Back in the mid Sixties, guitarists had a choice of maybe three or four pedals, and the players who were far out enough to use them all at once connected them together with cables several feet long, and used 20-foot coiled cables on each side of the pedal chain to go between their guitar and amp. From a modern perspective, this was not an ideal arrangement, because the cable runs led to all sorts of noise and tone sucking. But that’s also how some players got those “classic rock” sounds that guitarists still crave after all these years.
Flash forward five decades, and pedal chains have become far more sophisticated than a few boxes arranged on a stage floor. Many players build their own pedalboards, and manufacturers service varied needs with simple carrying cases (that sometimes include Velcro strips to seat your pedals on a floorboard), pre-fab boards with tiered shelves, and rugged tour monsters with regulated power, tuner jacks, onboard headphone amps, and other goodies. And if you’re not the do-it-yourself type—and wield sufficient coin—you can have a pedalboard and effects system custom-built to your every whim by experts.
If you go the D.I.Y route, however, the road can be daunting. For one, you’re faced with a plethora of pedals—including multieffects units that offer dozens of effects, and state-of-the-art modeling units that emulate vintage stompboxes. And that’s not all. Besides having literally hundreds of pedals to choose from, there are dozens of different types of cables, and tons of associated products such as power supplies and buffering devices. If you get anything wrong—well, you may get lucky, and everything will sound brilliant to you anyway. Then again, your attempt at building the perfect pedalboard could be bedeviled by noise, annoying level inconsistencies between pedals, frustrating tonal anomalies, and other problems.
So to help unravel some of the mysteries confronting prospective pedalboard builders and purchasers, we consulted some noted system designers on nearly every aspect of their art—from power to wiring to buffers and beyond. You’ll find advice from the inventor of the pedalboard, Pete Cornish (Pete Cornish, Ltd.), as well as from Bob Bradshaw (Custom Audio Electronics), Dave Friedman (Rack System, Ltd.), Michael Piera (AnalogMan.com), and James Santiago and Josh Fiden (Voodoo Lab).
Hopefully, after you digest this user-friendly arrangement of pedalboard science, you’ll know everything you need to correct any problems with your current rig, or build an effects system that precisely matches your performance style, technical desires, and creative approach.
BYPASS, BUFFER, or BOTH?
The topics of buffers and true-bypass switching are often addressed in the same breath, but they are only related when considered within an either/or context of maintaining the integrity of a guitar signal when using multiple effects pedals (see “Pete Cornish on True Bypass vs. Buffering” on p. 73). Put simply, a buffer is a device that converts a high-impedance signal—such as the one originating from your guitar’s output—into a low-impedance signal. The reason that you might want to use a buffer is that every length of cable—and every device connected between your guitar and amplifier—will result in additional capacitance, which will affect the sound in various ways, most notably reducing high frequencies.
Passive guitar pickups generate relatively weak voltages—as well as high impedance levels—that can be greatly affected by capacitance. Low impedance levels, on the other hand, suffer less from capacitance, and can more easily maintain signal integrity when running longer lengths of cable and routing the signal through multiple effects pedals. The resulting sound should more closely approximate what you hear when plugging your guitar directly into your amp.
True-bypass switches purport to completely bypass a pedal’s circuitry, eliminating the additional capacitance, and therefore also resulting in a sound that more closely approximates plugging your guitar directly into your amp. So what’s all the fuss about?
Thomas Nordegg (guitar tech to Frank Zappa, Steve Vai) and Pete Thorn (guitarist with Chris Cornell, Melissa Etheridge, and others) discuss true bypass and buffered guitar effect pedals, cable length and the effect they all have on your tone.
“I don’t care if pedals are 100-percent bypassed or not, going through a long chain of pedals and subsequent cables is going to degrade your signal,” says Bradshaw. “You still have connection issues from one pedal to the next, and even the highest quality cables and plugs are going to cause a slight degradation to the sound. It’s very necessary to address the problem with a high-quality buffer if you want to retain your tone, and there are a lot of them out there. In a pinch, you can use a Boss pedal as a buffer—even the company’s TU-12 tuner. Having said that, there are issues with buffers, particularly how they affect the response of some fuzzes and distortion boxes, which is why you may want to put those pedals ahead of any sort of buffer in the signal chain.”
“A buffer is often used as the first device on a board to get the signal from your guitar into good shape early on,” agrees Michael Piera. “But that’s a problem when using a vintage pedal like a germanium Fuzz Face, which needs to interact directly with your pickups for the magic clean-up effect to occur when you roll your guitar’s volume knob down, because the pickup and volume knob become part of the fuzz’s circuit. Similarly, germanium treble boosters such as Rangemaster-type devices get overly bright and nasty sounding when buffers or buffered pedals are placed before them.
“An exception to the rule would be wahs, which are usually placed before fuzzes in the signal chain. In order to keep a vintage wah from losing tone and sweep when placed before a fuzz, a buffer should be added to the wah, which will allow it to function better when it is on. Then, taking the wah out of the circuit with true-bypass switching—either internal or via an external loop—removes the buffer so that the fuzz still functions well. The Foxrox Electronics Wah Retrofit kit can be added to most vintage-style or boutique wahs, and Teese RMC wahs now include this ‘fuzz friendly’ buffer circuitry. Finally, I advise keeping the total number of buffers in your rig to a minimum, as slight tonal changes and noise are cumulative, and they increase with the number of circuits.”