The Tonal Underground: How The Pros Do It
There are few things more controversial and debatable in the gear world than proper pedalboard chain order and logistics. Just when you thought you had selected your perfect pedal combination, you begin to hear talk about loopers, buffers, MIDI, cable types and more. You begin to question your weeks of careful planning and begin to dive into this deeper, often misunderstood side of the pedal world. Luckily, you have this trusty guide to act as your guiding star towards tonal nirvana!
When I moved to Hollywood at 18, I was incredibly lucky to apprentice under the great wizard of tone, Dave Friedman. It was during my time there that we worked with some of the biggest names in the industry designing rack systems and pedalboards. From The Killers to P!nk, Bon Jovi to Joe Bonamassa, each board needed to not only be hand built, designed and roadworthy, but also have to sound absolutely perfect night after night and be immaculate in every way. It was here I learned the true art of pedalboard making and will be sharing a few pro tips with you.
It All Starts With A Proper Effect Order.
Now that you have your pedals selected, let’s make sure they sound great together! As a general rule of thumb, you will want a chain that starts with pedals that rely on the cleanest signal first.
Effects such as Compressors and Harmonizers such as the Eventide PitchFactor and Digitech Whammy pedals sound great first in the chain because they rely on your instrument’s pure signal to sound best. This is because once your signal runs through an effect such as an overdrive, extra harmonics and the overdrive’s characteristics are added to the original signal. This sounds awesome for those rock leads of course, but when you have an effect that is trying to add a harmony or adjust the pitch, those altered harmonics can sometimes throw it off producing a tone not initially intended.
Wah Or Nah?
Wah pedals are a special pedal worth pointing out independently because it is an effect that depending on your needs can be placed in multiple places in the chain. Starting as a clean signal effect, the Wah pedal will sound killer as the start to your chain, but alternatively, a wah can also be placed after your fuzz based effects (this will be next in the chain and discussed later on). The issue that many are quick to point out is that a wah plugged first into a fuzz like how Jimi Hendrix did it will result in some serious oscillations; you can identify an oscillation from its squealing, feedback like tone that often leaves your rig unplayable.
In the Wah and Fuzz situation, the oscillation occurs because the output impedance of the wah and input impedance of the fuzz create a feedback network which results in some gnarly sounds. Now there are ways to fix this issue with the use of buffers which we will cover later on, but for now, on a tonal level, this is your first major personal decision only you can make for your needs. A Wah placed before a fuzz will typically leave you a Wah tone that isn’t as strong and dynamic as placed after the fuzz. Use your ears and see which works best for your needs
Once you have decided on which pedals will go first in the chain let’s hop on over to the modulation part of your board.
Swirls And All Those Pretty Sounds
Modulations are some of the most fun pedals to add to your board. Whether you are looking to spice up your clean sounds with a chorus or add some flavor to your lead with a flanger, there is a modulation pedal for you.
Modulation pedals work based off your clean signal, so once again placing them before your overdriven effects will give you the truest sound of that pedal. Much like the wah vs fuzz location, some people claim that modulation effects after distortion sound better. By placing modulation effects after your drive effects allow the distorted harmonics to further enhance the modulation. Examples such as Van Halen’s legendary tone in “Eruption” featured an MXR Phase 90 straight into a Marshall amp while tones heard by Robin Trower used a MXR Uni-Vibe into a Dunlop Fuzz Face.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up! I’ve built many rigs that have a Chorus before the drives and a Flanger after. This is a great place in the chain to experiment and come up with some of your very own signature tones!
Now that we have set up the groundwork for clean tones, let’s get dirty.
Fuzzes, Boosts, Distortions and Overdrives: Oh My!
Just as we described above how every pedal relies on either the main source input or what is before or after it, the whole family of crunch and boosts relies on each other.
