Other Equipment

Forward Into The Past! I Built a Rack System

1

I wasn't playing much guitar in the '80s, so I never had a reason (or the money) to build a rack system. Some would argue I still don't have a reason.

Ironically, it all started with a desire for a small, portable rig that would take advantage of the ever-improving modeling technologies on the market these days. It didn't end that way. After delving into it and feeling underwhelmed by the available tones, then looking at equipment I already had but wasn't using because it wasn't easy to gig with, and preferring to not spend too awful much money, I decided to see what I could do with what I had, and the simplest approach seemed to be to put it in a 10U rack. But by the time I was done, 10U wasn't big enough, so I had to go 12U.

And along the way, I learned a lot about MIDI and using it to control hardware, and I ended up with what I call "Count Rackula." It was several months in the making, but the name came to me around Halloween.

I have some misgivings, given that Proteus advised me against at least part of it, and I hate to do things that make Tavo cringe too much. But I have to say, it does what I envisioned, it does what I want it to do, and it sets up pretty quick. And it's on wheels, so as long as there's a ramp to the stage, it'll do fine, and if not, some lifting will be involved, but it's still lighter than my old Rivera amp.

Essentially, it's a Roland VG-99 (the mother of all multi-effects units), a Roland GR-55 guitar synth, and Bias FX2 running on a MacBook out to an iConnectAudio4+ interface, and all 3 into a Behringer XR12 mixer and then out to a Quilter Tone Block and a Quilter 1x12 cabinet. Except for the Behringer, I already had all this stuff. The cab sits on top of the rack, and it's all controlled via MIDI by a Roland FC-300 foot controller and my iPad. I already had the 300 and an iPad, and if it hadn't died and needed to be replaced with a new iPad, this project would have been cheaper than the Rackabilly. There are some additional components that facilitate its functionality, but those 3 noisemaking devices are the heart of it. And I can now play pretty much anything I ever wanted to. Except well.

Packed up (except for that red MIDI cable) and ready to close:

Ready to roll:

I forgot to shoot a picture of the foot controller, but it's inside that red box in the 3rd picture.

2

Man, you're good to go. Nice rig.

3

Honorable madness, ingeniously facilitated. I'm jealous of the full integration and self-contained all-patched-togetherness of it (though not of the MIDI programming tedium you described in the fuller write-up on the VG forum).

What part did I warn you against?

And why not run Bias FX from the iPad rather than the Mac? (I don't know why I'm more receptive to integrating a tablet into a guitar rig than a laptop, but that's my instinct.) I think I recall the iPad is doing a lot of MIDI translation and "multi-plexing," and wonder if maybe it can't do that AND run Bias at the same time. Is that it? Or did one of the more recent iOSes (as I hate computers and upgrades, I'm a few behind) finally provide true simultaneous multi-tasking, meaning there's another reason?

Well, hmm. You're also controlling the Behringer from the iMac - which could ALSO be done from an iPad...but then you'd be piling more work on the iPad, and maybe 3 simutaneous processes is just too much? Thus, of course, an actual Mac with more processing muscle and true multi-threading, so OK?

As I understand it, you're mixing the outputs of the 99, the 55, and the iMac-Bias-iConnect with the XR-12, and controlling the switching, levels, and mutes via MIDI. I have a few questions about that. Surely you play at least two of those sound sources simultaneously - and if it was me, I couldn't stop till I was running them all. Do you have any phase issues between the channels of the mixer?

I've looked longingly at the XR-12, just because it's so all-powerful (and cheap...ish...), more or less looking for a reason to get one. And I thought I could use it to mix parallel effect chains into each other using busses. But when I tried a proof-of-concept with a Mackie VLZ rack mixer, the phase offsets were just intolerable - not to mention the über-noisy ground loops the rig generated. So I gave up.

