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Looks scary? It kind of is! But it’s also a lot of fun. Embrace the chaos!

A pedalboard… for your saxophone?

Yep. A pedalboard for my saxophone. Often times on tour, we’ll be setting up at a venue and the house guys will be looking over the stage plot, helping run lines and mics. They look on their sheet of paper, “OK. Guitar, stage left,” seeing Blaine’s pedalboard. OK. Makes sense. They walk over to my side of the stage, see two pedalboards (Andrew, our trombonist also has one). Puzzling looks ensue. “Funny, I don’t see two more guitars on this input list. Supposed to be horns here.” They assume all pedalboards must belong to guitarists. Well, not so! Not in the HIRIE band anyhow. Andrew and I have been using pedalboards since our very first shows almost six years ago.

It began with our wireless mics. In many cases, if you have a wireless mic setup for your horn, the receiver box (the thing on the pedalboard between the Keymaster and the Sparkledrive) will only have a high-impedance TS (aka “quarter inch”) output. This necessitates the use of a D/I box (top leftmost box on my pedalboard), to convert the signal impedance and jack to an XLR out, appropriate for piping the signal from my wireless saxophone setup to stage boxes, snakes, ultimately to a mixing board. Furthermore, even if the wireless mic receiver did have an XLR out, I’d have to convert that into a 1/4″ TS cable to pipe the mic output into any kind of guitar pedal, of which I have several on my pedalboard, and then back to the D/I box out to XLR. So, at the very least, with a wireless mic receiver and a D/I box, you’ve got two boxes that will look messy on the ground just lying there, floating around on a dusty dirty stage floor with wires hanging out. They are much more at home fixed to a pedalboard. I use velcro. I love velcro, aka hook-and-loop fasteners. You can use a cutting board in place of an expensive guitar pedalboard if you’re on a budget, along with some adhesive velcro strips (I’ve used that kind of setup for a stripped down flight ready pedalboard I could fit in my luggage bag).

So, as I said, at the very least you’ve got these two boxes to get the sound from the wireless mic to the mixing board. So might as well throw some pedals into the middle of that signal chain and have some fun, right? Yes! Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of a clean, un-effected sax. In fact, when I’m playing shows, about 95% of the time, that’s what the audience is hearing. But it’s that 5% of the time when I want to get a little weird, spacey, creative, or sonically stand out a little bit, that I turn to pedals to alter my sound.

So what kinds of pedals we got going on here?

Thought you’d never ask! In the pedalboard imaged above, there are two signal paths going on. One is for my saxophone and the other is for a second, non-wireless microphone. I play flute, melodica and sing through this mic (typically an SM58). I won’t go over that chain here (it’s basically only a delay anyhow) but will list the gear involved later on in this post just to be thorough.

The signal path for my saxophone is as follows:

Wireless receiver → harmonizer → overdrive → delay (aka “echo”) → Miku → reverb → EQ → D/I box

