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How to use MIDI to control your guitar rig

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) has been invented originally in the 80's as a way to control synthesizers and keyboards from a single master keyboard. 

MIDI doesn’t transmit audio, instead it transmits data, like the name of the note played, the velocity the key is depressed with, note length, as well as program change data and control data to select a sound patch and to control its parameters (like vibrato or pitch bend). In the world of guitars MIDI is experiencing a boom right now, thanks to the proliferation of digital effect processors and other digitally controlled devices.

Computers have also become a regular sight on stages, and MIDI makes it possible to synchronise effect patch changes remotely to the backing running off Ableton, or any other applicable DAW.

The MIDI protocol was developed to be able to control up to 16 devices simultaneously using 16 MIDI channels. In practice MIDI is used in guitar rigs to call up different pre-stored effect patches with so-called PC-commands (Program Change) and/or to adjust predetermined parameters, such as the length of a reverb, using CC-commands (Control Change).

The MIDI protocol allows for program and parameter values between 0 and 127 – or 1 to 128 depending on the manufacturer. An additional way to use MIDI in the guitar world is to tie time-based effects – like LFO speeds, tremolos or delay times – to the MIDI Clock signal the DAW sends.

THE MIDI signal is a one way street: The signal coming off the controller’s/computer’s MIDI OUT port is connected to the first “slave’s” MIDI IN connector. This MIDI signal can then be sent further on via the first device’s MIDI THRU or MIDI OUT port. The regular connector type for MIDI connections is a 5-pin DIN plug or socket.

In real life, MIDI uses only 3 pins to operate. Many MIDI-cables have only these pins connected, so it is also possible to transfer MIDI signals using balanced XLR microphone cables. This can be an advantage if you need to run a MIDI signal from stage to the F.O.H. 

Pins 1 and 3 are not in use. The middle (pin 2) is the shield and pins 4 and 5 are the signals. Should you find a 7-pin DIN connector on a device, chances are that this piece of equipment is able to send – or receive – phantom power to run other MIDI equipment.

Sometimes, for instance with Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro, the unused pins 1 and 3 are used to supply phantom power to the device, eliminating the need for a separate power supply. On these occasions, you need to use a 5-pin active MIDI cable, which effectively means that all the five pins are connected through. 

Due to many newer effect devices being much more compact than older units, the regular TRS-plug or even the small 3.5 mm plug is quickly becoming a second standard for MIDI transmission, thanks to its compact size. These days MIDI is also often transmitted using USB cables.

Thanks to MIDI channels and thanks to the separate signal paths of audio and MIDI signals, MIDI-controlled effects don’t need to be arranged in the same order in the MIDI chain as they are in the audio route. This leaves you free to come up with the most creative and sensible way to apply MIDI functionality to your audio chain.

MIDI – The benefits

  • Synchronise the time-based effects of your whole rig.
  • Complex sound switching can be performed instantaneously with just one footswitch, or remotely from a DAW.
  • Set you delay and reverb times to correspond to the tempo of each song.
  • Gain additional controllers to run devices – like using the looper section of a Strymon Timeline without having to use the device’s own switches.

MIDI – What it can do

  • Select effect patches/presets (PC commands)
  • Adjust preselected effect parameters, such as effect mix, feedback value, modulation depth, etc. (CC commands)
  • Program tempo maps for your songs and use them to synchronise your delays and tremolos (MIDI Clock)
  • Remote control up to sixteen devices simultaneously (MIDI channels)
  • Synchronise all your effect changes to the backing tracks on your DAW (Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic, etc.)

MIDI – What it can’t do

  • MIDI doesn’t carry audio signals
  • MIDI can’t switch your amp’s channels directly, if your amp isn’t equipped with MIDI. You can – though – use MIDI-activated relay switches to achieve remote switching after all.

Different MIDI setups for use with electric guitar

In the history of MIDI controllers we have so far seen three “generations” of MIDI’fied equipment for guitar rigs; each generation has its own advantages.

1. MIDI controllers and rack gear

MIDI was first applied to the (in)famous rack effect rigs of the Eighties. Some in-demand professionals for that era – think Steve Lukather – had their complete guitar rig built into five or six foot high fridge-sized effect racks. Such a rack would include 19” rack effects, MIDI-controlled pedal effects mounted in rack drawers, MIDI-controlled relay switches to change amp channels, rack-sized preamps and power amps. Some even went as far as having their favourite amp head squeezed into their huge rack.

