Pedals Crash Course for Harpists Pt. 1

Pedals Crash Course for Harpists Pt. 1

Welcome back to another electronics guide! Today we will demystify guitar pedals to help you make the best choices for all your playing needs.

Introduction

FX/Guitar pedals are invaluable tools for the modern performer. They are devices that allow you to change the sound of your instrument in endless ways. Pedals are switched on and off with your feet to give you hands-off control of your sound in real time as you play. They can be used for live playing and recording. Most pedals have knobs that allow you to fine tune your sound. 


Let’s dive into the different types of FX. These concepts also apply to the world of music production.


Types of Pedals

Reverb Pedals

This is your “echo” sound. Ever heard a song where the voice or instrument sounds like they are in a concert hall, in a dream, or far away? Ever try singing in a stairway or a parking lot? That echo you hear is what we call reverb. Most music uses reverb in some way. It makes everything sound better and more grand. Because of this, reverb pedals are some of the most popular pedals in the market. 

There are endless types of reverb pedals. You can find anything from natural reverb sounds to the avant-garde. Your standard reverb pedal will emulate different types of environments. A typical roster of settings you’d find in these pedals would be small room, medium hall, concert hall, and cathedral. The difference between these settings is the amount of time the echo lasts (called decay) and the amount of time it takes for echo to start after you play (called pre-delay). Think of pre-delay as the time it takes for the sound wave to bounce back at you. The bigger the hall, the longer the decay and pre-delay. 

The crazy higher-end reverb pedals can make very unique and out-of-this-world sounds. These are the pedals of choice for the soundscape musicians. Some common examples of customizable settings you can find in these pedals are shimmer (which adds a glittery effect to the notes), modulation (de-tunes the notes as the echo goes on, making it sound underwater), and dampen (can make the sound brighter or darker). You can do any combination of all the aforementioned settings to create a completely unique sound.

Unlike electric guitars, harps already have some level of natural reverb due to their resonant strings, making harps and reverb a match made in heaven. But there can always be too much of a good thing. Regardless of your instrument, heavy use of reverb is best in slower/quieter music, small ensembles or solos, ballads, and classical music. If you are playing your Harp·E in an uptempo song or with an ensemble, reverb combined with the harp’s natural resonance may be overwhelming. Make sure to be mindful where the effect has its place.

Delay Pedals

Imagine a character in a movie standing in an open field, shouting “is anyone there?” with the word there repeating over and over again, until it fades away. This is what delay is. Easily confused with reverb, delay repeats sound instead of echoing it. Many musicians combine both reverb and delay.

The tone of the repeats varies from pedal to pedal and so do the customizable settings. All delay pedals will have some variations of the following controls: time between repeats (sometimes marked as rate or feedback) and how long it repeats for (duration). Some pedals will have more controls to fine tune the sound even more. 

Delay is typically used in contemporary music, vintage songs, ballads, and soundscapes. Very short delay times (also called a slapback) are a common way to rhythmically accentuate melodies in contemporary music. The feel of delay changes significantly between shorter delay time and longer, making it a very versatile effect. A good rule of thumb is the longer the delay time, the more sparse you should play to allow the effect to “breathe”.

Distortion and Overdrive Pedals

We have all heard this one - the roaring crunch of an electric guitar. You’ll hear these effects in most music involving guitars. Even though this is not typically associated with harp, many ground-breaking pioneers are changing that in recent years with the growing popularity of electric harps like Harp·E. 

Even though these terms are typically used interchangeably, distortion and overdrive are different. Overdrive is the milder version of distortion. It is warmer, cleaner, and more dynamic. You can still hear the dry sound of your instrument poking through - that may not be the case with distortion. Overdrive is used commonly in blues, jazz, and country. Distortion is used in rock, metal, and some pop.

Since harps are so resonant, finding the right distortion pedal and setting is very tricky. Sometimes, the sound becomes very muddy since the pedal picks up every noise of the harp, making an amorphous wall of sound. You may also run into feedback issues since the resonant body of the harp vibrates with the amp if it's loud enough. Experimentation is key for finding the right pedal and setting. 

Many harpists who use these pedals have done a number of “hacks” to master these effects. The goal is to dampen the strings to prevent excess vibration and feedback, especially the lower ones. A typical way to do this is weaving a piece of felt across the lower strings. Another technique to prevent feedback is muting every string as you play so only one string vibrates at a time. These techniques apply to all electric harps.

Looper Pedals

A necessity in the soloist’s arsenal, loop pedals allow one player to sound like a whole band. You can loop any sound that goes into the pedal, so there are endless creative possibilities.

Loop pedals record your instrument's live sound when you press the pedal switch. Once you’re satisfied with what you played, press the switch again in tempo to stop recording and start playback. Many pedals allow you to record more loops on top of the first one. Due to the nature of looping, these pedals work best for rhythmic music. Staying in tempo during your playing and when hitting the switch is crucial for successful looping. Most loop pedals are essentially the same with the only difference being their settings and amount of tracks.

When choosing a loop pedal, you should consider the following: 

How many tracks do you want to control? Loop pedals with a single switch allow you to record new loops over the first one, but do not allow you individual control. This means that you can only turn off or on all the loops at once. Pedals with two or more switches provide you with that flexibility of controlling tracks individually. 

Do you want FX with your loops? Some loop pedals come with built-in FX for an all-in-one package. You can always pair your looper with other pedals of course.

How many inputs and outputs? Those who want to loop multiple instruments, synths, or MIDI will want an option with numerous inputs and outputs. Some pedals have a MIDI output, allowing you to connect and synchronize however many loop pedals they want.

Others

We have covered the essentials, but there is a whole world of pedals out there. Here are some examples of other types:

Multi-FX: Don’t want to bother with multiple pedals? These are the perfect solution for beginners diving into the pedal world. As the name suggests, this one pedal handles all your FX for you. 

Octavers and Pitch Shifters: These pedals are perfect for expanding your range up to an octave down, transposing, and adding more meat to your tone. 

Wah-Wah: Named after how it sounds, this is a classic pedal for funk and rock musicians. These pedals contain a foot control that raises and lowers the tone in real time. Since it’s all controlled by your feet, this pedal becomes an extension of your playing and expression. It takes some practice to get used to.

Chorus: Gives that quintessential 70s sound. It doubles the live sound and detunes the double by a very tiny amount, providing its classic wide and spacey tone.

Tremolo: Quickly chops up your sound as you play.

Compressor: Evens out the loudness of your playing to create a more consistent volume and intensity. Compressors work by raising the volume of the quiet sounds and lowering the volume of the loud sounds by specific ratios you can edit. Compressors are great for adding more punch or sustain to your sound.

Phaser and Flanger: These commonly confused effects create that famous psychedelic rock sound. Both effects are similar, but with different mechanisms of action. Essentially, these pedals double your sound and make the double go higher and lower as you play. Since the way phasers and flangers produce this effect is different, it ultimately leads to a difference in sound. To keep this blog short, we won’t go into the differences, but we encourage you to try these effects out and hear them for yourself.

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