What’s the Big Deal About True Bypass?

December 13, 2012

The phrase “true bypass” has become a watchword for the pedal industry, and it’s high on most buyers’ lists of priorities. But is true bypass as essential a feature as so many pedal makers would have us believe?

True bypass, aka “hardwired bypass,” occurs when the input of an effect is wired directly to the output via the on/off switch when it’s in the “off” position, rather than being routed through (or connected to) part of the circuitry the entire time. This sounds like a good thing, right? But rather than simply trusting in true-bypass, the “killer app” for excellent stompbox audio is to be aware of the detrimental effects that tend to occur when you have too many of one type of pedal or the other—meaning true bypass, non-true-bypass, or buffered—without considering how they all work together.

True Bypass Pedals

If you chain together ten or 12 true-bypass pedals on your board, you’re adding a lot of extra wire to the signal path. And more wire, with no buffer to drive it, can mean duller tone. Shazzam! You may have just surrendered a chunk of the benefit gained by using true-bypass pedals.

Non-True Bypass Pedals

While many ’60s and ’70s pedals sucked some of your tone as it passed through the circuit—even when the pedal was “off”—a lot of classic guitar sounds were made with those babies. So how can non-true-bypass be a tonal hindrance, when some epic tones were made using non-true-bypass pedals? In many instances, the highs robbed by these pedals helped to tame overly bright amps and guitars, and contributed to the sense of warmth heard in what we now think of as classic tones.

Buffered Pedals

Many manufacturers route the signal through a buffer. This is a small, unitygain preamp of sorts that converts a signal to low-impedance to help it travel through long cable lengths with little or no highend loss. Most of these pedals contain more than adequate buffers, but if the pedal is powered solely by a 9-volt battery, headroom can be limited. Hit that pedal with a heavy attack on a chord, and the signal might overload. Also, if you chain several buffered pedals together, the slight hiss of one buffer into another into another can add noise to the output signal.

The Failsafe

With eight to 12 pedals on a board, a buffer at the front end will help to drive the signal through all those pedals and connections and out the other side without losing too much sparkle. This can be a dedicated buffer or a clean booster/preamp pedal. Or, if you’re a player who uses a compressor or overdrive pedal “always on” at the front of your chain to goose your tone, that constitutes a buffer in itself (most standard effects pedals become buffers when switched on). If, on the other hand, you only have five or six true-bypass pedals on the floor, a buffer at the end of the chain—a powered A/B/Y amp switcher, for example—will help eliminate losses through the cable from board to amplifier.

“True bypass can create dreadful problems with a system that uses many pedals without a buffer,” says Pete Cornish, British pedalboard builder to the stars. “Let’s say you boost the gain and highs at the amp to compensate for signal loss and treble depletion through a large pedalboard and long cable runs. But when you switch on one of your pedals, its high input impedance, and, usually, low output impedance will buffer all the output cables from the guitar. In short, the tone will change dramatically. However, keeping a buffer always on in that chain will maintain a consistent tone.”

Where you put the buffer depends on how your pedalboard is set up, and what’s on it. If you have a few overdrives and fuzzes and boosters at the start of a large board— all true bypass and none always on—they will usually perform better with the buffer after them, but before any modulation and delay pedals. Many vintage fuzz pedals, in particular, like to be first in the chain, and interact most dynamically with your guitar’s pickups when connected directly to it.

Ultimately, what’s best for the sound of your pedals comes down to using your ears.

“The answer is not on an Internet forum or in a manufacturer’s hyperbole,” says David Barber of Barber Electronics. “Plug into your amp with a good ten-foot cable and play. Then, plug into the front of your pedalboard with everything off. If your tone suffers, try using a buffer where appropriate in the chain to see if that helps.”

In the end, true bypass can be a great thing, but a good buffer can definitely give it a helping hand.

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