Tuesday 30 November 2021

How To Make a 'Perfect' Guitar Pedal - For Synthesizers!

I have always liked pedals. I could try to clarify but then if I was to say 'guitar pedals' then that excludes 'expression pedals' and 'wah pedals' (the first treddled foot pedal I ever bought was a Colorsound Wah Pedal), but these days many synthesists also use 'guitar pedals' (and expression pedals), but rarely wah pedals, and so just saying 'pedals' could be very confusing. Er, and then there's the word 'effects' as well to contend with... Audio effects? Guitar effects? 

So, here we go again. I like effects pedals that are made for use by guitarists but can also be used for processing the sounds of synthesizers (and drum machines). I also like expression pedals that have foot-operated 'treadles' - the bit that moves and you put your foot on. Over time, one or two pedals have found their way into my studio 'gear', and or or two have been modded and sold on - which was a different world and not something I do now, although it is quite a fascinating topic... Of these pedals, very few are perfect. In fact, 'perfect' gear is very rare. 

Which made me think: what would 'pedal perfection' actually look like?

Photo by Kornelije Casni on Unsplash

The Perfect Pedal?

In this blog post, I am going to describe my ideal specifications for a pedal that does exactly what I want in a pedal to process synthesizers (and drum machines), and no more. In the process, I'm going to describe some 'must haves', as well as some 'not required', and I may prevaricate with some 'not essentials' as well, which are exactly what their name suggests: not essential, and probably a distraction from the main 'must haves'. Finally, I will note the 'annoying compromises' that often sabotage a pedal's attempt to reach the highest levels of perfection.

Also, notice how this blog post title avoids using click-bait techniques like:

"This effects pedal is perfect!"


Stereo Audio Inputs and Outputs

Synthesizers tend to have stereo outputs, even when that is because there's an 'affordable' chorus unit (or a stereo panner) at the end of the processing chain. But samplers, or as many get used most of the time, sample replayers, can sometimes output real stereo, from two different samples, although there are some that use chorus, panning or reverb to turn mono into something more spatialised across the stereo sound stage/field. From my own experimentation with Dave Hilowitz's excellent Decent Sampler, I have become convinced that stereo samples (where they really are two different samples, recorded from two microphones, or synthesized/processed via two different virtual locations) are definitely a desirable sound source, and the next decade is probably going to see me increasingly pushed towards surround of one flavour or another. 

I did think about mentioning line level switches, but decided that would complicate things even more (plus, I had no winners!)

Dual DSPs/Engines/Processors

Polyphonic synthesizers were only just starting to appear when I started buying synths, and so I spent a lot of time on monophonic synthesizers like the OB-1, ARP Odyssey and the Moog Model D Minimoog

1 or 2 oscillators? (VCOs)

History is very cruel for monosynths with only one oscillator (or VCO in those days), and so the single oscillator ARP Axxe is much less well-known than its dual oscillator (and duophonic) sibling, the Odyssey. (So much so that it doesn't get a full entry on Wikipedia, which has to be close to an InterWeb insult...) But, presumably because of cost, pedals with two effects inside ('dual' pedals) are the norm, and pedals with more effects ('multi-effects') tend to have cut-down effects rather than fully-featured.

Connecting/Routing options for single and dual effects

In just the same way that 2 oscillator monosynths can have different transpositions, waveforms, detuning, PWM and more, dual effects can provide additional creative possibilities - two different shimmer pitch-shifts, for example, or two different types of reverb with different algorithms. But pedals offer an additional option: the effects can be in parallel, or in series. So rather than having two different shimmers mixed together, the output of the first shimmer is passed through the second, which can sound much more complex and interesting. Feeding a reverse reverb into a hall reverb can give a composite which is much bigger, denser, and way removed from reality. 

(I'm not going to extend this Oscillator metaphor to include series and parallel connections of oscillators!)

Also, just as presets changed the way that monosynths were used in live performance (videos of 70s live performances often show the keyboard player adjusting Minimoog settings between songs, or during songs...), then having presets which recall all the settings for two effects simultaneously is a great time-saver, and prevents mis-matches when only one effect setting is changed. Pedal boards with sophisticated controllers and switch matrices can solve this for single effect pedals, but pedal boards tend to be used by guitarists, and less so by keyboard players or synthesists.  In the 70s and 80s, one MXR effects pedal (usually an orange Phase 90) tended to be placed on top of the Fender Rhodes piano (the curved top didn't help with stability), next to the Minimoog, whilst the Pete Cornish pedal board would be on the floor in front of the guitarist. 

