How do you deal with things like fuzz pedals that have to have the guitar coming directly into the input?
They are in a loop but I don’t buffer before them. I rarely have any active circuitry in the first five to seven loops. I only put a buffered circuit in the signal path where it needs to be—where you would hear a difference if it wasn’t there.

For example: if you are running multiple amplifiers, you have to transformer isolate them so you don’t get a common ground and a bunch of hum. A passive guitar signal won’t feed a transformer, so you have to add some active circuitry at the end of the chain Or, in the rackmounted systems, there might be three or four passive loops, but then I have to send the signal back to the floor—to a wah or volume pedal. At that point I would add a buffer but not before.

I am building a lot of two-board systems. The trend is to mount the controller on one board and the pedals on another board rather than a rack tray; those sliding rack trays don’t hold up. If you fly—and more people do these days— the racks get creamed by the monkeys loading them at the airport. So I mount everything on boards in a suitcase-type enclosure—suitcases come through the ramps better than a rack tumbling down.

With a two-board system, at your stage position you have a board with your controller and maybe a couple of pedals like a wah, or volume, and a tuner. The signal has to be sent to a second pedalboard offstage or back by the amps, where all the routing is taking place, so on the first board I put a little MC-401 boost/line driver I designed for Dunlop.

On a two-board system, the buffer is essential. Let’s say you have 10 feet of cable from your guitar to the first board, plus the loading from your wah and tuner, then 30 feet of cable connecting to your second board back by the amps. Now you have 40 feet of cable, and maybe some passive loops in the audio router. You need some sort of buffer or your tone is going to sound filtered. The buffer has a hardwire-bypass switch, so you can turn it off if you are switching on a fuzz that needs the signal to be completely passive. You will have some loading (or filtering) at that point, but you probably won’t notice, because this raunchy fuzz is on—it is all a compromise somewhere.

Do you have any advice for players who can’t afford a custom system but want to improve their rig?
The cleanest form of signal path you can have is to put your stuff into some form of looping system—as long as the looping system is well designed, because not only is it bypassing the pedal; it is bypassing the cables connecting the pedal. And don’t get me started on true-bypass pedals. If you have 10 true-bypass pedals in your chain, even with all of them off, you are going to hear a difference.

Don’t be afraid of buffers. That term is so misconstrued. People say, “I don’t want a buffer in my signal path.” What does that mean? Chances are you already have one—a Boss Tuner is a buffer, even when it is off. A buffer is nothing more than an impedance converter. Theoretically it should have no coloration of its own, but driving the signal with it is going to color the signal, if only by restoring it to what it would be before being “colored” by all the cables and pedals in the path. If you were to plug a three-foot cord and nothing else between your guitar and amp, that would be the purest signal you could get. But who wants to stand three feet from their amp?

What other products, besides the buffer, are you marketing with Dunlop?
I do some pedals and a power supply and a wah wah with them. The thing is, you come up with concepts, then you have to build multiples of them—that is the part that gets old for me. That’s why it is good to partner with people like Rocktron and Dunlop. Let them build the stuff—I am a system designer.

Practical Pedaling
Bob Bradshaw's Advice

Pedals have come back from their initial popularity in the ’80s, says effects systems designer Bob Bradshaw. “They’re great because it’s a self-containing little thing,” he says. “There are tons of people out there making all kinds of different things so it’s wide open in terms of the choice you have in sounds.” When he first started his career in pedalboard engineering, there weren’t many rackmounted pieces—the ones he worked with were studio pieces like Eventide Harmonizers, for example. “I remember the first time I saw a rackmounted Roland delay that Buzzy Feiten had and I was like, ‘Wow! Look at that,’ because it was like a space echo.”

While rackmounted pedalboards are very common now with touring guitarists, Bradshaw’s innovation with two-board systems uses a controller mounted on one board and the pedals on another board rather than a rack tray, which Bradshaw says is easier on pedals and allows for for better upkeep and transport than rackmount trays.

Here he gives some general advice on what to consider when designing your own pedal setup, from streamlining your board to your specific needs as a player.

1 First things first: How do you play?
When a player approaches Bradshaw for a custom-built product, the first thing he asks is, “What do you need?” Rack or pedalboard? That is the question. Next he’ll ask you to consider every effect and element you want to include, so that you can consider order routings of the effects. “Order is subjective, “ Bradshaw says, so it’s up to the player to figure out what order they are most comfortable playing through.

2 Clean up your signal.
Put your pedals into some form of looping system, Bradshaw advises. This is optimal “as long as the looping system is well designed, because not only is it bypassing the pedal; it is bypassing the cables connecting the pedal.”

3 Follow your instincts.
Bradshaw has just about seen it all in his decades of switching system routing, and through this he’s learned that in the end, it’s all about personal preference. “Anything goes, it doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.”