Few topics seems to stir up so much controversy and opinions as whether true bypass or buffered pedals are the best solution for your tone. In this feature we’ll have a look at what’s really going on as well as a few tips on how to arrange your pedalboard.
This is a rewritten and updated version of a feature originally posted January 31 2011.
Whether you plug your guitar straight into an amp or depend on elaborate pedal boards – tone matters. However, tone isn’t just about squeezing your amp or stomping pedals. Tone is just as much about utilizing the full potential of your rig and regardless of your preferred approach, some basic know-how will get you far in reaching your goal.
The debate surrounding this topic seems to be incredibly one sided. Either you’re pro buffers or you can’t stand them and insist on only using true bypass operated pedals. But, as with most things in life, it’s not that black and white.
Most guitars deliver a high impedance signal or output. Impedance is a measure of electronic resistance and the longer the signal path, the more resistance there will be. Passive, vintage style pickups has a high impedance while active battery powered pickups has a low impedance. Passive high impedance pickups are able to drive the signal through aprox 18 feet of cable. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on the quality of the cable. Active low impedance pickups, on the other hand, are able to drive the signal through at least 100 feet of cable.
Now, 18 feet might seem more than enough but you have to count both the cable to and from the pedal board, all the patch cables and the tiny cables inside the pedals that are bypassing the signal when the pedal is off. Naturally, the quality of these cables matters a great deal. You should also keep in mind that different value tone and volume pots, tone caps, shielding etc will have an effect on the impedance and ultimately the tone.
True bypass means that when the pedal is off, with no processing or colouring going on, the signal from your guitar passes through all clean via a separate path outside the circuit.
This means that a true bypass pedal in it self won’t alter your tone but the fact that it doesn’t do anything to drive the signal (when it’s off) through long cables and to the amp, will cause tone loss and alteration. You will recognize this by a noticeable high end roll off and generally a less open and dynamic tone and picking response.
A buffer is basically a small pre-amp that will electronically strengthen or enhance the weak high impedance signal from your guitar and help driving it through long signal paths. The buffer is active regardless whether the pedal is on or off.
Contrary to what many believe – and will claim – a buffer will not alter or colour your tone but rather restore the original signal of your pickups. You will notice this by a more pronounced high end and a generally more dynamic and responsive signal.
There is a third option. The bad one. Hardwire bypass, employed by MXR among others, means that the signal is fed through the pedal’s circuit even when the pedal is off. Contrary to both true bypass and buffering, hardwire will affect your tone and cause considerable high end roll off and a generally less dynamic tone. We don’t want that, so let’s concentrate on the two other options.
What’s the difference?
The question is: do you really need to buffer the signal? Well, no one dies and the world will still be a fucked up place regardless of what you do. Some pedals, like vintage style fuzz, don’t like buffers and some guitarists prefer, and even depend on, the high end roll off you get from an unbuffered signal to achieve their magical tones.
The point is though: you should be aware of the consequences of not buffering your signal. The reason is that other problems, like noise and dull sounding pickups and pedals, may occur as a result of a non buffered signal. It’s a shame to buy high quality and expensive cables if you don’t combine this with a buffer. Don’t loose sleep over it but experiment and learn what suits your setup.
Arranging your pedalboard
As mentioned above, one buffer is enough to drive the signal through an average setup containing normal length cables and a pedalboard. Anything else is really redundant. I recommend placing the buffer between the guitar and the first pedal. This will ensure the right load for the pedals. The only reason you might need a second buffer is to have one at the end of the chain to level out possible conflicting loads within the pedal board.
A buffer can either be a buffered pedal, like Boss, or a dedicated buffer unit or pedal, like the CostaLab Buffer. A Boss tuner or compressor first in the chain or a delay last, will do the job but the quality of the buffers used in pedals are of varying quality (even among Boss pedals), so I strongly recommend a single buffer (even if you have Boss pedals on the board). Again, keep in mind that one buffer is enough to drive the signal, so a huge collection of Boss pedals, or other buffers, doesn’t make any difference.
Vintage circuit fuzz and boosters doesn’t react well when placed next to a booster. You’ll notice that they’ll sound bright and harsh, with a thin low end. Make sure these are either placed next to a true bypass unit or, in a loop using a true bypass looper.
I hope this article cleared up a few things and perhaps even gave some food for thought. Please feel free to use the comments field below to share your experience and do share if you disagree with any of the above!