DIY Digital: 4 Digital Platforms to Customize Your Sound

The debate between the merits of analog and digital is as present in the world of guitar effects as it is anywhere. Complex technical differences and personal preferences aside, what digital pedals offer over their analog counterparts is full programmability. Digital effects are the product of code and can (depending on the hardware employed) be reprogrammed. The inevitable result are stompboxes that can be reprogrammed by the user.

Some mass-market offerings have made attempts at this model, but these offerings are limited to particular effects or include editors that, while quite customizable, disallow the sort of freedom that people gain when they design from the ground up. There are, however, a variety of options that have arisen for users to design and program digital stompboxes from scratch. Understandably, this may not be a road that every guitar or bass player wants to venture down. For standard fuzz tones, it may just be easier to buy or DIY, without the complexities of digital signal processing. But for those continually unsatisfied by market stompboxes, or those who just like to tinker, these open-source projects are new territory to explore.

Take a look below for more info on some mass-market options as well as some more complex DIY options that can get the user more deeply involved in crafting their sound.

TC Electronic TonePrint Series

Since 2011, TC Electronic has released 19 stompboxes in their highly reviewed Toneprint series. All modulation or time-based effects, they feature at least one “TonePrint” slot which can be loaded with a downloadable patch wirelessly via the iOS/Android app through your guitar pickups or via a USB connection. Per TC Electronic, these patches are designed in collaboration with professional musicians and offer a tunable sound unavailable elsewhere. In addition, users are free to edit generic TonePrints and create their own via TC Electronic’s TonePrint Editor, available for the iPad, PC, and Mac. While this editor is replete with features and adjustable parameters, it is still limited to the effect type of the given pedal and it is lacking the in-depth customization available via fully programmable options like the ElectroSmash pedalSHIELD and the Hoxton OWL.

Source Audio One Series

At NAMM 2015, Source Audio announced their “One” series of pedals, featuring a delay, chorus, fuzz, tremolo, and phaser. Like the TC Electronic TonePrint series, users can alter and upload presets via Source Audio’s yet-to-be-released Neuro Effects Editor software (Mac/PC) and the Neuro Mobile App (iOS/Android). While Source Audio has been somewhat tight-lipped on the possibilities of this editor, it seems that it may offer more adjustable parameters than TC Electronic. Exact release dates are still to be announced, but the series should starting breaking into market throughout the Summer of 2015.

ElectroSmash pedalSHIELD

ElectroSmash’s pedalSHIELD is a fully programmable stompbox based on the popular, DIY-friendly open-source Arduino platform. In terms of hardware, it has three programmable potentiometers, two programmable switches, and true bypass. ElectroSmash offers an online library of downloadable pedal models via their web forums. Users can also program their own patches in the C/C++ programming language. While they suggest users be familiar with C/C++, ElectroSmash does offer a variety of material meant to assist beginners in programming the stompbox, including example code, technical breakdowns of how common stompboxes achieve their sound, and Arduino guides. The pedalSHIELD can be acquired as a PCB or as a kit.

OWL

The Hoxton OWL (OpenWareLabratory) began as a Kickstarter project that quickly earned (and eventually more than quadrupled) its initial funding goal. Based on the ARM Cortex M4 processor and programmed, like the pedalSHIELD, in C++, the OWL is totally open source. With considerably more hardware options than the pedalSHIELD – stereo in/out, four configurable potentiometers, expression pedal input – and more user-friendly programming tools such as the Owl Simulator, which allows users to simulate programmed patches before uploading to the stompbox, the OWL seems to be a mark of progress for open-source digital stompboxes. If users aren’t skilled in C++, sample patches can be downloaded from a constantly growing library on the OWL website. For users who are new to the world of programming, assistance and troubleshooting guides can be found on the OWL web forums. The OWL is only available as a fully built stompbox, with pre-orders currently being taken for a Eurorack modular version (for you synth lovers).

While these projects and others like them may be a new direction for stompboxes, they are not without drawbacks. Most significant, if one were to compare an offering by TC Electronic to an open-source option like the pedalSHIELD or the OWL, is the learning curve. Even with user-friendly interfaces and simplified languages, programming is still a skill that must be learned. For one used to tinkering, these may just be new hurdles to overcome, but for the uninitiated, they may present a significant roadblock. Of course, this complexity may come to dissipate in time as tools are designed to assist users (like the Owl Simulator) but in the meantime there is no denying that the above-mentioned stompboxes are not simple, plug-and-play devices. However, with an open mind and some free time, these projects can open up an entirely new world of sonic possibilities.

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