A homebrew High Quality Guitar looper pedal

Posted: August 11, 2013 in Hardware projects, Portfolio

A few years ago I was playing rythm guitar in a small band along with three of my friends. One day, our lead guitarist spotted how useful a looper pedal could be to us, but he was unsure if the purchase was worth the price.

For those of you that are not familiar with this kind of gear, a looper pedal is a device that is daisy-chained between an electric guitar and the amp, recorder, or the rest of your gear. It’s able to record what you play and at some point play it back in the background while you play new stuff. It’s extremely useful where more guitars than available are needed. Usually it can be controlled by means of some footswitch, hence the ‘pedal’ denomination.

I remember that I was shocked of seeing looper pedals starting at $130. Soon, my engineering-obsessive mind started to think of ways of building a cheaper device without compromising quality.


I made a wishlist for a decent looper pedal features:

  • It should be able to start recording when I tap a switch.
  • It should be able to stop recording and play the loop back when I want.
  • It should allow me to add up more “layers” of sound on top of the existing loop.
  • I should be able to stop it whenever I want.
  • It must feature a decent sound quality.
  • I must stay under $50

Given this list of requirements, I decided to work on a desing, and build a prototype.


Okay, two things were clear… I was going to need quite a big deal of RAM to store the audio, and a decent CODEC to DAC/ADC it.

Real-time audio streaming can become a relatively bandwidth-demanding task, so the RAM needed to be both fast and big enough.

In order to control de pedal I was going to need at least two buttons, but that was the smaller of my concerns.

Tools of trade

For this prototype I was lucky to have an Altera DE1 training board I bought to play with FPGAs.


The board features an Altera Cyclone 2 FPGA, an 8-MByte SDRAM Chip and a WM8731 high-quality, 24-bit, sigma-delta audio encoder/decoder with minijack inputs/outputs.

The RAM is 16-bit wide, and the CODEC is 24-bit, so to achieve CD-Quality (44,100 Hz) the formula would be like:

44,100 Hz x 3 bytes = 132300 bytes per second, or 129 KBps

Then, is the RAM capable of handling that?

With SDRAMs you can R/W in a mode named Burst where you give the starting address and the number of words to read/write and then the words are read/written sequentially with no more overhead. Let’s do some calculations:

What is the minimum frequency needed to stream 24-bit audio@44,1KHz to/from the SDRAM?

A naive calculation would be:

  • 1 word = 16 bits = 2 bytes
  • We need to stream in 24-bit units, that would be 1.5 words, so let’s round it up to 2 words
  • That makes 176.4 Kbps or 88.2 Kwords per second
  • Let’s double it because the looper might be recording new data at the same time it’s playing the old one.
  • Ideally, a theoretical bandwidth of 176.4KHz would suffice, but in practice there is an overhead due to CAS/RAS strobe, the memory switching a page, etc…

This particular chip can run up to 133 Mhz, which yields far more than needed bandwidth. One problem solved 🙂

At this point it looked like everything boiled down to hooking up the SDRAM, the CODEC and some sort of footswitch.


I came up with the following design:

The board has 2 XTALs, one running at 50MHz and another one running at 27 MHz.

– The SDRAM needs 100MHz, so one of the built-in PLLs in the FPGA was used to double the frequency of the 50MHz XTAL up to 100MHz.

– The audio CODEC streams data at 18.4MHz, so another PLL was used to reduce the 27MHz clock frequency down to 18.4.

  • The rest of the cores run at 50MHz

Let’s examine the rest of the modules I wrote in VHDL:

Reset delay

This module makes sure that every other module has been properly reset and that the PLLs are locked before the whole system starts operating.

Its inputs are just a signal from one of the on-board buttons that acts as a RESET button, the 50MHz clock and the ‘locked’ signals from the PLLs.

When the external reset is just deasserted, or the system is just powered on AND the PLLs are locked, it uses a register to count 3 million cycles of the 50MHz clock and then deasserts the internal reset signal used by the rest of the modules.

CODEC controller

It’s responsible for streaming data to and from the CODEC in I2S format. Its interface with the other modules are a couple of 16-bit busses for input/output streaming data, reset and a 18.4 Mhz clock from the Audio PLL.

I2C controller

The CODEC has a lot of configuration parameters (like gain, volume, input selection, audio format…) that you must configure using I2C@20KHz. This controller operates pretty much on its own and its only task is to send a sequence of predefined commands to configure the CODEC just after RESET. It’s written in Verilog and I grabbed it from the Altera demo cores that came with the board.

MFC (Memory Flow Controller)

This is one of the most complex modules of my looper.

It interfaces with the SDRAM through two FIFOs and is responsible of feeding the looper core with streaming data stored in the SDRAM and to write to the SDRAM data streamed from the looper core. Its interface with the other modules are a couple of 16-bit busses for I/O and a control bus for controlling and signaling these conditions:

  • Input fifo full (tristate)
  • Output fifo empty (tristate)
  • EOL (End Of Loop) (Core → MFC)
  • Busy (MFC → Core)
  • Start writer (MFC → Core)
  • Write enable (MFC → Core)
  • Read enable (MFC → Core)
  • Fifo clock (data in the busses is sync’d to this clock)
  • Reset and clock as usual

The core uses 3 23-bit registers to point to relevant memory addresses inside of the SDRAM:

  • Read address
  • Write address
  • End of loop pointer

The behavior is modeled by three VHDL state machine processes: ‘reader’, ‘writer’ and ‘EOL_marker’.

