Why You Need A Buffer Pedal

March 3, 2021  
Posted by Sam Ash Music

We all love pedals. Unfortunately as many of us have learned after you build a small space station at your feet that the more pedals you add ironically the more your tone suddenly seems to be lacking in the high end fidelity department.  How can this be!? You bought the right cables, the best pedals and your amp is perfect.  The answer my friend is not coming from your rig, but your rig’s capacitance. As we have discussed in a previous article, capacitance is essentially two conductors with an insulator in between.  Each and every part of your rig is separated by a cable (i.e a really long capacitor).  The longer the distance of cable, the higher the capacitance will be.  The results of this capacitance is a loss of high end within your signal. Before we start panicking there is hope! A buffer will be able to solve all of these issues and bring your board back to life.  Now before you go running off buying a buffer let’s talk about what a buffer is, how it works, how it should fit in your chain and what each type of buffer is!   A Buffer? A buffer is essentially a small simple active circuit that boosts the signal of your chain restoring the capacitance previously lost from all pedals and cables.  Adding a buffer into your chain will restore the high end loss of the tone you were previously experiencing.   But, where does it go? There are a few theories about this each with its own valid points: At the beginning of the chain: The pros of this method is that if you are using a long cable you are effectively “removing” the cable’s capacitance from the chain right from the start.  This location is often debated though because you will then run your entire board post buffer which incidentally may leave you with the same loss of high end when you started! In the middle of the chain:  The pros of this location is that you are ramping your signal back up after half of your chain has gone through it.  This is a great place in the chain if you have some pedals that have do not have true bypass or are vintage and cause higher capacitance.  The cons of this location are that you still have to deal with the second half of the chain and output cable which may further have impedance causing impurity in the chain.  If you have a bunch of pedals (8 or more) I would consider placing one in the middle. The end of the chain: This location will help clean up every pedal on the board and your input impedance, but depending on the size of your board, and cable length, following the buffer may not be enough.  If you have just a few pedals (1-5) this may be perfect for you. * General Rule of Thumb: If your total cable length is under 18.5 feet you should not have a great deal (or any) loss of high end from capacitance.  This is of course just a guideline.  If you want to really perfect your tone I would consider adding a buffer exactly where that 19 feet mark is.  You can measure the length of your input cable plus each patch cable and output cable to add up the total footage. Another thing to keep in mind if what type of effects you are placing the buffer in front of.  A famous example of buffers and effects not playing nice together is a Fuzz Face.  A Fuzz Face circuit by nature is a low impedance circuit.  Placing a buffer before this can result in some unpleasant tones and sounds.  Experiment and see what you like and consider moving the buffer after your fuzz.   Buffered Bypass and True Bypass? Every guitar player has heard these terms before, but what do they really mean? True Bypass means that a pedal when not engaged has the entire circuit removed from the chain.  In a typical non bypassed pedal even when the pedal is not engaged electricity is still going through the entire circuit and will build up capacitance.  When you have a true bypass pedal it will help preserve your capacitance by “removing” that part of the circuit. A buffered bypass pedal works slightly different, by, you guessed it, buffering while bypassed! Buffered bypass pedals such as Boss Tuners or the legendary KLON have a buffer built right in so even when the pedal is off it is actually acting as a buffer. For users with buffered bypass like this I would consider placing a buffer towards the end or middle of your chain as this pedal will do the cleanup work for the pedals and signal before it. *Take into consideration your effect chain order if you place a buffered bypass in a part of the chain solely for utilizing the buffer’s effects.   Features and types of Buffers: Now most standard buffers will come with just an input and output.  A buffer of this nature will often have it’s internal amplification dialed in to the maker’s tastes and will help preserve your tone as intended.  What if you need something a little more though?  