Paul White, editor in chief of Sound on Sound, explores the merits of adding an effects switching system to your guitar pedal setup.
The beauty of buying specific guitar effects pedals for specific tasks means that you can create your own unique set of effect combinations without being restricted to a single manufacturer. While the publishers of this blog would no doubt prefer you to use all BOSS effects, I’m sure they accept the reality that most players like to mix and match their pedals.
A buffer at the start of the chain can also help compensate for treble loss through long cables
Many guitar players take this approach rather than buy a digital multi-effects unit, not least because the majority of players feel that analogue overdrives still produce the best sound and some also prefer ‘analogue’ BBD delay and modulation pedals to their digital counterparts. Of course there’s no reason not to use a digital multi-effects system along with a few choice analogue pedals, but the question always comes back to ‘How do I control them all’? After all, digital multi-effects units are usually programmable but discrete pedals are most often ‘set the knobs and that’s what you get’.
If you don’t want to spend the entire gig balancing on one leg then read on, as that’s where a well-designed pedal switching systems come to the rescue. You have probably seen the pros using them for some time, but now various companies including BOSS with the ES-8 and ES-5 have developed affordable yet very flexible systems that retain everything that you love about the sound of your individual pedals while allowing various combinations of pedals to be saved as presets. There are other big benefits as well, which I’ll come to shortly.
Guitar pedals are great, but when you’re not using them you don’t want them to influence your sound. Some buffered pedals can colour your sound in bypass mode while true bypass pedals can lead to tone loss when several are connected in series.
A good pedal switching system will use relays or very high quality analogue switches to take unused pedals completely out of circuit and will also give you the option to buffer the signal at the start and/or end of the chain if you feel a need to.
A phaser pedal often sounds best when it comes before an overdrive pedal but for other songs it might sound best when coming after the overdrive.
If you have a long cable connecting your guitar to your pedalboard and another long cable connecting your pedals to the amp, then a really good, transparent sounding buffer at the end of the chain is a good idea. A buffer at the start of the chain can also help compensate for treble loss through long cables – although it’s good to have the option to switch it off as some old school fuzz pedals work better if fed directly from the guitar.
To set up a switching system, just connect your pedals to the loop jacks on the rear of the switcher using short jack cables, then program the combinations you need for your set. While a pedal switcher won’t actually turn the knobs on the various units for you, it will allow you to create combinations of pedals in any order you choose. And it can also help out if you have pedals that have external control inputs for pedals or switches. For example, some delay pedals have a tap tempo input and BOSS have included a clever system that can store tempo information and then send pulses to these pedals whenever you change patches, to reset the delay tempo.
Another example of where a switcher wins out is in putting the pedals in the optimum order for the song. A phaser pedal often sounds best when it comes before an overdrive pedal but for other songs it might sound best when coming after the overdrive. Similarly, a clean boost produces a different result depending on whether it comes before or after an overdrive pedal.
If you put the clean boost first, it pushes the overdrive pedal harder and so adds to the amount of overdrive. Conversely if you put it after the overdrive, it will simply increase the level going into the amplifier, which may be more useful if you need a slight level boost for solos. And if the amplifier is on the edge of overdriving, having the boost push the amp a little harder at the same time as using an overdrive pedal can create a lush ‘pushed amp’ sound by stacking the amp overdrive and the pedal overdrive together.
It is also not uncommon for players to use a number of different overdrive or distortion pedals, and here a switcher will allow them to select only the appropriate one, or to select combinations of pedals. Again having two overdrive pedals set to lower gain levels and with one feeding into the other can often create more interactive overdrive sounds than letting a single pedal do all the work. Feeding a treble booster or a compressor pedal into an overdrive is also a commonly employed trick.
The main practical benefit of a switcher is that you can use its foot-switches to select between bespoke combinations of pedals, all in one operation.
If feeding a clean sounding amp, delay and reverb pedals usually come at the end of the chain (other than maybe a clean buffer) and may produce slightly different results depending on which one comes first. In the studio, delay and reverb are often fed from separate FX send controls, which means each effect acts independently and then their outputs are mixed back into the track as required. In simple terms, this puts the two effects in parallel rather than having them chained in series. The mixer section in the Boss ES-5 and ES-8 switching systems allow you to put two of your pedals in parallel — or it can be used to allow reverb or delay tails to die naturally when switching to a different patch that doesn’t use those effects.
The BOSS ES-5 and ES-8 also include a number of TRS control output jacks to allow you to switch channels on your amp or to switch the amp’s reverb or tremolo on or off as part of a patch. There are also TRS expression output jacks, and TRS control/expression input jacks for using an external pedal to control the pedals that have an external control capability. And then of course there’s MIDI.
Once the sole domain of the keyboard player, MIDI is now very often used to control digital multi-effects units, where the simplest and most common application is to use MIDI to switch between patches. However, MIDI can also be used to control various effect parameters within each patch. BOSS have given the ES series pedal switchers comprehensive MIDI capabilities making it easy to control digital multi-effects and to integrate them with your choice of individual pedals.
The main practical benefit of a switcher is that you can use its foot-switches to select between bespoke combinations of pedals, all in one operation. This can include changing the order, switching input and output buffers on or off, bypassing unused pedals, sending channel or FX switching commands to your amplifier and selecting multi-effect patches via MIDI. And in the case of a BOSS switcher, you can also tweak the level of a patch. Any serious pedal switching system will include a display so that you can name your patches something meaningful, and it is common for patches to be stored in banks so it’s easy to bunch together all the patches needed for one song. That means you only need to hit a single footswitch to change patches.
But there’s an ergonomic advantage too. Pedalboards get very cluttered, and while the pedals on the front row are easy to get to, the ones at the back can be a little trickier. By contrast a pedal switcher lets you put the pedals themselves wherever they will fit, and as long as you put your pedal switcher at the front of the board, control is always within easy reach. Even remote rack gear can be hooked up to the same system and included in a patch.
When it comes to choosing a switcher system, you first need to work out what you actually need to achieve. Maybe you don’t need to hook up all your pedals. For example, you may decide that your boost pedal always goes at the end of the line and that you are happy to turn it on and off using its own switch. Similarly, your wah wah pedal may always be first in line and there may be other pedals that you only ever use together, in which case they can connect to one loop rather than two. By thinking things through in this way, you may be able to use a switcher with fewer loop connections than you have physical pedals, saving money and space.
You should also consider any effects that need to go in the FX loop of your amplifier delay and reverb being obvious candidates if you rely on your amplifier to produce your overdrive sound. Putting delay or reverb before an overdriven amp can sound rather messy so locating them in the amp’s loop, which comes between the pre-amp and power amp, makes a lot more sense. If that’s the case, you need to choose a pedal switcher that has enough switching options to accommodate your amp’s FX loop as well as any pedals you need to chain up before the amp’s input. It is also possible to use the switched loop connections to switch the output between two amplifiers there are often more applications for a switcher than are immediately apparent.
Of course the other thing you need from a switcher is ease of operation, and while diving deep into MIDI can get serious, when I checked out a BOSS ES-5 for review at Sound On Sound, I found that everything was set out very logically making it easy to create your own patches. Given that one of these switchers can cost as little as a couple of overdrive pedals, integrating one into your system makes sense as it really does turn your pedal array into something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.