Want to use a real Big Muff Pi in your DAW session? With this one, you can just plug and go...
Ah, the Big Muff. First released in 1971 (though there are rumours of prototypes being used a couple of years prior to that, including by Hendrix), this venerable harmonic distortion pedal has since been resized, reissued, redesigned and reimagined in more ways than we can count. There’s the Op Amp Big Muff Pi, the Ram’s Head Big Muff Pi, the Germanium 4 Big Muff Pi, the Triangle Big Muff Pi... and many more besides. I won’t list the full range here, for the sake of my poor editor’s sanity, but suffice it to say that the Big Muff is to EHX what Star Wars is to Disney; so long as there’s interest, new iterations will keep on coming.
So where could EHX take it next? Into your DAW is where. The Big Muff Pi Hardware Plugin (let’s shorten that to BMPHP...) does exactly that, with no need to bother your existing audio interface. It remains a physical pedal and can still be used in the traditional way, but it connects to your Windows (32‑ or 64‑bit) or Mac machine via USB. When you do so, not only are its settings editable and recallable using a DAW plug‑in, but the plug‑in actually routes the digital audio signal out to the pedal, through its D‑A converters, then through the pedal’s physical transistors and clipping diodes, before being converted back into ones and zeros and returning to the plug‑in in your DAW. The idea is that you can patch this hardware box into your DAW session anywhere there’s an insert slot.
EHX describe the BMPHP as “a new type of product that transcends the limitations of traditional DAW plug‑ins to bring the unique qualities of analogue sound to digital recording”. We’ve already seen some high‑end studio gear explore this territory (McDSP’s APB system, for instance), but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it in a guitar pedal and I’d tend to agree that this qualifies the BMPHP as a genuinely novel product. Potentially, it’s one that could pave the way for some future classic designs too. EHX have taken an admirable risk here, then — but has it paid off? Let’s find out...
The BMPHP is very much a Big Muff and can be used as a regular hardware pedal, just like all the others. Roughly the same size as the Little Big Muff, it’s based on the 1973 Violet Ram’s Head Big Muff, a classic in the EHX canon, and has the series’ familiar layout of Volume, Tone and Sustain knobs. Buttons for Tone Wicker and tone‑circuit bypass are added, along with a Preset encoder with a seven‑segment display and a second Preset footswitch. At the very top are: a button for direct monitoring, a headphone output level knob and a USB signal gain control, accompanied by left and right channel clip LEDs.
As for inputs and outputs, there’s a pair of quarter‑inch jack sockets on each side, to cater for mono or stereo input and output signals, while the rear panel hosts a conventional 9V power inlet, a headphone output jack and, of course, the USB socket. By the way, as well as handling communication with the plug‑in, the USB socket allows the pedal to be bus powered, which is a nice touch.
So what more than a ‘regular’ Big Muff Pi does the BMPHP bring to the table? Well, it has presets for a start. There are 10 onboard slots and, of course, countless more can be created and stored in software. That could be useful when you hit that perfect tone and want come back to it later, or if you want to step through presets for a live set, rather than fiddle with knobs in the dark. But you could argue that it’s overkill: the Big Muff has only three knobs, and as a long‑time user I can honestly say I’ve found all the preset recall I could ever need with a strip of fluoro tape and a Sharpie!
Then there’s the USB interfacing. The BMPHP can act as a regular two‑in, two‑out audio USB audio interface, with or without the Big Muff circuit engaged. It can handle instrument and line‑level signals, but not mics, and it doesn’t have XLR inputs or dedicated monitor outputs. So if used as your main interface, it’s only really going to be useful if all your sources are coming in on quarter‑inch jacks and you’re happy listening on headphones.
That’s rather missing the point, though: the interfacing is really here to route the signal out of the DAW plug‑in, through the hardware, and back again. This means you don’t have to faff around with routing in your DAW or patching cables into your interface. It also means that you don’t need your main interface to have spare I/O to create the hardware send/return loop. You just hook up the pedal by USB, fire up the plug‑in and it’s all taken care of.
I don’t subscribe to the view that plug‑ins are now so good that there’s little point bothering with hardware. Hardware is so often worth it — and this hardware sounds great!
I don’t subscribe to the view that plug‑ins are now so good that there’s little point bothering with hardware. Hardware is so often worth it — and this hardware sounds great! The Tone Wicker’s accentuated top end is so useful too: fuzz effects often come across as sounding overly dark on sources other than electric guitar, but with this switched in, the BMPHP met whatever I threw at it nobly, responding very nicely across the frequency range, and able to deliver anything from moderate drive to screaming fuzz. Drums, synths, you name it. The Tone knob is perfectly tuned. The Sustain and Volume knobs work beautifully in tandem. But you already knew that: it’s a Big Muff Pi.
Still, running all these sources through the BMPHP served to remind me of just how valuable ‘guitar’ pedals can be as general‑purpose studio effects, so the prospect of accessing this one from the comfort of my DAW was a genuinely exciting prospect. The plug‑in worked very well in my tests, and I had no problem tweaking the settings using the plug‑in or recalling settings with a project. It’s also worth saying that while the physical pedal controls won’t move to reflect the changes you make in the plug‑in, the communication is bidirectional; the plug‑in will reflect changes made on the pedal.
That said, one key benefit of plug‑ins is that you can use multiple instances on the same project and tweak them all separately. Since there’s only one physical BMPHP, you cannot do that: if you want to hear it on different sources in a mix then, unless you buy more than one, you’ll need to print the effect on one track before moving onto another. This will matter for a lot of people, since this sort of distortion is generally more useful as an insert effect on individual tracks, rather than as an additive effect like reverb, or a mix‑bus processor. It’s unlikely that you’ll be happy to sum all the tracks you want to put through it into a single bus, and in printing you lose the ability to tweak your settings later.
So, what the Big Muff Pi Hardware Plugin does, it does very well, and it does indeed present a novel way of integrating hardware into your software. It pushes the concept further than most ‘hardware plug‑ins’, since it both acts as a remote control and takes care of the audio routing, so you don’t need to use I/O on your main interface. It delivers the sonic benefits of ‘drivable’ analogue hardware, but also some of the convenience of a plug‑in. The only real drawback is that you get only one instance; given my desire to use it on more than one source, I was left a little wanting.
As a proof of concept, then, what EHX have achieved here is to be applauded. But any novel design brings with it an element of risk for its developer, and I’m not entirely convinced that the Big Muff Pi is the best choice of pedal to exploit this technology, since it’s so quick and easy to set up. It seems to me that the same concept could much more useful if applied to a multi‑effects unit, or at least a pedal that’s capable of doing more than one thing, or something with lots of parameters — EHX have plenty of such devices in their range, and with more controls to tweak and recall, these could really benefit from the preset storage/recall capability. Perhaps a different form factor could be explored too (footswitches aren’t great for tabletop use). Or maybe, if more pedals receive the same treatment, the concept will evolve to allow the saving/recall of full pedal chains...
But let’s not forget that we’re talking about one of the most celebrated fuzz boxes in music history. The Big Muff Pi Hardware Plugin sounds absolutely fantastic, and thought of as a genuinely excellent guitar pedal that’s particularly good friends with your DAW, it’s a positively elegant first step in what could prove a very fruitful direction for Electro‑Harmonix. While its not expensive as studio processors go, it’s almost twice the price of the next most expensive Muff, the Sovtek Deluxe Big Muff Pi. Have they underestimated the plug‑in market, or are things about to get very interesting? I hope it’s the latter!
This is the classic analogue fuzz pedal we all know and love — but it’s stereo capable and hooks up to your DAW via USB without troubling your usual audio interface!