[LONG POST ALERT]
Recently I undertook a massive, expensive project that ended up moving a lot more quickly (and expensively) than I thought it would. As you’re all aware if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, I’m a musician. I’ve played one instrument or another for about 25 years be it bass or guitar or banjo or whatever. One of my great pleasures is playing around with effect boxes, crafting new (or familiar) sounds and coming up with stuff I like. I’ve built and rebuilt my pedal board countless times over the years.
And I’ve done it again. And this time it’s worth sharing.
So in this post, I’m going to give you a window into my madness and show you how I got to what I believe will be my last board for at least a minute or two. I’ll try to keep it interesting even for those of you who aren’t musicians or effect geeks. But, ladies and gentlemen, this is how I built what I have come to refer to as “Ultra Super Mega Board.” I’ll list the full inventory of the current board at the end of the post. Skip to there if that’s all you want to know. But…
It might be worth stating that my interest in effects dates back to the early 90s when I was jamming around with friends and none of us had the faintest idea what we were doing. I’m not sure who introduced me to the first effect pedal I ever saw, but I have a feeling it was my friend Marc and that it was his old Octave pedal that I seem to recall never quite worked right. Nevertheless, once I learned you could make your guitar (or bass) make weird sounds just by buying an accessory, I was all-in on exploring them. This was made worse when Van Halen released the “Live: Right Here, Right Now” album and Michael Anthony’s “Ultra Bass” solo showed me just how much effect boxes can do.
The first pedal I ever got was a distortion box, because I thought it would be cool to make my bass sound like a guitar. It was a DOD Super American Metal pedal. I don’t have it anymore. A guy whose name I won’t share stole it from me, along with several CDs, videos, and other things. He was a bad friend. I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years, but the last I checked he was on the sex offender registry. In many ways he did me a favor by stealing stuff and killing the friendship. But that’s another story.
After that, I got a Boss Flanger pedal, which I liked a lot and still have to this day, and shortly thereafter a DOD Digital Delay. Then one Christmas, my Dad gifted me a DOD TR3B multi-effect pedal with a Compressor, EQ, and Chorus all on the same box and thus began my obsession with tone contouring and modulation–both things very much present on my board today, although in different boxes. All of the boxes in this paragraph are still in my possession, but they’re all more-or-less retired. They’re on hand for sentimental reasons, or as backups if something else breaks. All were used primarily for bass in my younger years.
I’ve played in a variety of bands and used a massive amount of random effects over the years. I’ve kept most of them. I used to love DOD pedals back when they were all over the place and cheap. I had a bunch of their distortions and choruses and so on. I won’t give the full history or do the full list…but let’s just say over the 15-20 years between the Christmas of the TR3B and now, I’ve bought a lot, learned a lot, and figured out what I like. And somewhere along the way, I started playing guitar and became a songwriter, too. The effect-world is kinder to guitarists than bassists. There’s just-plain more stuff out there if you’ve got six strings.
By the time I was in my band Blue Tattoo, my board had gotten out of hand. At its craziest, it looked like this…
Ultimately, I had way too much on there for Blue Tattoo. We were an Americana act and I’d set up a prog-rock board that was too cumbersome to gig with. I trimmed it down to just a handful of selections on the left board and the two bigger units on the right board, and even then I wasn’t using half of it. I’ve just always liked having stuff around and wired IN CASE I needed it.
Blue Tattoo didn’t go near as far as it should have and fell apart like most bands do. But my obsession with finding a sound I liked kept going. It’s always going. I interact with a lot of guitarists and watch a lot of YouTube rig-rundowns. Premier Guitar does a great series of Rig Rundowns where they talk to famous guitarists/bassists and ask what’s in their rig. I found several effects that way and got into some of the weird and cool stuff made by TC Electronics and Electro-Harmonix thanks to those videos.
I also kept recording solo albums. Blue Tattoo fell apart a little bit after I recorded my “Out from the Light” album (my 3rd) and I released several projects thereafter. By the time I got to the “Trigger Warnings & Sunshine” album (my 8th) I was largely just running direct into mixers and only using an effect or two as needed. But when I started that album, I decided to use a handful of the Blue Tattoo effects and add in a couple I’d used in my subsequent band The Social Gospel, then also throw in a new distortion made by TC Electronics called “Dark Matter” which has become one of my favorites. But even then, I’d trimmed down a lot. Remember the two-board photo from earlier? Now my whole rig fit on just the smaller, right board.
