Updated October 2017
In the studio or live, effects pedals can be a precious addition to enrich the sound of your keyboard or synthesizer. Here's the PMT guide with all you need to know!
Even though most FX pedals are originally designed for guitars, many keyboard players use them to expand the sound possibilities of their instruments. Effects such as reverb, overdrive, distortion, chorus, delay, flanger and phaser are all very cool effects that can be used with your keyboard or analogue synth, and inspire you to create new sounds. The new Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Tape Replay Machine, a Mellotron simulator that is also recommended for keyboard players, is a great example of guitar FX pedal that's also ideal for a keyboard.
Why use FX with my synth or keyboard?
The design of traditional analogue synthesizers (for instance, by Moog) does not include effects, and even the most modern ones, such as the Korg Minilogue, only have very basic effects. That's ok because that's not what synths are all about, and it's hard to imagine an analogue synth that could, in a compact package, realistically afford to incorporate a fully featured analogue delay as good as a Deluxe Memory Man or Space Echo, as well a flanger or chorus, etc.
Here's a demo of our Manchester team playing a keyboard through a Boss RE-20 Space Echo:
As you can see, once you start experiment using different pedals with your keyboard, you may come up with new ideas, new sounds and have much more fun in the studio. The other great thing about using fx pedals is that even if you got a cheap, uninspiring keyboard, you can almost magically create new and interesting sounds.
Vintage synthesizers such as the ARP 2600 had spring reverbs, but were huge, heavy and very expensive. The best modern synths such as a Prophet 12 or Roland JD-XA, can have built-in digital effects, which is much appreciated by their users. However, at the moment, nothing matches the versatility and array of sounds you can get from stand-alone fx units hooked up to your keyboard.
To give you an idea, just think about one of the most exciting releases for 2016, the Arturia Matrixbrute: it "only" has Delay, Flanger, Chorus and Analog "Reverberator", but that's still more than enough to get a lot of people excited - because, for an analogue synth, that's quite remarkable!
Keyboard effects: Then and Now
Even though the first compact fx pedals were designed for guitars, keyboards have played an essential role, from the very start. The first ever electric piano was made in 1939, and it had a built-in tremolo unit, designed by DeArmond, who went on to first the first-ever guitar fx unit, also a tremolo. Shortly after, Donald Leslie designed the fabled Leslie Rotating Speaker, as a companion to the equally legendary Hammond Organ.
Years later, both the Leslie Speaker and the Hammond organ would be featured in classic songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and many others, becoming almost as iconic as the artists who used them. Ironically enough, the Leslie speaker - originally an effect for keyboards - was made popular mostly by guitarists who also used it, such as George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Today, it's the other way round, and keyboard players rely on guitar fx pedals!
The Leslie Rotating speaker effect remains a firm favourite of guitarists and keyboard players, and that's why Electro-Harmonix designed the new Lester pedals, which perfectly capture the Leslie sound, and which can be used with guitars or keyboards alike. Check this demo featuring Mike Matthews himself:
Another type of effect that has bees been widely used with keyboards, since the Sixties, is delay and reverb. One of the best examples is Richard Wright, from Pink Floyd, who used a Binson Echorec delay unit, as heard on several early-Floyd tracks. He used to put his delay unit on top of his Farfisa keyboard, as shown in this pic:
The TC Electronics Alter Ego delay pedals feature an Echorec mode, if you fancy the same Binson Echorec-style delays. Wright was a quite creative keyboard player, and he also used a wah pedal for his Wurlitzer solo for Pink Floyd's 'Money'.
Envelope Filter pedals are also great when used with keyboards.
Today, it's hard to find a professional keyboard / synth player who doesn't use some sort of extra guitar fx pedals. The next demo gives you a great idea of what sort of cool sounds you can achieve using effects. In this case, you take an already amazing Moog Little Phatty and, with the addition of an Electro-Harmonix POG 2, Nano Clone Chorus and Deluxe Memory Boy Delay, you can create some unique and truly immense sounds!
There's really no limits to what you can do when hooking up your keyboard to a few different fx pedals!
Should I put my FX pedals on the floor or next to my keyboard?
The only thing you need to bear in mind, if you're a live performer, is whether you'll have the effects on the floor like guitarists do, or use them tabletop-style, perhaps sat on top of your keyboard. If you're using a volume or wah pedal, then of course you'll have them on the floor. And the same goes if you don't plan to tweak the effects live, when you're using them. If you're just going to step on the effect to switch it on / off, then you might as well leave it on the floor.
