MIDI foot controllers are typically a keyboard thing. But what many guitar players don't realize is that they are extremely handy when paired with a rackmount processor, or even software, in a guitar rig.
Nearly all rackmount effects processors come with a MIDI input and output for this reason.
It allows you to control the processor like you would any other guitar pedal, but from a distance.
The processor sits in a rack somewhere, and the MIDI controller sits conveniently on the floor in front of you.
I'll refer you to this article, written by Hugo from Strymon, that details how to connect a MIDI foot controller to your pedals or effects processor(s), if you're looking for more information on that process.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with the best MIDI foot controllers.
Our resulting specs list should include:
- At least a basic up/down MIDI channel or patch selector
- Banking control system that function via a MIDI connection
MIDI foot controllers are not necessarily the same thing as switches or pedal loopers.
In some cases, they can come housed in the same product, but switches and pedal loopers simply allow you to patch your pedals out, via TRS cables, and then select them from one spot.
Take the following diagram, for example:
The dark red, light blue, dark blue and green pedals are all looped into the 6LE Extension unit.
You'll often see these kinds of systems with MIDI functionality as well and are typically used by pros to control pedalboards and stompboxes from a remote location on a stage or in a recording studio.
For our purposes, we're not looking for a loop system.
Instead we're focusing on just the MIDI-related tasks, and will avoid any foot controllers that incorporate pedal looping. Though the two units are usually sold as separate products.
Here's what we will cover.
How do I know the processor or pedal is MIDI-compatible?
Any stompbox or processor that is MIDI compatible will have MIDI ports (in and out) clearly visible, usually on the back of the device. Those ports look like this:
Strymon pedal with MIDI in and out ports. (View Larger Image)
In a mounted effects processor, you'll have a similar-looking interface.
When you're looking at rackmounted effects processors, like the ones pictured above, a MIDI connection is usually assumed, meaning you might not even see it in the specs sheet if you were to look it up on Amazon.
It will almost never be touted as a highlight feature. For the most part, it's just expected to be there.
Usually MIDI ports are assumed for these types of units. (View Larger Image)
On the same page, if we look at some of the other photos provided for this particularly unit, we can easily spot the MIDI ports on the back panel.
Even still, they're easily spotted on the back panel. (View Larger Image)
On the other hand, when you're looking for MIDI-compatible pedals or stompboxes, the connections will typically be highlighted, even in a stripped-down specs sheet. This is because most pedals do not have a MIDI connection.
Our article on reverb pedals with a MIDI-connection illustrates this pretty clearly and shows you what to look for.
Every MIDI foot controller I'll highlight here can control any effects processor or stompbox that supports a MIDI connection. Just make sure you know how to spot that connection when you're shopping for pedals and processors.
Let's look at some pedals and rack effects units that have MIDI ports.
Examples of MIDI-compatible pedals and effects processors
I'll break up the examples into two different categories, focusing on both stompboxes/pedals and rack effects processors with MIDI ports
We'll start with rack processors since they're more commonly paired with a MIDI foot controller.
- TC-Electronic M350 Reverb & Effects Processor
- Behringer Virtualizer 3D FX2000
- TC-Electronic G-Major 2
- Line 6 POD HD Pro X
- DigiTech DSP 1101
- Digidesign Eleven Rack Multi Effects Processor
Stompboxes with MIDI ports are more rare and thus harder to spot. Here are a few that I've noticed and would recommend based on the reputation of their manufacturer.
- DigiTech Whammy Pedal
- Boss DD-500 Digital Delay
- Strymon Mobiue Modulation
- Most large Strymon pedals
- TC Electronic Flashback Triple Delay
These are just a handful among many, meant to serve as examples of what you're going to use a MIDI controller to manipulate.
With all the preliminary information out of our way, lets look at some actual MIDI foot controllers, starting with a popular offering from Voodoo Lab.
While it has a bit of a learning curve, the Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro is the single most complete and effective MIDI foot controller I know to recommend.
