DIY Pedalboard: Versatility and Signal Path

For some musicians, the equipment and gear revolving around the craft and industry of modern music can be as enjoyable as learning to play itself-- in fact I argue that it's an integral part of learning an instrument. Typically, I find that once someone discovers how or why something works... be it acoustic reverberation, how magnetic pick ups translate an analog signal out of the guitar (and how the potentiometer there works), or the difference in tonal and clipping characteristics between types of diodes. The knowledge acquired often makes other aspects (particularly those perceived to be more difficult) seem less daunting. Perhaps this is why modern guitarists and bassists obsess about their collection or presentation of their amplifiers and in-line effects.

Modern guitar and bass players still operate on technological foundations that were established in the mid 20th Century... I mean, we're still using phono jacks! Yet in a contemporary setting, it's understandable to find yourself playing into a laptop more often than through a tube amp. Studio and desk monitors become more essential than cabinets and loudspeakers, audio interfaces are as important of a choice as an amp head, and your setup and playing may need to be altered depending on what is amplifying or altering your guitar's output. If a pedalboard is going to house  your most used (or needed) effects and tools, it should be equally useful regardless of the rig you're playing into. Amp modeling software from companies such as SoftTube make emulating iconic heads so accurate, they almost negate the necessity for overdrive pedals designed to achieve the sound of a specific amplifier [like the plethora of 'plexi' boxes]. Don't get me wrong, with the right gear and some tweaking you can get a Fender DRRi to sound like almost anything... but you're not fitting one of those on your portable pedalboard. The same method of thinking applies to peripherals like tuners, metronomes, drum boxes, etc. I had an extra space left on the surface of my board, so I stick a TC Electronic looper there for easy access. If I need it, I can remove it and place it in line to the amp after one of the stereo outputs from the chorus. (Power cable for the Ditto looper is already attached to the under board power supply, and ready to use).

My focus on versatility when deciding which effects to mount on my pedalboard forced me to choose effects which I either; always on, used at least 80% of the time, or could be beneficial in any environment/genre/rig setup. Prime examples of the "always on" pedal would be my low-noise modded 10-Band EQ which I use to very slightly thicken the midrange and high end of my instrument signal. Since it's so transparent, and has a specific purpose that's always useful for me, I call this more of an affect pedal than an effect pedal. On the other end of the manipulation/modulation spectrum, the sub octave and the analog delay are very dramatic and can be implemented in ways which are more efficient and unique than post-production/plug-ins in the DAW.

Remember how I said we guitar players are all stuck in the past, using phono jacks? Well, Rufus and the rest of the future dudes were still using them too, so it doesn't look like they're going away. That said, high quality cabling, clean soldering joints, in-line buffers, and a noise free power supply can do a lot do keep your tone from sounding like shit or sagging. In addition to the hardware, your signal path is important as well. Multi pedal switchers and effect loops are cool, but they're also cumbersome and bulky. And you kind of want to eliminate any unnecessary distance between your guitar and your amp. Playing around and experimenting with all possible ordered combinations is essential... you need to plan that out before you start slapping boxes down. Aesthetics and ergonomics should be taken into account too. For instance: I don't hate a Wah being first in my chain, but it also works well after an overdrive as a filter. Since jacking into the side of a Wah is super easy and convenient I placed it first in my path. Likewise, it's totally awesome to have stereo outputs for different amplification possibilities, so my Stereo Chorus is last. That means the most auspicious place for my in-line buffer to go would be right in front of my chorus... which I mounted underneath my pedalboard, as it doesn't have a toggle switch. Any boosters, overdrives, distortion pedals, and equalizers can have the side effect of unwanted noise... and a volume pedal is an organic (dynamic) alternative to a gate. In addition, volume pedal swells can add inflections when placed in front of delay and reverb units-- the resulting conclusion from this logic is that my volume pedal sits between my "drive" section and my "modulation" section. 

Once I knew my desired signal path, and which pedals needed to be first and last, I drew up the footprint of the surface of my pedal board on some cardboard and used my mad Tetris skills to find the best layout. Here's where the hardware itself matters. I happened to have a Pedaltrain PT-JR so I was limited to its footprint, as well as its design for mounting. Pedaltrain boards cater to the less than modern idea that boxes should be velcro'ed to the surface and have space for cables to fall underneath the surface. Many people (myself included) use zip ties in addition to velcro or similar hook & loop fasteners to keep pedals secure during extended use. Recently, some manufactures like Chemistry Design Works design pedalboards out of a lighter weight material (wood), and expect users to only use zip ties to secure their effects and tools. However, if you're handy and enjoy crafting things from scratch, the best option is to use thin plywood as a mounting surface and secure your pedals with screws using the threaded holes most boxes have to attach rear plates. With this method, pedals with excessive use like Wah or Volume paddles can be screwed down with additional brackets. Once your plywood surface is set up, you can mount that onto virtually any larger surface, and build a custom enclosure for your desired power supply. 

I simply mounted my power supply underneath. Since I'm using the MXR CAE Power Supply I have the ability to power some of my effects with a custom voltage. I increased the voltage from 9v to 12ish for my Distortion+ and Carbon Copy. I found that it makes my distortion pedal more responsive when I roll the volume down on my instrument, and increases the clarity of tone coming out of the delay (which is quite muddy with only the suggested 9v). WARNING! Before you fry your gear to hell, make sure you check the schematics and/or the manufacturer to see if it can handle alternate voltages. Most of the time, some internal components might need to be upgraded to handle it. 

Mounting the CAE Power Supply underneath the PT-JR meant modification of the pedalboard itself. In its stock form, the rubber feet did not raise the board with enough clearance for the power supply to fit securely. I added on a secondary set of rubber feet and secured them to the frame using toggle bolts. 

Since my goal was to make my pedalboard footprint as small as possible, traditional right angled jacks would have taken up far too much space. I swear by Mogami cable. I enjoy the tone out of them, they don't seem to color the sound in a negative fashion, and there's almost no loss of signal integrity with moderate distances. The Mogami 2319 width is thinner than a standard instrument cable which means they're nice and flexible. It's also easy enough to find in pre-assembled patch form as well as bulk cable. Instead of the standard right angled jack connectors, I used the pancake type. Along with some clean solder joints, the mogami cable, and some contact lubricant, I was able to fit all the effects I wanted into a tight formation within the footprint of the PT-JR