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This is an article from Premier Guitar Magazine written by Terry Burton, founder of our favoire effects supplier, Strymon.
What could be better than having “true” bypass in your pedal? This sounds like an indisputably good idea, but in fact, it’s not that simple. The subject has been written about before, but there is such confusion regarding true bypass that it’s helpful to revisit it from time to time. When it comes to preserving optimum tone, how you bypass and wire your pedals can be as important as how you power your pedal. (For more on this topic, see “Powering Your Board” in the December 2011 issue.) Let’s take a look at how both true bypass and buffered bypass work.
The idea of true bypass is that when your pedal or effect is off, there are no electronic components whatsoever touching— and thereby having an influence on—your guitar signal. This sounds great in theory, but there are some practical problems with the approach. In almost all cases, guitar pickups are passive, high-impedance devices with a relatively wimpy ability to drive a signal. Think of it as a trickling stream of water rather than a pressurized pipe. It’s very easy to divert a trickling stream with a few small rocks, but not so easy to place those rocks in a high pressure pipe without them simply being blown out.
Because the signal coming out of a guitar is weak and easily influenced, even the wire in your cables and true-bypass circuits can degrade your tone. The degradation you may hear will manifest itself as a loss of high frequencies—or “tone suck,” as many refer to it. This is caused when a simple low-pass (treble cut) filter is created with a passive RC circuit. The “R”, or resistor, is the combined resistance of all the cabling in your rig. The “C”, or capacitor, is the inherent capacitance present in shielded cables. Each true-bypass circuit adds unbuffered cable length—and therefore more resistance and capacitance to the signal path—so they create an unintentional low-pass filter.
Another problem is that the 3PDT footswitches commonly used in true-bypass circuits are not optimized to switch low-voltage signals like guitar pickups. The side effect of this can be noise or pops when switching in and out of bypass. The physical distance between the input and output jacks and the switch can also exacerbate this switching noise, in addition to adding internal cable length. A better way to accomplish true bypass is to use a relay that’s optimized for switching small signals. Such relays can be quieter and placed in an optimum location in the pedal that minimizes cable length when the pedal is bypassed.
The other way that pedal manufacturers implement bypass circuits is, of course, with solid-state electronics. This is often done with FET switching circuits and is called buffered bypass or analog bypass. A simple truth that escapes many is that any pedal with active electronics in it automatically and by its very nature will include a buffer.
Now, the quality of that buffer can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but when buffered bypass is done well, it can be a very good method of bypassing a pedal. It provides a robust and relatively silent form of switching. Buffered bypass has simply gotten a bad name over the years because of poorly designed buffered bypass circuits that color your tone.
Because of this, and for fear of any extraneous electronics hanging on to their guitar signals when bypassed, many players insist on only using pedals with true bypass. Players who use batteries in their pedals also have to worry that once the battery dies, not even the dry-bypass signal will pass through the pedal because it requires power to do so. One drawback of buffered-bypass circuits is that pedals not using low-noise components and designs can add a significant amount of white noise to the signal chain even when the pedal is bypassed. This can usually be minimized with a correctly designed bypass circuit.
So, what’s a pedal junkie to do? There is, in fact, a best-of-both-worlds solution: Place a good quality buffer at the beginning of your pedalboard signal chain. This can be in the form of a compact dedicated buffer, a clean boost set to unity gain, or even a pedal with a high-quality integrated buffer that you don’t mind leaving on all the time.
In my personal rig, I leave an optical compressor set to a very light compression level on all the time, and it serves as my up-front buffer. What the buffer does is transform the trickling stream that is your guitar signal into a pressurized fire hose of a low-impedance signal. This significantly minimizes any degradation that can be caused by having many true-bypass pedals or lots of cable in your rig.
Having a buffer up front becomes extremely important when using a true-bypass “looper,” a device that bypasses effects externally with multiple true-bypass effects loops. In practice, those devices add a ton of extra cable to your rig. Again, a buffer up front will minimize any harm they can potentially do and let you take full advantage of true bypass. In short, put a buffer first in the chain, trust your ears, and rid yourself of bypass anxiety.
Tone sculpting can be a tricky business as soon as you start to get more than just a couple of pedals in a chain. Here is a handy guide as to basic effect categorization. This is the normal preferred order for each category of effect withe examples of specific effects that fall into each category.
Distortion and Boost
- Clean boost
- Treble boost
Of course the first rule is to break the rules. Knowing the conventional wisdom provides a starting point. It is almost always the case that the time effects will sound better at the end and, if you have multiple time effects then the longer ones often work better first - and so reverb ends up at the very end of the chain. Tone shaping is not so critical and can often fit in anywhere with little impact on the sound. That is until you start using heavy fuzz or distortion with serious filtering such as a wah. Swapping these two around can make for a completely different sound (and quite possibly one of them will not sound good). A classic configuration for old shcool fuzz/wah combinations is to have the fuzz feed into the wha. Whilst modulation would normally follow distortion, swapping these two around can make for some intersting variations and this is a good place to experiment. Beyond this there are certain fuzz pedals that are highly sensitive to their place in the chain. Early fuzz pedals, particularly germanium units (and their modern reproductions) don't like to be placed after a buffered signal (any pedal that is on and any non-true bypass pedal whether it is on or off). Getting complicated?
