It may be a bit early in the year to declare my current rig as the "2012 Rig", but I have a good feeling about what I've assembled. This article will highlight some of the decisions and planning that went into my current rig, a simple four-space rack controlled by a small MIDI floor controller.
The rack consists of an Avid Eleven Rack, a Looperlative LP1, a breakout panel and a few internal widgets. The floor controller is a Liquid-Foot LF+ 12+ with one expression pedal.
The rack itself is a Gator shallow molded rack, chosen primarily for its 14" interior depth. (The SKB shallow rack, which is only 10" deep, would not have had enough room to leave the Eleven Rack wired up.)
A breakout panel from Vafam Sound has eight cutouts sized for connectors designed to fit Neutrik D-sized holes. All of the rack's I/O, except for the guitar input to the Eleven Rack, takes place through this breakout panel.
A Powercon-style connector is used for AC power input to the rack. I have a twelve-foot power cord with a mating Powercon connector on one end and a three-prong NEMA 5-15 plug on the other end.
Inside the rack, mounted to rear rails behind the breakout panel, is a slotted universal rack tray which holds, among other items, a pair of universal-input DC power supplies strapped down with zip ties: a 12V supply for the LF+ and a 9V supply for the LP1. Because the Eleven Rack also has a universal-input power supply, the entire rack may be powered anywhere in the world with the addition of a power cord having the appropriate plug for the regional or local AC outlets.
The 12V DC supply is wired to the standard MIDI phantom-power pins (1 and 6) of a 7-pin DIN socket on the breakout panel; this powers the LF+. A pigtail from the 7-pin socket to a 5-pin DIN plug carries MIDI messages from the LF+ to the LP1. A short MIDI cable from the LP1's MIDI-through port to the Eleven Rack's MIDI input carries MIDI messages from the LF+ to the Eleven Rack.
The power supplies and Eleven Rack receive their AC power input via a set of pigtail connections from the back of the Powercon connector to IEC C13 ("computer-style") plugs. The back of the Powercon connector is well-insulated to prevent accidental contact with loose metallic objects that may at some point get inadvertently dropped into the rack.
Four short TS-to-TS cables interconnect the LP1 to the Eleven Rack through the Eleven Rack's effects loop set for line level operation. Two more short TS-to-TS cables send the LP1's Aux1 output to the Eleven Rack's line inputs; this connection allows me to reprocess an LP1 loop through the Eleven Rack. (This disables the guitar input as the Eleven Rack has only a switch, but no mixer, for its input sources.) The choice of TS rather than TRS interconnects is deliberate, as the LP1 has only unbalanced I/Os.
The Eleven Rack's main outputs are routed through a pair of Rapco ISOBLOX 1:1 transformers (strapped to the rack tray) to XLR connectors on the breakout panel. The transformers isolate the Eleven Rack's outputs from inadvertent application of phantom power. Although the Eleven Rack's outputs should tolerate phantom power, a few users have reported damage apparently due to application of phantom power. Better safe than sorry...
The breakout-panel connectors include a USB B socket and an RJ-45 Ethernet socket. The USB socket passes signal to the Eleven Rack; this may be used to connect the Eleven Rack to a computer for control and recording and for firmware updates. The Ethernet socket passes signal to the LP1; this may be used for control, configuration and audio file transfers and firmware updates.
Five connections are required to make the rack fully operational:
- AC (100 to 240 volt) power,
- MIDI and phantom power (via a 7-pin DIN cable) to the LF+,
- a stereo audio signal (via a pair of XLR cables) to the stage box, and
- an instrument cable from the guitar to the Eleven Rack.
On the floor, I plug a Roland EV-5 (with a shortened cable) into the LF+. Through the facilities of the LF+, this single expression pedal may provide all continous controller messages for the rig.
Also on the floor, a Radial Big-Shot i/o instrument switcher allows me to mute my guitar and, optionally, to connect a second instrument for quick access. More importantly, the Big-Shot i/o gives my guitar cord something other than the Eleven Rack to pull on in the event that I wander too far.
In April, I added a pair of inline 20 dB pads to the signal path in order to make the output level a better match to channel strips which don't have their own pad switch. Whereas reducing the output level by 20 dB at the Eleven Rack introduces noise because of the active circuitry between the converters and the outputs, the pads - which are passive - reduce signal and noise equally resulting in no net increase in noise.