My interconnected pedal-board extravaganza uses a Saturnworks stomp-switcher to let me select and switch through any combination of three outputs - one to an E-H Mel9 (then out to a mixer channel), one to an E-H Ravish Sitar (then out to mixer), and one to the INPUT of my wholly excessive pedal-chain (which ends up running into either a pair of inputs to the Helix (for stereo), two returns to the Kemper, or a pair of amps. Any of those chains can be ground-loop-noise free (with the requisite gremlin-seeking and troubletweaking), and I don't hear any phase issues.

Depending on your evaluation of the purity of the XR-12, I might be able to use it for more flexibility in place of the Saturnworks. (Hey, bigger and more complicated is also the way I always seem to go when downsizing).

I've invested in, but haven't yet deployed, MIDI controlling/switching tech from Source Audio - primarily to control the raft of MIDI-capable effects I've accumulated. But I really don't have a need currently to switch between elaborate patches, as my rig is a home entertainment experimental lab - so no motivation to go through the tedium. Also, something over half of my pedals are interconnected with manual patchbays (so they don't have to be in the chain all the time, and I can more easily change effect order) - and MIDI wouldn't help with that.

I think that, while we both have rather more tolerance for configuration and elaboration than our saner guitar brethren, we have very different purposes. You go for a maximally portable, maximally controllable gig rig that still gives you all the pre-crafted tones you need for repeatable performances, and sets up easily; mine is a jury-rigged erector set of aural tinkertoys intended to find noises I couldn't want until I discover they can be made, built to be (relatively) easy to reconfigure - but not to efficiently repeat tones for serial performance - and transportability and quick setup bedamned.

And mine has to come out in stereo. I guess yours could too, though, no? I know the Bias-iConnect chain is stereo capable, and assume the 99 and 55 are as well. So all you'd need is another amp (which I know you have).

Nother question: are you using the Quilter rig for "tone", or more or less for flat-response reproduction of the outputs of the lectronical devices?

4

Mesmerizing...

My only effect pedal is Tavo's Mystery Brain...and that took several years of thought before diving in.

...And while I think I've found settings I like, I know I'm not done tinkering around with it.

How do you all keep track of what does what?

If you pluck a single note, does an entire song/band come out the other end of all the gear?

5

In my case, neither a song nor a band. Just guitar tone, plus (sometimes) another "instrument" or two...and lots of articulations, modulations, spaces, textures, drones, tones, samples, loops, harmonic extensions, and manipulated fractals that don't necessarily sound like "guitar," but which are triggered by the guitar, and articulated in ways unique to a fretted string instrument.

I don't think Frank triggers entire songs (or whole song parts) either, but it sounds like he uses the guitar to trigger more sampled/modeled "real" instruments than I do. In general, I'm not fond of using the guitar to sound like things I can better do on a keyboard.

6

Sorry for the delayed response. My employer actually came up with something for me to do today, and they felt it was urgent. But now that that's out of the way, let's go down Proteus' list.

  1. What did you warn me against? I suggested pulling out the VG-99 and re-tweaking some patches, and you said, no, don't do that. Better options exist. Or something like that. And they may well exist, but I didn't have them, and the new ones I tried weren't any more fun than the old ones, so I fell back on what I knew. I'm not real proud of that, but I'm old now, so I have an excuse.

  2. iOS vs. MacOS? About the time you and I first discussed the options, my iPad began its downward sprial into non-functionality. For a few months, I could coax it back to life for the duration of a show, but I didn't feel good about basing music production on it. And I wasn't ready to buy a new iPad. And I've supported Windows PCs long enough to know that I don't need more headaches, so relying on one for music production wasn't in the cards. So I got a deal on a MacBook Pro and started playing with Bias. In a further fit of irony, now that my iPad finally went to that big Cupertino in the sky, I felt obliged to fill the void with a new iPad Pro, which is powerful enough to and will likely do what I origninally set out to do, and do it well. And Positive Grid has a Black Friday 50% off sale on their iOS software day after tomorrow. So the next rabbit hole is apparently already half-dug.