You could call Bob Bradshaw the “father” of the MIDI-controlled rack system. He took his inspiration from the work of Craig Anderton, but refined Anderton’s ideas into a complex whole.

The guitarist only had a large, multi-button MIDI-controller on stage, with which he controlled all of his sounds. Often there wasn’t even the need to send the guitar signal back to the front of the stage, unless you were using a wah-wah. It didn’t take long for Dunlop, however, to develop a remote controlled rack wah-effect that only sends the control signal to the wah-shaped foot controller onstage.

Almost all of these large rack systems got their guitar signal from a wireless system, which would feed the incoming signal straight into the first effect device. Everything was kept “in the box”.

The guitarist used his custom-made footswitch unit to send MIDI commands back to the rack. Those commands would take care of effect patch switching, parameter changes and – by using the relays – amp channel switching.

The biggest advantage of a rack-based guitar rig is that all of the signal-carrying equipment stays at the back of the stage. This minimised mess-ups due to spilled drinks or over-eager fans. If such a rig is well maintained, a rack system is easy to use and really streamlined. Audio signal paths are kept physically short, minimizing treble loss. Such huge rigs are still in use with some of the biggest acts on the planet, who have the resources and manpower to carry those systems on tour.

The largest drawback – in addition to the sheer size and weight of those systems – is the amount of additional equipment necessary to make the rack work, which in turn makes such a rig very expensive. You also have to put a lot of time and effort into programming the whole setup, so it does everything it should.

CASE: Esa Holopainen 2007 – MIDI-controller on stage, everything else in a rack

In this case practically all of the audio signal runs and stays inside the rack, with the system being controlled by the guitarist using a Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro unit. The rack holds two amplifiers, a Line 6 M13-multieffect, plus a number of traditional pedal effects. The effects are hooked up to a Voodoo Lab GCX Audio Switcher true bypass looper, with some of the loops employed for amp channel switching on one of the amps. The second amp, as well as the Line 6 M13, are switched directly via MIDI commands.

Voodoo Lab’s Ground Control Pro MIDI controller features eight Instant Access-switches, which have been programmed to do one specific action each. These actions include looper on/off-switching and sending CC commands to the M13. These actions are so-called global commands, which function always, regardless of the chosen preset in the Ground Control Pro.

The first three switches in the upper row are connected to the GCX looper and control the connected effects in the rack drawer. These switches always function the same, regardless of the chosen preset. The last switch has been programmed to kick on the Solo-boost, which is dependent on the selected amplifier:

  • In the Koch Powertone the switch is made by a relay switch, while a MIDI command is sent directly to the Koch Supernova. The last switch’s function has been adjusted to correspond to the amp chosen in the Voodoo Lab controller’s preset.
  • The middle row has its switches connected to the Line 6 M13. The switches always send the same set of CC commands, which change the delay time settings to correspond to the current song.

The correct set of delay times is chosen by recalling each song’s own Ground Controller-preset. Each preset sends its own patch bank PC command to the M13, with the chosen bank containing the correct set of effects for the song.


The Voodoo Lab Ground Controller offers masses of preset banks, of which we used some ten banks. We assigned a different Line 6 M13 patch bank for each of the Amorphis songs, during which Esa uses a delay effect, numbered 0 to 8. Each of the patch banks contains four presets, which correspond to the bottom row of switches on the Voodoo Lab Ground Control.

These presets are at the heart of everything the Ground Control does, and they can be programmed to control a whole set of things simultaneously, like:

  1. switching the Koch Supernova’s amp channel
  2. sending a Program Change command to the Line 6
  3. which Instant Access command are active, whenever the preset is called up

The presets have been placed in banks 0 to 8 to correspond with the songs in the setlist.

2. True bypass loopers with MIDI

The Nineties saw the start of the effect pedal boom, which hasn’t stopped to this day. As pedalboards started becoming a regular tool many different makers started introducing MIDI’fied true bypass loopers. This new type of device brought together functions from two different pieces of equipment.