Luckily we have options!   Tube or Solid State? Now this is a debate as old as time for guitar players.  Which is better? Well with buffers it’s a matter of how you want it to color your tone. In theory, a buffer should act as transparent as possible and is meant to just restore the high end loss of tone you are experiencing.  A solid state buffer will most often provide the most transparent return of your signal’s tone and make your signal as true to its initial sound as possible.  This is of course a general rule as depending on the type of op amp used in the circuit it will slightly alter the tone, but slightly less than a tube.  For users looking to warm up and color their tone slightly more a tube based buffer will be ideal. A tube buffer works the same way as a standard solid state buffer with the exception that it is being powered by a tube.  The benefits to this type of circuit is that the tube will warm up your sound and color it based off the type of tube placed in the circuit.  Depending on your tonal needs you can not only preserve your tone, but color it in a way that is ideal for your sound.  The trade off of a buffer though is its size which may be more cumbersome for certain boards.  The other trade off of a tube buffer is that you will now be responsible for a tube and all the things that come with a tube (i.e it going bad, getting old, fragile, etc).   What about features? Everyone loves options! From single knob to multiple outputs, phase switching and more there is a buffer for everybody.  [caption id="attachment_13827" align="alignleft" width="300"]j rockett steampunk J. Rockett Audio Designs Steampunk Boost/Buffer Pedal[/caption] Need a 2 in 1? Check out the J. Rockett Steampunk.  The beauty of a pedal like this is that it allows you to not only preserve your tone with the selectable buffer it also has a 20Db clean boost perfect for driving your overdrives or giving your solo a little “more”. [caption id="attachment_13831" align="alignright" width="305"]little black buffer JHS Pedals Little Black Buffer[/caption] Want something simpler? JHS offers the Little Black Buffer which is a straight ahead plug in and experience a cleaner signal chain.  This type of buffer is perfect somebody needing a little clean up in their chain, but none of the frills. [caption id="attachment_14048" align="alignleft" width="262"]mxr custom audio electronics mc406 MXR Custom Audio Electronics MC406 Buffer Guitar Effects Pedal[/caption] A great bang for the buck buffer is the MXR Custom Audio Electronics MC406.  Co-designed by legendary rig maker to the stars Bob Bradshaw.  Besides cleaning up your highend loss through its buffer, the MC406 also allows you to dial in +6db of gain via a slider to further bridge the gap between your effect’s impedance.  An additional benefit is the Hi and Low cut switches for fine tuning your rig and buffered vs unbuffered selector making this buffer truly versatile for any rig. [caption id="attachment_13828" align="alignright" width="212"]empress buffer+ Empress Effects Buffer+ Guitar Effects Pedal[/caption] Another prime example of a highly versatile buffer is the Empress Effects Buffer+ Guitar Effects Pedal.  Not only does this pedal feature an all analog signal path it also features noise filter technology to clean up unwanted RFI (hum and hiss) noise from your signal chain.  The Empress additionally offers an input pad up to 3DB allowing you to match outputs of your guitars.  This is especially useful if your pickups are a little hot or you need to boost your signal to lower noise floor. Consider adding a combination of buffers and boosts into your chain.  A perfect setup could be a buffer/boost right before your overdrives and then a standalone buffer at the end of your chain to preserve all aspects of your tone.   "Buffer" I leave, one more quick note! Now that you are a buff on all the types of buffers and how they can fit into your chain remember to use yours ears on what sounds best for you.  Take the time to study each one of your pedals individually for how they sound with the buffer before or after it. Remember that different brand’s buffers can sound slightly different due to component material choices as well.  When you shop for your buffer, be aware of how it sounds with effects and straight into your rig so you can determine if it is right for your set up. For any questions please reach me at ZacDelVecchio@gmail.com or @ZacDelVecchio on Instagram

About the Author

Sam Ash Music

Sam Ash Music has been serving musicians since 1924 when they opened their first store in Brooklyn, NY. Still family owned and operated, Sam Ash Music is dedicated to preserving the goals set by their founder - offering musicians of all levels the best possible selection, service and price.