I was asked by a guitar player recently why his tone wasn’t what he wanted, and the first thing that got my attention was the maze of stomp boxes he was using.
Although that wasn’t the only problem with his rig, it was a good place to start, since everything was connected more or less haphazardly.
A couple of the common negative side effects that occur with some stomp boxes is how much they change the sound when you don’t want them to.
Here’s are four things that can happen:
1. Tone Suck
Tone suck is a term that means the tone of your guitar changes by simply inserting a pedal in between your guitar and amp, even if it isn’t turned on.
The reason this happens is because your guitar signal still runs through some of the pedal’s circuitry even without the effect switched in. That circuitry degrades the signal either by changing the frequency response a bit, or by decreasing the volume a bit.
Either way, this is not something we want if we’re to maintain that great tone that we hopefully started with.
There are two answers for this:
—True-Bypass means that when the effect is switch off, the signal totally bypasses all the circuitry so the pedal has zero influence on the sound as long as it’s not switched in.
This is a rather recent development in the grand scheme of pedal building (since about the late 90s) and just about all boutique pedal manufacturers use True Bypass as a sales feature these days.
—Bypass via a switching network. Sometimes you have an effect that you just can’t live without but you hate what it does to your tone when it’s bypassed, so the only thing to do is bypass it externally with a switching network.
These systems can be small and relatively inexpensive (like the GigRig Pro14, Voodoo Lab Pedal Switcher, Commander and Ground Control, the Carl Martin Octaswitch and the TC Electronic G-System) or highly sophisticated like those from the famous Bob Bradshaw (click here to see a video about his switching systems and pedalboards).
One of the problems with true-bypass is that it gives the illusion that the volume and tone of the signal won’t ever change, but that’s not necessarily true. If you have a 15-foot cable from your guitar to your pedalboard, a 1-foot cable between each of your 15 stomp boxes, and another-15 foot cable to your amp, that’s 45 combined feet of cable, which will degrade your signal!
There are ways around this with buffers (a unity gain amplifier) and loop-switching systems like the ones mentioned above, but many players never consider the consequences of just what could happen by the simple fact of connecting all those pedals together.
2. Noise Buildup
The next problem that happens with effects in the signal chain is the noise buildup that occurs when you switch them on (or even when they’re switched off if they don’t have true bypass). This can be anywhere from a slight escalation in the noise floor to the sound of a full-on hurricane, depending upon the gain of the device or devices.
There are three reasons why this happens.
—Each device adds a bit of it’s own inherent noise. Some devices are designed better than others (they’re usually more expensive as a result) and keeping the noise floor down is one of the byproducts of a better design.
—The type of power being used. Although many effects can run on a 9 volt battery, they’re actually designed for 12-volt use. If you use an external AC supply, the noise level can drop considerably.
Be aware that the noise floor can also rise in some pedals as the voltage drops from a weak battery.
—The input stage of the amplifier. A typical amp input stage is looking for the relatively small signal coming directly from a guitar, which it will then boost up as much as 50 times.
If the gain from a pedal is cranked up, it will still be boosted by that 50 times despite where the volume control is set at on some amps. This means that your noise floor just went down the drain.