An Insider’s Take on Fixing Pedals
Busted stompbox? Here are tips from a tech on when to repair and when to despair.
It is a cruel world out there, and no quarter is offered to your pedals, no matter how carefully you proceed from gig to gig. Just like an amp or guitar, your pedalboard can become an instrumental part of what you do as a player. But broken pedals are natural given they’re instruments that you step on, so getting them repaired is something we’ll all need to confront. While we’d love to have nothing wasted and everything working, whether or not something can be fixed reasonably is not always cut and dried.
The value of the pedal is an important factor. Since the cost of labor and expertise is so high, it can be very easy for repair costs to quickly exceed the value of the thing being repaired. For example, there’s a multitude of guitar effect pedals available between $30 and $40. Should one of the footswitches in those pedals fail, a replacement footswitch goes for 25 percent of the pedal’s entire value, and that’s before any work has been done to make an actual repair. At typical labor rates, spending 15 minutes fixing a broken footswitch can bust the bank on a budget pedal. As sad as it is, some stuff just isn’t worth having it be fixed professionally.
Conversely, a great candidate for repair is something like a vintage Nobels ODR-1. The values have skyrocketed, so there’s no question it’s worth fixing. Since minimizing labor is critical, it is triply good that they are simply constructed, made from mostly sourceable components, and contain relatively basic analog circuits with widely available circuit diagrams. But there are high-value pedals that aren’t as tech-friendly. Our benches have seen pedals plagued with complication and no documentation, constructed from unobtanium parts and assembled like a house of cards. In such cases, a technician will need to disassemble the box, study the circuit long enough to understand its operation (despite the fact it is not currently working), deduce what is malfunctioning, and spend time sourcing replacement parts. The tech will then have to decide how little to get paid for all that work, since after developing this plan, the client can simply say no to the repair if the price is too high. Repair work is brutal. Bake your technician some cookies.
Repair work is brutal. Bake your technician some cookies.
A horde of critics will complain that no one should be able to charge the hourly rates that most repair work demands. Most of them have not had the misfortune of actually running businesses. The unvarnished economics is that a busy tech can choose to either work on something at a discount, or pass and move on to something that will put food on the table. The obvious answer means that there’s a great deal of gear out there that, hypothetically, could get fixed, but, practically, can’t get fixed.
If you have a new production pedal that is malfunctioning, I highly recommend first contacting the manufacturer. Most manufacturers, particularly boutique builders, are extraordinarily helpful when it comes to getting their customers’ pedals working again. As the creator of your device, they will have all of the experience and documentation to make quick repairs and a vested interest in giving you an optimum experience. Most builders recognize that a repair can be an opportunity to take a situation from bad to good, since going the extra mile serving a customer may more than make up for any bad feelings associated with a pedal that suddenly stopped working properly.
For pedals made by larger manufacturers, check and see if there are any authorized service centers. Companies like Line 6 often outfit local repair shops with the equipment and resources needed to repair their products. This can save you the hassle of sending your pedal across the country or the world for repair. These types of shops are often limited to major markets, but if you live in or near an urban area, you may have access to local repair.
DIY is another great avenue! There is a ton of information out there, and a person who learns how to replace footswitches, jacks, and potentiometers will be able to fix 50 to 75 percent of all the broken pedals in the world. But if you’ve no interest in self-sufficiency and want to keep your maintenance costs down, buy effects that are simple circuits or buy from companies big enough and benevolent enough to provide easy-to-access long-term support. May the odds be ever in your favor!
All 9V blocks are not created equal. Here's what to look for to avoid hiss, hum, and crackle.
(Originally published April 22, 2020)
At the dawn of the guitar-effects age, powering pedals was relatively simple. If an effects pedal didn't take a standard 9V battery like your AM transistor radio, it plugged into the wall like your avocado-green toaster. Forever dissatisfied, guitar players eventually grew weary of changing batteries, and plugging stuff into the wall was kind of a drag, too.
As the industry was looking to eliminate its batteries and Edison plugs, the effects purveyor Boss went a long way to standardizing pedal power by putting a 2.1 mm coaxial power jack on all their pedals, and while their market dominance made the 1/8" jack on certain Ibanez and Pro Co pedals outliers, even they couldn't stick to one standard for long as they transitioned from 12V ACA spec pedals to 9V PSA spec pedals.
Once that growing pain subsided, it was relatively peaceful on the pedal-powering front for many years, and the standardization allowed companies to produce power supplies that let players power all their pedals simultaneously and without harming a single battery. Some supplies had a single output with daisy chains to fan out power to multiple pedals. Some were isolated, offering an individual power port for each pedal and eliminating daisy-chaining all pedals in a parallel fashion. Isolated supplies were a huge development in pedal-powering history, so let's dig in there before wading further into the power morass of today.
In this context, isolated power supplies are those supplies that are essentially a series of separate power sources in one enclosure. Each supply stands on its own with no direct connection to any of the other supplies, and, as such, the effects they power have no direct connection to one another through their respective power ports.
There are several reasons power supply isolation can be anything from favorable to crucial. First, some pedals have a positive-ground scheme, where the audio ground of the effect is connected to the positive terminal of the battery, usually due to the type of transistors used in the pedal's circuit.
