also be performed from a momentary mechanical footswitch although this seems like a very unsophisticated and unlikely way of controlling such a sophisticated unit.

Set up

This area of the unit concerns itself with the creation of names for all devices connected to the in and outs - something that was missing on the original MC8. It's here that you also set MIDI channels where applicable and the receiving channel of the Switchblade.

This really must be done prior to programming presets as this determines what the unit will present in its menus, for example, and once it is done connections will become clearer as the names of the units involved will be displayed.

While this is a time-consuming process, especially if you can fill up 16 ins and outs, hindered by an erratic cursor it pays to be accurate and descriptive as the more information you put in the easier life will be afterwards in programming. It also means that once you've effectively customised the Switchblade to your rig and connections you can forget all about the physical side of the unit and get onto the creative side of patching and mixing.

It's here that you also enter the crossfade time between presets, variable from 0 to 1000ms, and set MIDI channels.

For later reference the Set up menu is also the location for a nice simple preset Copy page and the area in which the entire memory contents can be dumped or loaded externally. ProgrammingFrom an operational point of view it's worth grasping the principle that in Switchblade everything is internally routed to everything else but what actually activates a route is the programmable gain level. The basic state is no gain, or Off, and the connection is made by turning the gain on. Any programming is performed on the current preset in memory, there is no buffer in which you can experiment and then decide to Save somewhere else.

The unit passes audio while being programmed allowing complex strings and parallel combinations of effects to be heard as they are created. The display presents you with a named source input and a named destination output with a variable input gain setting for the transactions thus it goes further than simple routing as signals can be mixed together by input gain. You can rest assured that any noise build up that results from this is derived from the connected devices and not the Switchblade which is about as silent as they come. Intelligent use of gain at different stages of a configuration helps to improve matters.

Dealing in the single connections that the LCD shows you can become a little mind-boggling if you're determined to employ all 32 jacks worth of connections in one mega patch. You really have to be alert and on top of what you're doing or risk sending the wrong things to the wrong destinations without realising it immediately. It's something of a knack if you're into daisy chaining your entire rig as is going back and unpicking connections.

Patch change commands for connected processors are also programmed while editing.

In use

One trick possible on the Switchblade is to employ MIDI continuous controller data to adjust gain settings dynamically. In its most basic form this can functions as a type of swell pedal operating between user-defined start and end gain values. A more advanced application is to use the same controller to influence two gains in two different connections with one of them inverted relative to the other. Continuous controller data will then effectively balance between the two signal paths permitting, for example, a clean guitar tone to an amp to be melded with a chorus tone on the pedal.

This may seem to take Switchblade into multi-effects territory but its approach has the benefit of being significantly simpler to program in this respect than your average effects unit is.

Other tricks possible include the ability to set the change between the two aforementioned signal paths to be swept automatically on an internal LFO, variable from 250ms per cycle to 10 seconds per cycle, or a multi pan which uses four LFOs working relative to each other but at different speeds for more complicated arrangements. While these permit intricate auto pans to be realised they've got to be of relatively limited use in comparison to the continuous controller mode. However, all are zipperless.

On the downside the rackmount holes are too small to take M6 screws but I was looking at an early model. The front panel LEDs which indicate the unit's mode while bright are recessed and very directional so can be viewed clearly only from directly in front of the device in bright light.

Conclusion

For all intents and purposes once a Switchblade is plugged up with it's connections named and MIDI channels selected the fiddley stuff is done. Operationally it's worth bearing in mind what the alternative is - repatching everything physically and resetting levels? I don't think so.

It's a very good way of experimenting with a rig and adding value to it by trying different combinations of effects in a manner that would verge on the tedious and unrewarding if you had to rewire just to try something out for fun. In this light it's positively fast.

It's a shame some of the connectors are not balanced but bearing in mind the variety of sources that can be plugged in over the -42dB to +6dB of gain available - what the hell.

