How do guitar pedals work

Pedal board

What types of pedalboards are there?

Who does not know that? First a couple of floor kicks were distributed loosely on the floor of the rehearsal room. But at the latest after the first stage appearances, where you have to assemble and dismantle your equipment in a matter of seconds, you inevitably come up with a professional solution for the comfortable transport and safe operation of the colorful pedals - a pedal board!

But which pedalboard solution should you choose? In the past there were only a few offers and you mostly had to lend a hand or fall back on expensive custom shop variants. Today it is much easier, because from low budget to high end there are countless ready-made pedalboards in stores.

For the touring professional, only a stable flight case solution comes into consideration, and then it should not be a cheap product, but a professional variant, such as. B. from the company Swanflight from England - or from any good local flight case manufacturer.

If you don't haul yourself, you can also rely on the hard case solutions from z. B. use Pedaltrain, which are of the best quality, but also quite heavy. For most of us, a simpler solution makes more sense, such as: B. from the RockBoard and RockCase program, a Gator pedalboard, a pedal train with soft case or the Palmer Pedalbay. Just like the Pedaltrain, T-REX Tonetrunk and Pedaltrain copies from RockBoard, these pedalboards are based on aluminum cross braces, between which there is plenty of space for cable routing.

In addition to flexible feet, the Pedalbay variants from Palmer have the advantage that they are equipped with adjustable struts, which significantly increases their flexibility. A few manufacturers work with a second level. This not only simplifies the accessibility of the pedals on the second level, but also leaves space underneath for effects that are always activated (e.g. booster) and accessories (e.g. power supply unit) etc.

For particularly easy access z. B. at the manufacturer Schmidt Array, the second level can even be folded. If you have a lot of effects pedals, we recommend an effects board where the power supply can be attached under the board. That saves space and sooner or later you can never have enough of them. If the power supply unit and board come from different manufacturers, you should make sure that there is enough space under the board for the power supply unit and that there is a stable mounting option.

Flight cases, softbars & Co. are also available for your guitar. Find out more about the right guitar accessories here.

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How do I supply my pedalboard with power?

This topic is as complex as it is important, because a poor power supply leads to background noise up to and including the total failure of individual pedals. When it comes to this topic in particular, you shouldn't save up on purchasing and do your research, because the market is full of solutions that often promise a lot but keep little. The effect of the power supply on the sound of the guitar setup must also not be completely ignored. Because a pedal sounds different depending on whether it is operated with batteries, one or the other power supply unit.

It is said of Eric Johnson that he can even tell the type of battery by the sound of his Tube Screamer. The practical usefulness of such subtleties is of course open to debate. Here are a few concrete examples: In setups with few effects, a stabilized power supply such as the Truetone 1 Spot including a so-called daisy chain can be a good solution, which can be obtained for around € 30. (A "daisy chain" is a power supply cable with several plugs that supplies various effects with power from a power supply unit.)

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In larger setups, and especially when analog and digital devices are used together, a power supply with multiple outputs is a better solution. Products with galvanically isolated outputs have established themselves as the standard in the professional and semi-professional area for good reason (less noise).

Manufacturers like Voodoo Lab, T-Rex, MXR and others offer good solutions. You should make sure that in addition to several 9 V outputs, one or two 12 and / or 18 V outputs are available. Because some effects can also be operated with higher voltages and can sound better because they are more direct and dynamic. If you don't have an 18 V output but want to operate a device with 18 V, you can use so-called voltage doublers, special cables that combine two 9 V outputs into one 18 V output - or small transformers like use the ISO Pump from Godlyke.

The RockBoard Power Pit even has a display on which you can read the output voltages, as well as the option to operate it with 110 or 220 volts. Professional power supplies are available from brands such as Pedaltrain, Cioks, MXR, Gator, BBE and many others. Of course, you can find many inexpensive alternatives, especially on the Internet. But be careful: some devices shine with multiple outputs, but they are internally connected to each other in the housing and thus actually only represent a daisy chain with housing.

If you want to achieve safe operation without humming, you should look out for a power supply unit in which the individual outputs are galvanically separated, as is the case with the large models from T-Rex, Voodoo Lab, MXR and the cheap Powerplant, which has long been traded as insider tips Junior from Harley Benton or Fame DCT-200.

Also of interest are the new power supplies from Truetone, which offer seven (CS7) or twelve (CS12) outputs and output voltages of 9, 12 and 18 volts. The CS12 even has an output that can be regulated between 4 and 9 volts to tease out the last bit of dirty sound from the vintage tube screamer or fuzz.

