Being a guitarist is a tough job these days. The benchmark for an "average guitarist" is no longer someone who can play power chords and pentatonic scales. Think average saxophone player and you'll have a good idea where the line is drawn. And if you wish to foray into guitar hero territory, you have to deal with complex time signatures and dotted eighths (and other terminology I don't understand, call me a layman) and sweeping like Paganini while simultaneously changing multiple effects to have the maximum impact on the crowd, which can be trying in the best of situations, especially when you have a long list of pioneers that have established the watermark.
Things get more complicated if you sing. And if you have a large repertoire of effects which you need to turn on or off simultaneously, there's always the shadow of something going wrong at the wrong time. Memories of tap-dancing gone wrong in make-or-break situations can haunt you for the rest of your life. In such circumstances, it's often wise to analyse what happened and simplify, simplify, simplify. While this may not necessarily apply to studio recordings, when we have all the time in the world to sculpt our sound, in a live situation, we have to be on the ball and ready to effect split second changes that would turn on/off vibe, delays, compressors, harmonizers, switch amps, modulation, etcetera, etcetera. The audience is listening!
One modus operandi for achieving simplifying a set up could be to reduce the number of effects required in a live situation and work with a limited range of effects. But what if you really need all those gee-whiz-bang effects and don't want to rely on FX "refrigerators" for casual gigging? Enter the era of pedal switching systems, devices that can change the way you play, literally. There are a multitude of options available on the market nowadays, some mass manufactured and others custom made. The price range of these devices can vary from ~$100 to thousands of dollars for a custom-made device. With such a large variety of choices, guitarists are forced to make a decision on the basis of factors like price and the number of loops available and bonus features like midi, tap tempo and the ability to place FX in front of or behind the preamp stage of an amplifier.
The Loopholic range of devices manufactured by Korea-based TKI Lazeman is one of the more well-known mid-range devices and I'd like to share my experience with the Loopholic 5, the top-end variant. These switching systems are no longer being manufactured, as the company has apparently shut down. This review is therefore intended as a reference point for anyone that is looking to acquire one second-hand. In my humble opinion, the unit was ahead of its time, with features such as control of midi devices on five different channels well before the better Musicomlab MKII acquired such a feature. Brand new, the unit cost $699. However, I can not provide a accurate price estimate for a second-hand unit, as I was unable to track one down on ebay or elsewhere.
The Loopholic 5 is housed in a solid metal enclosure measuring about 40 x 14 x 4 cm (approximately 15 x 3.5 x 1.5 inches). At the heart of the device, mounted on the back, are 10 true bypass loops for connecting up to 10 pedals. These are controlled through the use of five true bypass switches on the top of the device. Each of the bypass switches controls one loop. In addition, there is one bank up and one bank down switch, as well as a mode switch, which is the primary means of programming loops on the device. The back of the device also sports an input jack, two output jacks (A/B) and a tap tempo input. In addition, there is one midi in and one midi out connector, for those who wish to control their midi-enabled pedal or even rack-based FX at the same time. There's also a two-digit LED display in the middle of the device to let you know what's going on, as well as 10 small LED lights to show whether a patch is active or not.
The quality of the hardware used for the loops is good, they're made out of metal and seem to be firmly connected to the enclosure. The switches themselves are impressive, since they are extremely easy to depress and make a subtle click when pressed.
There are a total of 32 banks on the device, which each contain 5 patches corresponding to each of the main patch switches. This adds up to a total of 160 patches. It should be noted that since there are 10 loops on the device, you can only control loops 1-5 (which is dubbed L-I) or 6-10 (L-II) at any given time. In order to switch between Set-I and Set-II, you will need to hold down the mode button for one whole second in order to first call up the menu for L-I and then click it again to switch to L-II. As such, the ability to switch individual loops on or off on the fly is limited while playing is restricted. However, it bears mention that the entire purpose of the device is to enable the user to bring in or take out multiple FX from a signal chain with a single click. As such, it would be easy to just stomp on the desired stompbox if this is an essential step in the musical progression. Otherwise, you could just programme the next loop with the same signal chain minus the desired pedal.
You can programme the device so that loop 9 and/or loop 10 can be used for transmitting amp switching signals. In this regard, I found that the kind of cable you use will dictate what kind of signal you send from this loop. If you use a mono cable, it will make a connection between the tip and sleeve of the cable, whereas if you use a stereo cable, a connection will be made between the ring and sleeve. My conversations with Jang, the manufacturer of the device, revealed that a y-cable can be utilised for more complex amp switching operations.
The signal chain in itself is fixed. Depending on which loops are activated, the signal will pass through loop 1, then loop 2, loop 3 and so on. As such, initial placement of FX in the signal chain should be made on the basis of your order of pedals if you just had them connected one after the other on the floor. However, the benefit of having a true bypass pedal switching device like the Loopholic is that your pedals are all located in true bypass loops, which means that if the loop is not activated, they are out of the signal chain and there won't be any of the "tone sucking" issues on account of unused pedals in the signal chain.
With respect to midi, the Loopholic 5 seems to be one of the most capable devices in its price range, with the ability to control up to five devices simultaneously by sending midi signals on different channels. The best part about the midi functionality of the Loopholic 5 is that you can tailor your midi signals to be on a per patch, per bank basis or uniform for individual banks. More on this later!
