Can I Run Vocals Through The Guitar Pedals? Answered

 So today, we’re going to demystify the process of adding such desired effects in answering the question of  “Can I Run Vocals Through The Guitar Pedals?”

First, let’s look at why you would want to add effects to a vocal track. You may be facing the issue of your vocals sounding flat or devoid of life, even when sung on key. Using an effect like Gain or Reverb would go a long way in making the vocal track pop. As to why anyone would want to run these effects through a guitar pedal, having these effects ready to go as soon as a pedal is pressed can be a lifesaver during a live performance, especially if you plan to sing and play an instrument at the same time. 

These effects work by instantly altering the sound transient as it is transmitted through a digital interface. Pedalboards are most commonly used on electric guitars, but that is not to say that it is not possible to apply them to other instrument waveforms. In this post, we will discuss the setup process of running vocal tracks through guitar pedals and the applications and limitations you may encounter. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll break it down like this: 

Without further ado, let’s jump in.

How To Run Vocals Through The Guitar Pedals

  • What’s Required

To get started, here is a list of items you will need to make this process run as smoothly as possible:

  • The dynamic microphone of your choosing
  • XLR cables
  • Pre-amp
  • Pedalboard and whatever pedals you choose to use

Suppose you plan to connect the pedalboard to a computer and record it into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). In that case, the following few pieces of equipment will differ slightly from what is needed to connect to an amplifier and hear live playback. For DAW input, you will also need the following: 

  • Audio interface (such as Focusrite or Apollo)
  • USB cable

For live playback through an amp, you will need:

  • QTR cables
  • Amplifier
  • Limiter (optional but encouraged)

If some of this is unclear, or you still have questions, fear not! Just read on ahead, and I will lay out a more detailed explanation of each piece below:

Pre-amp 

A pre-amp (or preamplifier) will be one of the first things you need after the mic and XLR cable. The pre-amp is necessary because microphones can only output audio signals at the Microphone level. If your goal is to add some funky effects, you will want to boost it to Line level (the standard level at which most processing is done). This device will allow you to do this all in one place. 

Audio Interface 

An Audio Interface will be your best friend if you are interested in playing music directly into your DAW. This device is capable of delivering high-quality recordings with little to no impedance or background noise. While this is only used if you want to record onto a computer, it is still a handy tool that belongs in any audio engineer’s arsenal. This device connects directly to your microphone using a QTR, or XLR cable. It then connects straight to your computer using a regular USB cable.

Limiter 

As mentioned above, a Limiter is not required for this process, but it is encouraged, just as a safety measure. Limiters serve the same primary function as compressors, and that is to ensure that your speakers (or eardrums) do not blow up by flattening volume spikes and leveling the transients. This device would only be needed for a live performance, as most DAWs come with internal limiter patches built in. 

  • Setup

So, once you have everything together, it’s time to connect each piece. This part of the process is simple and can be done relatively quickly with just a few of the cables you have already gathered. When setting up for a live performance, your first step is to connect your microphone directly to the pre-amp using an XLR cable. Next, ensure you have plugged your pedals into your pedalboard and know the exact audio signal level you need to use each one.

The next step is to connect your pre-amp to your pedalboard, which is done with a QTR cable. Attach the QTR cable to the output jack, which is usually located in the back of the pre-amp device, and then plug the other end into the pedalboard. 

Next would be the limiter, should you choose to use it. Adding it can be done with another QTR cable if you are using a physical device or can be applied later as a patch if you are recording into a DAW. Lastly, we connect the pedalboard to an amplifier using another QTR cable. Now, with everything securely connected and your mic output signals adequately boosted, thanks to the pre-amp, you are free to start hitting those pedals and see what crazy effects you can generate. 

  • Applications

Pedalboards on vocals have many different applications. For example, a touch of reverb could make a single vocal line more full or like it is being sung in a much larger space. Likewise, a chorus effect could turn one voice into an entire ensemble. You can also get more creative with these effects and add something like high or low pitch-bend or strong autotune to create a modern EDM-style vocal line. With the proper setup, getting all these effects will be a breeze. 

Though there are dozens of different pedals you could use on vocals; the most common ones are these:

  • Reverb
  • Chorus
  • Delay
  • Tuning
  • Looper 

You can get some great sounds with just these five pedals, and if you are only beginning your gear collection, any of these would be a solid place to start. 

  • Limitations 

As I mentioned, there will be some limitations to this process. There are also a few snags that you are likely to run into if you are not well acquainted with some of the gear mentioned above. Not to worry, though. I’ll explain those issues away below. The most important thing to remember when using effects is the output level, which we already solved with a pre-amp. 

There is also the ever-annoying issue of the clipped signal. This problem can occur when your input level is too high on the pre-amp or if your output is too low when leaving the pre-amp. The issue of a poor signal can usually be fixed by adjusting the volume dial on the device. Some interfaces have an LED light around the dial, which will turn green to indicate a strong input/output signal. Adversely, it will turn yellow to indicate a clipped one. 

Another vital thing to remember is the order of the signal chain. Applying one effect before or after another incorrectly can be counter-intuitive. Therefore, knowing what goes where to achieve the desired effect is critical. It can sometimes be frustrating to figure out what goes where without any guides. To make the road ahead smoother, I have provided some links that should prove very useful. 

Answers to your questions on the signal chain can be found here and here.

There are also going to be a few limitations when it comes to which pedals you can use on a vocal track. While effects like Gain, Reverb, and Pitch-bend are all fair game, things like Distortion or Wah pedals will not do you any favors when it comes to producing a musical-sounding vocal line. That said, most pedals that work on an electric guitar or synthesizer will also work on a vocal track. It primarily comes down to experimentation to find the sound you want for your song. 

In Conclusion

Using pedalboards on vocals has been done for quite some time now. Pedalboards are a great way to add something new and exciting to your track and help you create a distinct sound. Adding to, subtracting from, and modifying your signal chain can provide you with hundreds of combinations, some of which will sound better than others. However, once you have the proper setup, finding the sound you are looking for is essentially just trial and error.  

I hope this post has been helpful to all you experimental musicians. And now, I strongly encourage you to get into your studio space and start getting your hands dirty with all the options there are to explore. This process can take some time if you are unsure exactly what sound you want. But it can be hours of fun by just trying different things out. So now get out there, start stomping those pedals, and create a vocal sound unique to you. 

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