the working guitarist

Peter Thorn discusses the available options for setting up a killer pedalboard that doesn''t kill your primary tone.

It’s interesting, how we guitarists evolve in not only our playing, but also in our rig setups. Some guys like to plug straight into a great amp, with the least amount of stuff between their fingers and the speakers. And others, such as the Edge from U2, develop a penchant for using elaborate chains of effects, sometimes into multiple amps that can be switched in and out at will.

I fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes. While punk, blues, or jazz players might be able to get away with plugging straight into the amp, most working musicians in the rock, pop, R&B, or country genres need at least some effects—plus, they’re fun! But there’s a price to pay when you add effects to your setup: your core tone can suffer. This month, we’ll look at how to maintain a great base tone while adding pieces to your signal chain.

Of course, pedals won’t help an already mediocre core tone, so it’s important that you are happy with your amp and guitar of choice before delving into the other variables of the equation. Assuming you love your guitar-to-amp tone, let’s get into the particulars.

Incorporating Buffers
We could go on and on about the topic of true bypass vs. buffered, but I’m not looking to proclaim one as “better”—there is a time and place to use each type.

A buffer or buffered bypass pedal (which buffers your signal even when the effect is off) at a strategic point in your signal chain can help maintain your core tone when running through lengths of pedals and cables. They help drive long cable lengths by converting your guitar signal to a lower impedance. I’m a big believer in having a buffer somewhere towards the beginning of my chain of effects and also right at the end to drive the cable going to the amp input. However, some pedals do not play nice with buffers in front of them! Fuzz pedals of the germanium variety, for example, want to see your unadulterated guitar signal straight from the pickups and volume pot of your guitar. So if you use a fuzz, place it early in your effect chain and only put buffered bypass pedals after it.

Too many buffered bypass pedals can create a cumulative effect tonally, creating a harsh sound. It’s all about experimenting and balance. If you’re running four or five true-bypass pedals with 40 or 50 feet of cable total, you can get a dedicated buffer pedal to restore lost signal. I dig the Buff Puff, from Tone Freak Effects, but there are a variety of similar pedals out there—try a few and decide what sounds best for you.

Simple True-Bypass Switchers
One of the best ways to maintain your core tone is to switch all effects pedals out of line when you are not using them using a true-bypass loop switcher. The most basic true-bypass switchers will give you an input, an output, and one send and one return jack, and an on/off switch. You patch all your pedals in between the send and return, and when you hit the switch to the on position, your signal runs through the pedals. In the off position, the input of the loop pedal passes directly to the output, bypassing all your effects. The Road Rage 1-Channel True-Bypass Pedal or Lehle Little Lehle are simple tools for accomplishing this type of switching.

Keep in mind though, if you are running more than 30 feet of cable, even with the true-bypass looper engaged (and you probably are—at least a 10-foot cable from your guitar to your pedals and a 20-foot cable from your pedals to your amp is common) then you are going to have some capacitance, and resulting high-end loss. So a good buffer is still recommended.

More Loops!
True-bypass loop switchers allow you to connect all the individual pedals on your board to individual true-bypass loops, or perhaps in groups of 2-3 pedals or more per loop.

Once again, the advantages of using a loop switcher are that you are not running through all the extra jacks, cabling, and circuitry (in the case of non-true-bypass pedals) when not using the pedals. Your guitar goes into the switcher, and if none of the loops are engaged, it goes directly out of the switcher to your amp, possibly with a good buffer in between, to make sure your tone makes it from the board to the amp in good shape. Voodoo Lab’s Pedal Switcher and the Road Rage multi-loop switcher (pictured above) are just a few of the available options in this category.

MIDI switching systems, in my opinion, are the ultimate tool in controlling your effects while maintaining your tone. They Incorporate loops for effects, but they are also programmable, allowing you to store preset combinations of your effects, and because they have MIDI they also allow you to switch MIDI-controlled effects as well. Some feature dedicated outputs for a tuner, expression pedal inputs, relay switching to channel switch your amp, 9-volt powered outs to power your pedals, switchable internal buffers, etc. Options in this category include TC Electronic’s G System, which also incorporates its own internal effects, Musicomlab’s MK3 switcher/MIDI controller, Glab’s GSC-3, and RJM Music’s Effect Gizmo and MasterMind controller.

Personally, I really like having the ability to have pedals on the floor in front of you like a traditional pedalboard, but with the added bonus of MIDI control and presets, proper buffering, etc.

When I toured with Chris Cornell in 2008, I used the board below built around the TC Electronic G-System.

So Many Choices
In so many ways, it’s a great time to be a guitarist. On top of limitless options for effects, now there are nearly as many ways to put them together. So whether you go in line with a buffer, a single true-bypass loop, a multi-loop setup, or an intricate MIDI system make sure to keep these two key points in mind:

1. Make maintaining a great guitar-to-amp “core tone” a prerequisite.

2. Assemble all the pedals you’d like to incorporate into your rig, and then invest in high-quality power supplies and cables to keep the signal as pure as possible before assessing your switching options.

3. Experiment with true-bypass loop switchers and/or buffers to keep your core tone strong and true, and determine whether the convenience of having presets is worth the expense of a pro-level MIDI system.

Good luck, and rock on!

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Pete shows you his studio, along with some home recording tips.

So much has changed in the recording industry over the last decade. On one hand, declining music sales due to illegal downloading have taken their toll on artists and the music biz in general, but on the other hand, advances in technology have made it possible to record great tracks on little more than a laptop computer. There’s never been a better time for the guitarist who wants to record at home! This month, I’m going to show you my studio, where I’ve just finished recording my first solo album, Guitar Nerd. I’ve also recorded guitars here for artists such as Chris Cornell, Peter Cincotti, and others.

To Mic or Not to Mic
With the advent of digital modeling, as well as load boxes, speaker simulation devices, and impulse response software, it is no longer 100 percent necessary to mic up real speakers to get a “mic’d speaker” sound. However, I decided that while I would incorporate amp and cabinet modeling into my studio, I really wanted to be able to capture air moving. I have a really nice collection of amps, and I’m serious about using them! I picked my current home because it has only one shared wall, and it has a closet that I knew would be perfect for isolating a speaker cabinet in. The closet is quite far from the shared wall, so I can really turn up my amps and it’s almost totally inaudible next door. (I actually tested this, walking next door playing guitar via a wireless unit—my neighbor thought I was nuts).

I have a Bogner 1-12” ported cabinet in the closet, loaded with a Scumback M75 speaker. It sits on sandbags that I picked up at the hardware store to isolate it from the floor. It’s surrounded by soft, absorptive material (Auralex panels, AFB mineral wool that I covered in burlap, and packing blankets). This deadens the volume drastically. Also, when you are recording in a less-than-perfect acoustic environment, such as a closet that has lots of parallel walls, making it dead is the name of the game. You can add ambience later, using reverbs with early reflections. My mic’d cab sounds great in this makeshift isolation booth!

It doesn’t look like much, but microphones don’t have eyes! Stick a mic or two on the cab in this closet and surround it with the soft stuff, and it sounds just as good as an iso booth in a professional studio!

I have quality 35’ mic and speaker cables running from the closet to my main “studio area,” which is really a dining room masquerading as a control room:

Here I have my studio desk and my amp heads, pedals, and guitars. I can easily plug into any one of the heads and be tracking within minutes. I use a Faustine Phantom attenuator to shave off volume, usually -6 to -10 db. It goes between whatever head I choose and the Bogner cab in the closet. The walls are treated with mineral wool panels, cutting down reflections.

