How to Use Effect Pedals as Outboard Gear

You’re a dedicated performing musician who’s built an enviable live rig over the years, and now you’re becoming a home-recording maverick. You’ve got experience, good ears and a good setup. You’ve never really thought much about investing in arcane, expensive rack gear, but that’s fine. Your interface is humming along nicely; your mic collection is decent and when it comes to mixing, your plugins knock it out of the park. Except when they don’t.

Now something you tracked a while back sounds more than a little flat upon relistening, and you’re stuck. Nothing you do sounds good, and all those plugins seem to be mocking you with their simple, one-size-fits-all ubiquity, which although certainly a virtue at times, can be more of a creative curse than a blessing.

The solution? Your pedalboard.

Armed with the good old stompboxes that you already own — and just a little bit of knowledge about signal levels, which we’ll cover in the next section — you’ll never pine for an expensive, space-race-era outboard box to fix your mixes again. Welcome to the wonderful world of reamping with pedals.

All About Signal Levels

Before we continue, let’s go over a few quick basics of signal levels that will help steer your results in the optimal direction. Essentially, there are three different signal strengths that each input jack inside your studio “wants” in order to function its best: mic level, instrument level and line level.

  • Mic level is the quietest of the three. That’s why mics need preamps; preamps take that signal and boost it up to line level before it hits your interface. It’s also why, if you’ve ever plugged a mic directly into an amp, which expects an instrument level input, you probably have to crank it way up. If your interface only has mic level inputs on it, you may want to transform your reamp signal back down to this level before recording it back into your DAW.

  • Instrument level is higher than mic level and is the level that your amps, pedals, and DIs all expect to receive. This one is the level at which most re-amping happens. If you’re recording your newly reamped signal using a preamp or a channel on your interface labeled “Hi-Z” or “direct,” you can keep it at this level once you’ve gotten it there.

  • Line level is the loudest of the three, and it’s the level that your interface’s I/O uses at the end of every recording chain. It’s critical to understand this point when it comes to reamping: anything going into your computer wants to be line level and, technically, anything it spits out is going to be line level as well.

Of course, disregarding signal level discrepancies can sometimes create some weird, cool sounds — so don’t be afraid to try things just because they’re not technically “right.” However, be aware that there is the inherent possibility that you will get undesirable sounds by ignoring signal level or even destroy something in the process, so you might want to invest in a dedicated reamp box to help keep your levels straight.

Why Use Pedals as Rack Gear?

You may already be aware of the standard reamping technique, in which various solo instruments, initially recorded direct, are fed to an amplifier and re-recorded in order to preserve an initial performance but allow for maximum tonal-flexibility at some later stage in the production.

If you aren’t, here’s an example: A mixing engineer feeds a D.I. bass track back out of his DAW and into, say, an Ampeg B-15, then mics the amp and records the results back onto a fresh track, replacing or mixing it in with the original signal.

But the magic of tweaking your pre-recorded sounds needs not be limited to amplifiers; and for the money, reamping through pedal chains is one of the most interesting and creative ways to alter a pre-existing sound. Why? Because instead of using bland amp simulators and plugins that you really can’t tweak intuitively in real time, you get to use the gear that you already know and love intimately.

Not only is it much easier to get extreme and novel sounds, but it’s also much more exciting to push those robust stompboxes to their limits in unconventional situations than it is when you’re clicking a mouse.

Setups and Personal Favorite Pedal Tricks

When it comes to using pedals to reamp signals, the only real limitation is which specific pedals you have access to. As long as you have a reliable way of getting signals out and back into your DAW, such as one of the many Reamp/DI Boxes on the market for about the cost of any decent pedal itself, you’re golden.

The basic setup will always be the same: output the desired track from your DAW and through your reamp box to convert the signal to “instrument level,” then into your pedals in series, just as you would on any pedalboard. Ultimately, the sound is routed back into your DAW via any one of your interface or preamp’d direct-inputs, a DI box, or however else you ordinarily DI your recordings.

Beyond that, anything goes with this method. If you don’t believe it, try weird combinations of pedals out, like a FuzzFactory on your kick drum, or a BOSS flanger on your backing vocal. Hook up every single pedal you own and put an acoustic piano through it!

You’ll probably toss out more ideas than you’ll keep when you start to explore this stuff, but you’ll never be sorry. Using pedals as rack effects is super fun. It can be magic for your mixes, and it’s basically free outboard gear.

To get you started, here’s a quick rundown of some of my favorite pedals and what I typically use them for.

EHX Memory Man + Holy Grail on Vocals

For wild psychedelic vocals, I love sending the dry lead vocal out to my EHX Memory Man and Holy Grail pedals in series, purposely overdriving the Memory Man.

While the track plays, I’ll zero in on key phrases or locations, such as the end-phrases of verses or a really lively bridge passage, and continually tweak the feedback, delay, blend, and amount knobs in real-time, recording the resultant chaos onto a separate track. I’ll then add that track in underneath the original in certain spots to create some unpredictable tails that would take forever to “draw in” on a DAW.

BOSS DD-3 on a Snare Drum

Nothing fattens-up snare tracks like this affordable, reliable digital delay. I like to gate the top-snare track, then send it to the DD-3 with pretty quick slapback and just a little bit of feedback.

On particularly huge hits, I’ll slow the delay down in-time with the attack and then twist it back up again, thus creating individualized, amazingly unpredictable pitch-shifts on the delay—no Eventide Harmonizer required!

Proco Rat for Vocal Doubles

Any time there’s a lack of presence happening on a chorus, despite having doubled—or tripled or quadrupled—the vocals, I love sending at least one of those lead vocal tracks into a Rat pedal, though any beefy distortion you have will work; even a fuzz pedal will get the job done, but I’ve personally found that they add too much noise and mess.

A little goes a long way on these pedals, so I tend to keep it tame in terms of levels. Ordinarily, I then end up centering the reamped track and putting it down almost inaudibly low in the mix, because it still adds punch.

MXR Phase 90 + BOSS OC-3 on Guitar Leads/Solos

This definitely works best with monophonic parts, but if a solo or lead guitar track is seeming too bland once a mix starts coming together, it might be time to do something drastic. Just to get a completely different tone going, I’ve sent high-register guitar solos out to my Phase 90, set on its lowest setting, and then into my Boss octave pedal to double it down the octave.

Again, I don't usually replace the original solo with this because it’s a little messy, but I’ll pan the two to different sides to give the solo some otherworldly 3D.

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