So dual is definitely my preference, but it is very rare.

Series and Parallel audio examples...



MIDI and Expression and Switches...

This is easily overlooked. Many pedals add MIDI sockets, Expression pedal inputs, and additional foot switch inputs in a simple linear relationship with the cost. The higher the cost of the pedal, the more interfaces that you get. So simple, affordable pedals with stereo in and out might have no MIDI and no Expression pedal input, and to get those extra sockets you could easily double or treble the cost. Sometimes you get a single interface that can be used for MIDI OR Expression OR foot switches - but only one of these, although usually purchasing an additional box will allow two or more of them to be used (So an Expression pedal can be converted to MIDI controller messages and sent to multiple pedals, alongside MIDI clock and program changes, etc.) 

My ideal would be to have separate interfaces (sockets!) for each of these control functions: MIDI, Expression, and foot switches. Once again, this is quite unusual.

Simple UI for the Dual Functions

Having two separate effects in the same pedal does not mean duplication of the controls, it just requires a clear way of indicating which of the two effects you are editing at any time, and when you are hearing both of them during performance. On my TC Electronics Flashback Triple Delay, I always forget to move the little toggle switch which changes between the front panel controls so that I can edit each of the three delays individually, and so I am always changing the parameters for the wrong delay! There are three foot switches which turn the three delays on or off, but these do not affect which delay settings the front panel controls will alter. So there are two different ways to select a delay: one of three foot switches for the audio, and a separate little toggle switch for the front panel controls. I lose track every time! (But it is still a great device for creating complicated/long delays!)

So, a clear way of indicating which effect you are editing, and when both are playing, is essential. Altering the functionality of the controls when playing is fine, because that's a third mode: Playing, as opposed to Editing Effect 1, or Editing Effect 2. Simples.

MIDI Clock

If there are tap tempo functions in the pedal to set the timing of delays or reverbs or LFOs, then these should also be able to use MIDI Clock as a source of timing information. 

Mobile/Desktop Editing/Librarian over USB

Being able to edit presets, save them locally or in The Cloud, and to share them with other users, is kind of the way that effects work nowadays. But it is doubly (or more) important when you have the complexity of dual effects, with series or parallel routing of the audio, and three different sets of controls: Editing 1, Editing 2, Playing. 

I haven't included Bluetooth because in a computer environment with lots of USB 3.1 connections, I find that Bluetooth is unreliable - particularly as the number of Bluetooth devices goes up. I have a GoCube 3x3 Cube that refuses to sync when it is anywhere near my mouse, keyboard, headphones...


Complex Audio Ins and Outs

Quad ins and outs are either twice as desirable, or just doubling up on stereo in and out. So the Poly Effects Beebo pedal's quad ins and outs gives it a good head start over just about everything else... 

The ability to put the pedal in the effects loop of a guitar amplifier, or the send/return loop of a mixer, is useful if your studio is focussed around the mixer, and you always use the same effect (or chain of effects) on several channels. If the pedals are channel specific then a patch-bay and a pool of pedals may be more flexible and rapidly reconfigurable.

Multiple Simultaneous Effects

Guitar pedal boards have complex chains of pedals that serve at least two purposes: tone modification (fuzz, distortion, compression, gating), plus time and frequency modulation effects (chorus, flanging, delay, reverb, tremolo, vibrato...), and so often have a large number of pedals. Keyboards and synthesizers, particularly when used polyphonically,  tend to only require the modulation effects, and so multi-effects tend to be less useful, especially when the type of effect is limited to one delay, one reverb and one chorus/phaser.flanger type of effect. Monosynths can use tone modification effects, but there is a tendency for them to then sound like guitars, or a guitar using a 'synth' pedal to sound like a monosynth. The sound output from my Yamaha TX7 (another device that doesn't get a Wikipedia entry) paired with a Valeton GP-100 multi-effect pedal is a perfect example - sometimes I'm not sure if it is an FM synth, or a heavily processed guitar...

So whilst there are many examples (Helix et al) multi-effects tend to be cut-down, simplified 'guitar-oriented' pedal board replacements, which are very useful in some circumstances, but which struggle to be the subtle, unusual, studio effects that can bring an otherwise bland and boring synthesizer or keyboard to life!

Multiple MIDI and Expression and Switches...