The Recording Chain
My experience on early digital machines like ADATs taught me that when you are working in the digital realm, you really need to focus on your recording chain. This means the mic, mic preamp, and analog-to-digital conversion. Back in the days of analog, the recorder would impart a character on your tracks that was pleasing and forgiving. You could sometimes get away with average mics and preamps because analog recording was sort of like sonic glue, making everything sound punchy and in-your-face. But digital is far from forgiving. Early on, it was borderline harsh, and nowadays, even with higher sample rates and 24 bit recording, it basically sounds neutral. It accurately reflects whatever you throw at it. That’s why using good microphones and quality preamps is so important. They both have a big effect on the end result.

Microphones and Mic Placement
For mics, I usually use a Shure SM57 and either a Sennheiser 421 or a Heil PR20. I place the mics close, usually an inch or two from the speaker, and I often leave the grillecloth off the cabinet so I can position the mics easily. Depending on the sound I’m going for, I’ll have the mics anywhere from dead center on the dustcap to somewhere around where the dustcap meets the speaker cone. I make sure the diaphragms of the mics are equidistant from the speaker, so I don’t have phase issues when blending mics.

I use an API A2D stereo mic preamp and analog-to-digital converter, as well as a Universal Audio 6176 mic pre/compressor. These two units sound very different. The UA is warm, vintage, and fat, and the API is aggressive, clear, and in-your-face. The API A/D converters also sound markedly different than the ones in my Apogee Ensemble recording interface, giving me another flavor to use when recording. Both the API and UA units also have 1/4” inputs for recording guitars or bass DI Generally I record bass through the API, using a variety of plug-ins for amp simulation.

Recording Interface and Software
For my recording interface, I use the Apogee Ensemble. It’s been rock solid, it sounds great, and I really have no desire to look elsewhere. It’s almost overkill for my needs—it has plenty of inputs and outputs, and I never track more than a few channels at a time.

For software, there are lots of great programs for recording music. I chose Logic, and I’ve grown accustomed to using it and like it very much. Pro Tools is an industry standard, but as computers have become more powerful, native programs like Logic have become increasingly popular. They have all improved over the years, and these companies have taken cues from each other. For example, Logic used to be much better for MIDI sequencing, and Pro Tools used to be much better for recording and editing. But Apple and Digidesign have learned from each other, and you can now perform MIDI and audio recording tasks easily on either program.

I use a variety of plug-ins to sweeten up my tracks, from Waves, TC Electronic, Steven Slate Drums, Line 6, Tube-Tech, and others.

Monitors are so important—if you don’t know what you are hearing, how can you track and mix well? I chose the Adam A7 monitors, and I recommend them highly. I also use Sony MDR-7506 headphones.

Recording Acoustic Guitar
I use either a GT55 large diaphragm condenser mic or I’ll sometimes borrow a Neumann KM184 small diaphragm condenser. As a general starting point, I’ll place the mic six inches away from the guitar, usually pointing at where the fingerboard meets the guitar body. This avoids picking up too many boomy lows from the soundhole.

Pete’s Recording Tips
  • Track levels nice and hot, but never peaking! There’s nothing worse than a great take ruined by nasty digital clipping.
  • Watch out for those low mid frequencies! I cut 250Hz out of almost everything. That frequency can be like a blanket over your whole mix! 
  • As a general rule, subtractive EQ is better then additive EQ. Try cutting lows and low mids before you boost highs to increase the clarity of individual tracks. 
  • Tune, tune, tune. Tune between takes—tune during takes if possible! The only thing worse than a great take that’s clipping is a great take that’s out of tune.

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Pete Thorn discusses two approaches to downsizing your rig for travel.

Hello PG readers, and welcome to my new column, The Working Guitarist! I’m excited to have this opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had while touring and doing sessions over the last twenty years. I hope the topics I will be covering will be of help to all you fellow guitar nerds out there, and if there's anything you'd like to see covered, just let me know in the comments section. For my first column, I’m going to discuss strategies for assembling a portable “B-rig” for when you can’t bring your main guitar rig to a session or performance.