But one of the coolest things about using guitar effects with your keyboard is precisely the fact you can tweak them as part of your performance, as you go along! If you end up with a good collection of effects to use alongside your synths, you'll probably find yourself having some on the floor and some next to the keyboard, according to how you plan to use them.
Watch our video demo of some great FX pedals for synths and keyboards
Gaz in our Newcastle store decided to put a bunch of different pedals to use using a Roland FP30 and an Arturia Microbrute. Check out the video below and see how some great guitar pedals can be used on synths and keyboards beautifully.
Pedals used in the video:
- Electro Harmonix Nano Small Stone
- Boss DS-1 4A 40th Anniversary
- Electro Harmonix Cathedral Reverb Pedal
- Dunlop CBM95 Cry Baby Mini Wah Pedal
- Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boy Analog Delay Pedal
- Boss CH1 Super Chorus
- Electro Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress XO Flanger
The Top 10 Best Keyboard FX Pedals Today
Here's 10 more of our top picks of effects pedals that you could use with your keyboard or synth. It doesn't matter whether you use a great analogue synth, or a cheap home keyboard - these pedals can help to expand your sound palette and help you to create new sounds and music!
1) Boss RE-20 Roland Space Echo Tape Delay / Reverb
The original Roland Space Echo was (and still is) a firm studio favourite, but too bulky and ultimately unreliable for live use. The Boss RE-20 sounds exactly like the original, but comes in the perfect size to fit snugly next to your keyboards. Even though it's digital, it sounds totally analogue and gives you some of the best tape delay and reverb sounds available. It'll make your keyboard sound great! Find out more
2) Strymon Deco Tape Saturation & Doubletracker
We simply had to mention Strymon, and any of their pedals would be a great choice, but the Deco Tape Saturation & Doubletracker is our top pick. This is a very unique and quite amazing "2-in-1" fx pedal. The "Tape Saturation" side is a type of "Harmonic Saturator" overdrive, and the "Doubletracker" works like two vintage tape decks together, creating vintage-style splap echo, chorus and flanger effects.
Simply GREAT fun to play around and always, always sounding great. Find out more
3) Electro-Harmonix Lester G Deluxe Rotary Speaker
4) Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Tape Replay Machine Mellotron Simulator
Just imagine: you could have an analogue synth, or maybe just a cheap, mediocre keyboard you got second-hand, and it still could sound exactly like a vintage Mellotron, as used by The Beatles, Genesis and others! The Electro-Harmonix Mel 9 is truly magical, and can prove a great addition to your setup. The other Electro-Harmonix "organ" pedals are great choices, too, but the Mel 9 is everyone's favourite! Find out more
5) Blaxx 3 Modes Distortion Mini Pedal
Having a distortion or overdrive pedal could be a great idea, too, to add some grit to your sound - or just to make a keyboard or synth as noisy as the noisiest guitar! It's important to get a pedal with tone control, such as this affordable Blaxx distortion pedal. It's so compact and affordable, that it's really no trouble adding it to your setup! Find out more
6) MXR Phase 90
7) Boss SL-20 Slicer
The Boss SL-20 Slicer Pedal is not widely used, but has all the hallmarks of a new classic. It's a really innovative and unique pedal, and we feel perhaps better suited to keyboard players than guitarists. Its sounds can go from choppy tremolo to almost arpeggiator-style patterns.
It could become your best friend, if you truly give it a go. Find out more
Any reverb pedal can be a really good addition to your keyboard (in fact it's a must have!), but the Electro Harmonix Cathedral Reverb Pedal offers some incredible possibilities with 8 different modes to choose from including a really cool reverse delay. It really has that "wow" factor that can make the simplest keyboard riffs stand out and really add some lush dynamics to your playing. Find out more.
9) Moog Minifooger MF Ring Modulator
As you could imagine, Moog knows a thing or two about synthesizers, so their effects pedals are great for synths, too! The ring modulation effect is great when used with analogue synths. Some synthesizers indeed feature that effect, but if yours don't, a Moog Minifooger MF Ring Modulator 2 is a great choice! Find out more
10) Electro Harmonix Operation Overlord
We couldn't discuss the best FX pedals for synths & keyboards without including EHX's newest offering! The Electro Harmonix Operation Overlord allows you to add some gorgeous tube-amp style distortion to your keyboard or synth. Choose from two different modes: Normal and Boost and scroll through an array of drive stages. Add a little gain to your sound or throw some seriously gritty distortion into your keyboard or synth sound without losing the tones within your unit. Check it out below: