Pedalboard 101

Nov 17, 2015
Pedalboard 101
  • Introduction
    If you're looking at this, then chances are you've been bitten by the effects bug. You've seen all the fun little boxes, heard all the strange noises, and now you've decided you want to put together a pedalboard. Effects can be great tools for any bassist, and can help broaden your sonic palette. Having an entire board of effects can help you create sounds you never knew existed.

    There are many different ways to put together a board. This article will focus on some of the most popular and common ways bassists use a pedalboard. However, you must remember that, just like in music, there is no absolute right or wrong. What some find amazing, you may find absolutely horrible. Please remember to keep an Open mind and don't be afraid to experiment.

    "Tone Suck" and Bypass
    For the majority of bass players, effects are something that are used to flavour certain elements of their music. Almost all pedals will need to be turned off at some point; the effect on your tone depends on the bass you're using and the each pedal's switch mechanism.

    "Tone Suck"
    Passive instruments are a high impedance audio source; they are affected by everything that is plugged between them and the amplifier. If you don't know what you've got, Open the control panel of your bass - if you see a battery, it's an ACTIVE instrument, which is low impedance (more on these concepts to follow). A longer cable will 'load down' a passive signal with increased capacitance, an effect akin to rolling the tone knob off. All those patch leads between your pedals add up to an increased signal length, and that's before you even get to what's happening inside the pedals themselves.

    The worst bypass switches remain connected to the pedal's circuit at all times, meaning that there is always some signal leaking into the pedal - and it always starts with the high end. A classic example would be 70's wah pedals, the Big Muff pi amongst many others. You'll often hear a guitarist or bassist rave about how throwing their pedals away and plugging directly into their amplifier "gave them their tone back"; in a way, it's true, as all the lost high-end makes for a duller signal.

    Buffered Bypass
    Pedals with a buffered bypass use electronic switching, rather than a purely mechanical bypass. The switches used can be very cheap (and therefore more prone to breakage), and if the pedal loses power, you lose signal completely. On the plus side, once a passive low-impedance signal passes through a pedal with buffered bypass, it becomes a high impedance signal & there is no increased capacitance from other pedals & cables in the chain.

    True Bypass
    True bypass switches completely avoid all the pedal circuitry when disengaged - losing power is no longer an issue, and the pedal itself has no effect on the tone. The length of wire from input to switch to Output may still be significant, depending on the size of the pedal. If you run many true bypass pedals in a row, there will still be increased capacitance on a passive signal. The other drawback to true bypass is that turning the pedal on or off may cause an audible popping sound.

    Bypass Loops
    A common DIY project, and easily available from eBay sellers & all good boutique pedal makers. At their simplest, Bypass Loops are a tiny box with a single True Bypass switch with In/Send/Return/Out jacks. These make a great "panic button", as you can simply avoid your entire fx board in the event of a disaster. Alternatively, you can use them on smaller parts of your fx chain or even a single pedal that is problematic.

    The logical progression from a single loop is to have a larger unit with as many Send/Return loops & switches as you need. Tuner mutes & master bypass are other common options, and the whole thing can run without power unless you want to use the LEDs to see which switches are engaged.

    Amps with effects loops
    A good fx loop in your amplifier can be a life saver, so long as it cooperates with your pedals. However, many amp fx loops are a low impedance source, designed to drive rack effects. Vintage pedals expect to see a high impedance source, so you can get some nasty impedance mismatching, which makes for extra noise & erratic behaviour. Some amps have adjustable fx send levels (Trace Elliot, for example) to compensate. It won't damage anything to try it out, so it's worthwhile experimenting. If your particular Setup works well with the entire board in the loop, then you have the best of both worlds: a good, Clean signal to your preamp, and all kinds of sonic mayhem on tap.