  3. Controlling the Behringer on the iMac. Not quite. Monitoring and managing it on the Mac, sure, it's great for debugging issues, tweaking EQs, saving presets, and making sure sound is coming from where it's supposed to come from and going where it's supposed to go. But the actual controlling happens via MIDI on the foot controller (one expression pedal controls the output level, patch stompers mute and unmute as needed for whatever sound I'm trying to get) and the iPad (using OnSong or MIDI Designer Pro).

  4. You are correct, the 3 audio sources feed into the Behringer, and while they could all be in stereo, I don't need it, I feel fortunate if people want to hear one channel of me; two would be asking for trouble, as well as more hardware to carry. I haven't had any phasing issues, and before I bought the XR12, I was using a Behringer 1U line mixer, and it was so noisy with these devices it wasn't much fun to use, but I guess that's what I should expect from a $50 Guitar Center used equipment purchase. I'm quite impressed at how quiet the XR12 is. Quieter than the Soundcraft UI16 I had, and while its effects are nothing special (compared to the Presonus StudioLive Series III I use for the Lizards), the EQ is most helpful in taming what comes out of Bias FX.

  5. The Quilter Tone Block EQ is set to flat, so I can use the EQ capabilities of each device without impacting the other devices.

0.5 Somewhere in the Protean discussion above, I'd swear he touched on the concept of combining the tones coming out of these beasts, but I can't find that right now (hence the decimal line number). And while I don't have Rackula set up for that (because I haven't been called upon to produce it), but it wouldn't be hard. I do have patches set to adjacent foot stompers so I can do the bagpipe (accordion) intro to "Copperhead Road," followed by the Drop-D acoustic part, followed by the Drop-D overdriven electric part, with just a stomp to change amongst them. For experimentation, practice, and jamming, I built a control surface for this monstrosity in MIDI Designer, so I can mute and unmute, adjust and blend as desired. Then if I find something I like, I can save the requisite commands to call it up and bring it up on demand. I just haven't needed to yet (and I just got this to the point of feeling like it's ready to gig a couple of days ago).

Now, as for twangmeister's question: "How do I keep track of it all?" Two important ways: 1. I'm old (as is some of this gear) and have had time to play with this gear for a long time, and 2. As Proteus so aptly put it, there is a lot of tedious and repetitive data entry involved in setting up MIDI devices, especially old-skool ones like these, and that repetition facilitates memorization.

And with regard to Herr Prot's addendum, he's pretty spot on. I haven't had occasion to explore new tonal universes, I just want to play the cover songs I play a little differently from the way everyone else on the circuit plays them. Why? Because most of them play better than I do, are younger than I am, and better looking. But I haven't heard any who can blast that E7 chord at the beginning of "Fast As You" sounding like a B3. Or the trumpet part to "Ring of Fire." And I doubt they know how. So I just gotta be different. And maybe someone will notice.

7

"Tedious" isn't a word in my vocabulary...nor my psyche...for at least a couple decades...

But I did get my Service Manual today for the pair of Tascam 4-track Cassette machines I bought a couple weeks ago.

My own unique journey begins...first up is a full check-up on each by me, then someone a lot more versed than myself. All the other needed gear arrived in the last couple days - Mics, Stands, PreAmps, Cables, etc.

The Service Manual lets me now start the hunt for obvious Spares and Service Renewal Parts.

I'll figure a way to get to one of your next Shows...

8

It had its first gig on Friday night, with the country band. And while not perfect, it performed exceptionally well, and yesterday I addressed all the issues or potential issues that I discovered in live use, and made another discovery while resolving things.

The stage we were on was pretty shallow, and where I had to stand relative to where I had the rack made it so I couldn't see the tuner if I had the laptop shelf out, so I didn't use Bias FX all night, though I tested it to see if it worked, and it did. The bandleader liked the way it sounded, the bass player/sound guy didn't say anything beyond the initial "What the hell is that?" (but gave a nod of approval after a baritone guitar solo), the other guitar player didn't voice any disapproval, and loved the synth parts when they came about, and the Peruvian drummer asked, at a break, "So, you are, how you say...a gear nut?" I read that as a resounding success.

