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The ABSOLUTE Beginner's Guide to Pedalboard MIDI

MIDI is a very powerful and useful tool for controlling your effects pedals. But some of you may not know how it works and have no clue of what it can do. You may even feel a little too intimidated to start. If that's you, this article is just for you. We've also linked the video version of this article here. So if you prefer watching a video, go ahead! If not, just continue reading.

Most of you would know about MIDI in the context of a MIDI keyboard, which allows you to input notes and control functions in your Digital Audio Workstation on a computer. MIDI is the universal language that allows electronic music instruments, computers and audio devices to communicate with each other. All for the purpose of playing, editing and recording music.

Today we are talking about MIDI specifically in the context of an effects pedalboard and how it gives you simultaneous control over all your pedals, enabling you to make full use of all that pedal power.

Before we begin, let’s first talk about why MIDI controllers for pedalboards even exist.

All the pedals on the pedalboard above are MIDI capable. As you can see, there are numerous effects pedals, each of which is capable of altering your guitar’s tone in many different ways. When you take into account how many pedals there are, the permutations and possibilities are almost endless.

Say in the middle of song, you want to engage a light overdrive, an ambient reverb, a modulated dotted eighth analog delay and a gentle compressor. There’s no way you could possibly step on all 4 pedals pedals in an instant. And given that your last used settings may be nowhere close to your currently desired settings, it would take a long time for you to get the tone you want perfectly dialled in.

In the next instance, you may want to disengage your overdrive, have a digital slapback delay, a simple spring reverb and more aggressive compression. Again, there’s no way you could possibly make all those changes without some impressive tap dancing.

Do you see where we’re going with this? MIDI allows you to make all those changes to your tone with just a single switch press. This effectively allows you to create your own multi effects board and create your own preset sounds. The advantage with this vs an all-in-one multi effects unit is that you get to pick and choose which brands and pedals you want to use, without being limited to only one brand and its built-in digital effects.

Today we are going to cover the bare essentials of how MIDI works on a pedalboard. The only 2 types of MIDI messages you need to remember today are Program Change and Control Change messages.

A Program Change message, known as PC message for short, does exactly what its name suggests. It recalls a particular program, also known as a preset, on the pedal that it is sent to. Most MIDI-capable pedals allow you to tweak your sound and save it as a preset. By sending a PC message to a pedal, you can recall any preset of your choice. This is super useful because it allows you to instantly recall any preset on your pedal, without needing to scroll through all of them just to get to the one you want.

PC numbers range from 0-127 and which preset you recall is determined by what PC number you send. Presets on an effect pedal typically correspond sequentially with PC numbers. Usually, PC number 0 will recall preset 1, PC number 1 will recall preset 2, PC number 2 will recall preset 3 and so on. And that’s all you need to know about Program Change messages!

Moving on to Control Change messages, known as CC messages for short. These messages allow you to control various parameters and functions on your pedal without changing presets.

For example, you could control the wet/dry mix, feedback amount, modulation depth, gain, volume and many other parameters on a pedal. You could also trigger the record button on a looper pedal, tap tempo switch on a delay pedal, and other various functions depending on the pedal you are controlling. As long as the your pedal allows that function to be MIDI controlled, you can control it.

A CC message is made up of 2 parts. CC number and CC value.

The CC number determines which effect parameter or function you control. Think of it like a restaurant menu where each dish has a number. So instead of having to tell the waiter the entire dish name, you can just tell him the dish number.

Take the above Strymon TimeLine manual for example. In it you will find a MIDI specifications chart documenting all the parameters and functions that can be controlled by MIDI. In each row you will find the corresponding CC number (CC#) that controls each particular parameter or function.

But no one likes referring to charts and manuals. So that’s why we’ve made it easy for you in our Morningstar Editor by including the MIDI Dictionary. The Morningstar MIDI Dictionary contains all the MIDI information of the most popular and widely used pedals. So all you have to do is select the brand, model and function you want to control, and the correct CC number will be selected for you.

The second part of a CC message is its CC value. CC values range from 0 to 127 and determine how a parameter is affected. When controlling wet//dry mix for example, a value of 0 would produce a completely dry mix and a value of 127 would produce a completely wet mix. Values in between would produce a blend according to what value is used.

In other instances, a value of 127 could emulate a switch being pressed down and value 0 could emulate a switch being released. How a pedal responds to incoming CC messages depends on how it is designed, which is also what makes MIDI very versatile.

Now that you understand the 2 most important types of MIDI messages, let’s talk about how MIDI is sent from a MIDI controller to all other pedals.

Most, but not all, MIDI-capable pedals have MIDI In and MIDI Thru ports. This allows you to daisy chain them, allowing MIDI to flow from your MIDI controller through to all your other pedals. Then comes the problem. Since MIDI is flowing through all the pedals, how does each pedal know to respond only to MIDI messages meant for it? It’s easy. That’s why we have MIDI channels.

MIDI channels are very much like radio channels on walkie talkies. With a walkie talkie, you can only receive audio when you are tuned to the same channel as the sender. The same goes for MIDI. Each of your pedals can be set to a different MIDI channel. Each MIDI message sent from your Morningstar controller can also be assigned to a specific MIDI channel.

A pedal will respond only to messages that are sent on the same MIDI channel that it is set to receive MIDI on. So if you send a MIDI message via channel 1, only pedals set to channel 1 will respond to it. If you send message via channel 3, only pedals set to channel 3 will respond to it.

In total there are 16 different MIDI channels for you to choose from, allowing you to simultaneously control up to 16 different devices with a single switch press.

Of course there are other more advanced uses for MIDI on a pedalboard. Some of these include MIDI Clock, which allows you to sync up all your time-based effects. You can also connect an expression pedal to your Morningstar MIDI controller to, giving you expression pedal control over any MIDI-controllable parameter. We've made blog and video posts about these before. Do check them out if you are interested.

Hopefully this article has given you a good basic understanding of what MIDI does on a pedalboard. Just remember, Program Change messages allow you to recall presets, Control Change messages allow you to control effect parameters and functions. It’s really that simple! If you are interested to find out more about MIDI and how it can enable you to take full advantage of your pedalboard, check out the videos on our YouTube channel. Catch you again soon!


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