A Technical Perspective
Where it all starts...
When many people start the process of building a new pedalboard or rack, the first thing they think about is how they're going to cable it. The easiest method is a DIY cable kit. These kits are offered by numerous companies and can range in price from $32-$200 plus dollars. No matter how great they may look, it is my personal opinion that they are all a mistake for a musician that actually performs. Lets take a look at the main problems associated with DIY cable kits.
1. They are easy to make incorrectly
2. They are easy to damage
3. They are often manufactured by companies with poor quality control
4. The "good" connectors and cable are often cost prohibitive for working musicians yet still come with the above listed issues
So what are your options?
The first choice (and to me, the absolute best option) is to learn how to solder, purchase the cable of your own choice, purchase the connectors of your own choice and make the cables to your own specifications based on what you need. This will give you the ability to make the exact cable you need while offering the durability needed to gig with your board. It also gives you the ability to make cables for other members of your band.
Who doesn't like making money?
The biggest thing about learning to solder and making your own cables is you now know how to do something that many people don't think is feasible. Most people believe "high-end" cables are only manufactured by known cable companies, or that in order to make a "great" cable you have to have thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Actually, to manufacture cables, you really only need a few things.
1. A very good soldering station
2. A hot knife - an electrically heated cutting tool
3. Good solder
4. A heat gun for the shrink tubing
The main thing is paying attention to detail and wanting to do a great job for yourself and for the client.
OK, what are my other options?
Well, you have two other options. The second option is finding someone to make your cables for you. At that point, you may as well have someone like Bob Bradshaw, Dave Phillips, Dave Friedman or myself build the entire rig for you. It will last longer and you are have a system made specifically for your budget and needs. This will cost you though but is still a better option than DIY cables.
The third option is to buy off the shelf cables from a retailer. This option is the 2nd worst option. The cables will not be "made to measure" and will tend to be long enough to pick up hum and RF. If you don't have very similarly manufactured pedals or need to offset pedals, things like direct 1/4" to 1/4" dual connectors will not work. Also, most off the shelf patch cables are very poorly manufactured or are once again too expensive for what you're getting.
Rather than purchasing a "kit" of someone else's choosing or buying things that only slightly work for you. Purchase the components of your choosing. Build your own kit. Learn a skill that will make you not only be valuable to others, it will make you a better musician due to your new understanding of what goes into a great cable and why a cable is better than others. You may even find out that you are capable of much more than you believed.
Signal Chain for Guitarists... Why Should I Care?
Signal chain (and signal health) is one of the most overlooked topics in guitar. Guitar players tend to think straight lines are easy and easy is the best way to go. The problem is easy comes with some cons that can stop you dead in your tracks.
With that, lets dive into series effects chains.
Series Signal Chain
The series signal chain is the bread and butter of guitar effects. This is how most guitarist start and end. It's literally your Grandpa's/Grandma's/Dad's/Mom's way of using effects. Series effects placement has been "the way" since the first pedals jumped onto the scene. Simply plug your guitar into the first pedal and connect some patch cables to all of the other effects and then run a cable to your amp. Super simple. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. This is about as smart as having one bridge going into a major metropolis. If that bridge gets damaged or destroyed... nothing is getting in or out and the "Tone Zombies" are heading right for your amp.
My tone is doomed, all is lost!!! or is it?
Remember, with a little research you can make smart purchases, modify certain effects to your needs or purchase a switching system that takes the single point of failure out of the picture. A major saving grace is a very good buffer. I'm not going to plug companies that make great products but if you need a suggestion, email me and I can point you in the right direction.
A well designed switching system that uses relays to bypass the effects is truly the best option for guitarists. If an effects fails, simply turn off the loop. If the loop fails, it automatically bypasses the loop for you. This is done through the power of electro-magnetics and the "normally off" state of the relays that are commonly used. A switching system also bypasses the cables that connect the pedals together.
Why is this important?
Cables drag your tone through the mud.
Figure if you have 8 pedals, that's 7 patch cables at 3 inches each (unless you have a builder make you custom cables) and two standard instrument cables at say 15 feet each. That's 31' 9" of cable. After a mere 5 feet cable capacitance comes into play. Your tone gets darker and darker every foot after that. When you roll off your volume for a gritty clean tone, you may just get gui-tuba instead of guitar.
Will our next tone sucker please step forward...
There is an evil that lives inside your pedals. It eats signal, frequencies and you are serving up a veritable smorgasbord of guitar tone. The funny thing is, pedals tend to multiply until a guitarist figures out how much they're losing. People tend to add a pedal to their board when they subconsciously hear or feel the loss in signal. They try to boost this or cut that with another pedal, or even consciously hide their tone because of a bad purchase of a popular and expensive pedal. Guitarists will actually go out of their way to keep a horrible sounding pedal that happens to be the new thing just because its popular in a forum.
