The Rise of the Guitar Effects Rack

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 19 June 2016 |

Marshall Series 9000 power amp and RE-3 Roland Space Echo from the heyday of guitar racks

Watch an old live rock performance from the 1970s, and in the backline you’ll see amps. Just amps; no effects. Right up until the end of the decade, this essentially remained the case. But as the 1980s dawned, and technology began to invade popular music as never before, forward-thinking professional guitarists with cash on the hip steadily started to adopt rack-based setups on stage. Watch a late ‘80s rock performance, and if you don’t see a fancy stack of 19 inch processors in the backline, it’s like: “OMG! Where’s the rack???!!

Notably, Allan Holdsworth had been using a Pete Cornish guitar rack as early as 1978, but almost all of Cornish’s projects for pro guitarists at that time were floor-pedal boards. In the early ’80s, however, the tide started to turn, with early adopters such as Andy Summers, Gary Moore, James Honeyman-Scott and Greg Lake all appearing on Pete Cornish’s list of guitar rack users by 1981. The great rack stampede of the 1980s was officially underway...

WHY THE RACK?

The guitar rack system was born to cater to professional guitarists, and initially, it was a creature of convenience rather than quality. Some will tell you that early guitar rack systems were little better in terms of quality than floor pedals. But in truth, most were no different at all, because their key circuits literally came straight out of floor pedals.

Early on in the game, the rackmounted chorus unit would not incorporate a derivative or even a direct copy of a Boss CE2 pedal’s electronics. It would simply incorporate the actual Boss CE2 PCB, pulled straight out of its casing and reset into a rackmount box. Boss and MXR pedals were particularly popular targets for these transfers. Compressor pedals from both manufacturers were commonly re-housed in professional rack boxes, and classics such as the original Roland Space Echo and MXR Phase 90 found themselves cannibalised for use in guitar rack systems too. The original Space Echo’s use in rack units was particularly interesting as it’s a tape-driven delay. Food for thought if you ever imagined racks were a product of the digital age!

A Boss pedal PCB might drive an early guitar rack unit

So why bother transferring the innards of a perfectly good floor unit into a rack box? Well, because racking multiple bits of loose gear would make them much easier to manage logistically, on tour. Individual items couldn’t get lost, setup time would be heavily reduced, and the negative effects of constantly connecting and disconnecting separate components would be all but eliminated. The profesionally-built rack was also exceptionally rugged on the road – anecdotally, highly resistant to accidents, including a high speed vehicle crash!

Then there was the issue of separation. People were questioning whether having all of the effects circuitry, and particularly the settings controls, under the guitarist’s feet, was really a good idea. It seemed to make a lot more sense to separate the foot controls from the actual circuitry and knobs. Placing only the foot controls beneath the guitarist’s feet was a big part of what early rack adoption was about. Especially since 1980s guitarists were wanting more and more effects, pre-amps, gating capabilities, etc, compacting everything into a backline unit similar in nature to an amp cab would create one definitive nerve-centre. A specialist such as Pete Cornish or Bob Bradshaw could then build a floor unit, purely for switching. Effects parameter adjustments would be made on the rack setup – like it was a second amp.

Indeed, as stereo became a bigger weapon in guitarists’ arsenals, stereo guitar power amps were also built into the racks, meaning that an amp, in the conventional sense, was not required at all. The rack cut out the guitar ‘head’, and left the guitarist to “just add cabs”.

QUEST FOR QUALITY

As racking gathered momentum through the early 1980s, manufacturers started introducing rack effects which guitarists could use live on stage. But it was the studio effects that really pushed guitar racks to the next level. By 1984, there was a definite, and well-founded sense that 19 inch studio modulation/delay processors could comprehensively outperform a guitar floor pedal. Not only that, but some rack processors offered multiple effects in a single unit. There was no programmability, but there was a way round that – IF you had money…

What some guitarists did, was to incorporate multiple professional multi-FX rack units into their racks. They’d literally buy a few high-end multi-processors, exactly the same. Then they’d set each one of their processors’ parameters differently, and use a foot control board to flick between them. Voila, presets! Well beyond the scope of the average amateur because of the high price, but for a pro, this was the equivalent of pre-programmed settings before any such thing was available to guitarists.

The focus of racking in the mid ‘80s was to shift away from the ‘convenience’ rack of old, towards a quality-orientated rack. This saw less and less modding and cannibalising of floor pedals, and more use of purpose-manufactured or state-of-the-art studio FX. And as the decade reached its latter throes, guitar racks had settled into quite a stereotypical format. Purpose-built preamp, studio FX and multi-FX units, noise management, stereo power amp… All controlled from the floor by a set of remote pedals. The guitar rack had reached the pinnacle of its status on the guitar scene.



WHO KILLED THE RACK?

The guitar rack will never die out, because the purpose it served in the mid to late ‘80s is still valid, and will remain so. The rack has made comebacks over the years, in keeping with changes in trend, quests to recapture elements of the past, etc. However, it suffered a progressive, two-pronged attack forward from the late 1980s, and has never fully regained the status it had in its heyday.

Firstly, there was the phenomenal technological advancement of the mid ‘eighties. Quality effects were getting cheaper, and it became possible to combine them in much smaller spaces. The invention of the digitally-controlled guitar multi-FX floor processor (1988) made the rack superflous to the areas of the amateur market it should subsequently have penetrated. Indeed, in the immediate wake of the multi-FX floor unit’s introduction, musicians’ magazines were finally trying to educate amateur guitarists about what a rack system actually was. Just as the mass market was getting ripe for the taking, compact, digitally-controlled multi-FX snuck in and pipped guitar rack systems to the post.

And secondly, on the cusp of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, trends were moving away from complexity as guitarists sought to rediscover the simplicity and earthiness of vintage setups. Amp manufacturers would soon bin their bells and whistles and reissue basic ‘60s incarnations like there was no tomorrow. Increasingly, the '90s guitarist just wanted a damn good basic sound that responded dynamically to his or her playing nuances and faithfully reproduced the characteristic tone of the guitar. Pretty much the opposite to a rack system’s function.

There had also remained something of an elitist air to the guitar rack. Partly because it definitively was an elitist concept during its most viable years, and partly because much of the guitar press, at least in the UK, had tended to make the assumption that guitarists either already knew everything about racks or didn’t want to know anything about them at all. That led to rather disjointed coverage, in which full rack assemblies were very rarely explored from a novice’s angle, but individual rack units from certain manufacturers would battle for attention on the ad pages.

Chandler Guitars championed rack setups in the UK, so not everyone saw amateurs as an entity ‘outside the loop’. But the elitist aura did persist, and looking at the top selling effects in late ‘80s UK dealer charts, you invariably see individual pedals taking all the significant placings, with multi-FX processors steadily infiltrating the list from 1988.

Maybe, then, it’s less a question of where the rack went off the rails, and more one of why it never found its way onto the rails in the first place.

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