Often when guitarists build a pedalboard, they take a long time to design a configuration they will commit to for a period of time.
This tends to mean candle lit dinners, long walks on the beach and maybe even a weekend getaway. There is something abut the permanence to a pedalboard that makes some guitarists feel like they’re entering into a marriage.
Sometimes, settling down can be a good thing. Perhaps you want life to be more simple. You’re ready for that predictable 9-5 schedule.
For others though, we’re not ready to let go of our late night tequila infused chaos accompanied by loud unpredictable music.
Or maybe our needs may change on a regular basis. I’m a die hard New Yorker in the sense I don’t like being boxed in. I do like the idea of marriage. I’m happily married. But, when it comes to most other things, like gear, I like a non committal situation.
This is partly due to my needs as a musician. I’m a session/touring guitarist. Who I’m playing with can vary on a daily basis. Sometimes, more then once in a day. Rarely does one pedalboard fit all situations.
For this reason, I need to swap a lot of pedals in and out. I like to think of my relationship with each of my pedals as unique and special. But, please don’t tell the Klon about the Tube Drive. I don’t want things to get awkward.
I’ve built many a pedalboard throughout my years as a player. This time round though, I thought differently. Here are some ideas that crossed my mind.
Although it can be tempting to put every pedal on your board, it doesn’t make sense for me. Having a giant pedalboard can be a real issue in NYC. I’ve tried it. I survived all the pointing and giggling when I showed up to play tiny stages with my air strip sized baord. A giant pedal board also proved to be problematic with cabs, subways and busses. Not to mention weight issues at the air port.
It’s easier for me to have two smaller boards rather then one large board. Packing a cab to a gig in NYC is a bit like Tetris. Having smaller pieces to put together is helpful.
Back to the pedals.
Instead of having every option, I decided to have a board built that would allow me to swap pedals in and out. This means, I have to curate the pedals to the gig. Hence the idea of a modular pedalboard.
Dullen Customs built my newest board. We talked about size. I basically wanted a slightly bigger size then the pedaltrain jr classic.
This does mean that not everything is going to fit. This problem never goes away though. No matter what, you’re always going to want to add more then you have room for.
The space limitation makes me think a little harder about my choices. Trim the fat so to speak.
I’ve used a lot of power supplies. Voodoo Labs used to be my favorite. They were incredibly reliable and offered many options. Time has marched forward however and some newer supplies are providing lighter, more flexible options.
I use quite a variety of pedals. They span the mA and voltage gambit. I need power supplies that allow me to grab whatever pedal and plug it right in. For me, this meant I needed more then one.
For all my 9v and 18v needs I’m using two Ojai supplies from Strymon. They are a 9v power supply, but you can daisy chain 2 channels together to get 18v. I tend to run pedals at 18v when a pedal allows for it. I like the extra headroom.
I’m a big fan of Effectrode pedals. They take a lot of power as they run an amp voltages. There is almost always an Effectrode pedal or two on my pedalbord. To deal with their power needs, I’m using the Effecrrode Atomic power supply which is built incredibly well.
Although both of these supplies live under my board, I may occasionally need to remove them to use elsewhere or swap in another supply. For this reason, I use Velcro underneath.
Velcro in non committal (depending on how much you add). If I needed to, I could strip my board down pretty quickly to start over.
Dan at Dullen Customs put a few perks on my board. On the right side there is are in and out 1/4’ jacks. This definitely simplifies things. Having your in’s and out’s in one place is really convenient for a number of reasons. For 1, I sometimes put a sidecar pedalboard next to my main Dullen Customs one. Remember when I said two is easier then one?
On the left side of the board there is a power out and on and off switch. At first, I was wondering why I need an on and off switch. Dan mentioned leaving my board set up in the studio and powering down for the night.
Once I though about it, that seemed like a really nice idea and has proven to be very helpful.
As an example.