I also decided I needed a smaller amp, which is more or less my “recording” and/or “small rooms” rig at this point. I went to Music Folk in Maplewood and was just kind of poking around. I came upon an amp that’s actually more or less a micro-PA. It’s got a dedicated channel that works great for acoustics and a channel that will work well for electrics or vocals, too. I’d never heard of the brand, but it was a cool set-up and the price was right, so my heavy, bulky Fender Blues Deluxe kind of takes a backseat, waiting for a big room these days. Instead I’m playing through this (and often only HALF of it):
With a new amp, I started re-thinking the board again. I knew I’d have another album coming up and I had some far-reaching plans for how I wanted it to sound. Of course, that would eventually become the “It Could Be Worse” album and some of the ideas I had at that time will also be used moving forward on my next project (which is not really in progress yet). I used a couple of old friends but also bought some new stuff, chiefly an Electro-Harmonix POG and a Boss Digital Delay. The latter of which was bought to supplement an analog delay that I didn’t want to be my main delay unit.
I’d been using a Line 6 Digital Delay multi-effect unit (the DL4) up until then. I liked it a lot because it had a TON of different delays and stuff in it. In several bands I used it as a quick-delay, a David Gilmour-esque delay, and an always-on slap-back just for a little presence. It was the main box in my arsenal…but like most Line 6 products of that build it started developing a problem where some of the triggers wouldn’t push down easily and Line 6 stuff is in NO WAY user-serviceable. So it came off the board. At one point I had three different Line 6 units of similar build (the delay, a modulation box, and an amp modeler). Now I’m down to only one left, the big, blue, MM4 unit that’s present in most of these photos. I’m disappointed that Line 6 made such a simple repair impossible to make at home. Kinda killed my desire to use them–and I’ve noticed they’ve largely stopped making those units, so I bet I’m not alone. The one I’m still using is only there because it still works and it’s convenient to not have to replace it. But I imagine it doesn’t have too long left. Oh well. It’s more fun collecting the little boxes anyway. Plus when one of the little ones goes, you only have to replace one thing. When a Line 6 box goes, I have to replace FOUR.
But I digress… When I started work on the “It Could Be Worse” album, the board looked as follows and it stayed that way up until about a month ago. Since I took a year to work on that album, that means this set-up was the only one I used for a full year, which is kind of a record for me…
And that brings us up to the last two months. I have a sort of habit of buying myself something cool every time I complete an album. It’s part “job well done” and part inspiration to work on the next one. Usually it’s a guitar. This time I decided I wanted to buy myself a new board.
In watching a series of YouTube videos I’d come across the concept of signal-buffers. They serve a dual purpose and I’ll start with the easier of the two… Every guitarist has to think about how to position things on their pedal board for “ease of reach” purposes. Especially if you’re also a singer, you need your most used effects that you’re going to need to turn on and off mid-song the most frequently as accessible as possible. In brief, for me that means I need my distortions and delays at the FRONT of the board, in order to reduce risk of losing my balance or just flat out missing hitting the right box at the right time and messing up the flow of my playing. The thing that first attracted me to signal buffers is that they’re big, long units that sit at the front of your board and you can hook your effect boxes into it and control any pedal that’s set anywhere on the board from the switches on the front. It was a lifesaving concept…but it comes with an added benefit as well.
Signal buffering is hard to explain. In brief, it cleans up your sound a lot by removing the pedals that aren’t in use from the signal chain when you’ve turned off the switch for that pedal. The more boxes you put between your guitar and your amp, the more your signal is degraded by small amounts. It may not even be noticeable, but it’s happening. And if you’re a guy like me who likes a lot of effects, it’s a big difference, even if you don’t actually know it’s happening. Signal buffering puts each box plugged into the master unit into its own “loop” effectively removing the degradation of the signal for each effect you turn off. Confused? Me too.
Long story short…many amps have an “effects loop” that addresses this problem up to a point. A signal buffer box is basically multiple effects loops in one box. I bought one. It has ten loops. That means my signal now has up to 10 less boxes between the guitar and the amp. It’s a MUCH cleaner sound. I almost didn’t believe it when I heard it. There are lots of those boxes out there…but I recommend Loop Master. Even if you have them build something custom and they don’t have something in-stock, it’ll be worth the wait and it’s the least cost you’re going to find on the market. I thought what I was buying was going to take 3 months to complete…but it turned out to be in-stock and I had it within 2 weeks. Which SEVERELY expedited how quick I had to do everything else!