    Putting it all together
    If you play a passive bass and want to use a combination of effects, you should aim to have one buffered pedal first up in your signal chain. This will prevent the rest of your effects from loading down your signal and making your tone Dull. A common example would be a Boss TU-2 Tuner, or similiar. There are Bypass Loopers with buffered circuits like the Boss LS-2 Line Selector, or you could use a DI box like the SansAmp BDDI or MXR M-80. Whatever the pedal, it should always have a battery inside in case of a power failure on your pedal board.

    The astute will notice that in the FX loop section, mention is made of vintage pedals working better when fed with a passive signal. This means that you may find they need to be in front of your buffered pedals to work properly; this also means that not all pedals will sound good with an active bass either. Bass + FX will always require some compromise, if you MUST have that 1972 Big Muff pi in your signal chain, then the best you can do is ensure that the bypass is Clean. Otherwise, find an alternative pedal that works with the rest of your Setup.

    Pedals with poor bypass should be connected via a looper to avoid tone suck, but whether you place absolutely everything in a looper is up to you. Remember: the show must go on; you should be able to get a clean signal to your amp as easily as possible.

    Pedalboards come in a variety of sizes, costs and materials. There are many boards available commercially, but you can also build your own.

    Commercially Available Boards
    Several companies make boards, all in different sizes with different features.

    Pedaltrain is one of the most popular board manufacturers. Their boards are made of light aluminum and designed like freight pallets. These boards are relatively featureless.

    • The most popular points of pedaltrain boards are:
      • Lightweight design
      • Pallet design is ideal for routing cabling
      • Brackets for holding Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2+ (which will be discussed more in the power section)
      • Variety of sizes, at good prices
      • Angled, allowing easier access to pedals in the back row
    NYC Pedalboards
    NYC Pedalboards is a small company from New York that deals in rugged professional pedalboards. They offer a variety of models, in a range of sizes. They also offer a custom shop where you can order a pedalboard to your specifications. They differ from Pedaltrain boards because they are typically a flat plane, rather than a pallet design. Typically, this can make your board appear messier, but it is a personal preference.

    Gator Cases
    Gator makes a variety of cases that you may already be familiar with. They also make quite a few pedalboards. Gator makes "pedal totes" which they can describe as typically holding 4-6 pedals. These totes are angled slabs of plywood, covered in tolex. The board has a few holes in it, allowing you to route your cables underneath to a power supply. Gator makes powered version of their boards, which include their Gator G-Bus 8 power supply. We will discuss different power supplies later.

    Other Commercially Available Boards
    SKB, Furman, Coffin Case, Core Equipment and Boss all make their own pedalboards as well. These all have different features, and different sizes. I have provided you with information regarding some of the most popular boards on TB, but some googling can help you find one that fits what you are looking for.

    Building Your Own
    Many people feel that the commercially available boards are lacking some features, have too many features, or are just plain too expensive. Some choose to build their own boards. These homemade boards can be made from a variety of readily available materials, often to the exact dimensions required.

    • Boards can be made out of:
      • A kitchen cutting board
      • Old wooden shelving
      • A Suitcase
      • The rear lid of a rack case
      • A guitar / bass / keyboard case
    Of course, this is a limited view. The reality is that you can make a board out of whatever you want. If you search the effects forum you can find several arguments of DIY boards, and what to make them out of.

    Depending on the size of your pedal collection, you will need a variety of different cables. Cables come in all sorts of lengths, qualities and sizes. Cables are one of the most subjective parts on a pedalboard. We all know how many instrument cables claiming to be superior are not worth their price. This is also true in the world of effects patch cables. The cables you decide to use will have to be picked by your ears.

    Cheaper Cables
    Some say these cables are great, some say they're terrible. There are a variety of cheap efficient patch cables on the market. If you're just beginning to use effects, these are just fine to use. Typically, these can be found at your local guitar shop or online. The most common variety of cheaper cables seem to always come in a rainbow of colors, with molded ends. These can be found from typically from $2 a piece, to $12 for a pack of eight. If you think one is playing up, throw it away - these are so cheap that there's no point jeopardising your signal chain. However, be aware that copper is mined from the earth, so all of you environmentalist and green groupies, you may want to think longer term for your cables by making investments in those with a reputation for lasting a long time.