Having two merged MIDI Ins, and more than one MIDI Thru and Out is overkill on a pedal. These functions can be added separately if required. The same with Expression Pedal inputs: one is fine, because most high-end pedals will allow the expression input to be mapped to more than one parameter. Alternatively, there are a number of MIDI Controller devices for pedal boards that can map a single Expression Pedal to several different MIDI controllers on different MIDI channels, and so control several parameters simultaneously. 

Sometimes adding switches prevents MIDI or Expression altogether. I have one device which uses a MIDI foot switch to provide additional control, but you then lose the MIDI Input for any other purpose - like MIDI Clock...

Duplication of Controls

Dual effects does not mean dual (or triple) controls. But a clear way of indicating what is being edited or played is good. If I was to be pedantic (me?) then there are four modes: Editing Effect 1, Editing Effect 2, Editing the dual effect playing setup, and actually Playing both effects. I would propose that, in a lot of cases, the last two are effectively the same mode in most cases. 

Tap Tempo Switch Input

An input socket for a tap tempo switch, or from a pedal that outputs tempo as switch presses (quite rare) is not, in my humble opinion, essential. Useful, yes, but this functionality can be easily replaced by a MIDI Controller that sends MIDI Clock over MIDI. 

Mobile/Desktop Editing/Librarian over Bluetooth

I am biased. I haven't included Bluetooth because in a computer environment with lots of USB 3.1 connections, then I find that Bluetooth connectivity can be very unreliable - particularly as the number of Bluetooth devices goes up. It seems that Bluetooth and USB 3.1 don't get along nicely... 

USB Audio Interface

Recently, from about 2015, some devices with USB sockets have started to provide built-in USB Audio Interfaces, so that they can send digital audio to and from DAWs (or the host computers!). This took the idea of stand-alone USB Audio Interfaces, like the Focusrite Scarlett, from about 2010 (and still in production. several generations later), and put the technology inside individual devices. This has accelerated in the 2020s, and now even small stand-alone synthesizers like the Rebel Technology Witch have USB Audio Interfaces built-in. 

Discord has other uses besides chat!

You can test this using something like Discord - a dialogue will pop up if you connect a USB device that supports USB Audio, or go to this URL with a WebMIDI browser like Chrome: https://webmidi.info This URL checks your browser for WebMIDI compatibility, and will also report if a USB Audio device is connected...

Visiting https://webmidi.info

In my opinion, whilst useful sometimes, and although it converts the signal to digital earlier in the audio chain, it is better to use a dedicated USB Audio Interface like a Focusrite Scarlett (there are many other USB Audio Interfaces). This is because you will be using the same audio interface for all audio-to-digital conversions, and so you get consistency of sample rate, of anti-aliasing filtering, of dithering, of power supply noise leakage, and more. 

In the future, the burgeoning availability of high quality USB Audio Interfaces could well influence things towards the use of digital audio interconnectivity instead of analogue audio on quarter inch jacks or RCA connectors, but we are not there yet, particularly with guitar pedals. It will be an interesting transition...

USB Host

The last few years have also seen a rise in the demand for USB Host sockets (usually via the familiar rectangular USB-A sockets instead of the squarer 'printer' USB-B sockets). These allow a device to have MIDI Controllers connected to it (keyboards, pad matrices, sliders...) and to be controlled by them, without any need for a computer (OK, technically, the device acts as a computer!). 

Whilst the 'Does it have a USB Host socket?' question is becoming increasingly frequent in device FAQs, I think it will be a few years before it appears on guitar pedals. It also makes much more sense, particularly in pedal board designs, to have a single MIDI Controller that give a foot switch and display for controlling several pedals with preset selection, expression pedal routing, MIDI Clock tempo control and routing and controlling audio switching. 


Mono Inputs and Stereo Outputs

Good for guitar players, but for synthesizers, then only useful for vintage gear from the 70s and 80s that have mono outputs. More importantly, a pedal like this can only be put at the start of a chain of pedals - putting it in the middle requires compromises - like combining the two channels by mixing, or maybe by subtracting, or some other processing (correlation)? 

Stereo Inputs and Outputs using Stereo Jack Sockets

Some otherwise strong contenders fall at this fence. The Hologram Microcosm has a stereo jack input, and two mono jack output for the Left and Right output channels - yep, the input and output sockets really are different. This is fine where you have immediate access to a stereo-to-twin-mono cable, but a pain when you don't - and yes, a patchbay insert cable does this, but it seems to me that there is a pretty strong negative correlation between people with patchbays and people with lots of guitar pedals...