The trickiest part of a signal buffer is that it’s a BIG piece of equipment. My board that you’ve seen above was never larger than 24″ wide. The Loop Master unit I bought is 26″. I needed a bigger board. I shopped around and the board that’s currently the most used in the industry is the Pedal Train. I was initially trying to avoid them and find something a little cheaper, but I kept coming back to their design…so I sprung for the Novo 32 board. It’s a full 32″ wide. Enormous. This is the box it came in…
That photo, of course, is slightly misleading. That’s way bigger than 32″. But it was so absurd, I wanted to share it. The board itself is just plain aluminum rails with space to allow for wiring and so on. It doesn’t even come with the Velcro on it (although they do provide it). You have to stick everything down yourself. I purposely chose something that allowed me to start absolutely from scratch.
The most important part was choosing the stuff that was going to go on it. I had some old stuff I wanted to include (including some stuff I hadn’t used in a long time) and also knew I’d be buying a couple of new pieces I’d been wanting to add. I knew it’d look crazy in the end. That was my goal, in fact. But I wanted it to be FUNCTIONALLY crazy. I wanted it to be a board so versatile it would fit any project I walked into, no matter what instrument I was playing. A board for guitar and bass alike. And even acoustic. So I selected a wide array of effects. Here’s the pile I chose.
Alongside the tried and true effects I added two that I’d been wanting for a while. The first is an overdrive pedal (more or less a distortion for the laymen–but for the non-laymen, I’m sorry I called it a distortion). It’s made by the TC Electronics people, who have fast become one of my favorite companies out there, especially for distortions and similar effects. I first ran across it on the board of Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big (and others). Paul is one of those “next level” guitarists. He did a video demoing the TC MojoMojo pedal and by the time it was half over, I was clicking over to Musician’s Friend to price them. They’re stunningly cheap, so I knew I’d be picking one up eventually. That was about two years ago…for some reason I didn’t pick it up until after the new board arrived. I’m using it in a “cleaner” setting than Gilbert does, but I like it a lot. It’s a nice warm overdrive and I think it’s going to be a mainstay…like my Blues Driver, but warmer.
I also picked up a pedal that just came out this year. In fact, I had to wait for it to be in stock at the start of this month before I could take it home! But the Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 is easily my favorite pedal I’ve bought in 10 years. It’s a reverb pedal. Strangely I’ve never had a reverb pedal and I knew I wanted to put one on Ultra Super Mega Board for those times I’ll be running into an amp that doesn’t have reverb built in. What sold me on the Oceans 11 wasn’t so much the fact that it’s got 11 preset reverbs built in…it was the one called “Shimmer.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful reverb mixed with a synth effect that you’ve got to hear to believe. (Check out my podcast next week for that.)
Once I had all of the pedals I thought I wanted, I needed to figure out how to power the thing. My previous board had built in power–it’s one of the things that attracted me to that board. Unfortunately, the power on it was a little unstable. Some of the power cables would glitch every now and again and send a static sound through the amp. Apart from that probably being a fire hazard, it was also annoying. For the last several years that I’d been running that board, I was powering stuff using a “1 Spot” power supply, which was essentially a single adapter that powered nine pedals. But that wasn’t ideal. That system tends to create a lot of what is called “proximity noise.” Essentially all of the transformers are powered by the same source, and that results in some hum. What I needed was ISOLATED power. So I started looking at the bricks made by Voodoo Labs and similar companies… And in that process I found out that Truetone makes what I was looking for. They made the “1 Spot” unit I’d been using previously, but had since expanded to make isolated supplies. So I bought A 1 Spot Pro and installed it. Then basic math told me I needed more spaces…so I bought a second one.
As you might imagine a board that takes up that much real-estate and power also needs a crapload of wires. While the Loop Master provides the convenience of putting all the controls right at the front of the board, it also results in the inconvenience of having to buy about four times as many cables as you had before, since every pedal going into it is now isolated. So…this happened…
They don’t tell you when you start playing guitar that you’re also going to have to become an amateur electrician. Wiring everything and worrying about milliamps and DC power vs AC and all of that is something I only started worrying about when I started building this board. I’ve learned a lot over the past two months…but that’s all useless now, because I plugged it all in, it worked…and it looked like this:
I noodled around for a couple hours, setting volumes and changing tones. The signal buffering means my tone has not only clarified but also CHANGED. I needed to tweak and dial in a new, cleaner tone. I’ve always used compression to even out my playing a little, so that’s present…but I’ve also put an EQ at the start of the chain and a pedal called the “Sonic Stomp” that adds some clarifying processing and low-end boost. In brief…my clean tone is clear and crisp without losing the low-end…I’m finally happy with it. I never thought I’d say that!