  • Wireless receiver: AMT Quantum 7 Mini
    • This is the receiver/transmitter combo I use to wireless mic my saxophone. This particular unit is nice because both the transmitter and the mic clip directly onto the saxophone. Most other wireless setups have a belt pack which means you’ll have to clip a pack the size of a deck of cards to your waist with a few feet length of cable running from that pack to the clip-on microphone on your sax. I always hated that option because it semi-undoes the whole point of being wireless–freedom. In fact, when I have to fall back on a belt-pack system, I fasten the belt pack to the side of the bell with hook-and-loop. The receiver box of the Q7 Mini is 1/4″ TS out only. Which is perfect when running through pedals; not so much if you want to go directly out from the wireless box into a mixing board with only XLR ins.
  • Harmonizer: Eventide Pitchfactor
    • Even though I’ve had to send it in repair three times (which, at $100 flat fee each time sending it to Eventide, will be more than half the cost of a new unit…) I absolutely love the capabilities of this thing. I used it to record the sax solo on “Melody of a Broken Heart” on our Wandering Soul album. The particular effect setting adds a harmony two octaves above my note, which gave a synthy, eerie tone to the sax. This pedal can do TONS of stuff, however, including emulating several of Eventides older pitch processors. It can add two separate voices, so you can pretend to be a 3-part horn section! You can set the key and scale or mode, even making up a custom scale for it to harmonize with. The only thing to beware with is that it needs to be able to distinguish the input sound from all the rest, so if you are often playing gigs on a very small stage, with loud amps behind you, the pedal may not function optimally (or at all), requiring you to use the effect sparingly and absolutely be sure the effect is OFF when you aren’t playing, otherwise it’ll begin to harmonize with whatever else it hears going through your mic, like the bass, vocals, etc.
  • Overdrive: Voodoo Lab Sparkledrive MOD
    • Though I’m not currently using this one right now, I like to have overdrive on hand for when I want things to get a little grittier. Distortion boxes on the sax will make it sound gritty, dirty and lend it a guitar-like tone because, well, we’re mostly used to hearing distortion on guitars. It’s definitely a spectrum, you can dial the amount of overdrive up or down, as well as how much of the original “clean” signal you’d like to blend in, as well as a “MOD” knob which affects the tone of the distortion based on what you are distorting (bass/low-mids, mids, and highs). I put this particular effect after the harmonizer because I like the sound of distortion on a harmonized source. Think about a guitar playing a power chord. If you distort BEFORE the harmonizer, the resulting distortion won’t be quite as idiomatic. Can go either way though!
  • Delay: Boss RE-20 Space Echo
    • This was the first effects pedal I got for my saxophone effect chain on my pedalboard. This is a classic effect for any reggae/dub musician, and it’s based on Boss’s iconic studio effect of the same name. It emulates the delay/echo effect produced by a tape-based delay. It also has a reverb component which I usually switch off. You can get real dubby by turning the intensity knob all the way up (this makes each echo louder than the previous which eventually gets super loud and begins to distort). With this knob all the way to the left, you’ll only hear a single echo, good for a slapback effect. I combine this pedal with a Mission Engineering EP-1 expression pedal. The cool thing about using an expression pedal on the RE-20 is that you can assign it to control various knobs. I have it set to control the intensity knob, which means I can turn my delay into a never-ending dub delay with my foot, and then either immediately kill it by pulling the expression pedal back all the way, or set it to slowly fade out by just pulling it back a little. The tone of the RE-20 is great, it’s very analog and warm sounding.
  • Crazy: Korg Miku Stomp
    • I don’t typically use this pedal at shows, though I got it just because I found it at a good price and with my affinity for Japanese culture, anime, and manga, as well as 8-bit and chiptune music, I thought it could maybe find a place in my studio setup. Anyhow, it basically converts whatever note (one note only, monophonic, no harmonies allowed!) you give it into a syllable sung by an anime karaoke singer named Miku. I’ve never heard of her but her voice is an epic computer-y sounding voice which you can set to spout out random Japanese syllables or specific syllables over and over again. The dealbreaker for this pedal for me was the latency. There’s a noticeable delay between playing a note and its output, which when used live totally ruins my ability to perform. But I could see this effect having its niche place in a studio for some real wonky effects. I made a video demoing its abilities here.
  • Reverb: Digitech Hardwire RX-7