Switchblade has dozens of applications away from its core target of guitar rigs for which it is ideally suited. It's not cheap but combined with just about any basic MIDI pedal board on the market you're still talking about substantially less than half of what you would gladly pay for a name custom job. Add a really clever pedal board and you're really cooking with gas.

Sound Sculpture - Switchblade 16
Product Review

Reprinted in it's entirety by permission from Electronic Musician Magazine, November 1994
Written by Peter Freeman

THE STATE OF THE ART IN PROGRAMMABLE AUDIO SIGNAL-ROUTING

For years, musicians and engineers have searched for an effortless and effective way to coordinate multiple effects devices. Comprehensive switching systems have been available from elite designers, but they are extremely expensive. Products such as Uptown Technologies' Flash and the consumer version of Custom Audio Electronics' near-legendary system help the situation, but only partly. There remained a need for a high-powered, comprehensive audio switcher designed for stage and studio.

Enter Sound Sculpture Musical Instrument Products, a company with an apparently innate understanding of what a high-end switcher should be. The Colorado-based company's Switchblade-16 provides 16 x 16 audio switching, with full MIDI control. Any combination of inputs can be routed to any combination of outputs. Up to 32 matrix connections between inputs and outputs can be established, so if you assign all sixteen inputs to outputs 1 and 2, you have reached the limit.

The 1U rack-mount box offers lots of surprising features, too, including control of amplifier channel-switching, input/output naming for easier programming, and internal sweep LFOs that can be applied to the gain of any input or output.

A CONCEALED WEAPON

The Switchblade-16 appears simple, with just four front-panel buttons (Down, Up/Do It, Select, and Mode) and a 40 character by 2-line, backlit LCD display. Access to the unit's functions is provided via software pages.

The unit's 32 1/4-inch input and output jacks are mounted on the rear panel, along with MIDI In (with merging) and Out/Thru connectors. (The latter usually operates in Thru mode and automatically switches to Out for SysEx dumps.) Four stereo, 1/4-inch jacks connect to eight internal relays for footswitch-controlled, guitar amp channel switching. A fifth stereo jack admits a single or dual footswitch for stepping through presets.

THE CUTTING EDGE

The Switchblade has three programming modes: Preset, Setup, and Preset Manager. In Preset mode, you define connections between inputs and outputs and set the individual gain of each connection. Setup mode provides housekeeping functions, for example naming inputs and outputs, defining switching times, and MIDI SysEx dump and load.

The Preset Manager is a special area of memory that holds up to twenty banks of ten presets each, which is especially useful for live performance. You can sequentially step through the presets within a bank, so it's best to load the presets in the order you want to call them up. When you increment beyond the last preset in a bank, the Switchblade cycles back to the first preset, even if you didn't completely fill the bank. A single footswitch increments to the next preset in the current bank. With a dual footswitch, the second footswitch increments the bank.

A Review function in the Matrix Programming menu lets you examine all patches and gains in the current preset. This convenient feature makes it a snap to keep track of what you're doing while creating a preset.

Another extremely cool programming aid is the ability to set up connections within the Switchblade by device name, rather than by jack number. Configuring complex signal paths becomes simple, fast, and highly intuitive, with most of the process performed in the first two pages of Preset Mode. Select a source and destination by name, then define the connection's gain, selectable in 3 dB increments from -42 dB to + 6 dB.

During programming, two asterisks appear on the display if the source currently selected on the routing page is clipping its input channel. This box has plenty of headroom; I had to go out of my way to clip it.

Gain also can be controlled with MIDI continuous controllers, or by a group of four internal LFOs. There are four Autosweep modes: Off, Smooth Sweep (single LFO), Multi Pan, and One Shot. In Multi Pan, the four LFOs are applied to the switcher inputs in groups of four: LFO 1 modulates input 1, LFO 2 affects input 2, etc. LFO rates are inversely proportional to LFO number, with LFO 2 sweeping half as fast as LFO 1, LFO 3 one-third as fast, and so on. One Shot Sweep is a nonrepeating sweep triggered whenever a preset is selected that includes this function.