Don't worry, I have your back. Like I mentioned before, a good switching system and a high quality buffer will correct most of these issues. Now that you know, series may not be such a bad thing. Well, yes and no. Series is great for "pre" preamplifier effects and even some "post" preamplifier effects (in the loop), but it shouldn't be your whole setup. Later we'll get into Series/Parallel and Series/Dual Parallel setups. Those are the absolute best options in a multi-pedal rig. If you're just starting though, series is a viable option if done correctly.
Parallel Signal Chain
This is a simple idea ruined by where and when it can be used. While it is possible to side chain a compressor or come up with wild ways to use parallel overdrives, fuzz or distortion, this will not be a primary way of running effects. The parallel signal chain is primarily used with "post" preamplifier effects (time based effects like delay and reverb). I've built some "pre" boards with multiple drives in parallel with an adjustable dry signal to make up a new and interesting overdriven sound but that's not the norm.
OK, it's not normal, so why is it here?
The main reason for listing this is it is only commonly found in modern multi-effects processors. If you have a Fractal Audio FX8 or AX8, a Line 6 Helix, a Boss GT or a TC G-System, this is one of the options for running "post" effects. Most of the time your dry signal has gone through a AD/DA convertor (some have an actual analog dry signal). This isn't a bad way of running "post" effects, it's just not anywhere close to the best way though.
Lets move on...
Series/Parallel Signal Chain
In the 1980's, incredible gear started to appear on the scene. Studio effects processors by Lexicon, Yamaha, Roland, AMS and Eventide. These effects were so amazing, guitarist wanted to take them on the road. A very intelligent gentleman named Robert "Bob" Bradshaw started to build switching systems for using this high-end gear along with pedals and amplifiers. He looked at modern (now standard) recording techniques using outboard gear. Bob realized the only way to get the sound the artist had in the studio was to build a comparable system for the road. In comes the Series/Parallel Signal Chain and Wet/Dry/Wet systems.
This type of setup allows the guitarist to always have the dry signal (unprocessed sound) in the mix. This makes for better detail and clarity of the guitar sound while having an extremely wet (greasy) effects sound. The two signals are mixed together. This is where your effects "dry kill" mode comes in. If you've ever seen the "dry kill" and thought, "why would I not want my dry signal?". Well, any of the listed parallel signal chains are the reason for it. In both parallel and series/parallel systems the time based effects (modulation, pitch, delay and reverb) all have the dry signal removed. You then have control over the amount of effect mixed into an analog dry signal by use of the effects processors level control. This was a function previously only available in studio effects. Now with modern pedals we get the same functionality. My company builds series/parallel and series/dual parallel pedalboards on a regular basis. This is something you would normally only find in a large rack system before.
...but wait, theres more!
Series/Dual Parallel Signal Chain
This is where it gets... well, for lack of a better word, amazing! With the advent of smaller components, more versatile pedals and incredible switching systems, pedalboards running this type of system actually exsist and are still small and light in comparison to older pedalboards. What used to take a rack full of gear can now be had on a medium sized board. RJM Music Technology for example makes very small footprint stereo line mixers (the Mini Mix). This setup will require two of those unit or a MasterMind PBC and one stereo line mixer. Once again the dry analog signal is always present in the mix. In the studio in the distant past, often times a pitch or reverb is added to a guitar via side chain, you may later add a delay (or two if they are mono and set to ping pong). These are separate parallel effects. The pitch and reverb is in one group and the delay (so the reverb and pitch are present in them) is in another group. Some crazy cool effects can be had with this setup. If you have a multi-effects unit (M13, Helix, FX-8) it would go in the first mix. We are reserving Mix #2 for our delays here. Now, it's your board (or rack) so you can place effects anywhere you want but the diagram above is a good rule of thumb. I tend to place chorus and pitch in series then run the parallel effects but the sky is the limit.
So which one is the best? What should I choose?
There's no best system except the system that works for you. If you ask me that kind of question, my usually response will be, "what's your budget, how will you use it, what do you have currently and where will you go with it?". All of these things affect the type of system you can build. If you are going to be on a world tour and have a shoestring budget, a "fly rig" is really the most affordable option. Just a small board with a couple of must have pedals and a power supply that can deal with at least 3 different voltages. If you're going to be doing a small driving tour and have a good supply of cash saved, a series/dual parallel rig would be a great option. Build what you need and have back ups. In the military we say, "two is one, one is none". This is a very important statement to remember. It doesn't mean bring two rigs. It means have back ups for important gear. If you get all of your drive sound from pedals, have an extra overdrive or distortion. Pick things you can live without and get them off your board. If you have a phaser because you like EVH and only use it when you play alone, get it off the board.
So what did we learn today?