    Solderless Cable Kits
    There are a few cable kits that are extremely popular on Talkbass. These kits consist of typically 10 right angle plugs, and some length of instrument cable. Following the instructions of the kit, after assembly, you are left with 5 high quality patch cables. The cable's length is decided by you, and can be perfect for whatever distance you need them to reach.

    Planet Waves Cable Kits
    The Plant Waves cable kit is one of the more popular kits on TB. This kit comes with high quality right angle jacks, a cable cutter, and 10 feet of Planet Waves instrument cable. The most common complaint with this kit is the size of the jacks. The jacks are larger than most, and can take a lot of space on a crowded pedalboard. The sound quality is excellent and the price is reasonable.

    George L's
    George L's seem to be the most popular on TB. George L's have small right angle plugs, and very Thin wire. However, this wire is not damage prone and sounds just as good as other cables. One criticism is that they may unscrew slightly over time, so periodic tightening is recommended. The main benefit of the George L system is the unique shape of the plugs; the plug consists of just a "stud" or shaft, with only the cable itself protruding at a right-angle. This makes it ideal for places on your board where the sleeves of standard right-angle plugs would interfere with each other.

    Core X2
    Core X2 has been around for a few years after introducing their pre-gauged hex screw technology. The GK-20 kit consists of 8 angle plugs and 2 straight plugs, 20 feet of bulk cable engineered for Wide 20Hz - 40kHz ± 0.5dB frequency response, which is quad balanced thus achieving low noise and Full sound in your pedal board chain. These are quality connectors and the solderless system can be completed in 4 easy steps: Measure, Cut, Push Cable in connector, screw down. They are dependable connectors for travel between shows and will not come Loose or need to be re-tightened.

    DIY Cables
    If you can sling a soldering iron with a basic degree of skill, then you can make your own cables. All electronics stores will have budget jacks, sockets & cable - better ones will have higher level inventory. An Australian example would be Jaycar electronics, who have clearly recognised the DIY movement among musicians in the last year. Choose mid-range cables & jacks and you will have dependable cables, at the length you want. As an added bonus, making your own patch leads is a good way of getting more life out of faulty 20' leads.

    With the advent of the solderless connector technology, the kit companies listed above are also making individual plugs for DIY Cables. Although most reputable techs swear by the iron, a few have emerged in technology and you can expect the same dependability as the soldered examples without the burns on your hands which comes par for the course. Core X2 comes in Tight in this category as well as its sister brand, Bullet Cable. These come in the shapes that the company has made successful in the market for other cables like their Retro-style coil cable: .44 Mag in Chrome or Brass. If you have a need to define your style of music gear persona and it is a follow through in the other gear you choose, there are other styles like skulls, crosses, dice, grenades, coffins, and even syringes. Because of their size, however, you might want to use a set on the outside of your pedal board chain. For space efficiency, they have make a very compact bullet shape connector that they call the SLUG. All connectors are dependable and are used with Bullet Cable Bulk Cable which is a quality quad balanced cable displaying a 20Hz - 40kHz ± 0.5dB frequency response.

    The Bottom Line
    If you cannot hear the difference between different cables, then it really won't matter what cables you use. The only cable that has no business being on your pedalboard is one that makes any sort of noise when it is moved - throw it out.

    What Pedals Should I Try?
    The effect pedal market is huge and it would be near impossible (not to mention ridiculously expensive) for an effects curious individual to try every single pedal. However, many pedals are simply clones or modifications of previous "archetypal" pedals. There are typically many different versions of the same idea across different price points. Some of these may be analog, while some are digital. Some may be handmade in America, and others may be assembled overseas by machines. However, if you just wish to get your feet Wet and try some pedals, you can do it efficiently and cheaply with these pedals.

    Some of the most common and widely available pedals are still fantastic at their price point.
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