On Effects

So I get this question a lot. “After I get a Little-Jake, what kinds of effects should I get?” Usually this is coupled with a question about amplifiers as well, which I’ve covered in another post. Effects are a giant rabbit hole you can jump down. Guitar players know this, as there are dozens of online forums and reviews sites dedicated to those metal or plastic things on the floor sometimes called “stomp boxes”. You can see some old blog posts of mine talking about certain revisions of pedal boards that I’ve used over the years. It doesn’t seem to get much better.

So anyway, here’s some general information on effects with specific guidelines on what I’ve found works well with the bassoon.

First of all, Distortion. Distortion comes in a variety of flavors that have slightly different characteristics to the sound. Overdrive, Distortion or Fuzz are the most common terms, with qualifiers like “transparent” or “high-gain” or sometimes things like “glitchy” or “gated” come into the mix. Basically what distortion does is boost the signal to the point where the harmonic spectrum starts to do crazy things, adding a crazy amount of extra harmonics to the sound. This is then filtered in some way, and the output is balanced out. When you distort a sound enough it doesn’t really matter what the input signal is. So a bassoon run through some kinds of distortion will sound more or less just like a guitar run through it. It can be really fun to sound like an electric guitar. Guitarists have very very picky preferences of their distorted sounds, like a bassoonist will pick a bocal, guitar players will pick a “clean transparent overdrive” that reacts to their guitar and amp the way they want.
 For bassoon I suggest that you start with a bass fuzz. These are a fuzz pedal specifically designed for bass guitar. Typically these maintain more of the low end in the sound than traditional guitar fuzz pedals. They also often feature a “clean blend” knob, which you can use to bring back your unaffected signal into the mix. This is helpful for getting the bassoon sound to be maintained. After you’ve had some time with it, you can go to a guitar shop (bring your amp!) and try different distortion types.

Next I’ll talk about Filters and Modulation. These are really two different categories, but can often be summed up together at least in what we’re concerned with. Essentially they add “movement” to your tone in some way. Filters do things to the EQ over time or based on your input, while Modulation will do various things depending on the specific type, but basically they modulate pitch, volume, or signal phase, or some combination. The most common Filter that you’ll hear is a “Wah” effect. These can be controlled by a foot treadle, or with the envelope of your sound (the volume).
An Envelope Filter, sometimes erroneously called Auto-Wah, is what will give you that “quack” sound when you articulate. I highly recommend one, as it’s a crowd pleaser for sure. Don’t overdo it. Start with a classic: Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron is the easiest to find, and quite cheap, and works well with bassoon. As for Modulation, Phaser, Flanger, and Chorus are common modulation effects for guitarists that work well with bassoon. I am less picky about these than distortion. Be careful, as they can really overtake your sound in a way where you don’t even hear what pitch you’re playing, just the effect wooshing around. Effects that I rarely use for bassoon are Tremolo and Rotary simulators. The first time I used a Tremolo effect I literally got nauseated.

Next we have Pitch Shifting effects. These sometimes come hand-in-hand with some other effects like the time based effects discussed below, or modulation discussed above. But for most bassoonists we’ll have some kind of stand-alone shifter. The simple ones of these, like the Elextro-Harmonix POG, will add one octave above or below or one octave below your sound (or both simultaneously). Other, more advanced ones, like the Eventide PitchFactor or the Digitech Whammy, will give you loads of control over many different pitch levels, intelligent harmony within a key signature, multiple octaves stacked on top, and modulation effects on those pitches. It can get crazy. Also in this category are Ring Modulators. Those are complicated to explain and to use but can create really great robot effects, or be used as some kind of intelligent harmony maker. Other pitch tracking effects will convert your input signal to some kind of synthesizer sound.
In this category, I just say don’t skimp. The really cheap pitch shifters won’t track the bassoon well – some of the good ones even don’t track the bassoon well. Everything from Electro-Harmonix will do great, although they are simpler devices.

Finally, Time based effects (specifically Delay pedals). Here we have another category that guitarists really obsess over. Especially “Analog” delay pedals. So basically this category takes your sound and creates echoes of it, either discrete repeats, reverberation, or some combination (and often involving some kind of filter, modulation, or pitch shifting). Reverberation should be pretty easy to get: they emulate the sound of a space echoing, either naturally or unnaturally.
A little bit of reverb is really useful for an electric bassoon. Any bocal mounted pickup like the Little-Jake will produce a sound that is quite “dry” so it usually needs something to add a little resonance. Usually whatever reverb is on your amp is sufficient for this, but some amps don’t have it, so a separate reverb effect unit is needed. You can probably go pretty cheap with these, although even cheap reverbs generally start at about $100.
For Delays, these will give more specific rhythmic repeats that decay over time. You can have it repeat once at your same volume level, or have many repeats that wash underneath what you’re playing.
I’m not terribly picky about these either, although I usually suggest a pretty flexible digital delay pedal for bassoonists. I’ve found most players like to have clean and accurate repeats rather than washy and filtered repeats. There are a lot of pedals that do a good job of it all though. I’m currently using a TC Electronic Flashback X4, although the regular Flashback is fine for most people. Otherwise anything that says “Digital Delay” will probably work as a starter effect.

There are a number of effects types I haven’t hit on. Compressor/Limiter, Vibrato, “bit crushers”, and probably a variety of synthy things that might only have a few options on the market. I’ve tried and used some of these, but find them not terribly useful for the electric wind player. For guitarists they can be helpful (a compressor is a standard part of my guitar setup) but the nature of the bassoon sound is different, and I don’t find these useful for the bassoon.

Now. Like I said, you can really jump down a rabbit hole with all of these individual effects units. Many guitarists will go around with a board with their effects pedals mounted with velcro, already wired up, so they just plug in and out of the entire effects pedal chain and plug in the power. If you are just starting out, I really suggest you get a digital multi-effects unit that covers a lot of ground at little cost, so you get a better idea of what effects you like, how well they work with the bassoon, if they’re the kind of effects you’re likely to use. Some very easy to find and easy to use effects units are the Line6 M9 or the Zoom G3. These allow you to access more than 100 different effects each, and can control up to 3 at a time just like individual stomp boxes. Boss/Roland, Korg, Digitech, and Vox all make competing units as well. If you really want simple, the Zoom Multi-Stomp MS-50G is a single step that lets you do several effects at a time, but you get less immediate control. It’s a little more tricky to edit, because it’s more menu driven, but it’s only $100 and has a lot of useful effects. The pitch shifter isn’t great, but like I said with that, you get what you pay for.


Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any of the companies or products listed above. I use pedals made by a lot of different companies, I’m just suggesting things you’re likely to find in your local guitar store.

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  1. Favorite blog posts, September 2014 | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

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