I'm hoping you learned there isn't just one way. In fact, I purposely ragged the old series way of doing things just to get that point across. If you're reading this, your here at Musicians Institute or maybe another institution with access. You have the ability to learn a lot of great theory and techniques for recording and post production here. Take those courses. Learn how to mix, produce and master. Learn about the recording signal chains and what you can do with them. My diagrams don't show the whole picture. In fact, they only show the "post" section. There are no wahs, drives, compressors or whammy pedals here.
If you'd like to know more, look for my "Building a Pedalboard and Pedal Order" write ups coming soon.
Pedal Order and You...
Pedal order is personal. I mean really personal... like someone talking about some ones mom personal. I've heard more people argue about pedal order than I have for religion or politics. One person will say, "wah before drive", another will say, "wah is a filter and should be post drive" and still another person will say "no one needs a wah to begin with". So, what is the correct order of pedals. Easy answer, it's up to you, your preference and your ear. Complicated answer, there's a general pedal order that I stick to unless otherwise directed. Lets take a look at that and explain when, where, what and why.
Now, You may never use this many effects... or on the other hand, you may use way more. The point of these two diagrams is to show a basic pedal order. The time based effects like chorus, reverb and delay are usually placed in the loop of the amp (an exception would be in an amp with no loop or when all drive/distortion come from pedals). The same goes for a series/parallel system.
What goes where and why?
Lets start with pedals that rely on attack (how hard you hit the strings). Compressors are one example. Compressors are meant to attenuate loud sounds and amplify quiet sounds. This also means that any noise before the compressor will be amplified. If you've ever turned on a wah, you know how noisy they can be. Imagine that noise, but just as loud as the guitar. Compressors tend to go first in the chain because of this and their need to "sense" the incoming amplitude of the signal.
Another type of pedal that should go fairly early in the chain is an octave pedal. Octave pedals require a very clean signal in order to do what they do. This would be the same for octave fuzz pedals as well. With octave fuzz pedals there is two reasons why they should go early on. One is the need for a very clean signal, the other is the inherent impedance mismatch. Impedance mismatch can cause some pretty horrible issues. We'll go into that at a later date.
Sometimes, pitchshifters can go early on as well. I personally don't like any time based effects in the beginning of the signal chain with the exception being the Digitech Whammy pedal. It really isn't suited for the loop of an amplifier. The output impedance is too high for a loop. You want lower (sometimes called rack, line or studio level) impedance effects in an effects loop.
Phasers and Flangers of the vintage persuasion need to be very early in the signal chain. This would include MXR and EHX effects. The MXR Phase 90 (and its many versions) in example needs to be early on in the signal chain. The same goes for the MXR Flangers. The reason comes back to impedance and the level drop you get if you put certain effects before it. An overdrive or a Distortion before a Phase 90 is a huge mistake. The Phase 90 will drag that drive through the mud and spit out something that isn't as pleasing to the ear. You'll go from overdrive to almost no drive in some cases.
Wahhhhht comes next?
I know that one was a stretch but its both a question and a statement. Where does my wah go? Well, I like wahs both before drives and after drives. It really depends on the wah and the drive. If its a higher gain drive, I like the wah before it. If its really low gain, wah after. It's a different sound. Either way its the thing right before the drive pedals or right after. Never the thing I plug straight into first. In recording, the wah would be considered a filter effect. Filters tend to go after gain stages pre volume adjustment. Experiment with this one, just follow the "wah goes after a compressor" rule.
Stacking boosts and drives and distortions and fuzzeszezz', oh my...
Drive and Boost pedals are a great way to get an amp to sing with a bit more gain and compression as well as a bit of a volume boost (this is dependent on where the gain is set on your amp or if the amp is straight clean). Simple rules here. If the drive or distortion is before the boost, you are mainly affecting volume and compression. If the drive or distortion is after the boost, you are mainly affecting gain and compression. You can only dime an overdrive or distortion so much before its just midrange and noise. That is the limitation of the electronics. The same goes for an amplifier. If you're that high gain person that needs more, even with a German made, nine gain stage, six channel, stereo, 200 watt monster amplifier and an overdrive, then there's something else your after.
Sometimes we can compress our sound so much that it becomes difficult to play. You've lost the "feedback" from your rig (not the loud screechy noise), or feel of the guitar in the mush of compression and gain. This is way more common than people think. That brings me to fuzz pedals. Fuzz pedals are very impedance dependent. They can cause all kinds of issues if not placed in just the right spot. I once built a pedalboard for an artist that really wanted this very special (which actually just means expensive) pedal in one spot and one spot only. It required me to buffer the pedal in just the right way to get it to work just after two overdrives and a distortion. I had to buffer the input and then buffer the output and bring the level of the pedal back up to where it was supposed to be. This cost the client extra money and some of his pedalboard space. In the end, he asked me to move it to where I had originally suggested it be placed. Trust me, try the "normal" way before you commit to the "other" way. A lot of incredible players have gotten rid of a lot of incredible pedals because they didn't know a lot about basic pedal order.
