Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Simple #Wiring for a #GuitarEffects #Pedalboard #LED #LightShow

I'm at that stage in life in which I feel that music should be played live (as much as possible) with a full sound (as much as possible). It's a difficult task to bring together a band of two or more people, to fill the roles of "melody" (lead vocal), "harmony" (backing vocal), "accompaniment" (guitar and/or keyboard), "low-end" (bass), and "beats" (drums/percussion). For the past few years, through trial and error, I set out to fill out those roles with as few people as possible -- one person, usually.

Singing through a microphone plugged into a Boss VE-2 harmonizer pedal will ably fill the roles of lead vocal and backing vocal(s). Nice harmonies add so much to an average vocal performance, it's almost a dirty cheating trick to use a harmony pedal, which it certainly is. A one-man band cannot entirely focus on one instrument, by definition, so vocals will suffer by default. Even the best singer in the world sounds better sans instrument versus playing an instrument simultaneously. Therefore, a vocal harmony pedal -- even a vocal doubling pedal -- is an extremely useful performance-enhancing drug, err, effect.

A guitar equipped with A Little Thunder guitar pickup will ably fill the roles of rhythm guitar and bass. I shape the guitar sound with an AC Tone overdrive pedal, and I shape the bass sound with a bass overdrive pedal, set at 100% dry. I also have a Flashback delay/looper pedal to loop any bass parts, in case I want to play a guitar solo. When one has to fill the roles of both guitar, bass, and vocals simultaneously, that person is well-aware of creating a clear separation among all three frequency "pockets." For me, I try to make the bass as fat-bottomed yet clear as possible, the guitar fuzzy and creamy to separate it from the bass, and I try to sing in such a way to cut through the mix. Most (non-professional or beginning) bands don't sound good because the individual instrumentalists tend to step on each other's toes -- heavily-distorted guitar that interferes with the bass frequencies, a vocalist with the same frequency range as the guitar tone, etc. -- and the mix just gets muddy. But I digress ...

You can either strap a kick drum to your back and a tambourine to your ass, or you can program a bunch of generic drum patterns to a drum machine with a control pedal. I chose to pursue the latter option. I must note that all these bits of electronic gear can be battery operated or use an AC adapter. I purchased a bunch of rechargeable batteries over the years, so my one-man band setup is fully portable. Anyhow, I have a couple of LED light units that sort of interact with the drum machine and the "full band" to trigger LED lights, for a simple light show that adds so much to a live performance. It's really the little things -- a harmony vocal, the thump of a pseudo-bass guitar, and some blinky lights -- that can turn any performance into a "show."

With lots of Velcro, I placed all these bits of gear on a Pedaltrain Pro, but something felt missing.

It's one thing to decorate randomly with several strings of LED lights; it's another thing to decorate the pedalboard itself with lights! To do this requires some basic, yet tedious, wiring skills. If you don't have these things already, you might want to purchase:

1. Safety googles,
2. Soldering iron,
3. (Thin) solder,
4. Wire, in one or more colors (I used red, white, and black),
5. Wire stripper,
6. Third hand (alligator clips with a magnifying glass),
7. Heat gun,
8. Shrink tubing,
9. Velcro,
10. Ruler or tape measure,
11. Pencil, pen, or Sharpie marker,
12. Scissors and/or guillotine paper cutter,
13. Extra RBG LED connectors,
14. LED light controller, and of course,
15. Roll(s) of strip RGB LED lights.

There are solder points every three or so sections in a strip of LED lights. I wanted to make two squares of lights on my pedalboard, so I cut eight one-foot lengths of LEDs. There are four connections for each segment (Voltage, Red, Green, and Blue), so I cut several pieces of wire, with the length of a few inches. I stripped both ends of the wire with a wire stripper, and I prepared the wire by tinning.

Be sure to wear safety goggles to protect your eyes.

