Tools of the Trade
To get started, you’ll need a laptop with TRAKTOR, a DJ mixer, at least one effects pedal, and 1/4” cables to connect to the required inputs and outputs.
When it comes to picking your pedals, there’s a universe of manufacturers out there. The iconic and ever-reliable brands such as Boss, Electro-Harmonix, MXR, Ibanez, and TC Electronic offer pedals to suit every wallet. These range from affordable single-purpose stompboxes to advanced multi effects units.
A little more exclusive are Strymon, Wampler, Zvex and Pigtronix et al; these are smaller companies known for their devotion to quality that exhibit an experimental edge. If cost is a concern, check on eBay or scour second-hand guitar shops for used pedals. If you’re willing to search, you can find dependable classics and rare obscurities for affordable prices.
Note that switches on guitar pedals are designed for guitarists to stomp on, so they can be a little stiff to operate by hand. You can add a switch topper to make them a little more hand-friendly, for example like the ones by Barefoot Buttons, and Mooer Candy.
Finally, bear in mind that most guitar pedals accept only a mono input. For DJing, you ideally want a pedal with full stereo input and output, so you can process stereo tracks or stems.
To keep things simple, we’re going to stick with Boss’ 500 series pedals for this article; they have stereo inputs/outputs and combine several effects in each unit. However, the techniques discussed in this article can be applied to any pedals you own.
CONNECTING YOUR PEDALS
Effects pedals will need to be connected to the mixer via the send and return connections on the DJ mixer. The send/return section on the mixer is usually both mono and stereo.
If you are working with mono pedals, route a mono cable from the mono send on the mixer into the input on the pedal, and then another mono cable from the output of the pedal into the return on the mixer. It’s a good idea to have a Deck in TRAKTOR dedicated to playing a mono track that doesn’t have too many elements in it. Minimal tracks tend to work well as there’s more sonic space for the effects to fill; with a busy track effects can stack up and sound messy.
If you plan to use a stereo pedal, route the send outputs from the mixer into the inputs on the FX pedals, and the outputs from the pedals into the return section on the mixer. Some pedals offer both stereo and mono inputs/outputs, which makes them a good choice for stereo work with a DJ mixer. If you’re just starting off with effects, try using a track with a simple percussive or melodic loop.
Set up a dedicated Deck in TRAKTOR for use with your pedal effects. For example, send Deck D through your pedals, and mix the processed sound of Deck D with other tracks on Deck A, B and/or C. Effects tend to work well with music that’s minimal in structure. Try beginning with a simple drum loop on your effects Deck, and mix this in with other tracks that are playing.
For time-based effects such as delays or modulation, you’ll need to be sure that they are in sync with the tempo of the track playing in TRAKTOR. There are a couple of ways to go about this. First, you can use the Tap button on the pedal; hit it steadily on the beat until the correct tempo is detected and locked in. The second method is to send the MIDI clock from TRAKTOR through the sound card, or mixer, to the input of the pedal.
To apply the effects so they sound polished, you’ll want to cut them in and out of the mix on time. For example, you could have an effect playing for one bar, two bars or four bars and then cut it out and return to the original track.
Modulation Effects with the Boss MD-500
For those looking for a wide range of modulation effects, Boss’s MD-500 is a great pedal that offers chorus, flanger, phaser, filter, vibrato, ring mod, slicer and more. Here’s a few examples of how these effects can be used in a TRAKTOR set.
Filters can be used to create sweeps that sound great with percussive-based tracks. Try sweeping the frequency on the filter up right before the drop of a track to create tension.
Flangers produce a swept comb filter effect, which means peaks and notches in the frequency spectrum are harmonically related. This effect can be used to produce spacey sounds that work well with house and techno.
Ring modulation works by multiplying two signals together. Usually, one of them is a basic waveform like a sine wave and the result has a characteristic metallic ringing timbre. It can sound great when used at the end of a phrase. In the example below, ring modulation is applied for four beats, then cut out, and the pattern is repeated for eight bars.
Delay is especially popular with techno and house artists, yet the effect can be creatively applied to nearly any genre to create atmosphere, mystery and dimension. Delay works best with minimal type tracks as the space in between the beats leaves room for the repeating, decaying echoes that the delay creates. Boss’ Digital Delay DD-500 is a great option, as it offers twelve contrasting delay styles from analog- and tape-style to more esoteric types such as reverse and Boss’s future classic Tera Echo.
It’s best to use a delay pedal with tap or MIDI tempo, so that you can sync the echoes with the rhythm of your TRAKTOR tracks. With tightly locked echoes, you can create rhythmic fills and build-ups. Two delay pedals that have the Tap Tempo feature are the Boss DD-500 or Boss DD-7, although others are available.
Here’s how a classic analog-style delay sounds with techno.