Here's just a quick, broad-stroke list of what it can handle.
- Control MIDI (or non-MIDI) rack effects
- Control stompboxes
- Switch between amps
- Switch between channels
GC QUICK LOOK
TYPICAL RETAIL: $399
Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro MIDI Foot Controller and Channel Switcher
- Tons of functionality. Capable of handling an entire rig in one spot and ideal for live performers.
- Channel switching, MIDI control, multiple units and even modeling amp control is all here.
How hard is it to setup the Ground Control Pro?
The Ground Control Pro is one of the most complete and highly-functioning MIDI foot controller pedals on the market.
The drawback here is that you have to set all of this up and figure out the gory details of how to get your Ground Control Pro to talk with the device(s) you're trying to couple it with. Learning how to take advantage of all the functionality will take some time.
If you want some insight into the setup process, this video is a good place to start.
Setup is simple only if you take the time to get familiar with the interface. I'd advise watching this video and consulting the manual, if you're not totally sure about the initial process.
Connecting an Expression or Volume Pedal
Below is the section of the manual that deals with connecting a passive expression pedal, which can also be substituted for a volume pedal if that's all you have.
Though for the volume pedal to work, you will need a special cable, indicated in the photo.
Once your expression or volume pedal is properly connected, you can program its functionality via the Ground Control's front panel.
Overall Value and Ideal Situation for the Ground Control
The Ground Control Pro is definitely intended for rigs that are well-established with a lot of different moving pieces needing to be controlled from one location.
Personally, I don't like the Ground Control Pro for smaller rigs that only need to patch a few different channels or effects through a MIDI connection. Moreover, the price of the Ground Control (usually around $400) moves it outside the scope of smaller, lower-functioning setups.
If you're in a situation where you need more functionality and control, perhaps switching between multiple amps, pedals and rackmounted effects, the Ground Control Pro is an ideal fit.
Claudio Sanchez (of Coheed and Cambrai) uses a Ground Control Pro on his pedalboard. | Image via Premier Guitar
This is particularly true if you're a live performer with the need for centralized control of all your gear.
However, if you only need to control a couple pedals or a single processor, you're likely overpaying for what you need (see Simon Rowe's guitar rig near the end of this piece).
In that scenario, the Ground Control Pro is overkill.
Check some of the other options instead.
- Simultaneous Control of up to eight MIDI devices
- Up to four GCX audio switchers
- Eight instant access switches
- Use volume or expression pedals for additional control
The Behringer FCB101 has a few distinct advantages over the Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pro, particularly for those who might have felt the Ground Control was too much pedal for what they were trying to do.
For prospective buyers, the FCB1010's most attractive feature will initially be its price.
Sitting around $150 retail, it's one of the single most affordable MIDI foot controllers for guitar on the market.
Moreover, it includes two expression pedals, which can be assigned the same way you would assign an external expression pedal in the Ground Control.
It's also far simpler to use and program.
GC QUICK LOOK
TYPICAL RETAIL: $149
Behringer FCB1010 MIDI Foot Controller
- More affordable and just as functional as many other MIDI controllers. Also a great option for smaller rigs.
- 10 preset banks and two expression pedals are included. Unit is very affordable.
Setup Help and Other Resources
I was able to dig up some solid instructions and setup help for the FCB1010, so I'll list a few of them here for those of you who want a clearer picture of how to use it.
- Behringer FCB1010 Setup Wiki Page
- The "Ultra Quick" Setup Video (still 13:00 long though)
- Control mapping for Ableton software and the FCB1010
- Setting up with Ampkit on an iPad
Is it possible to connect the Behringer FCB1010 with my iPad?
Unfortunately, there are a litany of ways to make this connection happen and a best-practices scenario isn't entirely clear.
At least not for free.