Tinning wire is easy, as long as your soldering iron is hot. Use your third hand (it's a piece of equipment with alligator clips and a magnifying glass) to hold a piece of wire. With one hand, move the tip of the soldering iron up the length of the exposed wire. At the same time, with your other hand, move the solder up the length of the same exposed wire, on the other side of that same wire. The soldering iron should heat the exposed wire, which in turn, melts the solder on the other side, allowing the molten solder to flow around the exposed wire -- turning a braid into a single tinned piece of wire.

Now it's time to connect the LED segments. Keep that soldering iron hot! As mentioned earlier, there are four connections: Voltage, Red, Green, and Blue. It probably depends on the manufacturer, but the strips I used had the following connections in this order: DC 12V, Blue, Red, and Green. Be sure the wiring between LED segments lines up correctly. Also pay attention to the wiring of the connectors, as they might not be in the same order as the strips. The connectors I used contained this order: Blue, Red, Green, and DC 12V. You probably don't want a color change between LED strips, which happened to me while preparing these lights. In my situation, there was some diagonal wiring involved. As long as you connect Blue to Blue, Red to Red, Green to Green, and Voltage to Voltage, you should be OK.

This is the tricky part. If your LED lights have a waterproof protector over the four connector pads, you will want to cut that clear bit of plastic off to expose the connections. The exposed circuit board is a frail bit of paper and copper, so make sure your soldering iron is hot! A hot soldering iron will only need a moment to connect the tinned wire. Keeping the iron on the circuit board for a long period of time will burn the circuit board. You do not want to burn off the copper connection, thus rendering that segment useless. (Believe me and my trial and error experience!) That being said, use your third hand to hold either the wire or the LED segment. press the tinned wire onto the end of the exposed copper pad. Press the tip of your soldering iron onto another area of that exposed copper pad. The heated pad should melt the tinned wire onto the pad.

There are four types of connections -- Voltage, Blue, Red, and Green -- and I only had three colors of wire on hand. You can do this with only one color of wire, as long as you pay attention to your wires. I used black wire for Voltage, white wire for Blue, red wire for Red, and another white wire for Green. I just had to pay attention to differentiate Blue from Green.

When you're done with wiring one set of wires to a LED segment, wire the other end with another LED segment. Make sure Voltage connects with Voltage, and each color connects with the same color. Now, test that connection. Make sure both segments can create red light, blue light, green light, white light, etc. If it's good, then protect your connection. Sheathe a length of shrink tubing over the first soldered area. Use a heat gun to shrink the tubing. Repeat over the second soldered area. You could also shrink tube the entire length between segments, but I find that the wires are more flexible without the shrink tube. I just use shrink tubing to protect my soldered connections.

Repeat the process until you have enough wired segments for your project. If one of your LED segments has a connector already wired, you don't have to worry about diagonal wiring, as mentioned earlier.  If you have to wire a connector, look at the factor-wired connector as an example because you might need to wire the Voltage diagonally or something. In any case, always test your connections to see (1) if they light up and (2) if the lights are the same color.

I wanted to make two LED "squares" on my pedal board. Each LED "square" consists of a factor-wired connector on one segment, wired to a second segment, wired to a third segment, wired to a fourth segment, diagonally wired to another connector. The back of the LED strips uses a 3M adhesive of varying quality. My pedalboard's surface has carpet-like Velcro material on it. Using a ruler, a Sharpie, and a guillotine paper cutter, I cut lengths of the hard Velcro material to adhere onto the LED strips. Then I Velcro'd the LED strips onto the pedalboard. Now I have the option to adjust the shape of my LED lights, if needed.

As mentioned earlier, each "square" contains connectors on both ends. One LED controller, which reacts to low frequencies, connects to one square, and I have the option of connecting additional LED strips to the end of that square. Another LED controller, which reacts to loud sounds (high frequencies, usually), connects to the other square, and I have the option of connecting additional LED strips to the end of that square. The sync isn't perfect, but here it is in action with my drum machine:

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

If you play with by yourself with a full-band sound and have some bright lights to complement the performance, you really can't go wrong. Well, one might hypothetically suck at playing live music. That might be a problem. Practicing might help.

In any case, at least my dog likes it.

P.S. This post contains affiliate links for stuff you might not need generally, unless you're into wiring LED lights and rockin' out and whatnot.

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