Fixed Ordering and Types of Effects in a Multi-Effect pedal

Multi-effects pedals come in three flavours:

1. The order and type of effect in each 'slot' is fixed. e.g. Distortion->Chorus->Delay->Reverb->Amp->Cab. So you can have any type of delay or Reverb you like, but the delay is always before the reverb. And you can't ever have two delays, or two reverbs, or more than one of anything!
2. The order of the effects can be changed, but only one instance of a type. In this flavour, you can have the reverb before the delay, but you can't have another reverb (or delay, or any other repeated effect) anywhere in the chain. 
3. The order and type of effects can be changed. This allows you to have more than one delay or reverb or chorus..., and in any order. This is the rare and expensive flavour, and you might find that there are still hidden limitations - like an overall limit of the total time delay that you can produce, for example. 

All three flavours make compromises, and there is usually a strong correlation with the cost: higher price = less compromises. 

MIDI OR Expression OR Switches...

Sometimes pedals will provide a single 'unified' interface that can be used for MIDI OR Expression OR foot switches - but only one of these. So yes, you have access to the functionality, just not all of them at once. Usually the solution to this is to purchase an additional box that will allow two or more of them to be used at the same time...

What Editing Mode is This?

Minimising the number of controls is often a good thing, but if the end user does not know what they are editing, then that just causes confusion. Clear modes (Edit Effect 1, Edit Effect 2, Play Dual) can help to avoid this, particularly if a switch position is clearly visible or LEDs can be used to indicate which mode is active. 

I don't think that a display is essential - lots of classic outboard gear does not have a display. But an annoying compromise would be a display that doesn't clearly show which mode is active, or which is too small. And  a few LEDs can be very effective at indicating which of three modes is active!

USB for Everything

I have read that MIDI, Expression Pedals and Additional Foot Switch inputs can all be replaced by USB connections. I do have a USB Audio Interface, and so MIDI to USB is easy, but converting an Expression Pedal to MIDI is harder, and interfacing analogue foot switches to USB is even harder. Maybe this will change over time, but in my current present, waiting for the future just wastes time.


Mono Audio Input and Output

I want to like some mono pedals. I have some! But only when there really isn't a stereo alternative. It also seems like a waste of money to buy two just to get two channels of processing, even though the differences may actually contribute to the final sound - of which more in the 'must haves'. (I made no guarantees about being consistent!) Or worst case, having two separate channels processed separately may cause problems because of phase cancellations further down the processing chain. Forced compromise is not something that I think belongs in a 'perfect' pedal specification.

More than Two...

Two reverbs (or delays, or tremoloes, or...) in series, or parallel, can be very useful for making complex harmonic or polyrhythmic sounds. But the law of diminishing returns often means that three of the same effect can start to be too many. I have a TC Electronics Flashback Triple delay, which can have three separate delays in series (or in parallel), and whilst it is incredibly useful/powerful for making ambient music and 'Frippertronics' tape delay effects, a lot of the time I could probably get very similar results using only two delays. I have never contemplated buying a second one!

The other aspect of having multiple (more than two) instances of an effect is the cost and resources. When boutique pedals cost between £350-£500+ (or the equivalent in your local currency), then 'dual'ling one, even with cost savings by sharing some circuitry, is going to increase the cost by a significant amount. Tripling a boutique pedal could easily become prohibitively expensive, rather like the way that a Lamborghini (subsidiary of Audi), Ferrari, Bugatti (etc.) supercar can have a cost many times that of a more conventional car. 

Big, Colour Displays

Pedals do not have to be big, and I'm not thinking about a rack-mounted pedal, because that would be a piece of outboard gear. Equally, large colour displays (and touch sensitive!) are not essential, although using two or three LEDs to indicate the mode of a dual pedal is a must have.


Finally, we get to the bit you have been waiting for. The grand reveal. The long list of dual pedals that get my approval as being more or less perfect, as far as the specifications above are concerned.

(Publicity photos from Source Audio and MOD Devices)

That's it. Probably a slightly shorter list than you and I were expecting. Congratulations to Source Audio and MOD Devices for making just about perfect pedals!

All of the other contenders that you might have been expecting ( Strymon, Empress, EHX, etc. ), unfortunately seem to fail in one way or another (- although I'm willing to be corrected if I have missed an example). It doesn't mean that they are not excellent and very desirable pedals. It just means that in this very specific context, they are not perfect. 

Perfection is rare. Very rare! ...And personal!

Oh, and here's a recent blog post on a very different, but also excellent pedal from Chase Bliss Audio!