If you don't mind investing a little more into the job, the simplest and most straightforward method is the Behringer iStudio iS202 pictured below. This will allow you to connect your MIDI foot controller (in this case the FCB1010) to your iPad, thus allowing you to assign functionality for apps like GarageBand, Amplitube or Ampkit.
For those thinking about purchasing the iS202, there are plenty of used options that go fairly cheap.
Behringer FCB101 controlling Ampkit 2.2 on an iPad. | Image via MusicGroup
You can get the iS202 for under $100 in most markets, which means your total investment (if you include the FCB1010) is still only around $250.
Not bad for turning your iPad into a fully-functional MIDI-controlled guitar rig.
There's no USB port. Can the FCB1010 work with PC or Mac software?
Despite the fact that it doesn't have a USB connection, the FCB1010 can still work with either a Mac or Windows computer.
However, you will need to use some kind of a USB or Thunderbolt audio interface.
Make sure your interface has at least a MIDI input, in addition to a regular TRS or XLR instrument jack. Then you can go from your pedal, to the interface to your software and program the software that way.
Other Features I Like
On a more nuanced note, the FCB1010 switches are made of a rubbery material and are far more quiet than the ones on the Ground Control. If you watched the video tutorial for the Ground Control, you probably noticed those switches have a distinct "clack" when you engage them.
Not so with the FCB1010.
Switching is quiet and feels very seamless, which is another vote up for the FCB1010. Not that it's a deal-breaker, but certainly an aspect of this device that I like.
It's also quite thin, as you might notice from this photo.
The FCB1010 is a lot more flat than many other MIDI foot controllers. (View Larger Image)
For transportation, storage and functionality, I prefer to deal with the increased length of the FCB1010 and have less height and width to the unit.
Other features worth mentioning includes support for trigger and tap-tempo applications, as well as 10 fully editable user preset for each preset bank.
Overall Value and Ideal Situation for the FCB1010
The FCB101 doesn't feel quite as durable as the Ground Control, yet I have no real reason to doubt its strength and durability, other than the fact that it's much thinner. And while there are still complexities (depending on what you're hooking it up to) there's a simplicity to it that's conducive to smaller rigs and more basic setups.
I like the FCB1010 for most amateur to mid-level players who want a reliable MIDI foot controller for just one or a few devices. I'd also give the FCB1010 the nod for things like an iPad, PC or Mac connection.
- Tons of presets
- Expression pedals are included
- Good option for smaller rigs and arrangements
- Seems to be popular with the iPad/tablet guitar crowd
- Crazy affordable compared to other MIDI foot controllers
I've separated the Voodoo Lab Commander from its older brother (the Ground Control Pro we covered earlier) because it's different enough, both in price and content, that it deserves an individual mention.
Moreover, several of the problems I mentioned with the Ground Control are solved in the commander.
Its size: As I mentioned, the Ground Control is fairly large and takes up a lot of real estate, no matter which way you slice it. The Commander, on the other hand is much smaller and easier to place. It can even reside happily on most mid to large pedalboards with room to spare.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd runs one, along with two Voodoo Lab pedal switchers on his touring board.
The Voodoo Lab Commander sits comfortably on Kenny Wayne Shepherd's pedalboard. | Image via Premier Guitar
Complexity: Where the Ground Control is complex, the Commander is wonderfully simple, with only five selector buttons, plus one BANK/STORE button all the way to the right of the front panel.
Just bank your presets on the MIDI channel for whatever device you're using and you're good to go. You can also use up to eight different MIDI devices simultaneously, though I'd expect the Commander to be most effective when paired with a single unit.
GC QUICK LOOK
TYPICAL RETAIL: $199
Voodoo Lab Commander MIDI Foot Controller
- Ideal for those who need something simpler than what the Ground Control offers. The Commander is perfect for running a single MIDI device.
- Control up to eight MIDI devices at once with eight assignable switches and the same expression pedal support as the Ground Control.
Is it better than the FCB1010?
The Commander is pretty similar to the FCB1010 with a few disadvantages that may or may not bother you the same way they bother me.