I’m preparing to go on tour with Amy Helm amyhelm.com I’ve put together a pedalboard specific for this set. I’ve been leaving it set up so I can test things and move things to test. it’s nice not to have to unplug it every night.
Underneath the board, I got a nifty little thing called Hug a Plug that turns a singe outlet input into 2. No this is not a new invention. But, the small design of Hug A Plug is what’s notable. That was a cheap Amazon buy.
I currently only need two outlets underneath even though I have 3 power supplies. Why is that? Because Strymon has made it possible to chain power supplies together.
Since I’m moving things around, it’s helpful to have certain cables labeled. Specifically, power cables that are at higher voltage. I don’t want anything getting fried.
I use my trusty Brother Label Maker to notate which cables are from the Atomic and which ones from the Ojai are running 18v.
There may be instances where you have to pull a pedal or two on a gig, When you put it back together, you don’t want to have to trace cables. I try to eliminate frustration and stress as much as I can.
Solderless cables are all the rage these days. Oh you kids and your cable kits. Call me old fashioned, but I like soldered cables.
Solderless cables just don’t perform well for modular pedalboards. They can work great if you have patience and are building a more permanent setup.
Solderless are just not made for constant fiddling. There is nothing fun about line checking on a festival and playing find the bad patch cable. I’ve done it. Nope, Not fun.
I’m one of those people that hear the differences in cables. This also makes me picky. I do like the sound of fulltone patch cables. But, they are cumbersome. So, there are times when I have to fold others into the mix.
On this tour, I’m trying out the EBS flat patch cables. I was skeptical. They just seemed to good to be true. A lot of people I’ve spoke to have said they’re very reliable.
So far, so good. They sound good and take up minimal space. I like them.
To buffer or not to Buffer… There’s that conversation again. There is no definite answer. This means you have to try it with every setup and compare the sounds. For this particular tour, I really liked the sound of the Analog Man buffer. I placed it right after my Tone Bender.
To test, I recorded my sound with and without the buffer to compare when not playing. I preferred the buffer everytime with this setup. Again, I don’t always feel this way. It’s not a set it and forget it situation when you have a modular board.
Tie it Down
Some pedalboard builders will clamp down power and patch cables after they’re installed. It doesn’t take captain obvious to tell us why that does work for a modular board.
I use velcro cable ties. Since there is velcro on top and underneath my board, there is always somewhere to velcro cables down to. I can make the board somewhat clean looking and organized.
I’ve been using the pedaltrain boards for quite a few years. They’re made well. There is nothing wrong with them. However, I was feeling like I wanted something that looked nicer. I was kinda over the industrial look. I also became dissatisfied with the top slots of the Pedaltrain.
The spacing made it hard to use mini pedals. The cut in the top of the Dullen Customs board are much more mini pedal friendly.
Also worth mentioning that sometimes I have to turn pedals sideways to fit them. This is also a lot easier on the Dullen boards. And it looks so much purdy with black walnut!
I’m always experimenting with routing. It’s possible I may keep the same pedals on the board but change order.
This is common for delays, drives and compressors. There are moments when I really like the Electrode PC-2A after my last drive to emulate tube sag. Other times I like ti before.
Occasionally, I’ll put my reverb before a light overdrive. My delay lives before the Tube Drive which acts like a lightly driven amp.
My chain order is as follows:
BPC Tonebender MKII
Analog Man Buffer
Xotic SL Drive
Strymon El Capistan
Strymon Big Sky
Xotic EP Booster
I’m using a volume pedal at the end of the chain. It just sounded better. I often like it first in the chain. But, with this setup, It would have been hard for me to place the volume pedals post tone bender and post buffer.
For the sake of simplicity, it goes next to last. This works out as my volume adjustments are not for changing gain staging on this tour. I’m also not using the volume pedal a lot for ambient swells.
I moved a few pedals around a few times before I came to this configuration. The modular concept allowed me to do this without too much of a hassle.
I hope these tips help you design a modular pedal board that is flexible and reliable.