Input 1 includes a preamp to boost low-level sources to line level. Used with a low-level guitar, the preamp stage proved clean, adding no perceptible noise.

Achieving fast, smooth transitions between configurations is an issue in most audio switching devices. Sound Sculpture solved this problem through intelligent software. When the Switchblade receives a Program Change command, it examines the current matrix and only switches connections that have changed, rather than blindly clearing the matrix and starting from scratch.

Switching time is adjustable from 0 ms to 1 second, in 100 ms increments. In practice, the unit moved smoothly from preset to preset, and I was pleased by its performance in this regard. The unit is quite clean, too; the only audible artifacts during switching were caused by my signal processors.

MIDI-CONTROLLED MAYHEM

Switchblade has the most impressive MIDI implementation I've seen in a device of this type. Besides responding to MIDI Program Change commands, the Switchblade sends out up to sixteen separate, channelized Program Changes when a preset is selected, so you can change both the routing configurations and the programs of your MIDI-controlled effects. Gain for the individual connections in a Preset can be adjusted by either of two user-defined MIDI continuous controllers.

The entire contents of the unit's memory can be saved and loaded via System Exclusive. In addition, you can use SysEx messages to set up the Switchblade's connection and control matrix. A Clear Matrix command opens all connections. From there, you build a custom matrix by adding connections and assigning them to MIDI Control Change (CC) commands, letting you control both connections and gain from your sequencer. You can even assign two controllers to a given connection via SysEx.

Since I received the review unit, Sound Sculpture has significantly extended the MIDI control. Control Changes 0 to 31 now assign a logarithmic audio taper curve for better resolution at the lower part of your MIDI controller's travel. This means the level doesn't drop off as quickly as with a linear curve. CC messages 32 to 63 assign a modified (8-bit, rather than 7-bit), linear gain curve.

Another SysEx command applies a reverse slope to selected connections that have been assigned to CC 32 to 63. This, combined with the ability to assign two controllers to the same connection and the same controller to multiple connections, enables sophisticated panning and crossfading effects.

A detailed MIDI implementation chart is provided at the back of the manual, paving the way for software developers to write Switchblade editor/librarian programs. I tested the Switchblade in a moderately elaborate guitar rig containing two reverbs, a delay unit, a distortion box, a phase shifter, a ring modulator, and one or two other stomp boxes. After connecting these to the Switchblade and naming the inputs and outputs, I was quickly able to set up complex series/parallel chains of effects I had been after for ages.

The whole process was quick and intuitive, and I was soon controlling the unit (both in terms of patch changes and gain sweeps) via MIDI. It worked like a charm. I encountered no problems whatsoever while operating the Switchblade-16, either manually or via MIDI.

A SHARP BLADE

The Switchblade single-handedly solved all the switching and routing problems I have grappled with in my live setup, and it did so smoothly and easily. I've been looking for a device like this for a long time. The amplifier channel-switching options and internal LFOs are icing on a very attractive cake.

Complaints? The box worked so well that there's little I'd be inclined to change. My one wish was for more hardware controls on the unit's front panel to eliminate some of the page jockeying in programming. But once learned, the process is no big deal. Additional knobs and switches might also have driven up the already considerable price.

Though not a masterpiece of graphic design, the Switchblade manual told me all I needed to know. It's short but informative. As it turned out, the unit's operation was less complex than I had imagined, and the brief document was adequate.

This is the Rolls Royce of commercial effects switching boxes, with a price to match. But if you need absolute routing flexibility in your setup, a large number of inputs and outputs, MIDI control, and programmability, the Switchblade-16 is the only choice.

EM METERS RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
-----------------------------------------------------------
FEATURES 4 1/2
EASE OF USE 4
DOCUMENTATION 3
VALUE 3 1/2

Peter Freeman is a freelance bassist/synthesist and composer.
He has worked with John Cale, Jon Hassell, Chris Spedding, L. Shankar, Sussan Deihim, and Richard Horowitz.