Reader: When streaming is activated it instructs the SDRAM controller to burst-read data starting at the Read address pointer. When the data is available it’s enqueued in the input FIFO and the Read pointer is incremented (since it’s 23-bit (addressing 8 Mb) it will naturally overflow to 0 when you run out of memory). If the input FIFO becomes full the SDRAM controller stops reading, if it becomes almost empty it starts reading again thus ensuring continuous uninterrupted streaming of audio. The looper core can read data from the input FIFO transparently through the input bus.

Writer: Operates exactly in reverse: It takes data from the output FIFO (enqueued by the looper core) and stores it in the SDRAM via the SDRAM controller starting at the address pointed to by the write pointer. When the FIFO becomes empty, the controller stops storing data. If it becomes almost full then it starts storing data again.

EOL_marker: When the EOL signal is asserted, it first flushes the Output FIFO and then sets the EOL pointer to the address being currently written (i.e: the Write pointer).

It also features a debug sine-wave writer to test the MFC and audio output.

The SDRAM controller is a very cool one I pulled off OpenCores.org. It’s a port of a Xilinx memory controller for a Spartan FPGA to the Altera Cyclone II (specifically for the memory in the DE1 board!). Its greatest features are:

  • Quite parametrisable
  • Features time slot-based dual port (I use one port for reading and the other one for writing).
    • It runs at 100MHz (130MHz was originally supported, but the port doesn’t work at that freq).– Interfaces with your core mostly like a SRAM (address bus, data bus and simple control bus).

Testing the MFC and CODEC

Once I had the MFC and CODEC up and running, I uploaded to the SDRAM a .wav file and then wrote a simple core to stream it through the MFC out to the CODEC to see if it plays back.

I plugged the board to a cheap guitar amp to hear it.

Keyboard controller

Since I needed fairly big keys to be able to control the core while I was playing guitar I opted by having a PS/2 keyboard on the floor and pressing the bigger and most accessible keys (Spacebar and Ctrl’s) with my foot. The DE1 board has a PS/2 port so I chose to use the PS/2 controller that comes with the board (written in Verilog).

With the keyboard you can assert a few commands:

  • Start recording
  • End of loop (the looper starts playing back what you played, but it doesn’t record what you play now).
  • End of loop, but start recording a new ‘layer’ of sound (This allows to overlay what you play now to what is being replayed by the looper).
  • Pause/resume layer recording
  • Pause/resume regular (no-layer) recording

I used a Logitech wireless keyboard connected to the PS/2 port.

Main core

Here’s where everything is glued together. The main core uses FSMs to stream data between the MFC and the CODEC in both directions simultaneously. It’s fairy simple, since most of the complexity is carried by the MFC. It just responds to commands from the keyboard, controls the MFC and CODEC and connects the busses.

It also flashes some of the on-board LEDs as debug indicators.


Does it work?. Yes!, absolutely. Below you can hear me playing random tunes with it. I hadn’t enough cables/connectors to daisy-chain it with an effects processor, so everything is clean (straight from the guitar pickups).

Test 1: (In this test I first record the rithm and then I play a few arrangements over it)


Test 2: The eye of the tiger! (same as above)


Test 3: “The hell song” by Sum41. Here I demonstrate the ability to pause/unpause the loop playback. (Sounds way better with distortion!)


Test 4: Different tune. Here I first play and record the rithm, then I play on top of it, and at some point I pause the playback.


Test 5: Some song by Sum41. Nothing special


Test 6: Sound Layering test. Here I first play the rithm and I tap the ‘end of loop’ button. Then I layer an arrangement on top of it. And then I play a third voice on top of both layers.


Test 6: Sound Layering test 2. This time I stack up to 4 sound layers.



  • Not bad as a proof of concept.
  • Implementing it with an FPGA can be quite oversized and a bit expensive. There are a few microcontrollers featuring high pin count and internal SDRAM controller that can run the SDRAM as fast as 66MHz.
  • Good sound quality
  • Can record up to 47 seconds of high-quality audio
  • Solved our problem 🙂
  • The day I brought it to our rehearsal place I only asked for one thing: “Please somebody bring a jack to minijack adaptor so we can plug it to an amp”. Everybody forgot, so we had to hear it in “clean” (no distortion or effects) by using headphones. Shit happens 😦

As always, Thanks for reading!!

  1. Matthieu says:

    Good achievement !
    Very interesting too, because the price of a looper is too expensive…
    I’m very interested in doing a similar project with a DE0-nano board : http://www.altera.com/education/univ/materials/boards/de0-nano/unv-de0-nano-board.html !
    Could you share your Quartus project ?

    • radexx says:

      Okay, I’ve been thinking about it. And I don’t see any reason for not to. I’ll find it and release it under some license.

      • Matthieu says:

        Thank you for sharing it.
        I just want to use it for my music needs (guitar).
        I have to buy a DAC because the DE0 doesn’t own it.
        Maybe the same as the DE2 one.
        I think you have my email address with the fields ?

  2. pw says:

    great project.

    I’m interested in module you created. I have project that has the same structure as yours. Could you share ur project as my reference? my mail : prindi.wibowo@gmail.com

  3. Aron says:

    Hi really great project with wonderful sound! I want to build a guitar effect pedal with looper for my thesis in electronics. So far I was struggling with 32bit mcu and memory card, but now I would like to make it dsp based with ram. I know dsp and fpga are different but I would also be interested in your project.

  4. Ed says:

    Hi Mike, I am very interested in your looper. I am in America, so if you could give me a price/shipping included, i’ll buy…………..

    • radexx says:

      Hi horseman1,
      Thanks for your interest!
      The aim of the project was to build a real one, but unfortunately I never did. I just built the prototype inside of the Altera DE1 board (which is utterly expensive to be used only as a looper pedal).

      However I’d be happy to open source the core if I manage to find the project files, so anyone can design its own hardware.

      Best regards

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