Of course, after all the planning and work, once I started playing through the board, I almost immediately realized there was something I wanted to change. Which of course meant unplugging everything. Which was an hour’s work. The silver pedal that is second from the right on the bottom row in the above photo is an acoustic pedal. I thought it would be good to have in there for plugging in my acoustic, but I had forgotten that it has some signal hum that I can’t get rid of easily. It just wasn’t a fit and needed to come off. I don’t use much on my acoustic tone anyway, so it was no big loss. Unfortunately, it was in slot “1” in the Loop Master, which meant everything else was out of order if I put something else in.
But that also allowed me to do something differently that was a blessing in disguise. You have to put a lot of thought into the order of your pedals. Some pedals feed into others in specific orders to be used in certain ways. A Delay pedal is essentially an echo. One of my favorite effects is to put a Flanger after a Delay so that the echoes trigger the wave of the Flanger…essentially I let the one pedal play the other. But I also like my chorus at the FRONT of my chain before my distortion. The Line 6 MM4 box I use was chiefly used for chorus but also has a Flanger and similar effects in it that I’d prefer to have at the other end of the chain…but I was keeping it at the front and mainly just using the chorus. Taking out the acoustic box would allow me to throw in a single chorus pedal and move the other stuff to the other side and use it the way I’d been wanting to.
The problem there was that I didn’t have a working standalone chorus pedal. I’d been using an old DOD Ice Box until this year, but it started emitting an overwhelming hum any time I turned it on, making it unusable. So…yesterday I went to Guitar Center and bought what should be the LAST thing I’m buying for a long time and threw an MXR Analog Chorus on the board. (I like MXR pedals a lot.)
So…after completing it, then re-completing it…this is the FINAL version of Ultra Super Mega Board.
For those who really only want to know what’s on there and why, here’s the chain.
- Guitar Signal – I then run into some basic tone pedals before it gets into the signal buffer.
- TC Electronic Polytune – It’s just a tuner.
- MXR Dyna Comp – Compressor pedal. I always like a little bit of compression on my electric tone to even out the dynamic between the chords and the leads.
- Danelectro – Fish & Chips – EQ pedal. I rarely used it before, but now use it to dial in the crispness on the treble side.
- BBE Sonic Stomp – Or if you zoom in you’ll see I’ve put some tape over it and renamed it “Sonic Screwdriver.” I use it to round out my low end and warm up the overall tone.
- Loop Master Signal Buffer
- MXR Analog Chorus – I don’t overdue it with chorus. Just a little sparkle.
- Electro-Harmonix Nano POG – Essentially an octave pedal to make single notes and chords tastefully huge.
- Boss Blues Driver – I use it as a slightly crunchy clean overdrive–just a little bit of break.
- MXR Custom Badass ’78 Distortion – A nice, gritty, hot-roddy distortion.
- TC Electronic MojoMojo – Similar to the Blues Driver, but warmer.
- TC Electronic Dark Matter – Over the top distortion. I use this most of the time for soloing.
- Electro-Harmonix Mel 9 – A mellotron simulator. Keys, strings, and flute sounds. Weird effect that I just kinda like. I taped my niece Melody’s picture over the word “Mel” on the face of the pedal.
- MXR Analog Delay – I set this one slightly faster and slightly quieter than my other one. It’s for beefing up solos, but without drawing attention to the echo.
- Boss Digital Delay – I use this as my full-on David Gilmour echo effect.
- Line 6 MM4 – Modulation effects. I’d previously mostly used choruses, but now it’s set for a phaser, a rotary sound, a flanger, and a tremolo. Nice to finally have all of that on tap!
- Electro-Harmonix Freeze – A weird pedal that freezes whatever sound was going through it when you step on it. Creates a cool drone effect when used correctly.
- Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 – Multi-reverb. I mostly like the Plate reverb and the Shimmer effect.
- Boss Fender ’59 Bassman – Models the Fender Bassman amp. I mostly just have it here for running direct. Sounds great plugged direct into a mixer.
- Out to amp.
It has been a LONG journey to construct this thing. Thanks for reading about it!
- Guided By Voices – Space Gun
- The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage & Joy