Reverb effects mimic the natural reverberations heard in real spaces. Softer than the obvious echoing repeats of a delay, reverb causes sounds to ‘hang’ in mid-air, imbuing tracks with a sense of spaciousness. Reverb sounds great on clap and snare hits and can be used to create fills that keep mixes interesting.
Boss’ RV-500 offers a palette of reverb types including Dual Reverb and Space Echo as well as emulations of traditional mechanical spring and plate reverbs. In this example, one of the knobs on the RV-500 is mapped to a parameter called Twist, which creates a fast-rising “lift-off” sound.
One effect is never enough, so the logical next step is to build a chain of pedals for your TRAKTOR setup. If you’re new to pedals, build a chain of two effects and master those first. Connect the output of the first pedal to the input of the second, then connect the second pedal’s output to the return on the DJ mixer. Once you’ve got the hang of your two-effect chain, you can move on to linking three or more effects together.
The order in which you connect your effects in will determine the overall sound of the chain. For example, delay followed by reverb is a classic chain. Here’s an example of how it sounds, using the Boss DD-500 and RV-500.
Now let’s introduce a modulation effect; these sound good placed early in the chain. Sticking with the Boss 500 series, try using the MD-500, DD-500 and RV-500 in that order. In the audio example, you’ll hear a Slicer on the MD-500, Filter (filtered delay) on the DD-500 and Reverb on the RV-500. One of the TAP/CTL buttons has also been assigned to the RV-500’s Twist parameter. For variations, try changing the order of the pedals in the chain.
During a live DJ set, you don’t want to be spending time scrolling through parameters and settings on effects as it’s far more efficient to set up your presets in advance. Patch-switching MIDI controllers allow you to quickly scroll through your presets of effect chains. While not specifically designed for DJing, Disaster Area’s range of patch-switching MIDI controllers come highly recommended for this purpose.
The Disaster Area DMC-3XL Gen3 stores up to 24 presets and can input a maximum of three MIDI devices. When a preset is selected, MIDI program change messages that load your desired patches and settings are sent to the pedals. Let’s say you have two pedals that offer multiple effects and are switchable via MIDI. Preset 1 could set up a flanger followed by a tape echo, and preset 2 could be a filter followed by vintage delay. These presets can also bypass pedals when they aren’t needed for a particular effects setup, preserving the integrity of audio signals. To stay organized, create a spreadsheet with 24 rows (or however many presets your particular MIDI controller has), with columns listing the effects used in each preset.
The best way to travel with your pedals is with a professionally built rack, also known as a pedal board. Effects racks pre-wire your pedals together, so you don’t need to waste time connecting and disconnecting the pedals before and after your performances. Even if you only work with outboard effects in your home studio, a professionally built rack ensures that your pedals and all cabling stays secured, neat and organized.
Nice Rack Canada builds high quality racks that are sturdy enough to withstand the rigours of the road – for an example, look no further than the customized rack shown in all the accompanying photos and used to create the audio examples. Hand-built in Toronto by Mike Vegas, Nice Rack Canada’s racks are traditionally built for guitarists, though they can be customized for a DJ’s needs.
Another thing to consider when using guitar pedals in a DJ setup is impedance. Without getting too techy, impedance refers to the resistance an electronic system puts up to the flow of current, and it is measured in ohms (Ω). Almost all pedals are built for electric guitarists, and the output of the typical guitar has an impedance of around 6 to 15kΩ. In general, pedals have high input impedance – typically 1MΩ – and low output impedance.
A DJ mixer’s send and return impedance values are quite unlike those of an electric guitar’s output and amplifier’s input. This causes a mismatch that can slightly impair audio signals.
An impedance-matched pedalboard system can solve this issue and Nice Rack Canada is a company that makes a great one. On the rack pictured in the photos, a set of stereo input and output buffers are installed in the Audio In and Audio Out connections box. The Input buffer sends an 8k Ω signal into the pedals. The output of the pedals is buffered with a 1m Ω input value to load the output of the effects in the same manner as guitar amplifier, and 150 Ω output to DJ Mixer Return. The input/output buffers can be switched in or out of the circuit, in case you don’t need them when using line level effects. Matching the impedance levels of the pedalboard to the DJ mixer adds a subtle, yet noticeable overall difference in sound quality.
Using an Expression Box
Some effects pedals let you manipulate parameters via an attached expression pedal for greater control. In the Boss 500 series, parameters such as feedback, time, tone, level modulation depth and rate can all be controlled via the expression input.
As DJs, though, we’re more used to working with our hands than our feet and the expression box allows artists to use their hands to control the effects pedal parameters. The expression box hooks up just like an expression pedal, but rather than sitting on the floor, it rests on the table next to your DJ equipment.
photo credits: Phil Kim – ICON Motion