From Horn to Effects
When approaching the idea of using electronics with a wind instrument, one clear obstacle presents itself. How does one get their sound into and through the electronics? While this issue may seem complicated, there are many answers, most of which are easy to understand and put into practice. In this article we will explain and explore some of the ways that a horn player can tap into the world of effects.
Most horn players use microphones when performing live, so it would only make sense that one could go from their microphone into their pedals. When approaching effects this way, however, there is more to consider than meets the eye. Most microphones have an XLR output and most effects have a 1/4” input. That being the case, many people simply use a cable that goes from an XLR to 1/4” jack. While this method will work, it may not allow your effects to function at the highest level. This problem is due, in large part, to issues with impedance. For those who are curious, impedance is defined as, “the effective resistance of an electric circuit or component to alternating current, arising from the combined effects of ohmic resistance and reactance.” To put the issue into practical terms, XLR connectors are usually low impedance while 1/4” jacks are usually high impedance. If the impedance does not match, the signal will be weaker and lower quality, causing your effects to be quiet and less saturated. So what are the solutions?
There are, in fact, many ways to skin this cat. Some players will still use the same XLR to 1/4” cable, but feed that into a boost pedal. This amplifies their signal and makes it more easy for people to hear and for the sound man to deal with. This method, although effective, will not address all of the issues caused by differing impedance. Your sound, although loud enough, may still be compromised in its quality and saturation. Another common solution is to use a dedicated impedance converter such as the Whirlwind Little Imp, or a XLR to 1/4” cable with an impedance converter built in. This solution works quite well, but these converters can take up space on the input side of your board in an awkward way.
Another solution that many find useful is a simple mic pre amp like the Samson S Phantom. These pre amps will only convert your signal and will most likely not have tonal controls or other effect options. If you want to convert your signal with a pedalboard friendly device, there are a few pedals out there that accomplish this task well. The JHS Colour Box, the Radial Voco-Loco, and the Eventide Mixing Link are all pedals designed to give a microphone access to effects. These three are all quite different. If this is a road you wish to go down, it may be adviseable to research and test each of the three.
All of the above solutions work with microphones with XLR outputs. But what if your microphone situation is a bit different? For example, there are many wireless microphones that have a 1/4” output from their receiver. If this is the case, then you are in luck. Simply use a 1/4” cable from receiver to effects chain. These outputs will have impedance that matches the 1/4” inputs of your effects. Personally this is my favorite solution. Not only do I not have to worry about converting my signal, but I do not have to be tied down to a microphone on a stand. This solution gives me all the freedom I require as well as a high quality signal going into my board.
The overall benefit of using any of the above solutions is the ability to choose your mic. Many have a mic that they prefer to use live. Happiness with the sound coming from your horn before it gets to your effects is important, as your tonal identity will translate to your effects.
While microphones are quickly becoming the standard method for bringing your sound to your effects rig, there are some disadvantages to that strategy. The two main concerns are feedback and stage noise. In some cases, it takes a considerable amount of searching and tweaking to find effects that will not have bad feedback problems. This is especially true of envelope filters and overdrive pedals. Also, many who use microphones may find that other sounds from the stage and the monitors will bleed into your microphone. This can cause strange sounds, undesired noise, and sadly, more feedback. Those limitations are a real issue, and therefore some seek out other methods. Most of these other methods involve some sort of pickup fitted to your instrument.
The most well known of these pickups are either the Varitone (if you can find one) or a PiezoBarrel Pickup. These pickups are fitted directly to the neck or mouthpiece of your instrument and are connected easily to your effects. To fit them to your instrument, you must drill a hole in your neck or mouthpiece for the pickup to fit in. As with microphones, this is not a perfect solution. Firstly, many would hesitate when presented with the idea of drilling a hole into their instrument or mouthpiece. Secondly, some have expressed displeasure with the tonal reproduction of these pickups, describing the sound as thin or tinny. There are those who have no tonal issues at all, and are quite happy with their sound, even without effects. Michael Brecker used a Varitone extensively and current artists like Ryan Zoidis from Lettuce use similar pickups. The third issue is that a wire hangs down from the pickup in your mouthpiece or neck. This can be cumbersome and annoying for some.
Another pickup that can be used for woodwinds is a reed pickup such as the Shadow SH 4001. This is a pickup that attaches to the heart of the reed and picks your sound up via transducer. This too can have tonal problems for some as well as the potential annoyance of the loose wire. For brass players, there is also an alternative to the microphone or the drilled in pickup. Electric mutes, such as the Yamaha Silent Brass system, can give you access to your effects unit.
With such a plethora of methods with which to incorporate effects into your playing, it can be easy to be overwhelmed. The important thing to keep in mind is that your sound matters. To have the best result with your effects, it is important to input a strong and clear signal. You should be happy with your sound BEFORE it gets to your pedals. With that in mind, and with an understanding of some of the advantages and limitations of the above described methods, your search for a good interface with which to access your pedals should not be a long one. Good luck!
© Douglas Levin 2017