Users should also make note that none of the loops are stereo loops, which means that you would have to sacrifice two loops to use a stereo pedal. In this respect, it should be noted that in such a situation, the first input and output of the stereo pedal would be in one loop which would be before the input and output of the second loop. As such, in the case of a delay pedal, for example, you would have one delay signal followed by another delay signal, resulting in an undesirable, or perhaps, a desirable effect. There is no way of connecting just one input and sending two outputs to different loops, as this would break the signal chain essential for ensuring that a loop is activated. So the key rule to remember is that for every input, there must be an output. Simple? Right!
Plug and play!
The ease of use of the Loopholic 5 device has to be one of its best features. Within two hours of opening up the package, I was able to turn on/off combinations of pedals while simultaneously switching patches on my MFX (multi FX) unit. Programming is simple: as mentioned, the main button for this purpose is the mode button. Holding the button down for 1 second calls up the L-I patch programming module. From here, turning on or off loops 1 to 5 is as simple as pressing one of the switches corresponding to the patch. Pressing the mode button a second time calls up the L-II patch programing module for loops 6-10.
Pressing it a third time will call up the output options: you can either send the signal through output-A, output-B or both by pressing the bank down switch as required. Pressing the bank switch up button exits the patch programming module. When you activate a loop, the corresponding LED lights up on the face of the LED.
If you want to programme midi, it's as simple. Hold down the mode switch for a little longer than one second and the midi programming menus come up on the screen. Programme change commands are first, under the PC menu, click the mode switch again to enter the sub-programming menu. From here, you can chose which patch you wish to send the midi signal on in the bank. These are listed as PC1 through PC5 in bank 1, for example, with each number corresponding to a specific patch in that bank. Click the mode button again and you are in the channel menu, where you can specify which midi channel you want to send the signal on. One more click on the mode menu and you now just have to enter which programme change (1-128) command you wish to send on the specified midi channel. Press mode one more time and you're done! A similar procedure exists for control change midi messages, which can be accessed from the main midi menu by just hitting the bank down button when you are at the PC main menu to travel to the CC main menu and then follow the same steps for sending a specified CC message on a specific channel. You can send midi signals on a total of 5 channels at one time, which is more than enough for most people when considering a pedal switcher!
It's also possible to control the mode in which the Loopholic 5 is in. For example, you may want to control the Loopholic device from another midi footswitch in a larger set-up. Or perhaps you want to change loops 9 and 10 to amp switching mode. Or maybe you want to set the midi settings of the Loopholic from a per patch per bank basis to a per bank basis. All of these settings can be accessed by holding down the mode button of the Loopholic for about 3 seconds and then navigating through the different menus like CH (Loopholic's midi channel for receiving messages), Pr (set whether Loopholic accepts midi signals or not), F9 and F10 (for setting the operation of loops 9 and 10) and tP (for setting midi operation to per patch, per bank basis or per bank basis).
Sound of music
There's always this thought in your back of your mind when it comes to switching FX in the middle of a song. For me, the Loopholic really shines in its ability to concentrate on playing my music and singing than on efficiently making FX changes while doing both. And in a sense, the Loopholic 5 has inspired me to make more radical FX changes than I would have thought possible when I was scoping out the device. And this has reflected itself in my music, where I now have the liberty to contemplate dramatic changes to a song that's being written by just clicking a single footswitch.
For example, I can activate as many as 10 analog FX pedals and add more digital FX via midi for use in just one single song, without sweating about the intricate details of pulling off that stunt while playing and singing in front of a crowd. And while doing that, I could bring a multitude of other FX into the signal chain as well. In that respect, the integration of midi features in the device has made my analog pedals and digital FX integrate with each other in a way that I would never have thought possible.
The tone out of the Loopholic 5, is a subjective issue, in the sense that the device by itself does not make a sound. But it is really great to hear my guitar signal untarnished by any of my pedals by just bypassing all the loops. And when switching pedals and midi devices, there are no audible pops or clicks in the middle of a performance, which was one of my primary concerns when deciding which switching system was the right one for me. In my opinion, and this is entirely subjective, the unit adds a little bit of top-end sparkle to my tone.
Nothing is perfect though and there are some quirky issues with the Loopholic 5 which bear mention. One of these is the use of a delay looper in the FX chain, namely a Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai. I found that if you try and record a loop when this pedal is in one of the loops of the Loopholic, the loop will only play so long as you continue to play your guitar. Stop playing and the signal fades out. Play again and the loop continues to play at the position it would have been if you kept playing. I'm not too sure this is an issue with the SMMH I use or whether its the Loopholic 5, but it forced me to keep the pedal outside of the Loopholic device if I want to use it as a looper. Another "drawback," if you could call it that, is that once a loop is out of the signal chain, it's out, which means that if you have an FX tail, it is effectively nipped at the bud the minute you take the pedal out of the loop.
Despite the shortcomings, the Loopholic 5 pedal switching system is what I would consider to be a "lifestyle product" for the discerning guitarist. The unit has improved my workflow, so to speak, by making things easier and also in inspiring me to make more creative use of my FX, as I am no longer required to tapdance to do so. I would definitely recommend it for any guitarist/vocalist in the same situation as me, i.e. trying to make optimum utilisation of the space within music within the time constraints demanded by performance playing.