Bypass loopers made it possible to keep most of the signal path at the player’s feet. Using the loops to also integrate traditional pedals (without MIDI), it became possible to insert a number of pedals in the signal path simultaneously, while also sending Program Change commands to MIDI-equipment at the same time. Some loopers also include relay functionality, making channel switching easy with dedicated Control- or Function-jacks. The most advanced bypass loopers also make it possible to switch the order of the effect pedals from one preset to the other, making the list of possible guitar tones almost limitless.

You could say that using bypass loopers has become the de facto norm for most involved guitar rigs these days. Especially when using one of the modern pedal-sized amp modellers, you can now have your complete guitar rig – effects, controllers, amp modelling – as one complete unit on your board. In contrast to a traditional pedalboard, which has the effects wired in series as one chain, using a looper means about twice the amount of patch cables for the same amount of pedals, but this isn’t much different from the older guitar racks, except for the cable runs being noticeably shorter on a board.

CASE: Ville Salminen and the Musicom Lab EFX Mk V

Ville Salminen took on the job as guitarist in Maija Vilkkumaa’s band in 2017, which meant he needed a flexible rig that made it possible to quickly switch between many song-specific guitar sounds. Such a programmable rig would also be a huge plus for solo appearances, making it much easier to concentrate on singing and playing, instead of stepping on the correct pedals.

Ville’s board is a mixture of analogue drives, boosters and fuzzes and a few effects with MIDI-implementation. We chose a Musicom Lab EFX Mk V as the brains of his new system, allowing us to connect his analogue effects to the switchable loops, which, in turn, makes it easy to integrate the pedals in a programmable rig. Additionally, the Musicom can control patch switching in the MIDI-effects, as well as taking care of sending the audio onto a pair of guitar amps.

The guitar signal is fed into the board via a wireless system and a Lehle Mono Volume-pedal. From then on it runs in the Musicom Lab bypass looper, with all of the board’s effects connected to the looper. Because it is possible to rearrange the order of the loops in the signal path, and because the Musicom offers full MIDI-implementation, this system offers a vast array of different guitar sounds.

The patches of the Strymon Timeline, Eventide H9 and Digitech Whammy are switched directly via MIDI. Each unit has been assigned its own MIDI channel, making it easy to programme any necessary changes. The looper presets also include tempo information for reverbs and delays, as well as which amp and which loops – read: pedal effects – will be selected.

3. Small MIDI controllers for pedalboard installation

Over the last decade, or so, many companies – Like Alexander, Strymon, Eventide, Chase Bliss, Meris, or Boss – have introduced very compact, yet very powerful MIDI-controllable effects. In some cases, using a bypass looper may seem like the wrong choice, either because the number of effects is small or because the user likes to work differently. In these instances integrating a small MIDI-controller on the pedalboard can come in very handy.

Effect pedals are normally connected in series, but the sounds from MIDI-equipment can be switched easily with a dedicated little controller/switch. Using such a small MIDI controller can provide a good compromise between a traditional pedalboard and a complex MIDI’fied setup.

Another way to employ small MIDI controllers would be to run effects placed in front of the amp’s input in the traditional way, but then have the MIDI controller switch the effects placed in the amp’s FX loop, like a delay or a reverb. This way the FX loop effects can be placed physically near the amp, meaning you won’t have to run the guitar signal back from the amplifier to the board, and then back again.

Thanks to the wide availability of MIDI effects these kinds of rigs are getting increasingly common. The advantages are compact size and flexibility in use. Especially when using multi-effects, such as the Eventide H9 or the Line 6 HX Stomp, as the central piece of your rig, using MIDI controllers can bring a definite advantage.

CASE: Tuomas Wäinölä and the Morningstar MC8

Tuomas Wainölä wanted to add some MIDI control to his – already existing – traditional, in-series pedalboard. Some effects already had MIDI implemented, meaning we only had to modify his existing setup slightly, and find the best possible controller for his needs.

All effects are routed in series, but the MIDI controller allows you to change patches to fit each song with only one step on a switch. The effects often make it possible to choose whether the new effect is activated at once, or whether the user has to activate it by using the effect pedal’s own footswitch. This allows you to spice up your playing by selecting the effects you want, but still have the correct, timed delay ready for use, when the big solo comes up.

We have also added a Morningstar ML5, which is a MIDI controlled true bypass looper. The ML5 is set to enable Tuomas to completely bypass the whole pedalboard with one sep on a switch. It also gives him the option of switching to a different set of outputs.