I would always recommend placing your drive pedals in order of gain amount starting with a fuzz, then lighter overdrives into medium drives followed by distortion. Artists such as John Mayer would suggest a heavier pedal like a Blues Breaker overdrive into a lighter gain Klon Centaur for his solo tone so just like the fuzz vs wah situation, use your ears to decide what works best for your specific needs.
The beauty of having your overdrives go in gain level allows you to stack your pedals. Stacking overdrives is a technique that allows you to cascade the gain and tone of each pedal into the next one in the chain. This produces a thicker, richer overdrive that can be used for solos or anything in between.
Boosts: A Fickle Creature
Boost pedals are worthy of their own section because they have a few applications depending on your needs.
If you are looking to drive your overdrive pedal into oblivion, placing it before your fuzzes and overdrives is an excellent choice. Just like stacking, the gain the boost will produce will further drive your other drive pedals.
If you are looking to goose your signal to add a little more juice to it, placing it as one of the first pedals of the chain may be your best move. Alternatively, if you are looking to have your whole rig just louder, placing it at the end of the chain will be best.
Delay and Reverb
Delay and Reverb in my humble opinion are the glue of any pedalboard. They fill out the space and give your tone that finely polished sound.
Typically, you will want to always put your delay first followed by your reverb. Depending on how ethereal you would like to get, you will most likely be keeping your reverb on all the time and turning the delay on for lead playing.
To Loop or Not to Loop, That Is The Question
If you have one of them fancy amps you probably have noticed an effect loop in the back and wondered what that would do, and more importantly what it would do for your tone.
Think of the effect loop like an insert point between your preamp and power amp section. For certain modulation effects, delays and reverb tones running straight through your pedalboard into the input of your amp produces a muddy or darker tone than desired.
Utilizing the effect loop allows you to add those effects in between the preamp and power amp section producing a much cleaner signal of those effects. Experiment with ending your chain at overdrives (or modulations if you decided you like them better after drives) and place your delays and reverbs in the effects loop and hear the difference!
There are different types of effects loops: parallel and series. A parallel effects loop allows you to blend in clean signal with your effect signal for more control over your tone. A series effect loop does not have this blend and is simply an in-between connection.
Now that we understand our chain, we get to dig into the finer art of pedalboard making!
Buffers are one of the most often misunderstood yet important pedals in any chain.
The buffer is used as a “cleanup tool” for your signal. Every pedal on your board, every cable that connects them and the cable that connects your guitar to the board and board to amp affect your signal. The more cable and pedals that you have on your board, the more your impedance is affected. The resulting loss of impedance on your signal translates into a loss of fidelity and high end in your tone.
If you are not using a looper, an easy way to fix this is by adding a buffer to your chain. A buffer in its essence (and without getting majorly technical) replenishes your impedance and will return the high end you lost.
Depending on how many pedals you have, I would suggest adding a buffer halfway through your signal if you are using a lot of effects and then have another at the end of the chain. If you have just a handful of pedals, place it at the very end of the chain.
You will sometimes hear people placing it at the beginning, but if you think about it, your signal is still strong then so there is no need to replenish something that hasn’t been degraded yet.
You will often also hear people saying that they do not need a buffer because their pedals are true bypass. While true bypass does remove the pedal from the signal, a tiny bit of it still remains. Since everything matters in a signal path if you have enough true bypass pedals in a rig, it will take away from your overall signal and a buffer will still be needed.
If your pedal has something called a “buffered bypass” like a Klon and other overdrives, congratulations! Your pedal has a small buffer inside it! The beauty of this is that it acts just like a buffer and will actually maintain and enhance your signal, so make sure to keep this in mind as you are deciding where to add your buffer. Since that pedal will act as the buffer, I would suggest adding the buffer further down the chain.
MIDI and Loopers
After my time working under Dave Friedman, I have come to terms that no amount of pedals is too small for a looper or MIDI controller. A looper is a device used to completely remove a pedal from the signal chain. Instead of having each pedal plug into each other in series, you would plug the input and output of each effect into the looper. Once you have all of your pedals placed into the looper you can then turn each one on and off or depending on the type of looper, create patches of pedal combinations.
