David Mellor goes all gooey about Kenton's new MIDI guitar switcher, designed to put a stop to all the embarrassing onstage effects pedal swapping that goes on in the dark between numbers.
Did you know, all you guitarists out there, that keyboard players think you have it easy? OK, so keyboard players have multiple keyboard setups, with computers, modules and effects all lashed together in a complicated spaghetti of MIDI cables. They consider their lot a tough one, but really, it's all in the preparation, isn't it? Once his rig is set up, all the keyboard player has to do is tickle the old imitation ivories, and he doesn't even get callouses on the ends of his fingers! Guitarists, on the other hand have to tap‑dance their way through pedal‑encrusted sets with all the agility and timing of Fred Astaire. What they really need is something to take all the fuss and hassle out of performances, so that sounds can be prepared in advance, as keyboard players can do, and leave just the playing to be done when the guitarist gets on stage. There is now a huge range of guitar effects available, and they all come in different shapes and sizes. The Kenton GS8 MIDI Guitar Switcher promises to make sense of them all, or at least any six from your collection, and should allow you to get the best from your investment in separate effects units. Of course, the GS8 is just a switcher, so it can't twiddle all the knobs for you as well. You'll have to hire a guitar tech to do that for you!
For the GS8 to be a useful part of your system, you should already have two or more effects units, and some kind of MIDI controller. The controller may be a floor‑standing unit with a number of built‑in footswitches, or could even be a multi‑effects unit in its own right. Alternatively, you could control the GS8 from a sequencer, or simply select preset combinations of effects manually between songs. What you can't do, unfortunately, is step through presets or patches in sequence using a simple open/closed footswitch, but I suppose these simple ideas do sometimes get lost in the headlong rush of progress. To connect up your pedals, rather than daisy‑chaining one pedal to the next in the normal way, plug your guitar into the (rear‑panel!) GS8 input and then connect up to six of your effects to the dedicated 'to and from' connectors on the GS8. Your MIDI controller should then be connected to the front panel MIDI In socket (a Thru is also provided). A quick read of the instruction manual, and you're away. Any effects loops not connected are automatically switched straight on down the line.
The GS8 boasts three modes of operation, and the first of these, the Channel and System Settings mode, is devoted to setting up the GS8, as this is necessary before you can use the switcher properly. In addition to the six effects loops, two switches are provided to take the place of the footswitch you may normally connect to your amplifier. Since time immemorial (well, alright — the early 60s, I think) guitar amplifiers have often been provided with built‑in effects that can be switched with a simple on/off footswitch. If your amp does this too, or uses a footswitch to change from one group of settings to another, you can have the GS8 switch the amp along with your pedals. Some amps, however, require a footswitch that latches in the on and off positions, while others are happier with a momentary switch. The GS8 can imitate either — all you have to do is follow a few simple instructions. There is a slight problem when the amp requires a momentary contact to switch the effects, but take a look at the 'Momentary Lapse Of Reason' box for more on this, as it's quite involved. If you have a greater‑than‑average requirement to switch settings or effects on the amp, two of the effects loops can easily be turned over to this alternative use. These can only be of the latching variety, however. Once these few system settings have been made, the MIDI channel can be selected, and the whole lot stored, so you won't have to bother with it again.
The second mode is called Patch Edit, and this is where you'll spend most of your time figuring how to get the most out of your collection of effects. The GS8 will allow up to 128 patches, but since the display only has two digits, you will have to learn an arcane code to be able to read patch numbers between 100 and 128. On the other hand, if you are finding that you need more than a hundred patches, you may consider whether you ought to be spending more of your time actually playing! A patch is simply a combination of effects wired in series and switched into or out of the loop, in conjunction with up to four effects built into the amp itself. Programming a patch is simplicity itself. Just select a patch number and push the appropriate buttons to activate the effects you want to use for that patch. Once you have found the right combination, just press and hold the Patch/Chan button, and the patch will be stored. It's odd that any old car radio will use a 'press to select/press and hold to store' system for allocating radio stations to buttons, while hi‑tech music equipment usually has something far more complicated. Not here, though.
There is one distinct advantage in having a switcher like the GS8, in addition to the convenience aspect — if you're not using an effect, you don't have to pass the signal through it. This is good news for those of us who hate excessive noise. Also, when an effects unit suddenly dies on you, as they often do because of all that rattling around in your gear bag, you can simply switch it out of the circuit, rather than having to do a lightning replug in front of an unimpressed audience. The legending on the unit is white on black (ideal for the low lighting you find in most venues), and since each switch has an LED, you always know exactly which effects you're using.
For guitarists who have embraced MIDI wholeheartedly, there is a third mode, Controller Assignment moded, in which the GS8 can be controlled by a sequencer. As you probably know, MIDI supports controllers — messages that can be activated by pitchbend or modulation wheels, MIDI footswitches, breath controllers, and so on. Using MIDI controllers, you can automate each effects loop individually within a patch fairly simply, by allocating one of the possible controllers to each effect, and then programming the sequencer to send a MIDI value of 65 or over. A value of 64 or under will deactivate the effect. MIDI System Exclusive dumps are also supported.
Like some other sensible manufacturers, Kenton allow users to remove the top cover and make minor modifications themselves. The act of removing the cover won't in itself void the warranty, although you have to accept the responsibility of not causing any damage. There are two options, one of which is to lift the earth for any of the effects that may be causing an earth loop. This doesn't apply to battery‑powered effects, or those that don't need a mains earth anyway, but if a pedal has to be earthed at the mains plug, leaving the green and yellow wire firmly in place is certainly the best policy. Ground‑lifting on individual channels is a simple matter of removing a jumper (plastic, not woolly) on the circuit board. The other option is to configure effects loops 1 to 4 as simple switches. This is also done by just pulling off jumpers, and creative system builders will certainly find an application for this.
One matter remains for discussion — what does it sound like? Does it change the sound of your guitar? To put your mind at rest, the Kenton GS8 uses gold‑plated relays to switch the signal, so the potential for degradation is kept to an absolute minimum. I couldn't hear any change through my Fender amp. An additional advantage is that the bypass works even when the unit is switched off (or the plug is pulled).
In conclusion, I have to say that this unit works as described, and if you are an effects junkie, it really will make your life easier (but won't cure your craving!). OK, it costs at least as much as one super‑warm valve overdriver, or similar, but the net result will be that you get more satisfaction from the effects you already have, and you will at last be able to use them to the full.
As mentioned in the main body of the review, there is a potential problem when using the GS8 to control a device that requires a momentary switching action to turn an effect on or off. Momentary switching, by its very nature, can't define whether something is switched on or switched off, it can only flip it to the opposite state; if something is on, the switch will turn it off and vice versa. In the context of performance programs, that means you can't rely on a momentary switch to set your device to the right state unless you happen to know for sure what state it's set to in the first place.
One solution would be for the controlling device to keep track of the on/off state of any momentary switch controlled functions and either send or not send a switch action as necessary. This sounds a trifle complicated to me but Kenton say the solution is a mere software fix away, and they're working on it now. To be fair, the problem stems from the whole concept of momentary switching, not from anything Kenton have done wrong, but it's nice to see that they're looking for a way to solve the problem anyway. In the meantime, just expect problems if you have a system that works on momentary switching and you won't be disappointed!
- Internal power supply (thank you, oh thank you!)
- Does its job with no nonsense.
- Problematic when used with amps designed to respond to momentary footswitches.
- No input for simple footswitch to step through patches.
The ideal solution for guitarists who have problems manually switching between all the effects units they use on stage, and would prefer just to get on and play.