The Morningstar MC8, for its part, also has a cable for an external expression pedal installed. You can use the expression pedal to generate CC commands, which can be used to control certain parameters in the MIDI’fied effects.

This type of rig is perfect for studio or freelance musicians, who can use the MIDI controller to call up any digital effects needed, but who still need the flexibility to be able to select any of the traditional pedals intuitively.

How do I choose the best MIDI controller for me?

If you’re planning to MIDI’fy your pedalboard, you should start by drawing up a thorough plan on paper first. Read through the manuals of the MIDI effects you want to use to find the MIDI Mapping List of each device. The Mapping List will show you at one glance, what features and parameters can be MIDI controlled in this specific piece of equipment. The list will give you the exact CC command numbers and other MIDI implementation details. If, as an example, you wanted to control the reverb time or the delay’s feedback value, you first have to make sure that the effect pedal has a CC command assigned to the specific parameter.

Once you’re clear on all your objectives, you have to check that the MIDI controller you’re planning to use can send all the MIDI commands you need. Furthermore, you have to make sure the controller offers you enough MIDI channels, as well as a large enough number of programmable MIDI commands in each controller preset.

Things to consider:

  • How many devices will have to be controlled?
  • What features do you need to control? Are you only calling up effect patches, or do you need to control a certain parameter? What commands do you need to send – Program Changes, Control Changes, tempo changes?
  • Do you need to adjust parameters “on the fly”?
  • Do you need an expression pedal for additional control?

The easiest way to get started with MIDI is to use something like the Voodoo Lab PX-8 Plus controller/true bypass looper. This device sends the corresponding patch number as a PC command to all connected MIDI effects, whenever a preset is called up. You simply have to make sure that all your MIDI effects have the correct effect patch for the same song in the memory slot with the same number. Additionally. you can also choose which of the eight loops – or: the connected effect pedals – are put into action.

The next step up are products from companies such as Musicom Lab, RJM Music Technology. These controllers/loopers offer you programmable MIDI channels and MIDI commands.

For example, if you use effect patch number three on your Strymon Timeline for more than one song, you can programme the looper to send the PC command for patch three on the Strymon’s dedicated MIDI channel in every preset it is needed. This Program Change would be completely separate from the Program Changes in other MIDI effects in the same preset, because you would run each effect on its own MIDI channel. This means any commands meant for one effects unit won’t be picked up by another MIDI effect on a different channel.

Many of the bypass loopers in this class can also be used to send Control Change commands. The CCs are dependent on each effect’s MIDI Mapping. You could use a CC to switch an effect to bypass or to activate a unit’s Tap Tempo function, which comes in especially handy if you’ve run out of looper loops and have to run an effect outside of the loops. Control Commands are often programmed on a dedicated Control Page – often accessible via a special pushbutton. Some units also allow you to connect additional footswitches to a Control In jack, and programme them to perform certain functions.

The more advanced controllers/loopers even feature the option to hook up an expression pedal, whose output is then converted to CC commands, which in turn can be used to adjust selected parameters on the fly. Use the pedal to change reverb times or delay feedbacks – the sky’s the limit. The best way to use the expression pedal feature is to choose carefully which parameter the pedal controls for each looper preset. Preset number one could give you interactive control over the reverb’s Mix-parameter, while Preset number two could have the pedal adjust tremolo speed.

If you don’t want – or don’t need – a bypass looper you could always consider a small, dedicated MIDI controller, such as Morningstar MC3, MC6 or MC8.

These devices often offer the most flexibility and can be programmed for any MIDI task you can think of. Many of these devices offer you additional editor software, making programming the controller much more fun. You can also download the editor before you decide which one to buy, so you can find out what features the controller in question has to offer.

MIDI jargon

MIDI Channel – Each MIDI’fied effects unit is assigned its own MIDI channel from the 16 channels available. The idea behind this is to give each effect its own “address” in the MIDI system, so it doesn’t react to MIDI commands meant for another device. You could connect the reverb unit on channel 1, the delay on channel 2, and a relay switcher (for amp channel switching) on MIDI channel 3. The “Omni” setting, on the other hand, means that this piece of equipment will send or receive MIDI on all channels.