If you find my writing helpful, informative or entertaining, then please consider visiting this link:

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Monday 15 November 2021

Very very good article on the inner workings of the Yamaha DX7

I rarely do links to other blogs, but today is an exception! Go to the 'Doing it Right!' section near the end, to see the details of a link to a wonderful article on the inner details of the Yamaha DX7!

Getting it wrong!

The way the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer is treated on the InterWeb is interesting because they are very often full of myths and errors. 

Some articles say it uses FM (Frequency Modulation), when it actually uses PM (Phase Modulation). Some articles say that it sold more units than any other synthesizer, ever, (over 150,000 units - definitive figures are tricky to find and verify), forgetting another digital synth from slightly later, the Korg M1 (over 250,000 units - again, difficult to verify), and several other contenders since... (There again, you can always spiral down into the black hole of clarifications: digital, 12-bit (kind of), hand-built, custom chips...) Some articles say that the DX7, and FM, are difficult to program, but then so is C++ (and many other things) - and yet a lot of people managed to program the huge number of patches/presets/sounds that are available for the DX7 (including a few hundred from myself), so it can't be that tricky! Oh, and some articles say that Yamaha synthesisers do not output MIDI velocity above 100 (instead of up to 127) - which was true for the first few DX7s, and was then fixed, so it not only wasn't correct very soon after the launch in 1983, it hasn't been right since for almost 40 years! Basically, it seems as if many authors of articles about the DX7 and FM don't do their background research properly and just copy the same old fake news and myths. 

(Oh, and hardly anyone ever notes that the original 'number' proposed for the DX7 was the DX5...)

Doing it right!

In total and complete contrast, in every way, a recent blog post from Ken Shirriff is throughly recommended because it not only gets everything right, it also goes very deep into how the DX7 works


Congratulations, my admiration, and kudos to Ken Shirriff for an excellent article!


If you find my writing helpful, informative or entertaining, then please consider visiting this link:

Synthesizerwriter's Store (New 'Modular thinking' designs now available!)

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee (Encourage me to write more posts like this one!)

Monday 8 November 2021

The Chase Bliss EXP Pedal...

At the low end of the guitar pedal marketplace, you have budget pedals: small, very affordable, and all very similar: fuzz, overdrive, chorus, phaser, flanger, delay, reverb...

At the opposite end of the market there are what are often called the 'boutique' pedal manufacturers: sophisticated, beautifully engineered and as some marketing people like to say: 'reassuringly expensive' - but most importantly: diverse and unusual. You won't find conventional 'me too' phasers, loopers or delays here. Instead you will get informed, flexible, powerful, eclectic pedals - plus many other words associated with innovation and exclusivity.


A perfect example of this (and actually, pretty much a perfect pedal) is the recently announced EXP pedal from Chase Bliss Audio. Wikipedia describe Chase Bliss Audio as being 'high-end', whilst Anderton's Music Company says: '...not just another pedal company, no...21st Century Trail-blazers...'. Chase Bliss Audio themselves say it very nicely on their web-site: 

Chase Bliss makes pedals that mix digital wizardry with analog goodness to create weird and wonderful sounds.

However, the EXP pedal is slightly different - it is just 'analogue goodness'. (No digital inside at all!)

In these days of 'Do you want a microprocessor with that?' turning up in everything, then this is a bold move, but it is a great move.

The reason why this is such an amazing move is that EXP is the expression pedal, reinvented. 

I will let you think about that for a moment...

Instead of an angled foot plate that you move with your foot to control guitar pedals via the 'Expression' input, the EXP pedal looks more like a very robust, very engineered modulation wheel that has escaped from a synthesizer - maybe someone like Expressive E. So you can use it on top of a studio desk, where it gives a nice, convenient, tactile interface to controlling guitar pedals being used as outboard effects, and the classy black metal case with its minimalistic labelling, plus the 'executive toy' knurled texture on the wheel, plus the glossy numbers wrapped around it, mean that it looks like it belongs there. Alternatively, put it on the floor or on a pedal board, and the rugged metal box, plus the grippy metal wheel that can be moved with your foot, mean that it is right at home there as well. 

And whilst you are visualising your foot moving the wheel on the EXP pedal, here's an interesting practical thought: have you ever knocked an expression pedal whilst feeling about with your foot for a foot-switch on a pedal board? Well, the wheel on the EXP is almost immune to such accidents, because unless you put your foot on it and move your foot forwards deliberately, then it isn't going to get accidentally moved... The reason that you may feel the world wobbling a little at the moment is a large number of guitarists all nodding (with a slightly embarrassed smile on their face at various live 'incidents'), plus more nodding of heads from all the live mix engineers who have had to suddenly pull back the sliders for the guitarist who just jumped up 20 dB in the mix.  