This possibility of simulating a "worn out" battery can be found e.g. B. also with the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 and the Fame DCT200 and many a sound connoisseur swears by it. If you want it to be very professional, then you should deal with The Gig Rig's system. In addition to the basic power supply unit (generator) and the distributor (distributor), you get a suitable adapter with its own insulation for every case.

With this modular system, humming is actually 100% excluded. If you have more effects than the power supply unit has individual outputs, it is possible to use a daisy chain here as well. Here you should pay attention to three things in order to avoid disturbing noises:

1) Do not use analog and digital effects devices together in a daisy chain!

2) Cover the unused outputs (= plugs) of a daisy chain with a protective cap or some insulating tape! Because if open plugs come into contact with metal parts such as B. come a pedal housing, a short circuit can occur.

3) Pay attention to the permissible total power of the power supply unit! Of course, this applies not only to the use of daisy chains, but also in general, but is often overlooked when dealing with daisy chains. If the manuals for the effects are no longer available, a list with the power consumption of the most common effects can be found at www.stinkfoot.se. I have created an Excel list for my boards in which the information on power consumption is recorded. At the same time, I also created tables that make it clear which device is connected to which power cable. A very helpful thing if you are looking for a bug or want to configure your board differently. So: Finding the right power supply also has a little to do with mathematics ... More information on the subject of power supply can be found in the article “The power be with you!” In our great Effects ABC.

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Which cable is suitable for my pedalboard?

Have you ever guessed how many meters of cable are laid on such a large 80 × 40 cm pedalboard? Believe it or not, there are up to five meters of cable here! In addition, the signal runs through many components such as jack sockets, switches and circuits. It is therefore advisable to ensure the best quality, because the cables are the core of every effects system. And if these are not one hundred percent permeable, problems arise. This also applies expressly to patch cables! Basically: stay away from all that colorful stuff with the welded plugs!

The use of fixed jack adapters to connect effects is seen as a rather critical issue. In theory, these are really practical because they enable a solid and good electrical connection, have a stabilizing effect on the pedal position and are also very space-saving. However, they only work if the side walls of the pedals are absolutely orthogonal (= right-angled) to the floor surface, which unfortunately is rarely the case.

You can z. B. couple the small Mooer pedals with such connectors, which the manufacturer also offers. That works perfectly. With the MXR, Boss and many other pedals this is not possible because the sides are slightly sloping here. If you still use such fixed jack adapters, the pedals not only do not sit firmly on the pedalboard, but you stress the input sockets of the pedals considerably, which sooner or later leads to failure of the same.

 

There is more about cables in the article “Expensive cables = good sound?” In the Effects ABC.

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How do I wire my pedalboard?

Let's assume you have ten effects that you want to wire to a central power supply. After the effects have been connected with good patch cables and the longer connections (e.g. from bottom left to top right) have been made under the board, if possible, the DC connections are now needed. That can quickly become confusing.

Starting from the power supply, you need sufficiently long power connection cables or a daisy chain, which is laid in such a way that all the planned effects are achieved. You will inevitably soon discover that the positions of the DC sockets on the pedals are anything but standardized. Depending on the position, different plug shapes are recommended.

Are z. B. the DC sockets on the sides of the pedals, angled plugs are usually better. Because that saves space, and space is important! Straight plugs usually fit better into the DC sockets on the front, because they make cable routing easier. If you run the cables under the board, a wild labyrinth is likely to emerge there. Because nobody looks there!

Due to the different lengths, some of the cables hang down to the floor if they are not fixed. The first idea that comes up is cable ties. But at the latest when you want to replace a pedal, you realize how annoying it is to have to loosen the cable ties with the wire cutters. I therefore recommend detachable cable ties from the hardware store! They are just as tight as the non-detachable ones, but can be removed quickly and reused as needed.

Small Velcro straps work just as well. With the special cable ties you can now z. B. process both the DC and the signal cables into bundles that are fastened close to the board. An important and often neglected point is the spatial separation of signal and network cable routes. You should try to separate them strictly to prevent network interference in the signal curve. If this cannot be done for reasons of space, the power and audio cables should at least not run parallel, but should cross at a 90 ° angle. This ensures that network interference is kept as low as possible. The best way to fix the cable routing on the board is with cable ties or small Velcro strips.

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In which order do I arrange the effect devices?

A basic rule states:

  1. Effects on the signal volume (booster, compressor)
  2. Effects that influence the basic sound (overdrive, distortion, fuzz)
  3. Modulation effects (tremolo, chorus, phaser, flanger, vibrato etc.)
  4. Time-based effects (echo, delay, reverb)

There are some special effects that are best tried out for yourself. Such as B. Octavers, which should sit relatively far in front, because they need a signal that is as unaffected as possible in order to be able to octave cleanly. The same goes for an auto or touch wah.