This is advantageous for multiple reasons. The first is that it provides you with a better tone and a stronger signal. Since each pedal in the looper is effectively independent, your signal is more pure and true to what the initial input signal was to start. When you turn a pedal on, it’s engaged in the signal and when it is off, it is completely removed.
The other advantage of a looper is that you can create preset patches.
I personally hate tap dancing on my pedalboard and I’m sure many of you can relate: you have your chorus turned on for your verses and then quickly put overdrive 1 on for your crunchy chorus and then you have your second overdrive and delay used for the solo of your tune. You often find yourself spending more time worried you will press the wrong combination then playing a wrong note!
Many loopers will allow you to save presets so instead of stepping on each combination you simply program one button to turn on multiple loops. Now you can have a Verse, Chorus and Solo combination with only 3 buttons!
Adding MIDI to any board further enhances its flexibility as it allows you to instantly recall a preset on a specific pedal such as an Eventide H9 or Strymon Timeline.
Once combined you have achieved pro level routing. Imagine being able with the press of a single button to turn on your Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, MXR Phase 90 and Preset 2 of your Timeline all with one stomp! This is how the pros do it and is a level of luxury that players of all caliber can now enjoy.
Line it Up
Now that you have your chain down, place all your pedals in the most ergonomic way. Remember: input on the right side and output on the left so your pedals should flow in that order and should all be equally spaced and straight .
*Pro Tip 1: Use a straight edge or ruler to keep your angles straight when lining your pedals up. It seems silly, but once you have a pedalboard that looks like Instagram gold you will be thanking me
*Pro Tip 2: Use a junction box if you are using a looper. The junction box allows the cleanest wiring as you have a dedicated input and output box. The other advantage is that besides being cleaner you are never truly touching your pedals anymore only the looper and junction box. This means that your cables will not move or jostle around as much improving your chances of fewer cable problems happening!
Lock It Down!
Another secret of the pros is having a pedalboard that will not look different every time you open its case because they have moved!
Investing in quality fastening material such as Stagetrix Pedal Fastener 3-Pack will give you the confidence that your board will never slip or slide ever. Most Velcro products do not hold as long or can get dirty while Stagetrix allows clean and very strong grip every time.
“Don’t Cross The Streams”
Once you have your pedals selected, decided in on your chain, and have your pedals locked down, it’s time to wire it up!
The trick to a perfectly professional pedalboard is custom cut power and audio cables. Many makers such as Lava, George L., Abbatron and Boss create solderless cable kits for the less solder inclined that work great. Simply cut the cable to length and insert the custom-made plugs and you have an instant cable!
I would highly advise going for a soldered option if you are playing out constantly or touring as the non-soldered kind can become loose and nobody wants to debug a single bad cable during a gig, especially when all the connections look strong still. The solderless connections are great for people who love experimenting and are constantly changing pedals on their boards or keep their rigs stationary.
The benefits to a custom cable are shorter leads which produce less impedance (remember EVERYTHING counts when it comes to anything tonal) and also reduces noise. In addition to custom cutting your cables always make sure to never cross your audio and power cables. Crossing those cables will add extra noise to your rig. If you ever do have to cross cables make sure to do it at a 90* angle.
In addition, I would suggest purchasing cable stays. You can buy a 1000 pack for almost nothing and they will provide that sharp ultra clean look that you see on every pro board. Peel off the back, lay it down, and then feed the cables over and hold it down with a zip tie.
I hope this guide will inspire you to pursue your ultimate pedalboard and offered useful information to take your tone to the next level. Just like all things tone, it ultimately comes down to what works best for you. The beauty of tone is that it is subjective so experiment, pave the way for future tone lovers, and make a killer board!
If you ever have any questions feel free to contact me anytime at [email protected] or @ZacDelVecchio on Instagram