Does Having Too Many Pedals Make A Difference?

The integrity of your guitar signal is something of a holy grail. We go out of our way to ensure that our setups produce the clearest sound possible, but many believe that the length of a signal chain can have a detrimental effect. This particularly applies to pedalboards; how much of a difference does the size of your pedalboard make to the clarity of your signal? Let's find out!

Sam Beattie

Sam Beattie

You know how the old saying goes: you can never have too many pedals, right? Here at Andertons Music Co, we love pedals as much as the next player (or arguably more so). There’s nothing we love more than an array of colourful effects and stompboxes that we can tap dance with! While some effects are designed to subtly improve your tone, there’s the occasional pedal that’ll warp your signal chain beyond recognition.

You may have spent weeks, months or years tweaking your pedals to attain that sound you’ve been after, but what about when they’re bypassed? It’s long been a hot topic of discussion among guitarists and tone aficionados. The idea of your tone being affected/diminished in some way by having a long signal chain with multiple stops along the way seems logical. So what’s the answer?

Hypothesis: Having more pedals in your signal chain weakens your signal volume and quality.

We’ll be conducting a number of experiments to get to the bottom of this age-old tonal conundrum. Pedals have become more and more popular over the years, arguably for obvious reasons. While plugging a guitar into the front of a cranked up valve amp appeals to the no-frills rockstar inside each of us, the idea of sculpting your tone with a variety of stompboxes has proven an irresistible formula.

So what happens when you take a clear signal that runs from your guitar to your amp, and put loads of fun stuff in between? When you turn them on, it sounds great (unless they’re all fuzz pedals – that’s an acquired taste); but when you flick them back off, does your guitar sound the same? That’s what we’ll be exploring with this experiment. While there a number of variables to consider (which we’ll look into shortly), the main thing we’ll be analysing is the number of pedals used, and how that affects tone.

What is ‘Tone Suck’?

Tone suck is a popular term for the very thing we’re trying to debunk. It’s the idea of losing some signal integrity by plugging a pedal / a number of pedals. While there are possibly more professional terms to use, this is the one that gets thrown around most often. Mention it in a room full of guitarists and you’re in for a lengthy debate.

Guitar pedals are a cocktail of capacitors, transistors, soldering and digital processing. It seems only natural that a signal running through all of that would be affected in some way, right? Some pedals have more going on inside, and many argue that pedals with cheaper components have more of a negative effect on your tone. Plug in a cheap old overdrive pedal and leave it switched off – you might just hear a difference!

What are buffered & true bypass pedals?

Buffered & true bypass circuity is designed to combat any form of ‘tone suck’. The idea of buffered circuitry is give a slight boost to your tone, ensuring that any subsequent signal loss has been pre-preemptively accounted for. While this ensures that your signal remains clear and strong, it can also colour it slightly. A more popular option, wherever available, is a true bypass pedal. As the term suggests, this means that your signal passes through the pedal totally uninterrupted – you can even remove a power source, and you’ll still be going!

How does an FX loop work?

An FX loop is another tool used by guitarists to ensure preservation of signal strength and clarity. It’s become a hugely popular feature on many modern guitar amps.

Most guitar amplifiers consist of a pre-amp and a power amp. The pre-amp is what gives you your tone, and the power amp is what converts it into amplified sound. If you plug pedals into the front of your amp, those effects go through the preamp, thus compromising your precious tone.

The FX loop gets in between the two amp components, mean your pedals are only added after the pre-amp, preserving your tone and providing an arguably clearer signal. This could be considered subjective, as many guitarists don’t mind the colouration of running your board in to the front of an amp! Many tonal purists actually divide their effects, running overdrive and dynamic stuff through the front end, and ambience and modulation effects through the loop. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be running everything through the front of our amp, as we’re not concerned about the effects themselves!

Variables

  • Number of pedals – as we’ve already mentioned, if having pedals in your chain affects your tone in some way, the number of pedals is bound to make a difference. That’s why we’ll be testing a number of different signal chains with varying amounts of pedals involved. This will (in theory) give us a clearer overview of the results.
  • Types of pedals – analog vs digital, cheap vs expensive, fuzz vs modulation, and so on. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a bypassed fuzz pedal might make a bigger difference to tone than a digital reverb. We’ll be using a curated selection of pedals that cover every category, price point and configuration wherever possible.
  • Cable quality – we recently conducted a similar experiment, looking at how different types of cable affect tone. The Stagg SGC6 6m surprisingly came out on top – we’ll be using these in our experiment.
  • Power Supply – many perceive daisy-chain power supplies to be noisier than isolated ones. On the recommendation of our video team, we’ll be using the Truetone 1 Spot Pro CS12.

Method

There will be a carefully picked selection of pedals that cover the 4 main categories: dynamic, overdrive, modulation and ambience. There will be 4 pedals in each category – here’s the list:

  • Dynamic pedals: Xotic EP Booster, MXR Dyna Comp Mini, Origin Cali76 Paradiso, Fender The Bends Compressor
  • Overdrive pedals: JHS Angry Charlie, Mythos Golden Fleece, Way Huge Russian Pickle, Keeley D&M Drive
  • Modulation pedals: T-Rex Tremster, Walrus Audio Julia Chorus/Vibrato, Mooer Trelicopter, MXR Uni-Vibe
  • Ambient pedals: Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb, Alexander Pedals Quadrant Delay, GFI System Clockwork Delay V2, Tone City Tiny Spring

These pedals will then be arranged into 4 signal chains of different lengths. We’ll select the same number of pedals from each category for each chain to keep it fair and varied. It’s worth pausing for a reminder at this point; as colourful as this selection is, it’ll be totally bypassed – switched off – for the duration of the experiment. Boring, we know – but it’s in the same of science. We might switch them all on at the end just for fun…

For each signal chain, we’ll play a few of snippets of playing, covering both clean and distorted tones. With all of this in mind, we’re hoping to get a really broad overview of how the size of your pedalboard affects your sound! The amp we used was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe IV, mic’d up using a Shure SM7B. So without further ado, let’s get cracking!