PC Command – The Program Change command is a MIDI command that tells the receiving device to recall a certain effect patch or patch bank. The PC value will always lie between 0-127 – or 1-128, depending on the manufacturer. It’s important to remember that PC commands only deal with effect selection, while CC commands affect effect or global parameters.

CC Command – The Control Change command adjust a single parameter of the MIDI effect connected, like the number of delay repeats or modulation speed. A CC command always contains two numbers – the first number designates the chosen parameter (for example: CC#14), while the second number is the value, meaning the position of an imaginary slider or control knob (value 64). A CC value always lies between 0 and 127. On a Strymon Timeline “CC#14, value 64” would put the Mix control to halfway. You will need to consult each MIDI device’s MIDI Mapping chart to find out how to access the parameters offered for remote control. Here’s n example from the manual for the Strymon Timeline:

LSB/MSB – This is an abbreviation of the terms Least Significant Byte and Most Significant Byte, and it is a CC command used for selecting effect patches. Basic MIDI only recognizes 128 different patch numbers. If an effects unit offers more than 128 patch memory slots, the available memory slots are grouped into groups of 128 patches, and the LSB/MSB command is the used to jump from one group to another. A LSB/MSB command of “0” would call up patches number 1-128, while LSB/MSB sending a “1” would select the group of patches 129-256. The next PC command – 0-128 – would then select the corresponding effect patch in the second group (129-256).

Preset – A patch preset is a stored effect sound, which can be recalled by the controller sending the corresponding PC command.

A looper/controller preset, on the other hand, is a memory slot for the whole chosen set of PC and CC commands, and a MIDI Clock setting, for a given song or signature sound. Depending on the make and model of the controller, a preset can also include non-MIDI information, such as which loop(s) and/or which amp channel is selected.

Bank – Most controllers arrange their presets in banks of four to eight presets. You can jump from one bank to the next with dedicated footswitches (or combinations). Bank 1 could give you Presets 1-5, Bank 2 would then be Presets 6-10, and so on. Normally you would assign one bank of presets for one song in your setlist. This way you have all your sounds for one song gathered together and ready for selection, and when you move on to the next song you simply click “Bank up” for the next bank with the next set of sounds.

MIDI Clock – Many MIDI devices and virtually all DAWs are able to send a time pulse, the so-called MIDI Clock, to receiving devices. If a MIDI Clock signal is available, it can be used to synchronize parameters, such as delay times or modulation rates, to the Clock, like when your playing to backing tracks coming off an audio sequencer.

Bypass looper jargon

Control/Function – This connector – most often using a TRS-jack – usually sends relay commands, which can then be used for things such as amp channel switching or and effect’s Tap Tempo feature. Normally there are two different commands that can be assigned to the TRS-jack – one for the plug’s tip, the other for the plug’s ring contact. Depending on the model, you usually use either a regular stereo cable or insert cable, familiar from mixing consoles, which has a TRS-plug at one end and two separate mono plugs at the other. If you only plan on using one of the two commands, you can also use a regular mono cable.

Ctl In/Ext Switch – This is usually a stereo plug connector that allows you to hook up an external footswitch, which can then be programmed to control certain looper functions. This is often a way to expand on a MIDI controller’s functionality.

Exp – This is where you plug an expression pedal in. Many MIDI controllers are able to translate the movements of an expression pedal into CC commands, which in turn can be used to adjust a preselected effect parameter interactively. Some controllers also feature an Exp Out jack, so you can use the expression pedal for traditional control of an effect pedal.

Insert – This is an insert point somewhere inside the signal path between the loops. Often this is meant for the connection of a volume pedal, or for running some effects inside the amp’s FX loop, using the four-cable method. In some loopers this insert point is also called Volume Loop.

Instant Access – This is usually a switch, which allows you direct access to a special parameter of function. This could be a Tap Tempo switch, or a footswitch putting the looper into Loop Mode, where you can use the other footswitches to select loops manually (instead of using the presets). In older and larger models the Instant Access switch is often a dedicated switch that can be programmed to perform certain functions.

System/Global – System or Global parameters are settings that affect the whole unit, and which are not preset specific.


If you have purchased all the parts and components but get a feeling that you might not be up to the task after all, we can make your pedalboard for you, using the components you have bought from us. Don’t worry, we won’t let anything go to waste.


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