First, the Commander is more expensive, retailing around $200. Also, it doesn't include expression pedals like the FCB1010, rather it allows you to route them in like you can on the Ground Control.
Also, of far less consequence, you have to deal with the "clacking" switches again.
However, the two are comparable and there's something to be said for brand quality/reputation, in which case Voodoo Lab is the clear winner.
When it comes to this kind of guitar gear, the Voodoo Lab name is king of the hill.
Overall Value and Ideal Situation for the FCB1010
The Commander has a wide range of applications and workable scenarios. It can handle professional gigging situations (it's good enough for Kenny Wayne Shepherd) and the smaller, living room guitar rig.
The bigger question is whether or not the simplicity is an advantage for you, or if you prefer the expanded control offered by the Ground Control Pro.
If you're the type of player to set an effect on your processor and leave it alone for months at a time, without wanting to change it, the Commander lets you switch it on and off easily, which might be all you wanted to do anyway.
Those folks will be well serve by both the Commander and the FCB1010.
- Control up to eight MIDI devices
- Control up to four GCX guitar audio switchers
- Supports external volume or expression pedals
The MIDI Xchange from Rocktron is the younger cousin of the Rocktron MIDI Raider, which we'll get to next.
Again, I like the Xchange because it's simple and easy to setup. You've got an UP and DOWN buttons for cycling through MIDI patches, as well as a "RECALL" button to memorize or "bank" particular sounds.
For smaller rigs, and especially those who just want to control a single MIDI pedal or stompbox, that's about all you need.
So far, the Xchange is also the most affordable option we've seen, settling at around $110 retail in most markets.
GC QUICK LOOK
TYPICAL RETAIL: $115
Rocktron MIDI Xchange Foot Controller
- It's one of the simplest and most affordable MIDI foot controllers, ideal for controlling a MIDI pedal or single rackmounted processor.
- Comes with two expression pedal inputs and over 100 different banks for storing sounds.
Rocktron MIDI Xchange Connection Diagrams and Setup
When I was browsing the Xchange's user manual, I noticed that some of their diagrams provide a nice reference for setting up a MIDI foot controller of any kind, so I've included them here just to give a clear picture of what our final product might look like.
In the image below, you're going from the guitar to the Rocktron effects processor - which is controlled by the MIDI Xchange - and then back into an amplifier.
If you're setting up a more complex rig with everything in a rack, your diagram might look something like the picture below.
Note that the Rocktron MIDI Xchange can control multiple devices via the in and out MIDI connections.
The only thing you'll have to add is a MIDI cable that gives you enough length to work with. Otherwise, setting up something like the Rocktron is just about as basic as you can get.
Features and Drawbacks
Keep in mind that the two-button up/down system means you're going to have to order your presets in a linear line, which makes it harder to skip to certain settings.
The RECALL button provides some additional flexibility, but you'll still find yourself cycling through sounds primarily in a straight line.
Thus, if you have to go from one to four, it's going to be three clicks instead of one.
That's the price you pay for a simpler MIDI foot controller.
One other detraction from this unit is that a power adapter is not included, per the user manual:
It can run off batteries and (depending on how you have it hooked up) phantom power. But I'd be lying if I said this didn't bother me, especially when all the other units we've looked at come with their own power source.
I should add, however, that I have seen unboxing photos of this unit with a Rocktron-branded power adapter.
My assumption is that it's going to depend on who and where you buy from. For example, when I bought my Line 6 DL4 delay off Amazon, it came with a power adapter and a converter, because the original jack was too small.
That was just me benefiting from the seller's good grace's and not a formal perk from Line 6.
It's certainly not a deal-breaker, but worth keeping in mind.
Overall Value and Ideal Situation for the FCB1010
Thus, there are some negatives that need to be considered.
The lack of a power adapter (maybe), the switching limitations and (once again) the "clacking," which is an issue on this pedal as well.