A little bit of misinformation can have more of an effect than a lot of good information...
It's unfortunate but true. The lies, bad information and "expanded truths" of everyone from sales people to falsely named "techs" to the guitarist that watches YouTube for all their information can cause more problems than you could ever imagine. There is so much bad information out there that the good information can actually look like the dreaded "fake news". Out of thousands of articles and videos, I have found maybe three with the correct information. Look for information from professional sources, technical articles and the specifications of the effects units. If you get one thing from my articles, I hope you get the importance educating yourself about your gear.
My favorite artist uses (insert gear here), why shouldn't I?
No one said you shouldn't. Playing artist endorsed or owned gear isn't a bad starting point when you're figuring out "your sound". Most professional players started the same way. The issue I tend to see is when an artist doesn't know their own gear or really doesn't use it. There is another trend in music these days that is gaining popularity. It's elitism and snobbish behavior at it's worst. Pedal "connoisseurs" look for expensive pedals just to show they bought it. They tell everyone how incredible it is to justify the price tag. The fact is, they are probably just really expensive clones, made by a guy in his garage, of really inexpensive pedals from the 70's and 80's. These same people will find vintage pedals that weren't anything too special and still aren't, and drive the pricing up just so they can say they own it. Educate yourself, don't fall for the hype.
Nice tangent, what about the pedal orders?
So, you've got your comp, phasers, wahs, drive, distortion and now the fun stuff comes in. You really want to put a delay and some shimmer reverb in the chain. You grab some cables and just plug in right? Yes and no. I'd check out the article about signal chains I wrote earlier. The best way is to use a series/parallel chain here. If you want to go series, that'll work, just make sure you really look for pedals that don't kill your tone, rely on "true bypass" or lack an analog dry signal. We want the best for our signal, after all it has to go on to do great things. My recommendation is that you should start with this order : modulation, pitch, multifx, reverb and then delays last. You can move things around from there. Really dig in and find your sound here. This is where The Edge from U2 got his start in ambience based effects. Try everything.
It's too quiet... It's too loud... There's too much gain...
Volume pedals can be placed in numerous places in the signal chain. The usual is pre-gain (gain control) and post gain (level control). Pre-gain will allow you to control not only the overall level of the signal, but the amount of gain and compression you get. This is a great way to control a single channel amplifier. Back it off to get a cleaner tone and roll it all the way forward for that huge gained up sound. The alternate way of using a volume, post-gain, controls the "master" level of the system. The best way to do this is to put the pedal in between the drives and your time based effects (modulation, pitch, reverb and delay). This allows the delay and reverb tails to carry on even though the volume is at zero. Great for swell effects or bringing up the level of a solo without adding any gain.
In conclusion.... kinda....
There is no end to what you can do with effects. There is a point where you've lost the ability to call it guitar tone though. In a single article, it's very hard to go through countless effect types and varying signal chains. If you have any questions, shoot me an email and I'll respond as quick as possible. Remember, this is all very subjective. Try as many different things as you can. Get out and play music. Do not stop educating yourself!
Effects in the 80's...
In the mid 1980's, something extraordinary happened. There was boom in incredible digital effects by the premier manufacturers. Companies like Eventide, Lexicon, AMS, Yamaha, TC Electronic and Roland were manufacturing processors that would later become "the sound" of effects. These effects are now modeled in every high-end multi-effects unit on the market. The second thing that happened was guitar players, bass players and rig builders took notice of these "studio pieces" and wanted to use or offer the same sound found on studio albums. While pedals were still prevalent, they lacked the audio quality and depth these rack units offered. This began a new era in guitar and bass. It also started a quest for new ways to control and integrate effects into guitar and bass systems.
This new era also brought over-production in the studio. This would later cause a slew of mass misinformation and misunderstanding.
Guitar players started having rack systems built. Some were small 4-10 space racks with minimal effects and simple switching. Others were huge 24-26 space rack systems with a ton of effects, or was there something else going on? One of the issues that was discovered early on with these new rack units was that they were slow to change programs. I'm talking about a full second or more to switch. The modern trailing of delays or reverb just wasn't possible with units from this time. A huge factor in how large the rack systems were had nothing to do with how many effects the artist was using, it was based on having two or more of the same effect so you could seamlessly switch between programs. It was extremely common to have two Eventide H-949's or H-3000 harmonizers due to the delay in switching. Mono delays were also extremely common making 2-4 delay units the norm in a rack system. This allowed for those big stereo delays everyone loves so much. Now, add two reverb units, some modulation, a rack mounted preamp, a stereo power amp or two and the gear need to switch, mix and route the audio signals and you get a 24 space rack.
To be continued...