This was its first venture at riding around in the van, and I was interested to see what would happen with the vibrations associated with motorized transport. As I expected, all the wall warts fell out of their outlets on the Furman, so I needed to find a way to prevent that. And one MIDI cable on the VG-99 came out, but that was an easy fix, I just secured both of those cables to the shelf the 99 sits on, and they won't be going anywhere. The Furman has screw holes for strapping wall warts into their special outlets, but I got that unit used so if it came with those straps, I didn't get them. And the newer Furman units don't have the screw holes, so they don't offer them as accessories. Online forums recommend duct tape, but that doesn't seem like a good long-term solution. I found some screws in my parts bin that fit the threads in the Furman's screw holes, but didn't have anything suitable for straps, and didn't want to go to Home Depot on a Saturday at this time of year, so I came up with the idea of using velcro on the face of the outlet (with a couple of slots cut for the plug to go through) and another piece of velcro impaled on the plug, and except for that enormous Apple power adapter, they seem to hold in pretty snugly. I put another piece of velcro on the Apple device to attach it to the shelf bracket above, we'll see how that goes.

I used a couple of ratchet straps to hold the rack onto its dolly, but this had the issue of A: not being tight enough to keep the rack from moving around on the dolly, and B: in attempting to get it tight enough, it put enough pressure on the molded case to make the molded back not fit in easily. So I pulled out the bottom shelf and all its attendant cables, drilled some holes in the dolly and the rack case, and bolted it on, permanent-like. That looks and works much better. And while I had all those cables out, I opted to (attempt to) route them all a little more neatly and pull out those two old MIDI cables that I'd unplugged but left in there to avoid having to cut all those zip ties to get them out (I cut them all this time and re-did them).

With all that maintenance, I needed to test it, and except for Bias FX, it worked just like it was supposed to. But it appears I plugged the USB cable into a different port on the audio interface (there are two, and I couldn't remember which one I had used before; I had a 50/50 shot, and I lost), so with a little reconfiguration to send the right inputs to the right places, Bias sounded better than ever, and (hopefully) always will because I saved all the settings as a preset.

But one thing I've always struggled with in this beast is how to plug a normal guitar into it, should I ever want, or need to. I always keep an "Oh S***" cable handy that I can use in a live situation to go straight from a guitar into an amp to get through a set in case of emergency, but what if I have a particular guitar that I want to run through the whole system? The 99 has a regular guitar input, but it's on the back, and if you have anything plugged into it, it mutes the signal from any normal pickups you have on your guitar with the hex pickup on it. So my only solution is to, whenever the need arises, just slide out the VG-99 shelf and plug the guitar into it, then unplug it when I'm done. Given the rare nature of the need to do this I'm living with it that way for now. Primova used to make a Subsonic Filter which, among other things, allows what I want to do, but though I have one of those, it's on another board and I want to leave it there.

When I first got it, I had noticed, then chose to ignore, that channels 11 and 12 on the mixer are high-impedance, 1/4" inputs, so I wondered what it would sound like if I plugged straight into that. It would bypass the ability to use any of the 99's effects, but I thought maybe an acoustic guitar, which is what I would likely want to plug in anyway, would sound OK through it. So I tried my Martin 000C-Nylon and Gumby, the oval-holed archtop with the Duncan MagMic, and they didn't sound OK, they sounded GREAT. With the mixer's EQ flat and going straight from there to the amp, it was really nice. The mixer's effects aren't great, but I'll experiment with some reverb on that channel and see how it goes. And if I really like it, there's TWO of those inputs! I am, how you say, a gear nut.

Still need to add a couple of patches on the floor controller to enable/disable that mixer channel, but aside from that, it's ready for another go. Next one will be with the Lizards, we'll see how that works out.


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