A special feature is a vibe effect such as B. the Uni-Vibe. Although it is actually a modulation effect, it almost always sounds better in front of the distortion, similar to a wah wah, or even - which sounds particularly spectacular - between two distortions.

Speaking of wah: A wah should always be at the beginning of the signal chain - here it can optimally intervene on the sound. It should also be far away from the power supply to avoid interference from the sensitive coil in the wah pedal. If you play with an amp that has an effects loop, this is where the modulation and time-based effects can best be looped in. Because here they process the complete sound information including the preamp of the amplifier.

However, there are also guitarists who do not want to miss their modulation effects in front of the input stage of the amplifier. Delay or reverb effects, on the other hand, only work really well in front of the amp if you create your distorted sounds with effects devices that are still in front of the delay. However, if the distorted sound is generated in the preamp of the amplifier, the delay should definitely be wired into the effects loop of the amplifier.

The video shows you an example sequence on a Pedaltrain Novo:

 

In terms of sound, it also has its appeal to switch a reverb in front of the distortion. As always, there are rules to be broken from time to time. It's a good idea to try different configurations to find the best sound. Nothing is wrong and the journey is the goal!

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Buffer or True Bypass?

Almost everyone has a buffer (a kind of "catch-up amplifier") on their pedalboard, even if one is often not even aware of it. If you have z. B. Effects from Boss or Ibanez, you already play via a buffered signal path, because all these pedals have a built-in buffer. One can do that, among other things. recognize that no more sound flows through the pedal if its power supply is interrupted. A non-buffered signal runs through the many meters of cable described above and loses its brilliance, power and dynamism in the process. A buffered effects device in the chain, on the other hand, converts the signal into a low-impedance one and thus prevents this signal loss. Expensive boutique pedals nowadays almost all have a true bypass circuit.

The signal runs relatively unadulterated through the pedal, regardless of whether it is switched on or off. That sounds pretty good at first, but True Bypass also has its pitfalls, especially when it comes to signal loss with many True Bypass pedals in combination with long cable runs. An additional buffer is therefore mandatory and shouldn't be too much of a problem with prices starting at around € 30.

If you play with a transmitter, the buffer is usually unnecessary, because the output signal of the transmitter is in most cases also low-impedance and thus armed against all signal losses. (There is more about bypass in this issue in the article "The Art of Bypassing".)

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Tap dance or looper?

If you have to switch several pedals at once to switch sounds, it can quickly become quite an egg dance. Signal loopers can make life easier and improve the sound here. This is available as a robust true bypass variant in which different switchable loops are simply connected in series, e.g. B. from manufacturers such as Loopmaster Pedals, Somo Pedals, Buzz Electronics, Road Rage or in many DIY catalogs. If, for example, a distortion effect with a delay is wired into an effects path (= loop), the distorted sound can be called up with the delay with one step.

For me this discovery was tantamount to a revolution, because I always found it cruel to sway to the board after a wild "head back and knees bent at the edge of the stage" and try to hit the right switches on the pedalboard and promptly to miss the first bar of the next verse. Digital loopers such as the Octa-Switch from Carl Martin, the models from G-Lab and The Gig Rig as well as the inexpensive versions from Joyo and others are really convenient.

Boss also has its own system on the market with the ES-8, and the professionals now almost all play special loop systems tailored to their needs from setup gurus such as Bob Bradshaw (USA), Pete Cornish (GB), Skrydstrup ( D), Pete Landers (NL), Tonehunter (D), Ampete (D) and others.


In our workshop you will find out how you can build your own pedalboard. The video gives you an insight into the DIY FX world:


 

In these systems, in principle, each effect pedal is assigned a loop (loop-in path), and thanks to digital control, any combination of all these loops can be saved in sound presets and called up using the foot pedal. In this way you can turn your analog board into a huge, programmable multi-effects device. Such a looper is more than advisable on large boards - not only to make it easier to switch several pedals, but also to avoid unnecessarily depriving the sound of its original freshness and dynamism.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider if you want a functional and robust pedalboard on stage that can be played comfortably and intuitively. It is worth investing a little time in planning and, above all, spending a few euros more where it really makes sense, such as B. in the power supply and the wiring. After all, the pedalboard is also a musical instrument that should work so safely and flawlessly on stage that the head remains free for what it's actually about - the music.

Author: Kai Stührenberg