Talk to any guitar or bass player for two minutes about their pedals and you will quickly realize that the world of effects is one of never-ending experimentation and opportunity. Talk to them for a couple weeks and you will realize that in spite of your friends’ wealth of knowledge, much of what he or she knows does not apply to you as a horn player. The number of professional horn players utilizing some sort of effects pedal setup is steadily growing, but it is still a vastly unexplored frontier. This makes the horn effects world an extremely intimidating yet exciting place for those of us interested in maximizing our live performance potential.
There are many different effects available that can sound great with any wind instrument if used intelligently and correctly. So, first and foremost you must to make two crucial decisions:
1) How much of the natural sound and identity of the instrument you are willing to sacrifice?
You can make your trumpet sound like the strangest most futuristic synthesizer with the touch of a button, but you then lose your specialized edge. We are firm believers that horn players are specialty musicians, hired mercenaries if you will. We are hired to play our instrument in a way that adds a special sound, emotion, and energy that adds to, or can even define the performance. If you come to the gig sounding like a theremin or an electric guitar, you might not have the gig for very long. Chances are that they hired you because you play a brass instrument. However, if you come to the gig and present yourself to the artist or band as a highly polished musician with a vast and variable array of sonic possibilities that, most importantly, remain honest and true to the sound of the instrument, you may become an indispensable part of that gig.
Some other horn players may wish to pursue a more avant garde solo career that requires them to be able to mimic strange sounds and create a far wider range of musical colors that leave leave behind the more traditional sounds of their instrument. While pedals exist that can take the horn player in either direction, the vast majoirty of gigs out there still require you to sound like your instrument. Those situations call for your pedals to enhance your sound, not change it beyond all recognition.
2) Do you want an all-in-one multi-effects processor (something like the TC Helicon VoiceLive3 or a Line6 M13), or would you rather use a chain of dedicated stompboxes, each devoted to a specific effect or effect combination?
It is very important to make these two decisions early in your pedal journey, or your research will be misdirected and you may end up purchasing a whole bunch of unnecessary items. This is a painful reality we can attest to firsthand. If you are unsure of the direction you want to go, we recommend borrowing the pedals of your friends to experiment with. Many of us, as horn players, do not have the most experience with electronics and in a live show setup. It is wise to experiment with the mic that you prefer to use, and to find a method of amplification that does not inflect your sound with its personality. Guitar amps are the biggest culprit in this area. Our preferred method of amplification is a PA speaker.
Now let’s talk about setup. The most important thing you need is a way to get from the XLR of a microphone to ¼” for the pedals. There are a multitude of ways you can do that, from using a wireless mic that has a ¼” jack built into its receiver to purchasing a direct XLR to ¼” cord. Something to think about along the way is impedance level. Microphones tend to be low impedance, while amplifiers and pedals tend to be high impedance. However, sound boards in performance venues are low impedance as well. So to maximize the signal, it is smart to convert your low impedance microphone signal to high impedance as it goes through the pedals and back to low impedance as you exit, as I would assume you are running your pedals straight into a board and not an amp or monitor in most instances. Running out of the last pedal you will need to find some way to convert your signal from ¼” back to XLR to run into the snakes on stage (they can very rarely take a ¼” cord in large venues, but if you’re running your pedals at your own gig to a mixer you can go in ¼” if you so choose. But remember, this keeps your signal at high impedance so you may not be maximizing your signal. This is not the worst thing in the world; really just something of which to be wary. Many people utilize either a DI box or a pre-amp, both of which perform the added function of converting your signal back to high impedance for the board.
The least widely understood, but potentially most important issue in all of this technological exploration is how to get from your mic to your pedals. 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. This solution works quite well, but these converters can take up space on the input side of your first pedal in an awkward way.
Another solution that many find useful is a simple mic pre-amp. 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 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.
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. For a more detailed overview of the issues and possiblities surrounding the connection between your horn and your pedals, please see this areticle on the Horn-FX website:
Once you have figured out how to connect to your pedals, you get to the fun part: The pedal exploration itself. This is the point where we cannot give too much advice. All of this exploration and sonic expansion comes down to personal taste. The best pieces of advice we can give is to educate yourself as fully as possible and to decide what specific sounds you are looking for and create them in your head. Planning ahead of time will allow your search to be focused and directed. That being said, it is important to try to test as many pedals as you can to get a sense of what is out there and available to you. Once you know what is out there and you want, use online resources like Youtube, GoogIe, and especially Horn-FX.com. It may be wise, once you get a sense of what sounds you are going for and which types of pedals will make those sounds, to narrow your search down to 2-3 pedals that perform that same unction and trying them against each other. Music stores, friends, and even online pedal services can be a huge help in this part of the search.
However you decide to approach your search for sonic expansion, an open mind will be your best friend. The pedal world is a never-ending and beautifully diverse one. Open ears and a curious attitude will serve you well. Good luck and enjoy the journey!