Hello Troubadourians! I was at rehearsal the other night. We had finished and were talking about how we had played, things to work on for the next time, and the next gig. As the conversation drifted along, the subject shifted to memories of old bands and memorable gigs both good and bad. Oh, the things we do for our art… I sort of mentally checked out of the conversation and was looking down at my pedalboard. It suddenly occurred to me that I had built that board over ten years ago and hadn’t done anything to it since then. In all that time it has never failed me. Not a single issue. No dead cables, no failed pedals, nothing. The red wine stain on my Fishman Aura pedal—from a drop of wine from Nancy Mestyanek at a Folding Mister Lincoln gig in RB—is still faintly visible. I had purposely never cleaned it off. I’m not sure why, but at the time something inside me said, “leave it there.” Now it serves as a reminder of my time with FML and as a memory of Nancy.
Ten years! When I think of all the other changes that I have made in all my other gear—amps, guitars, other pedals—that this important piece of gear had remained unchanged warrants examination. When I designed the pedalboard, I had two things in mind: simplicity and reliability. That the second idea has become self-evident after ten-plus years owes primarily to the adherence to the first idea and to high-quality workmanship in the building of the pedalboard. Before I go any further, I need to address workmanship as the make-or-break element when building a pedalboard. In any interconnected system, at least 95% of the failures are ultimately traced to the cables within the system. From a simple pedalboard to sophisticated computer server racks, cables are the most vulnerable parts, which includes the input and output jacks of every individual component in the system. When I built my pedalboard, I used a high-quality cable kit, George L’s I think, which allowed me to make custom length cables for a point-to-point interconnect. The shorter the overall cable length in the board, the less loss of signal and high frequencies in the system. This type of cable kit uses a non-solder screw-type connector. The connections are made by inserting the cable into the connector where the center pin contact becomes imbedded into the center conductor of the coaxial cable. The cable is then bent at a right angle and a grounding cover is screwed into the connector. This cover both holds the cable in place and simultaneously pierces the outer insulation of the cable, which then contacts the grounding shield of the cable and completes the ground return for the audio signal. It is a rather ingenious method and deceptively simple. While assembling a cable, if the cable isn’t fully inserted or the center pin happens to make poor contact with the center conductor, the audio signal can be intermittent or attenuated. Likewise, with the grounding cover, if it isn’t completely screwed into the connector, or the cable partially slips out during assembly, the same intermittent or attenuated signal can occur as well as creating an open or faulty ground path that can allow the introduction of 60-cycle hum into the audio. I rigorously checked every cable I built with a multimeter. My pass-fail criteria were that the cable had to measure 0.02 ohms or less on both the conductor and ground path and that they were not shorted together. (Send me an email if you want to learn more about the building and testing of cables).
There is a temptation to crowd as many effects pedals as will fit onto a pedalboard. While there isn’t any rule against this, my recommendation is that for live use, you use the minimum number of pedal effects as you possibly can. The needs of a “top 40” musician are usually vastly different from a musician who plays music that is less reliant on effects or has narrower effects palette. If you “need” to recreate the effects from multiple genres, your pedalboard can fill up quickly or grow to an almost unmanageable size. I put need in quotes because unless you are a touring musician whose job it is to recreate the exact sounds from a recording, I believe that simpler is better and if you invest the time to really know what an individual effect can do, you may find that you can do more with less. As an example, check out this demo of the MXR Phase 90 by Jamey Arent (Here’s why I think the MXR Phase 90 is the most versatile pedal—five effects in one! —YouTube). I really dig his philosophy and his playing!
When I designed my pedalboard, I had a need to process two entirely different guitars, an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar, which required significantly different processing. However, I wanted to use a single compressor pedal for both signal paths and this complicated things a bit. For one thing, I needed a method for muting either or both outputs, and the acoustic signal would have to be routed to both an onstage amplifier for monitoring and to a direct box to send the signal to the PA. The electric signal would just go to a different onstage amplifier (which would be miked up to the PA as necessary). At the time, I played acoustic guitar far more often and dialing in the tonality of the guitar was very important. (It still is.) By comparison, all I needed for the electric guitar was the compressor for solos and a drive pedal to add a little “edge of breakup” tonality for some songs. Ultimately, I used two tuners, each with two outputs. The main output for the tuner in the acoustic guitar path would be muted when the first tuner was engaged while the secondary output served as a signal pass-through for the input to electric guitar signal path. The main output of the tuner for the electric guitar was routed through the drive pedal and then to the amplifier. That output could be muted when the electric wasn’t used. (Send me an email if you want to learn more about the complete signal path.) Of course, with both tuners engaged, the entire system is muted.
For my electric playing I am normally accustomed to having a delay of some sort in the signal path. For the pedalboard above, there wasn’t room for a delay pedal, so I went without a delay. Yeah, I really missed the delay but at the time I only played electric on four or five songs, not enough to reconfigure everything. When I changed bands, I found myself playing mostly electric guitar but by then I had acquired a Tech21 Fly Rig 5 multi-effect box, which included a delay. I simply patched the Fly Rig between the output on the electric side and the amplifier that works well if a bit cumbersome as the Fly Rig sits on the floor, off the pedalboard. For a pure electric gig, I often just use the Fly Rig. I’m now in a situation where it’s about 50-50 acoustic to electric and I’m thinking about a reconfiguration of the “old reliable” pedalboard. Do I want to just add a delay pedal to the electric path? Do I want to put the Fly Rig on permanently? Or… do I want to build something altogether new? Stay tuned…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)