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Bass pedals are an electronic musical instrument with foot-operated pedal keyboard with a range of one or more octaves. The earliest bass pedals from the 1970s consisted of a pedalboard and analog synthesizer tone generation circuitry packaged together as a unit. Since the 1990s, bass pedals are usually MIDI controllers, which have to be connected to a MIDI-compatible computer, electronic keyboard, or voice module to produce musical tones.
Bass pedals serve the same function as the pedalboard on a pipe organ or an electric organ, and usually produce sounds in the bass range. Bass pedals are used by keyboard players as an adjunct to their full-range manual keyboards, by performers of other instruments (e.g., electric bass or electric guitar), or by themselves.
Pedalboards have been a standard feature on pipe organs for centuries, and since the 1930s, electromechanical organs such as the Hammond organ often included pedalboards. As electronic organs became more compact and portable in the 1970s, some manufacturers began building pedals that could function separately from the organ console. These afforded the player great portability, and flexibility in combining them with other instruments and electronic equipment.
1970s and 1980s
An early and very popular bass pedal device was the Moog Taurus. Moog called this instrument a "Pedal Synthesizer" in their literature, and explicitly pointed out that its five-octave range made it "more than a bass instrument". . Despite these efforts, most players used them for basslines, and the term bass pedals stuck. The Taurus I and II models are no longer in production, but they are prized as vintage instruments. In 2010, Moog introduced a new model, the Taurus III, in a limited run of 1000 units.
Several progressive rock and hard rock groups (such as Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Rush) and alternative rock groups such as U2 and The Police used bass pedals. Often, the group's bass guitarist would play in a standing position, meaning that they could only use one foot at a time to play, rather than play sitting down with both feet, as organists traditionally had. However, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin used bass pedals while sitting down at a keyboard. Bass guitarists frequently used Taurus pedals to hold down sustained, low-pitched pedal points while performing high-register melodic lines or percussive parts on the bass guitar. In 1983, Phil Collins' song "I Don't Care Anymore" featured Taurus pedals, unusually played by hand. Bassist Mo Foster appears in the music video as the man behind the machine.
1990s and 2000s
Jazz, rock, and popular music
Since the 1990s, most electronic pedalboards have been MIDI controllers, which do not perform any tone generation themselves. These pedalboards have to be connected to a MIDI-compatible computer, electronic keyboard or rack-mounted synthesizer to produce musical tones. Despite the fact that these pedalboards can control any kind of MIDI device, and can therefore produce a virtually unlimited range of musical pitches (and other sounds), ranging from a high-pitched melody to percussion sounds, they are still often referred to as "bass pedals".
Current manufacturers of these products, such as Hammond, Roland, Studiologic (formerly known as Fatar), R. W. Designs, mostly sell keyboards with 13-note keyboards (C to C, one octave), 17-note (C to F, an octave and a fourth) keyboards, or 25-note keyboards (C to C, two octaves). Pedalboards with less than a 32-note range are often used by jazz, rock, or popular music performers.
Baroque and church music
To perform the Baroque church music repertoire (e.g., J.S. Bach), a 30-note keyboard (C to F, two octaves and a fourth) is needed. A smaller number of manufacturers, such as Classic Organworks, sell a MIDI controller in full-sized 32-note AGO layout that can be used to perform virtually all the organ repertoire.
In the art music and church music context, MIDI pedalboards and digitally sampled or synthesized pipe organ instruments are used either as practice instruments or as performance instruments. Some universities and churches use MIDI pedalboards and digital organs as practice instruments, to allow a larger number of students to have practice time. Some churches use MIDI pedalboards to trigger digitally sampled sounds for the low register of the pipe organ. This has led to some controversy, because this mixes digitally sampled, electronically amplified sounds with the wind-driven pipe sound of the rest of the pipe organ; some purists argue that this is inappropriate, or that the sound or tonal quality of the digital bass voices are unsuitable.
While bass pedals are usually used to perform basslines, MIDI-equipped pedals can be used for a range of other purposes. The different pedals can be assigned to perform different chords, which allows a one man band-style performer to perform chords with a single foot-press. As well, MIDI pedals can be used with a keyboard workstation or an arranger keyboard to trigger different parts of sequenced song arrangements. For example, a performer could use the pedals to trigger the chorus, verse, and solo sections of a sequenced song. Another musical use of MIDI pedals would be to have each pedal linked to a different drum sound, such as a bass drum, snare, and cymbals; this would permit the performance of rudimentary drum kit parts.
A MIDI-equipped pedalboard can also be used for non-musical purposes:
- theatre lighting
- stage lighting in a rock club
- special effects
- sound design
- recording system synchronization
- audio processor control
- computer networking, as demonstrated by the early first-person shooter game MIDI Maze, 1987
- animatronic figure control
- animation parameter control, as demonstrated by Apple Motion v2
Such non-musical applications of the MIDI 1.0 protocol (sometimes over MIDI-DIN, sometimes using other transports) are possible because of its general-purpose nature. Any device built with a standard MIDI Out connector should in theory be able to control any other device with a MIDI In port, just as long as the developers of both devices have the same understanding about the semantic meaning of all the MIDI messages the sending device emits. This agreement can come either because both follow the official MIDI standard specifications, or else in the case of any non-standard functionality, because the message meanings are directly agreed upon by the two manufacturers.