However, as was true with my previous highlights, the value of this controller is almost entirely contextual. For example, if you're in a situation where you only use a few different MIDI channels and you want to easily cycle through them, this is the cheapest and most ideally-fitted option for you.
If you're in need of a more comprehensive MIDI foot controller, the larger MIDI Raider Pro (which we'll cover next) might be a better option.
- Simple up/down selector switches
- Expression pedal support
- Can run off batteries or phantom power
Rocktron's MIDI Raider is one of the most expensive MIDI foot controller pedals available, and one of the largest, spanning a total of 18 different buttons and a 19 x 13 inch floor footprint.
All that real estate sits on 11 pounds of metal.
The RAIDER allows you to work in three different "modes" that include the following:
- Bank Mode
- Song Mode
- Remote Mode
The Bank Mode has 120 total presets, which can be setup as something like 24 banks of five presets with 10 'instant' switches. Or, if you want things to be a little more straightforward, all 15 access switches can be used as 'Instant' switches. Usually, 15 different sounds is plenty, but that all depends on your playing style and what gear you're running.
Speaking of how much gear you might be using:
Like Voodoo Lab's Ground Control, the MIDI Raider from Rocktron is designed to handle multiple MIDI-controllable devices.
Thus, you can have a rack unit with several devices, that can all have their own MIDI channel.
You can use the MIDI Raider to assign different devices to different MIDI channels. | Image via Psychadeli TV
In the above photo, the DigiTech, TC Electronic, Nova Drive and EHX pedals all have their own MIDI channel.
Then, with a pedal like the Nova Drive, you can cycle through presets from within just that pedal.
Cycle through presets for individual pedals within a single MIDI channel for a single pedal. (View Larger Image)
Evidently, there is a notable learning curve for this controller.
The user manual is a staggering (though not unexpected) 80 pages.
Let's take a quick look at the specs, then go through some of the most crucial information covered in the manual.
GC QUICK LOOK
TYPICAL RETAIL: $509
Rocktron MIDI Raider Pro Foot Controller
- Similar to the Ground Control in scope and functionality, able to assign multiple devices to different MIDI channels.
- 18 different buttons and three different modes for banking, patching and assigning MIDI channels.
User Manual Quick Hits and Crucial Info
What the user manual calls a "typical" setup is worth a look, just so you can get a feel for what kind of (and how many) cables you'll need.
As you can see, your cabling needs will depend on how many expression pedals you want to use, whether either (or both) of them are actually volume pedals and how many MIDI-controllable devices you want to include.
Unfortunately, the physical setup would have to be considered the "easy" part.
Particularly if you're programming your MIDI Raider to control several different devices, and presets within those devices, you'll want to make sure to browse the next graphic.
As much as I'm sure you don't want to, I would absolutely advise you to read the entire setup section of the manual.
It spans 18 total pages, with pictures, but 18 pages nonetheless.
Your best bet is to read all of it. And I don't mean skim or just glance for a few minutes - actually sit down and read through it intently. Once you do that, the Raider interface will seem a lot more "human" and easier to navigate.
Assuming you have multiple devices to control, here's how I would approach setup:
- Setup channels for each device
- Setup presets for each device on the devices themselves
- Make a bullet list of each primary device with a dropdown of each preset
- Program all of your presets into each channel, testing as you go
Once that's done you'll be able to cycle through your different devices and presets to get a feel for how you might use the pedal on a "typical day." Copying, patches and expression compatibility can be added later, once you've developed a comfort with the interface.
Overall Value and Ideal Situation for the MIDI Raider Pro
It should be clear that the MIDI Raider is uniquely qualified to run a larger and more diverse swath of processors, pedals or a combination of both, even if we're just talking about the surface of its capability.
Since the Raider is so expensive, make sure you'll take advantage of its ability to control so many different units and avoid it for smaller rigs that don't need to be centralized.
