EFFECT SWITCHING SYSTEMS TUTORIAL

YOUR CURRENT GUITAR EFFECTS SYSTEM

If you are like most electric guitar players today, you’ve probably accumulated some essential effects that you connect between your guitar and your amp, and your setup looks something like this:

And by now you’ve probably also discovered this setup has its share of problems.  If requires “tap dancing” when you need insert or remove effects.  Then there is the problem of the levels changing when you toggle effects.  And, even when all effects are off, there is a troublesome tone loss and noise from all those cables and “true bypass” switches.  

There is also the more obvious problem of being stuck with the order of your effects and no way to mix effects in parallel.  All this leads to frustration, compromising your effects capabilities, and a sense there must be a better way. So here you are.  You went searching and you’ve found us.  And we won’t disappoint you.  Your eyes are about to open wide.

You may have learned about something called a “guitar effect switching system” or guitar switcher for short and after a little poking around on the internet you know this is something you need to learn about.  So let’s get down to it.  

TRADITIONAL GUITAR SWITCHING SYSTEMS

The first idea to see the light of day was a central box in which you could connect all your effects and bypass each effect with a relay instead of a switch.  These relays would be controlled by MIDI from a device called a MIDI foot controller.

MIDI is a standard developed by several musical instrument makers and stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and simply put is a way to allow you to remotely control keyboards and effects by sending out a series of commands.  A MIDI foot controller then is a pedal board with switches where a single switch could be used to turn on and off a group of relays in the guitar switcher to turn on and off certain effects when just one switch is pressed.

This has the tremendous advantage of eliminating the “dreaded tap dance” normally required when you want to change the sound for a guitar solo for example.  This was a big boost to the performer and increased the level of professionalism for many guitar players.

This type of switching system is available from several pro audio manufacturers and will be for years to come because of its design simplicity and low cost.  But it only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can do with a guitar switching system.  

WHAT THE ULTIMATE GUITAR EFFECT SWITCHING SYSTEM COULD DO

Imagine pressing one switch on your foot controller and suddenly, everything automatically gets wired up as shown here.  Without the ultimate effect switching system, this would be nearly impossible.  With the ultimate system, it would be simple and practical.

We’ll break down this picture in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at how you would wire things up to such a switching system.  

With the ultimate system, all your gear, your amps, instruments, effects, and additional audio inputs and outputs are connected to the switcher.  You do this just once, and from that point the switching system connects everything together when you press just one switch.

The physical wiring diagram of your system might look something like this.  Your particular system would be different depending on your gear, but the essential idea is the same.  Everything connects to the switcher directly and it doesn't matter where things are connected.

You will notice from the image that there are no ‘Y’ cables to split your signal or external mixers.  In this particular system there is a guitar and two microphones as well as a stereo signal from a computer for backing tracks.  We also have 3 combo amps and a stereo power amp connected to twin cabinets.  Also attached are 8 mono guitar effects and a rack mount stereo multi effect processor.

And finally in the lower left corner we have our MIDI foot controller that tells the switcher what to do when you press a switch.  An expression pedal is connected to the foot controller as well and the reason for this will become clear soon.  Remember, your system might use different gear, but the idea is the same, everything just plugs directly into the switcher.  

Let’s take a closer look at that image showing how the switcher connects things when you press a switch.  Zooming in on the guitar effects we see this:

The first thing you would notice about the ultimate system is that there are no restrictions on how effects are connected.  Some effects are in series (one after the other) and some are connected in parallel (where the signal is split, sent to two or more effects, and then mixed together).

 In addition to all this, the ultimate system would allow you to set the levels of individual connections (indicated in this image as 0dB, -12dB and so on).  This becomes important when mixing effects in parallel as you may want one effect to be louder than another.

The ultimate switcher has this feature that allows the signal at an input, such as a guitar, to be split to several effects.  In addition several effects can be mixed together.  This ability to split and mix gives you unlimited ways to connect effects together. When combining effects in this way you can harness the soul of effects that would be lost just stringing effects in a row bringing out the rich sounds you never thought could come from your simple effects. This is one of the most important ways (besides your playing of course) to get to your true tone, the tone you’ve been after for years!

Another feature of the ultimate guitar switching system is the ability to sweep levels at various connections in response to the movement of an expression pedal to create volume pedal effects or to crossfade between effects and amps.  This image demonstrates how in this preset the expression pedal is assigned to the connection between the effect and the amp input to control the level of the amp in response to the movement of the pedal.

If we turn our attention to the combo amp at the bottom of the image we see the amp has 3 connections which are also connected directly to the ultimate switcher.

In the connection diagram we see the switcher is connected to the input of the amp, but also to the effect loop of the amp allowing the possibility to insert any effects connected to the switching system to be placed in front of the amp, in the effect loop of the amp, or both.  This ability to place effects anywhere in your amps signal path expands your pallet of sound giving you more options to create.
 
Now we’ll take a look at the stereo power amp section with one combo amp.  This is the heart of what is called a “wet/dry/wet” system and is an extraordinary powerful arrangement used by many top players to get a rich, captivating sound.

Central to this arrangement is the combo amp fed directly from the guitar effects array shown above.   This amp is the “dry” sound in the phrase “wet/dry/wet”. We mic this sound directly using a dynamic mic and preamp with the mic placed closely to the speaker.  

The output of the preamp goes directly to the switcher where, for this preset only, it is routed to a stereo multi-effect processor.  Also shown we have a high powered solid state stereo PA amplifier connected to full range PA speakers which would straddle the combo amp on stage.  A pair of powered monitors can be used in place of the power amp.  These two speakers comprise the two “wet” sounds in “wet/dry/wet”.

Also, for this preset only, the stereo output of the multi-effects processor is routed to the PA amps. Usually the multi-effects processor is set to add some clean stereo reverb and echo and any other “sweetening” type effects which are then only heard through the PA. The overall effect is dramatic, with the dry sound piercing through the center while the two wet sounds on either side add tremendous depth and richness.

Left out of this image is the 2nd combo amp with its own mic just below the first where in this preset we have a double dry sound with two combo amps going and mic’d instead of just one.  In another preset, perhaps only one or the other combo amps is used for this wet/dry/wet sound increasing the variety of great tone.

We also notice in this particular setup, a computer audio output is connected to the switching system.  In this preset we route the computer audio to the PA where it is mixed in with the multi-effect processor used with the microphones.

This computer may only be needed for this preset and removed in other presets.
 
The ultimate guitar switching system we have just described does exist and we make it!  It is called the Switchblade.  To learn how the Switchblade works, read on!

Go to the Switchblade Overview Tutorial