So let's look at this design. Instead of 15 to 30 degrees of angular movement from your foot, you have something like 270 degrees of rotation of a wheel, or about 150mm (6 inches) of linear movement of a foot (or hand). So that's lots of fine control, plus there's a big number that shows from 0-10, so you know where you are in the range. I can't recall ever seeing a foot pedal marked off in degrees...


Now, I have never been able to resist opening up gear, and so that's what I did next...

That's a single piece of bent metal that isn't fastened to either the base of the case (as you can see), nor the top part. It is held in place by the base when the case is assembled, and the electrical connections to the top part of the case are made thru a Molex sparse ribbon cable. As you can see, the wheel occupied all of the available vertical space, nearly touching the base - but it doesn't, of course! What you also get hints of here are some bearings (the thick metal casting in the lower left, and of some mechanics in the central fold hole. 

Sharp-eyed readers (viewers, actually) will probably have spotted that there are two 'stereo' jack plugs connected at the back, and these are for the two electrically separate outputs. The two rectangular hole near the top have two switches just below them, and these can reverse the direction of the outputs, so you can have heel and toe the same or both, or both reverse, or heel and toe opposite in two ways. I set the switches to opposite positions, so that I have two outputs that are the inverse of each other. So whatever I control with expression on one pedal, I can control the opposite on another pedal. But as you can see, just by removing 4 bolts and flipping a switch, I can change that at any time. 

I was pretty impressed with the mechanical minimalism here. I was expecting something much lighter and that the switches would be more awkward to get at. I like good surprises.

(What is interesting here is the forced perspective. You might be wondering why the base looks so much smaller than the case.? The clue is the shadows... Yes, the top part of the case is actually much higher up because I had to stand it on a couple of wood blocks because the wheel sticks out of the top of the case. So the top part is much closer to the camera, which is why the shadow for the top part of the case is diffuse, whilst the shadow for the base of the case is so sharp - it is on the blue background, whilst the top part of the case is about 30 mm above it. So now you know! You eye assumes that the two objects are both on the blue background, and so the base must be smaller even though it is the same dimensions!)

Going a bit deeper was interesting. That single piece of bent metal IS the holder for all the mechanics, and it is not fastened to the top of the case at all. There is just the sparse black ribbon cable. So you just lift out the bent metal...

As I said, the wheel has substantial bearings in those solid blocks of metal. The wheel connects to the pot using a toothed rubber drive belt, so no slipping. and the potentiometer is, as expected, a dual gang linear potentiometer, which explains how the two outputs can be electrically separate - one gang is used for each output. It looks as if the circuit board is held in place by the two jack sockets, so, that's a neat solution as well. The diameters of the wheel gear and the potentiometer gear appear to be pretty much the same size, and so the wheel uses the whole 270 degrees of rotation of the potentiometer, which is why you can invert the ranges for the two outputs.

So the mechanical design is very cool. There are no fastenings needed for the main bent metal assembly to hold it in place inside the case, other than the case itself. The four bolts that hold the base of the case in place, also hold the mechanical assembly securely and solidly in place. The metal is bent to form the supports for the bearings and the potentiometer. I just love it. Minimalistic, with no levers, easy disassembly and it looks like servicing (replacing the rubber belt, or the bearings, or the potentiometer) should be very easy and quick. I'm struggling to find anything to criticise here. 

Even if I was very picky and said that dust might get inside through the rectangular hole in the top of the case for the wheel, then just opening up the case and blowing away the dust is probably going to be all that is required. If liquids get inside, then it is all passive components, and the potentiometer is unlikely to cost a fortune to replace. 

Using it

Expression pedals are made to allow you to control things - to make them expressive. So next, I look at using it...

Well, it works. Wonderfully. It's like an expression pedal, except that you don't rock it from heel to toe with your foot, instead you roll from one end to the other, which seems to be about 270 degrees of rotation, and the end stops feel solid and not sloppy, and not particularly padded. Rather like a lot of synthesizer modulation wheels, actually. Perhaps a little stiffer, but it may loosen up as I use it more. But not a problem. My only criticism is that moving rapidly from heel to toe requires a little bit of practice with your hand (or your foot). 

And there's the amazing thing. It feels right either as a desktop hand operated controller for expression, or on the floor as a foot-operated controller for expression. It is quite heavy, so there's no skittering when you stick the rubber feet on the bottom, and the base is smooth and matt black paint, so Velcro is going to hold it well on a pedal board base. 

