Repurposing Bad Controller Knobs

Improvisational Optimization

It’s always been more of my mentality to try to figure out how to make optimal use of what i have on hand — even when flawed — than to try to find immediate replacements… from using a TI-83 calculator to code as a teenager (since that’s what i had access to), to learning how to mic two small guitar amps to sound amazing rather than try to buy bigger amps which i didn’t have space to store. Whether or not this is the optimal way to be, it’s been pretty ingrained in me over a lifetime of dealing with less-than-ideal equipment and environs, figuring out how to increase functionality past apparent limitations, and squeezing every drop of valuable usage i could garner out of existing gear.

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Bad Encoders!

This BCR-2000 MIDI Controller i have happens to have a top row of encoder knobs which act all wonky, sending out their values all slow and choppy and making them pretty much unusable as MIDI controls. However, each knob does have a set of LED lights, and it is possible to send messages to those lights to make them move.

By using a couple of MaxForLive devices in Ableton, i have it set up so that the 8 knobs each provide a VU-meter type experience in reaction to whatever’s playing in Ableton Live. Now they aren’t useless! Yay!

I decided to use the first 5 knobs as a 5-band spectral analyzer, so to speak. I determined the Mel points for splitting the full audio spectrum into 5 nicely-spaced zones. I set up those frequency zones to each be listened to separately by envelope followers, sending their results to MaxForLive devices which translate them to CC to send along to the controller’s LEDs. Up experimentation i found that using progressively faster timing responses for the higher frequencies resulted in the most palatable and natural visual display. Higher frequencies have quicker wavelengths, after all. Each band has ideal gain-staging determined by “golden-pink noise” analysis (more on that at a later date).

The 6th and 7th knobs show the stereo width (center and sides respectively). Since the BCR has different LED light modes, i selected ones that show the stereo width visually in a cool way. The final knob shows the overall track energy using a slightly different visualization than the frequency LEDs.

So now, simply by glancing at my BCR controller while audio is playing, i can immediately have a grasp of the overall frequency balance, the stereo width, and the overall loudness (despite where my master volume is currently set). For example, if my low-mids are way too boomy compared to everything else, the second LED might be pinned to the max while the others are tickling low.

The main drawback is the CPU usage of about 8%; there’s probably a more elegant way to accomplish it using less CPU, but honestly it’s been fine on my new system, not interfering with playback. I don’t use it all the time, mainly just for mastering or pre-mixing, when technical precision is of a higher priority.

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Bug Becomes Feature

Another couple of examples of making use of gear’s quirky flaws rather than replacing or correcting them both have to do with foot pedals.

My GT-8 multi-fx pedal’s expression (aka “wah”) pedal’s spring went out some years ago after heavy jamming and gigging, so it no longer bounced back up when you took your foot off, but rather flopped down. So i tightened the pivot bolt just to the point where it now stays wherever i place it. I can still use it as a wah pedal when desired, but i can also use it to set and leave floating at any specific position. Since i use the GT-8 as an external aux effects send now rather than as an in-line guitar pedal, it’s even better than it would have been as a standard expression pedal which resets its position when you let go. The “bug” has become a quirky feature.

The second example involves a purchased foot pedal for an electric piano which happened to be wired incorrectly, being “on” all the time (once plugged in) and “letting go” when you actually step on it. So instead of getting annoyed upon discovering this, i was like, “cool, now i have a reverse sustain pedal!”

A final bonus example is a preamp that randomly crapped out on my audio interface (“channel 6”). Since the company outrageously charges almost as much to fix the thing as buying an entire new interface would cost, i decided to just keep the preamp as a “lo-fi” input. Sound still comes in, but it’s all shitted out, with low level and jagged, rough transients. I’ll use it as an extra input sometimes, recording in its own dedicated channel a crap version of what another input channel is recording pristine. Then i can add some extra saturation and lo-fi processing and blend it in with the clean pristine layer slightly in parallel for a little dirt presence. Lo-fi analog glory, here we come!

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Repurpose Your Own Wonky Stuff

Do you have a MIDI controller with some bad knobs, but which have lights? Or perhaps that output values incorrectly, randomly, or rest at the wrong position? Or maybe a old cheap guitar pedal that produces extra gnarly noise? Perhaps you can repurpose some of that stuff, as well. The only way to know what potential might be lurking undiscovered is to get your mad scientist hat on and experiment with no preconceptions or expectations. You’re likely to find a nifty way to make use of something that you had previously thought of as “broken”.

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