If you are like me, you have spent years and a ton of cash getting your main rig together. The right guitars, amps, pedals, possibly rack effects, and a switching system. You know it inside and out—it fits like an old pair of shoes, and it’s your home base. Trouble is, if you are flying across the US to do a one-off show, or to Europe to do a short promotional tour, chances are you won’t be able to bring all of your main rig. With the economy in recession and the ever-shrinking music biz budgets, even big artists are cutting back on crew and cartage costs. But you’re still expected to deliver the goods—great tones and great playing, with as little hassle as possible. Here are two different approaches to consider when faced with downsizing your rig:

Rent an amp, bring a small pedalboard and a single guitar.
If you prefer the simplicity of a few pedals on the floor and usually use a clean amp with pedals providing overdrive and distortion effects, this is the way to go. Put together a small pedalboard with just the essential effects you need, plus a tuner and power supply for the pedals. I had a very portable board built for this purpose recently by Rack Systems in North Hollywood, CA. Here it is:

As you can see, the board is exceptionally neat and small. Yet it’s very powerful. As long as I have an amp with a decent, basic clean sound I can cover vast sonic territory with this little board. The Carl Martin PlexiTone pedal delivers authentic British distortion, and has a high gain mode for solos and a boost to make parts stand out. The Suhr KokoBoost is also an exceptional boost pedal for solos. My modulation needs are covered with MXR EVH-117 Flanger, MXR Phase 45, and Retro-Sonic Chorus, plus the Strymon El Capistan delay, which gives me amazing tape delay-style echo. The Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 is an industry standard unit, delivering reliable power to the whole board. The board itself and a small roadcase for it came from A&S cases in North Hollywood, CA.

I do recommend having pedalboards professionally built for maximum reliability and clean layout if you can, but you can do it yourself if you have some soldering skills and patience. If I’m flying to a show, I’ll check my suitcase and the little pedalboard in its case with accessories such as strings and cables.

For these type of shows, I’ll usually just bring one electric guitar in a gig bag that I’ll carry on the airplane (make sure to check your specific airline's rules first, but that's a different column!). If you require a wide variety of tones and tunings, you might consider investing in a modeling instrument along the lines of the newly updated Variax guitar from Line 6. These digital modeling instruments have come a long way and allow you to get multiple tones and store multiple tunings, so you can cover a huge range of guitar tones and styles on just one instrument. Which brings me to approach number two....

Use a digital modeler as an all-in-one solution.
In March 2010, I did a five date promotional tour of Europe with Melissa Etheridge, as well as a number of US television show appearances. My A-rig was far too big and heavy to bring to these fly-in gigs. Trouble was, I’d spent quite a bit of time programming my rig to cover a huge range of guitar tones spanning Melissa’s whole recording career. For each song, I had at least a few presets. I had timed delays, tremolos, rotary sounds, the works! I needed to figure out a way to cover all these sounds accurately using a small portable rig, and our first approach wasn't going to cut it.

Enter the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx. This two rack space digital modeling unit was already was already a part of my A-rig, for effects only, so I acquired a second unit and loaded it with all the presets from my A-rig. Then I set about adding amplifier and cabinet modeling to all the presets, recreating my big rig as accurately as I could. I assembled a pedalboard with a MIDI controller and two expression pedals to control volume and things like delay mix on certain sounds—just like I have on my main rig. I went DI out to the house—no amplifiers onstage—and I monitored the sound using in-ear monitors. I put the Axe-Fx in a two rack space bag and carried it on the plane while checking the pedalboard. Some crew people and soundmen would look at me skeptically when I showed up with this rig, but across the board they were amazed when they heard the tones. I was thrilled with the results!

While nothing replaces that feel of a big amp pushing air behind you, the portability factor and versatility of a digital modeling rig like this is astounding and hard to beat. As an added bonus, it’ll also serve as an all-in-one backup solution even when using your A-rig.

Whatever approach you take, with a little effort and planning you can assemble a B-rig that will rival your main rig in power and tone—and save you major headaches when traveling!

Tune in next month when I'll be discussing the working guitarist's home studio—feel free to comment with any questions you have on that topic.

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