There isn't very much room, but I'm sure that someone is going to find a way to put a couple of LEDs inside so that the wheel hole lights up...

(I've tried modding one of my ordinary expression pedals so that they have two outputs, and the problem is that you need a pedal that uses the whole 270 degree range of the potentiometer - and the pedal I used didn't do that... My advice is to only try this on a pedal if you are expert in mechanics, which isn't me...)

With the EXP, it is very cool to be able to seamlessly blend from two very different effects, or even to find interesting points in-between the extremes. As with this type of thing, the more you play, the more you will find. So there's plenty of scope for exploration, and as for robustness, then I would have no hesitation using the EXP live or taking it on tour. 

Expression, and Voltages...

Now I could have used a photo of the EXP connected to the 'Expression pedal' input of a guitar effects pedal, and it would be ever so slightly boring and obvious. Instead, here's a photo where the guitar effects pedal is off camera, way to the left, and instead, the EXP is connected to a little bit of hardware (the 'EXP CV' box) that I threw together, because the design of the EXP also makes it well (maybe even uniquely) suited to also being used as a robust CV controller.

Nope. I haven't gone mad. Expression pedals output a voltage, which used to be somewhere from zero Volts-ish to somewhere less than 5 Volts. These days, processors tend to run on just over 3 Volts, and so somewhere in the range of 0-3V-ish is where you expect an expression pedal to output. 

(What happens is that a guitar pedal 'expression socket' does two things: it provides power to an external potentiometer inside the foot pedal, and then it receives the output of that potentiometer back as an input! So older pedals provided 5V power to the external foot pedal, whereas modern pedals only provide 3.3V. The potentiometer just taps off a percentage of the voltage, so if it is half-way round its whole rotation, then it outputs 50% of the voltage, so for 5V that would be 2.5V, and for 3.3V it would be 1.65V. The guitar pedal knows what voltage it outputs, and so it can calculate how far the foot pedal has rotated. This dual-function: providing a voltage output and a 'rotation' input, is why you need to use a 'stereo' cable for expression. So three (3) wires are needed: Ground (common to both functions, the Power (5V, 3.3V...), and the Rotation CV from the potentiometer - and a 'stereo' jack provides three connections. Note that the foot pedal doesn't care about the voltage - the potentiometer only outputs a 'rotation' CV that is proportional to how far it has been rotated. )

The range depends on the mechanical linkages used in the pedals - levers don't always seem to rotate the potentiometer through the full 270 degrees - as I noted earlier. But the EXP pedal does use the whole range, and so you can have two opposite outputs that both go from heel to toe. This is so cool, especially when you've tried to make a pedal like this and failed! 

So the mysterious box that is connected between the distant guitar pedal and the EXP is a new generation of my expression pedal range tester. It is ridiculously simple: two stereo jack sockets connected in parallel, and a 3.5mm mono jack socket for the CV output. 

To this simple circuit I have added a cheap three-wire voltage display module (a voltmeter) from Amazon, plus four AA batteries in a holder to provide power for the display. One of the things that isn't well publicised about voltage displays is that the two wire versions are powered from the voltage you are trying to display, and they typically need at least 4.5 Volts to work. So you can typically measure (and display) voltages from 4.5V to about 30V. When the display goes off, then you know that it is below 4.5V! 

But a three-wire voltage display module has an extra wire (usually white or grey) that connects to the voltage that you want to measure, whilst the usual black (the common ground connection) and red (power) wires go to a separate power supply - in my case, those four AA batteries in a holder. Anyway, the display is thus powered separately from the voltage that is being measured, and in this case, separately from the expression pedal socket of the guitar pedal. The end result is that the batteries give me a 6V power supply for the voltage display, which is fine for measuring the 0-5V (max) that expression pedals normally output. 

Using this voltage display technique to make some measurements, my M-Audio Expression Pedal can output between 0-2.75V to 2.84-3.14V for a 3.3V expression pedal socket, my Bespeco between 0-3.18V, my Nektar between 0-3.07V, and my Casio VP-1 between 1.68-2.56V. I will leave it as a challenge to you to figure out which pedal I tried to put a dual gang potentiometer into... 

The EXP? It produced 0-2.76V for one switch position, and 0-3.04V for the other position. So, for the first time in the review so far, a not-quite perfect result. But bear in mind that this is not a specified parameter for the EXP, or for any other expression pedal that I have ever bought, so I am being way beyond picky here. And when connected to a range of pedals (Empress, EHX,  TC Electronic, and Keeley), the EXP performed exactly as it should. 