If you have one, the tuner (which obviously is not an effect) should go before anything else in your chain. And then there is the placing of your volume pedal. If it is being used simply to vary the loudness of your sound, or for swell effects, then likely the volume pedal will be best at the end of the chain; all it can do there is change the level of your effected signal hitting your amp. However, it can also be used, like your gutiar's volume control, to change the way that your guitar signal impacts your other effects. The obvious one here is where the volume is placed before the distortion section to variably 'clean up' the distortion. This provides for precise control over the amount of distortion that you will be getting. A variant of volume, and a classic effect that is often overlooked, is tremolo. The rules for this are the same as for the volume pedal - put it at the end. But it might make more sense to put it befor you time effects, so that your echo/reverb continues to ring out even when your tremolo pedal cuts the volume to nothing. Of course some people will want the tremolo to sound as big as possible and killing the echo and reverb will definitely do that. Yes, it is complicated. Go experiment.
We are pleased to announce the addition of another effects line to the store. Black Cat Pedals have had a cult following with some very well known names. Now the line has been revamped and is going to be available here in New York at Ludlow Guitars. Check the product out on this page.
A fledgling pedal line from San Francisco gets airborne in New York care of your friendly neighborhood music store. There is just one, extraordinarily versatile, fuzz pedal in the line right now but more will be coming soon. Check out The Goose here at Ludlow Guitars via our product page and say hello to Take Flight on their web page.
On Friday 24th July we had Ben Fulton, the owner and designer at Red Witch, visit the store. He demonstrated his exceptional pedal line for us. Now we know what all those knobs and switches are for. Ben is a super-nice guy with a clear passion for his product, which is evident in the quality of the pedals that he produces. They really are as good as they get. We have all the Red Witch pedals in stock and you can try them out any time.
We know from bitter experience that adding yet another pedal to your lineup, whilst broadening your sonic palette, can have a unforseen adverse affects on your overall tone. That is why we are so pleased to announce that we are now dealers for Road Rage Pro Gear (RRPG) and their world-class product line of effects switchers and loopers. Check out the RRPG page on our site or visit them on theirs.
Just in case you were sure that you needed to have all true bypass pedals in your set-up, set out below are extracts from an article published by the famous pedal guru Pete Cornish on his own web site following his having been asked the question: do you use true bypass?
"The "true bypass" function, which is promoted by some, can create dreadful problems with a system that uses many pedals. Take for instance a 15 ft guitar cable linked to ten pedals, each linked by a 2 ft cable, and then onto the amp by a 30 ft cable. If all pedals have "true bypass", and are off, then the total cable length will be 63 ft. This will cause a huge loss of tone and signal level. The amp volume is then turned up to compensate and so too the treble control. The inherent background noise now increases by the amount of the gain and treble increase and is usually too bad for serious work. If one of the pedals is now switched on, then it's high input impedance and low output impedance will buffer all the output cables from the guitar and the signal level will rise due to the removal of some of the load on the pickups (e.g., 17 ft instead of 63 ft of cable). The treble will rise and the tone and volume will not be as before. If that pedal was say a chorus or delay, devices which are usually unity gain, then your overall signal level and tone will vary each time an effect is added...not a very good idea.
My system, which I devised in the early 70's, is to feed the guitar into a fixed high impedance load, which is identical to the amp input, and then distribute the signal to the various effects and amps by low impedance buffered feeds. This gives a constant signal level and tonal characteristics, which do not change at all when effects are added. The proof that this works are in the recordings of our clients: Roxy Music; The Police; Queen; Pink Floyd; Bryan Adams; Lou Reed; Dire Straits; Paul McCartney; Sting; Jimmy Page; Judas Priest; Black Sabbath...." (Quite a client list you have there Pete. If you are going to drop names this is certainly the way to do it.)
"So the answer to your question re "true bypass" is no. Almost all my current effects pedals have, as the main input stage, a pre amp that has the same characteristics as the input of a tube amp (1 Megohm/20pF), a highly efficient filter to eliminate the possibility of radio breakthrough and a low output impedance so that any following pedals/ cables etc. will not impose a load on the guitar signal. This pre amp is fitted to all our large stage systems and has always met with huge approval, not only from the guitarist but also the PA operator who is so happy to have constant level and tone presented to his mixing board."
We can't all afford (or even obtain) Petes pedal switching system but there are a couple of things that you can do to avoid some of the problems that Pete mentions. We would be happy to help you out with individual advice about your board. Email us, or, better still, come into the store and we can talk through things with you.
We are delighted to announce that we are now carrying the Blackout Effectors line of guitar pedals. Blackout Effectors design, manufacture and sell effect pedals from the "belly of the mountain", which we understand is actually in Vancouver, Canada. (Who knew?) At the moment they offer just three very high quality items which are listed on our site here. You can also check them out at the Blackout Effectors website. One of the fuzz pedals went straight into the pedal lineup of one of guys who works in the store on the first day they came in. We already had a good selection of the best fuzz pedals in the world. The Blackout Effectors are as good if not better than any of them. And if you think you know what a phaser does, think again.
Not that we want to be seen to be in the tank for TC Electronic but this is a great two-in-one drive pedal that sounds as good as some boutique drive pedals; it costs less and has twice as much to offer. It has an overdrive section that covers the bases, sounds great and you can switch it on and off. Then it has a distortion section that works just as well, is a meaningfully different sound from the overdrive and you can switch this on and off. And then, if having two drive effects in one box wasn't enough, you can have them both on in different combinations. Digital control over a top-quality analog pedal, plus you can store sounds if you need to. Check out the details here.
If you are product geeks like us and you have ever had a Big Muff in your effects chain, then you may be interested in this very thorough history of this iconic fuzz box, going back to around 1970, right through to the current incarnations available for sale today (at a fab guitar store near you). It also provides some interesting information on Mike Matthews and his company Electro-Harmonix. Check it out here...