- 120 available presets
- Use all 15 access buttons as 'Instant' switches
- Setup MIDI channels with individual presets for each pedal or processor
MIDI Guitar Setups in Professional Rigs
Since most professional guitar players have robust live setups, they often take advantage of MIDI foot controllers, setup on stage, to make adjustments in rackmounted processors or pedals that are stored off-stage.
Often combined with patch or loop systems for individual pedals, professional guitarists (or their techs) can control an entire array of effects from one centralized location.
You might say they're wired in.
We're all wired in, now. (View Larger Image)
I find it helpful (and interesting) to browse their setups.
You get a feel for how everything is hooked up, how it all functions as a whole and what the final product will look like.
We'll get all our diagrams from guitar.com's rig database.
Deftones' Stephen Carpenter
Since this diagram was built, Stephen Carpenter's rig has changed quite a bit, as he's removed almost all his pedals in favor of a larger MIDI foot controller that houses all of his effects digitally.
If you look at the full diagram from 2011, you can see why he made the change.
It was just a lot of stuff.
The part I'm most interested in is the MIDI board seen here.
Stephen Carpenter's MIDI foot controller (View Larger Image)
That red dotted line you see is the output from the MIDI board, which then runs into a Marshall preamp.
Carpenter links multiple MIDI-controllable devices, as we saw in the Strymon diagram. (View Larger Image)
Another MIDI cable then runs from the "out" of the preamp to the "in" of the Rocktron processor.
Remember the Strymon diagram?
This is the same idea, in that it allows Carpenter to link up multiple devices to be controlled by one MIDI floor pedal.
Let's look at a simpler example.
Chapterhouse's Simon Rowe
From way back in 1992, Simon Rowe's rig gives us a wonderfully simple example of how you might setup a MIDI controller.
He's got the board, an Alesis Quadraverb and an amplifier head with a few pedals.
The connection simply runs from the MIDI controller to the Quardaverb via a single cable.
Diagram of Simone Rowe's pedalboard with a MIDI foot controller. (View Larger Image)
For most of us, this is a great example of what we're likely to start with when we get into MIDI-controlled effects.
Simon Rowe uses one processor, an amp head and few pedals.
It's all wonderfully simple.
His MIDI foot controller is also quite simple, as he's using an old Boss design that cycles through preset patches on the Quadraverb.
If it were me, I'd be happy with something like this.
It's simple, easy to setup, easy to use and has a minimal learning curve. Besides, it's sometimes nice to know that even some of the high-profile guys use simpler rigs.
When do I really need one?
When applied to a guitar rig, MIDI controllers (especially the larger ones) are designed to centralize control.
However, we've also seen that this doesn't necessarily mean that your rig must be complex or large.
There are two scenarios in which I'd recommend a MIDI foot controller:
- If you want to centralize a large amount of effects, stompboxes or processors
- If you have any rackmounted processor
If you have anything in rack form, pair it with a MIDI controller.
Even if you're only using the one processor, there are usually a ton of different effects to cycle through and you don't want to do that by hand.
So, don't assume that just because your rig is small or you're only wanting to control one processor that you should wait on a MIDI foot controller. If you have anything in rack form, pair it with a MIDI controller.
At that point, you need to answer a question of scope, specifically, "How much do I plan to expand my rig in the future, and how much of it do I want to be controlled by a MIDI pedal?"
The answer to this question will determine whether you buy something larger and more complex like the Ground Control, or whether you setup your rig more like Simon Rowe's with a simple MIDI foot controller and just a few effects.
In other words, plan ahead.
Deciding when and if you need the MIDI controller should depend on the answers to these questions.
And to finish on a logical note, those who play live will likely have an expanded use for this type of setup.
Comments, Questions and Setup Ideas
Have questions about the products I listed here?
Have a MIDI guitar setup you'd like to share?
Leave it in the comments section below or find us on Twitter to share. Technical questions about the gear should be specified in the comments section of this page so others, who might have similar questions can benefit as well.
Thanks for reading.
Image Courtesy of Kemper Amps