How To Use External Effects (Pedals, Stompboxes, etc.) With Your Audio Interface and DAW
One of my favorite home/studio ‘tricks’ is using external effects (such as stompboxes, pedals, rack units) with my audio interface, with or even without a DAW.
This allows me to use any external effect I have with any of the instruments currently connected to my audio interface (that is, as an Insert rather than a Direct connection). Basically, in this way the external effects become a sort of hardware plugin.
Also, as you buy more gear, you might get to a point where you need more inputs/outputs than the ones on your audio interface. Below I’ll give you some tips about expanding your setup, keeping your external effects always connected and without spending a fortune!
(Disclaimer: within the post you’ll find a few Amazon links. If you find this content helpful, feel free to support us using those links.)
For the purpose of this demonstration, I have used a Focusrite Clarett 8PRE X, and some Eventide effects I had. You can easily adapt this method to your setup, using the audio interface and the effect units you already have (as long as they have the right connectivity options – generally most quality brands such as RME, Apogee, etc. all offer similar routing settings). I find the Focusrite Clarett 8Pre X particularly handy in this case – not only it’s an excellent interface (8 great-sounding channels and nice features) but it also comes with TWO Adat ports, which allow me to expand it to a 24-channel recording rig. More on this below…
How to Add an External Effect As An Insert
It just takes a few steps. In this example, I’ll use a stereo effect such as the Eventide Space, but the points below apply to classic mono stompboxes as well.
- Connect the Outputs of your effect unit into the Line Inputs of your audio card (i.e. Input ch. 3 and ch. 4).
- Now connect the Outputs ch. 3 and ch. 4 of your audio interface to the Inputs on your effect unit. FYI: some high-end stompboxes (Eventide, Strymon, etc.) have a Line/Instrument switch. Make sure you switch it to Line.
- Connect your sound source (synth, etc.) to the Inputs on your audio interface (i.e. Input ch. 1-2).
- In your audio interface software, select ‘Line Outputs 3-4’. Why 3-4? Because these are the outs we’re using to go from the audio interface to the effect unit (I’m using the Focusrite Control software in this case, but they more or less all share the same routing/matrix concept). Now route them to ‘Analogue 1-2’ (remember? The channels of your synth) in order to tell the software you’re assigning the instrument to the external effect.
- Adjust gains. Done! FYI: you might need to mute the input channels of your instrument (1-2 in this case) in your audio interface software, to prevent the dry signal to go through.
- If you’re using your DAW to record the synth going through the effect processor, make sure to set the appropriate input channels for the track (i.e. 3-4 in this case).
What Cables Do I Need For This?
For this setup, I needed a bunch of reliable yet affordable patch cables. Unfortunately, I suck at soldering, so DIY was not an option.
After checking several online stores, I opted for Custom Lynx, a UK company (with worldwide shipping).
I ordered a number of Neutrik Female XLR to 1/4″ Mono Jack patch cables and was very impressed with their product range and support; I had some questions and received prompt and competent answers. You get to pick the colour of the cables, which is a nice plus!
FYI: I told them about this article and they have been kind enough to offer a coupon code to our readers. To use it, visit Custom Lynx and at checkout make sure you use the code “ANR5“!
ADAT’s Not Dead – A Cheap Way To Add More Effects
At this point, I assume you are enjoying the benefits of your new routing. But what if you feel like adding more effects for a bigger, more permanent setup?
Sure, you can use a patchbay but if you’re not ready to go that route and you happen to have an ADAT-compatible audio interface, you can easily expand on the basic setup idea described above.
You will just need a multi-channel preamp with an ADAT Output. The good news is that you don’t have to buy an expensive unit. In the end, fancy preamps won’t be necessary since all you’re going to use are the line inputs of the unit.
Something like the Behringer ADA8200 will do the job perfectly. It’s affordable ($180/€150 approx.) and easy to use. The only downside is that the inputs are on the front rather than on the back of the unit, but given the price it’s not a deal breaker.
If money is not an issue, then you can look into higher quality options, such as the Focusrite Octopre line, Audient ASP800, PreSonus DigiMax DP88, etc.
Alright, let’s set it up…
- Just plug your effects into the ADAT unit (the Behringer ADA8200 or equivalent), following the same method described above.
- Now connect the ADAT Output of the preamp unit to the ADAT In of your audio interface (I’ve been using a basic ADAT cable, no need to spend big money on this either).
- Tip: if your audio interface software allows you to customize the channel names, make sure to add the names of the effects you’ve just connected (i.e. Eventide Space, in the example above).
- Repeat the routing setup seen above (step 4), this time making sure to select the appropriate ADAT Output channel(s) in your audio interface software. Remember, what you want to do is tell your audio interface software to route the audio signal from your instrument towards your effect unit.
It wasn’t hard, right? Now you can reap the benefits of your new routing!
FYI: depending on the audio interface you have, you might also be able to use this setup without turning the computer on (the interface ‘stores’ your latest configuration in its memory). A cool option for your DAWless sessions!