For transport the MIDI floor controller, expression pedal and input switcher all nestle securely in an SKB i-Series molded case (just slightly smaller than the rack case) fitted with a foam interior by Maxline Custom Cases. A cutout holds all of the necessary cables for the rig:
- a 12' power cord,
- a 15' 7-pin MIDI cable,
- two 10' XLR cables,
- a 15' instrument cable (input switcher to rack), and
- a curly instrument cable (instrument to input switcher);
The rack and accompanying accessory case is a "one-trip" rig. The rack masses approximately 32 pounds; the accessory case - fully loaded - about 23 pounds. Theoretically I could carry both of those plus a guitar in a gig bag with shoulder straps. Typically, though, I have someone help me out by carrying a guitar or a case. (If I absolutely, positively, need a one-trip rig I can get by with an all-in-one floor processor and a guitar in a gig bag.)
Incidentally, I hardly ever carry amplification of any kind. Almost every music venue in Portland has its own PA; most of the PAs are permanent installations of semi-pro to pro quality.
That's the "what" of my "2012 Rig". Next up: the "why"...
Several important thinkers have espoused the viewpoint that the things we do should be done in a manner that's as simple as possible, but not simpler than necessary. See, for example, Occam's Razor. Although Occam's Razor is intended to apply to explanations of observed phenomena, I think a similar principle can apply to the tools we use in our creative endeavors. I'm fond of a saying that "a system is complete when nothing can be removed without compromising its integrity."
In particular, I don't believe in having options simply for the sake of having options, "just in case". I think that everything in a system should satisfy a definite requirement.
The requirements that drove the design of my rig are:
- The rig must be readily transportable; there should be no exceptionally bulky or heavy cases.
- The rig may depend upon a computer for archival backups of settings and firmware (as well as for installation of firmware), but must be readily programmable without the aid of a computer.
- The rig must allow for simple incremental programming changes, such as configuring outputs for a mono stage feed or adjusting gain and EQ for a different guitar.
- The rig must be optimized for spontaneous control rather than organized around particular sounds and patches.
- Assume that the rig will be played through an unknown sound reinforcement system.
- Assume that the rig may be powered anywhere in the world.
- The rig must accurately emulate well-known effects, amplifiers and speakers. The emulation must be faithful not only in sound, but also in the response to a player's performance techniques and the behavior of virtual controls.
I briefly considered an all-in-one package in which the accessories are transported in a drawer mounted in the rack. This could have broken even in terms of total weight, but would have resulted in a package that'd be about as convenient to carry as a full-sized tube guitar amp (i.e. not convenient at all).
I've already discussed the universal-input power supplies used throughout. This was a conscious decision based upon a desire to move to Europe sometime in the foreseeable future.
The choice of the three high-tech devices, themselves not at all simple, was driven by the desire to integrate them into a rig that's simple to play. To this end, I strongly favor the use of IA switches to control effects rather than using presets to select predetermined combinations of processing.
I organize my virtual rig exactly as I'd design a physical rig. I have a small number of effects in a fixed order. I have a small number of patches that exchange virtual amps and one or two virtual effects, while maintaining the overall organization and behavior of the virtual rig.
I like the Eleven Rack because it satisfies my requirements for accurate and authentic emulation. In my experience with hardware effects processors, the Eleven Rack is the only unit that's able to satisfy this requirement - regardless of cost or availability.
The LP1 is the only current-production hardware looper that's rack-mountable and optimized for spontaneous composition. I had originally designed the rig around a Boomerang III because LP1s are extremely difficult to procure.
The Boomerang III, while (IMO) without peer amongst pedal-based phrase loopers, offered limited expressive control via its five buttons (which offer, in the usual configuration, control over three loops in a single mode plus four additional functions). Expanding the number of available loops (to four) and functions (to ten) requires the addition of the Boomerang Sidecar, an enclosure which houses five additional switches and communicates with the Boomerang III over a 5-pin DIN cable. The Boomerang products do not speak MIDI and so must be used on the floor where you can get at their footswitches.
I was able to steal power for the Boomerang III and Sidecar by using a special coupler to tap power from the 7-pin MIDI connection to the LF+. That saved me from running a line to an extra wall wart. Still, I needed an insert cable from the rack to the Boomerang plus several extra connections to hook up the two Boomerang boxes to each other. The biggest drawback, though, was that I needed an additional bag to carry the Boomerang units.
I got lucky and found an LP1 for sale as I was wrestling with the unpleasant consequences of integrating the Boomerang into my rig. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with Boomerang; it just happened to violate some of my rig design requirements.
In contrast to the Boomerang, the LP1 offers a plethora of commands accessible via MIDI. The extent to which one may spontaneously interact with the LP1 is limited only by the capabilities of one's MIDI controller.
And that brings me to what can only be described as the cornerstone of my "2012 Rig", the Liquid-Foot LF+ 12+ MIDI controller. Just as finding the LP1 seemed serendipitous as I was wrestling with the limitations of the Boomerang, finding the LF+ seemed serendipitous as I was wrestling with the limitations of a Roland FC-300.
Actually, "serendipitous" is a bit of an understatement. "Miraculous" might be a better choice of words. You see, the last time I sought a MIDI controller that did what I really wanted, I found no such unit. I was actually starting to consider designing my own controller (which would have been been expensive, time consuming and - due to my lack of mechanical fabrication skills - ultimately unsatisfying), when I - just for laughs - Googled the contents of my requirements list for the controller. To my great surprise and joy, the first hit was FAMC's LF+ 12+! Incredibly, the LF+ 12+ was a brand new product which had just begun shipping (as a beta preproduction release) a few weeks earlier. I ordered one immediately.
I could spend pages gushing about the wonders of the LF+. I was serious when I called the LF+ the cornerstone of my rig. As solo bassist Steve Lawson (who doesn't use an LF+ but seems to have evolved a rig construction philosophy similar to my own) observed in describing his own rig, "it's all about control".
Here's the short version of why the LF+ is so amazing. You look down at the unit and you see twelve buttons. Each button has a two-line LCD display, readable from a standing position. These small displays are lit in various colors to signify state or functionality. A large display at the top of the unit heralds the patch name and the name and state of the last button pushed. As cool as all that is, it's just surface appearance.
What you don't see immediately is that I've been able to program every one of the twelve buttons to do exactly what I want, without predefined constraints regarding the number and position of patch, bank, IA and special-function buttons with which you're no doubt familiar from your experiences with other other controllers. As cool as that is, there's still more...
I control approximately fifty distinct functions of my rig using just twelve buttons. Better still, I can get to all of those functions without having to memorize anything.
How? Well, I've used the capabilities of the LF+ to organize my controls in a way that makes sense to me. The IA buttons for certain effects bring up a secondary page of "tweaks" when held (for more than a half-second) rather than tapped. For example, the echo tweaks page lets me alter feedback and tempo division then, with another tap, return to the main page of controls.
The LP1 has its own pages (multiple pages of controls, each designed for a specific style of interaction) accessible with a tap from the main page. One LP1 page has controls for creating loops; another has controls for special effects and less frequently-used loop operations. All of the LP1 pages return to the main page with a single tap.
Of course the per-button displays tell you at a glance what each button does, how to navigate home, and the state of all effects.
Furthermore, while the LF+ has inputs for up to four expression pedals, it also offers the option to multiplex any or all of the attached pedals. For example, if I need either a volume pedal or a wah pedal but not both at once, I can program the LF+ to direct my one pedal's control to either CC #4 (wah) or CC #7 (volume) via a toggle button (which itself, like all buttons, may be initialized to a predetermined state on a per-patch basis).
The LF+ virtualizes rig control just as the Eleven Rack virtualizes guitar rigs. Detailed MIDI control of your rig no longer requires a huge board with dozens of buttons. A small controller can easily control a very large number of functions. (On the other hand, if you really want a vast sea of buttons then Liquid Foot will gladly accomodate your needs with the ability to interconnect controllers to coordinate up to sixty physical switches. A larger 24-button board is also slated for release very soon.)
Programming the LF+ involves a bit of a learning curve. You'll need to plan how you'll use the LF+ to control your rig. You can start simply and add functionality incrementally; you don't have to do everything all at once. And you certainly don't need to be a computer savant to program the LF+; once you grok a few basic concepts (which you can learn either from the manual or by experimenti ng with the available editor), the rest falls into place naturally thanks to a very clear and logical implementation.
Once the programming winds down, using the LF+ is easy because its behaviors are exactly the behaviors you need for your musical performances.