One thing to remember when doing this kind of testing is that most guitar pedals seem to detect when an expression pedal is connected to their expression pedal input only when the power is turned on. So you need to power the guitar pedal down, insert the expression pedal (or EXP!) jack into the expression socket, and then power the guitar pedal up. The expression pedal (or EXP) will then be recognised! 

(If you just plug an expression pedal into a guitar pedal without cycling the power, then it may not be recognised at all - as I found out when doing all the unplugging and plugging...)

Anyways, in the photo above, the mysterious box displaying 1.24 Volts in blue digits is showing the output of the EXP when set to about a setting of 5, with the 'source' voltage from the guitar pedal's Expression socket of about 3.3Volts. That 1.24 Volts is what appears on the orange 3.5mm jack plug.

Yep, not a 'converter', more an extractor, or a rerouter, or an 'in another way' box. But yeah, it takes an EXP and outputs a CV. So what can we do with that?

First off, lets check the voltages and how they correspond to the EXP wheel setting:

Okay, so zero on the wheel is zero Volts. Cool.

Aha! So 10 on the wheel is 3.04Volts. Makes sense. So we have 3 Volts of CV range to play with... So 6 and a bit on the wheel would be about 2 Volts?


One thing we could do with this is connect the orange 'CV' patch cord into something modular. The Rebel Technology 'Witch' is a good example. It is a programmable synthesizer, processor and effects unit that has CV and Gate inputs and outputs (plus audio I/O), is a USB Audio interface and Host, and does way more than you would expect for such a small box. A tiny modular system in a little box, and huge amounts of fun with elastic/flexible capabilities because you can reprogram what it does from a library of patches (and store eight patches inside the Witch for instant recall with those round buttons!). In this case, the CV input is controlling Input A, which sets the pitch of a drone patch. Now if the other EXP expression output was controlling a pedal using the expression socket, we have even more sound-making capability in a tiny space. Wooh!

Getting a CV output from an EXP is nice, but it isn't a MIDI Controller. or could it be? Here's that control voltage (the red cable) going into the CV input of the amazing Befaco VCMC - a Voltage Controlled MIDI Controller. So the MIDI socket in the top left hand corner of the VCMC is outputting MIDI Continuous Controller messages using a CV extracted from the expression control output from a Chase Bliss EXXP Pedal that is simultaneously controlling a guitar pedal off to the top left. Oh, and 8 on the wheel outputs about 2.64Volts...

Now to use this CV output in a larger modular Eurorack (or other modular), then you would need to scale this voltage to make it slightly larger. So some sort of Utility or Maths module would be the first port of call. After that, then you could use it to control just about anything. For me, having those numbers on the wheel means that I have a repeatability of setting a value that I don't get with foot pedal controllers, and being able to control two guitar pedals (in opposition, if I want) plus having a CV available as well, opens up huge avenues to explore...

Voltmeter displays

I need to point out that low-cost Voltage displays from Amazon are not always very accurate in my limited experience (Some may be - your experience may differ. Other voltage displays are available.). I've compared the values displayed here with my own slightly more expensive multi-meters, and whilst the multimeters are 'reassuringly' similar in the value they display, the voltage display tends to be about 0.3Volts lower. Not perfect, and so there should really be a little sticker on my EXP CV home-brew box that says: 'For Indication Purposes Only. Not Calibrated'. But for indicating what sort of voltage is coming out of the EXP, it works fine. And blue displays just look super cool!

Oh, and the EXP CV box that you see here is my own personal home-brew hand-built utility box. Not connected in any way with Chase Bliss Audio. It is not for sale (I don't do Klon pedals either...). If you happen to make a box anything like it yourself then that (and what you do with it) is entirely your own  responsibility - you do it at your own risk. 

The EXP pedal 

And that about wraps it up for this quick look at the astonishing piece of mechanical engineering that is the Chase Bliss EXP Pedal. There's a lot you can do with it, and it puts 'expression' control of guitar pedals into a rather different place when you go beyond the usual 'foot pedal' user interface. I really like having a 'Mod Wheel' for expression, and I intend to use my EXP a lot! Congratulations to Chase Bliss Audio for a very different approach to controlling expression!

I bought the Chase Bliss Audio EXP pedal with my own money. I am not getting paid by Chase Bliss Audio for this review. But I do think they make very interesting pedals. My kind of pedals! (And hopefully, yours too, now!)



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