Isolated power supplies are those supplies that are essentially a series of separate power sources in one enclosure.
While fuzz pedals are often set up this way, most pedals have a more conventional negative-ground scheme. If you parallel connect the power of a positive-ground pedal to a negative-ground pedal, and then connect their audio grounds together with a patch cable, you'll cause a power supply short, and neither pedal will get power. The power source will complain, too! Isolated supplies mimic a battery as each device gets its very own power source to use independently of any other device.
Crosstalk is another reason for isolation. Some pedals don't play well with others when powered in parallel. Like so many playground bullies, tremolos and vibratos can tick and pop while overdrives and DSP effects with switch-mode supplies and high-speed processors can whine, and they can torment their boardmates with their glitches. These deficiencies might not bother the offending pedal, but the trash they put on their power supply ports gets leaked to other connected devices that may not be able to reject the noise quite as well. Isolation breaks the link and prevents such crosstalk.
The last reason for isolation we'll list here is ground loops. In general, for guitar rigs, it's best practice to have just one ground path. Typically, that one path should be the ground connections of all of your patch cables extending in a line from guitar's output to amp's input. Daisy-chaining power creates other ground paths that make closed loops from one section of your signal flow to another. These ground loops can make your rig more susceptible to hum pickup in the presence of electro-magnetic fields. If you have daisy-chained pedals both in front of an amp and in its FX loop, and dozens of feet of cable between them, the associated ground loops can become very large and produce a great deal of noise. Using an isolated supply disconnects the links that make the loop, and the induced hum can no longer be sustained.
With isolation addressed, power supplies remained relatively unchanged for many years. Then, digital-signal processing became cost-feasible for common use in guitar-pedal effects. We'll dig further into their high-current demands and how they've complicated the power supply marketplace in my next column.
Your Trade Secrets/Trade Your Secrets
In the pedal-building community—as in Alcatraz—sharing is caring.
When I have a conversation about business with someone outside of the music industry, I often find it leads to a discussion of competitors or competition. These terms tend to place a comedic smile upon my face. Both of those words are almost always used by the person not in the music industry. As natural as the concept of competition is, the response I give is often received as unnatural. This could solely be because folks are not used to hearing how our industry actually operates internally.
We have the immense pleasure of working alongside inspiring and creative companies. The word alongside often falls short of fully illustrating what is going on. This brings me to the part of the conversation that tends to catch people off guard. As for the aforementioned “competition,” there really isn’t any. At least not in the traditional sense. If anything, that is almost solely something perceived by consumers. Years back, a colleague was curious about how a certain pedal manufacturer achieves a specific feature in its design. This company is a big player in our industry—a household name in effects pedals. After my colleague sent an email inquiring about the feature, this company replied and attached a picture of a schematic. I have difficulty picturing the designers at Ford sharing engine diagrams with Chevrolet.
Another example of the collaborative nature of our industry: There are a handful of pedal manufacturers out there that have their circuit boards designed by other pedal companies. I am one of them. Smaller companies that are starting out have hired me to bring their ideas to life on the inside. This can lead people to ask, “Why are you helping the competition?” My main reply to that question centers on one word: respect. Let me elaborate on that. A start-up company might seek my services because they enjoy the products we make, they like my circuit board design work, and they know it will not directly conflict with one of our products. Our community has a deep, ethical respect for other pedal companies. I often find myself recalling late nights on the slopes of New Hampshire, skiing past a sign that read “Respect Gets Respect.” Outside of the monetary value and experience gained by working with other companies, this also reinforces and strengthens our community ties.
I often find myself recalling late nights on the slopes of New Hampshire, skiing past a sign that read “Respect Gets Respect.”
The idea for this month’s column goes back a year or two. However, the root of the idea extends back decades. It is inspired by the 1996 film The Rock, in which Sean Connery uses his extensive knowledge of the Alcatraz prison infrastructure to both infiltrate and escape it. In one scene, he and Nicolas Cage are locked in two cells. He manages to open the cell doors by tying together sheets from his bed and tying them to a wheel from the bed frame. Then, he’s able to swing the wheel over a release lever that opens the cell doors on his block. After opening the doors, he walks by an awestruck Cage and says, “Trade secrets, my boy.”
Trade secrets? Those two words have confused me since I first heard them together. I think the lack of deeper context is the culprit here. Was it, “These are trade secrets I will not share,” or was it, “Let us trade secrets with each other?” It is, by definition, the former. However, in our little corner of the world, it is almost exclusively the latter.
I often file information sharing into the philosophical drawer, followed by community reinforcement. Let us play out a scenario: A person reaches out to me about starting a pedal company and inquires about several aspects of the start-up process. First, merely reaching out shows an important level of ambition. Once I’ve learned about that person’s knowledge and aspirations, I proceed to answer any questions they might have. Armed with the information and tools, the ball is in that entrepreneur’s court. It is all going to come down to an investment of effort and persistence to achieve their goals. I would argue that whether the inquirer follows through or not, I was not the deciding factor. That person was or was not going to do it regardless of my involvement. It is also likely that they will develop their own processes and go on to share their findings with others–thus becoming another co-author of our community’s open book.
I wonder if other industries share a similar open-book policy? Also, if anyone has those Ford engine diagrams, send me an email.