    • I went quite a few years without a reverb pedal but ultimately had to have this in my arsenal. A lot of times, it’s not on at all because A) venue spaces add their own natural reverb to the sound and adding MORE can muddy things and B) our front-of-house sound engineer adds whatever type of reverb he thinks is necessary for the given venue and song. What I LOVE this pedal and use it frequently for, however, is its spring reverb. The pedal has several different types of reverb to choose from–plate, hall, reverse, spring, among others. A classic Jamaican reggae/dub effect, spring reverbs (often built into classic guitar amps) give a watery, washy, vintage feeling type of effect which I use with the settings cranked (both the effect volume and the length of the reverb, and with high brightness via the liveliness knob). I’ll use it on just a few notes to accent a dubby section or just change up the tone a bit, or as an alternative to using the delay pedal to invoke a dubby feel.
  • EQ: MXR 10-band EQ
    • Last on the effects chain before the D/I box is my EQ pedal. This is a handy swiss army knife of tone manipulation because there may be times when you need to change the tone of your sax, mic, the effected signal or to counteract the tone of the room or venue. I mostly use it as a handy solo boost pedal, because I can set it to not only amplify the signal, I can choose to amplify certain frequencies to help it cut through a mix, rather than an across-the-board amplification. Very handy!
  • D/I: Whirlwind Direct2
    • Last but not least in the effects chain is the D/I box. It’s a necessary evil because, while you could get away with running an instrument or guitar cable from the previous pedal out to certain boards, speakers or amps, on many stages, your only option is going to be an XLR. Lots of stages use stage boxes/snakes to save cable length, and those only take XLR connectors as inputs. So even if you don’t use it 100% of the time, and even though most venues have several of these on hand, you don’t want to be the one at a gig or show unable to play because you don’t have this super basic final step in your signal chain on-hand. Alas, it is yet another thing that can break, and another pair of connections to troubleshoot… it’s sort of a necessary evil. This particular D/I is dual, so handles both my sax and vocal/flute mic signal chains, and is passive, so I don’t need to bother with asking house sound guys for phantom power.
  • Pedalboard: Pedaltrain PT-2 (discontinued)
    • This is the frame I use to mount all my pedals to, under which I’ve also mounted my power boxes (listed next). This thing is sturdy as all get out and is designed to create a nice wedge shaped angle against the ground so the pedal is a bit higher in the back than in front, helping create a more natural interface between your shoes (or toes) and your pedals. It’s welded metal so, super solid if a bit heavy, and came with a fairly rugged tour case. I linked to an updated version of the pedalboard since my particular model isn’t in production anymore. I love this guy! The footprints a bit big, but Pedaltrain makes these in an array of sizes, so you can pick one to suit your pedal needs!
  • Power: Voodoo Lab Pedal Power ISO-5 and Pedal Power 2 Plus
    • Ah, where the nitty meets the gritty. You might get away with bringing a power strip along with you and plugging in a pedal or two into it, but once you’ve got more than about 3 things to plug, it becomes a messy nightmare of cables and power plugs, many of which are chunky, ugly and won’t even all fit on a single power strip. So I rely on two Voodoo Labs power boxes which conveniently mount underneath the pedalboard and allow me to run like, a dozen 9 volt (your most typical voltage for a pedal) pedals as well as a handful of other voltages/amperages for my many pedals. The cool thing also is that the ISO-5 has both a power input and power output, so I can run one power cable from the stage to my pedalboard, and use a smaller U shaped cable from the power output of the ISO-5 to the Pedal Power 2 to save running a longer cable to a stage power box.
  • What about those other two pedals used in my vocal/flute effect chain?

So, there you have it!

That’s my pedal setup! er… Was! My setup changes constantly and, playing over a hundred shows a year means that… stuff breaks. I wish I had a static bubble that could prevent stuff from happening to my gear but that’s part of the risks of using electronics, wires, amplification and powers. I won’t lie, troubleshooting this sucker is NOT FUN. And in mid-tour, sometimes it feels impossible to find the mental energy to figure stuff out and I’ll have to bypass a pedal or two, but hey, with great risk comes great reward I guess?

If you’re just beginning to get your feet wet, or rather, your signal chain wet (ha ha ha), I’d recommend going to a music store near you with your sax and seeing what kind of stuff you can get into! They’ll have all the necessary components to run from a microphone into pedals. Don’t feel like you’re being weird or a pain because they’re there to sell pedals. Not just to guitarists, either! Some pedals meant for vocalists (like the harmonizer) work great on saxophone or horns. So be sure to ask what kind of sound you’re looking for and they can help guide you toward the right pedals. Have fun tricking out your sound, fam!