The Results!

We’ll start off by looking at the video; below you’ll find a list of timestamps that specify which signal chain you’re hearing.

  • 0:34 – 4 pedals, clean
  • 0:53 – 4 pedals, clean chords
  • 1:21 – 4 pedals, overdrive lead
  • 1:31 – 4 pedals, overdrive chords
  • 1:47 – 8 pedals, clean
  • 2:04 – 8 pedals, clean chords
  • 2:30 – 8 pedals, overdrive lead
  • 2:40 – 8 pedals, overdrive chords
  • 2:55 – 12 pedals, clean
  • 3:13 – 12 pedals, clean chords
  • 3:40 – 12 pedals, overdrive lead
  • 3:51 – 12 pedals, overdrive chords
  • 4:08 – 16 pedals, clean
  • 4:26 – 16 pedals, clean chords
  • 4:52 – 16 pedals, overdrive lead
  • 5:13 – 16 pedals, overdrive chords
  • 5:32 – everything on for a bit of fun!

4 Pedals

4 Pedal Signal Chain - Andertons Music Co.

4 pedal signal chain: 4 pedals: Fender The Bends Compressor > Keeley D&M Drive > T-Rex Tremster > Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb

This is the starting point. As previously noted, there are 4 snippets of playing; clean picking, clean chords, distorted picking and distorted chords. As this is step one, we’ll essentially be treating this as our control test, so to speak. When we reach the end of the experiment, we’ll compare it to this chain and see what the difference is!

For reference, we’ll be taking some analytic EQ readings; this will hopefully expose any differences in frequency response that our ears can’t detect. Here are the readings for the 4 pedal signal chain:

8 Pedals

8 Pedal Signal Chain - Andertons Music Co.

8 pedal signal chain: Fender The Bends Compressor > Origin Cali76 Paradiso > Mythos Golden Fleeze Fuzz > Keeley D&M Drive > MXR Uni-Vibe > T-Rex Tremster > Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb > GFI System Clockwork Delay V2

Our first impression is that there’s no notable difference, at least to our ears. There’s almost a hint of extra fizz to the sound, but at this stage it’s difficul to say whether that’s the placebo effect or not!

Upon closer inspection, we feintly noticed a slight emphasis on the midrange frequencies. The sound was a tad more ‘honky’ so to speak, albeit a very minor difference. Let’s take a look at the EQ readings:

These readings seem to confirm the presence of a slight midrange boost. This is most likely as a result of buffered bypass circuitry, whereby pedals that are bypassed are designed to boost the signal going through them prevent loss of quality. Ironically in this case, it seems to have slightly coloured the tone rather than preserve it.

12 Pedals

12 Pedal Signal Chain - Andertons Music Co.

12 pedal signal chain: Fender The Bends Compressor > Xotic EP Booster > Origin Cali76 Paradiso > Mythos Golden Fleeze Fuzz > Way Huge Russian Pickle > Keeley D&M Drive > MXR Uni-Vibe > Walrus Audio Julia Chorus/Vibrato > T-Rex Tremster > Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb > GFI System Clockwork Delay V2 > Tone City Tiny Spring

Again, we’ll start by saying that the noticeable difference here was extremely minor. When we listened more closely, we percieved a feint loss in top-end sparkle, as well as some ‘body’ lost in the lows & low mids. Let’s see if the EQ analysis confirmed this:

For the most part, this does seem to be the case. A slight loss of top-end clarity, plus a shrinking in the low and low-mid frequences (20-200Hz). While it does show up for the clean playing, it’s more evident with the distorted samples. So what happened when we added 4 more?

16 Pedals

16 Pedal Signal Chain - Andertons Music Co.

16 pedals: Fender The Bends Compressor > Xotic EP Booster > MXR Dyna Comp Mini > Origin Cali76 Paradiso > Mythos Golden Fleeze Fuzz > Way Huge Russian Pickle > Keeley D&M Drive > JHS Angry Charlie > MXR Uni-Vibe > Mooer Trelicopter > Walrus Audio Julia Chorus/Vibrato > T-Rex Tremster > Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb > GFI System Clockwork Delay V2 > Tone City Tiny Spring > Alexander Pedals Quadrant Delay

With the addition of 4 extra pedals, we see the trend change slightly. There’s a slight reduction in top-end clarity, as we saw before, and at this point, we also noticed that the signal was slightly more timid in strength and volume. Over to you, EQ:

Again, the EQ seemed to confirm a slight loss in signal strength and top-end clarity. But it also picked up on something that we didn’t notice; an apparent boost in the low and low-mid frequencies. This is more apparent with the distorted samples, but it’s unexpected nonetheless. Again, this is likely to be due to buffered circuitry in the mixture pedals that we used.

Conclusion

The evidence we’ve compiled using video, analytic EQ and our own ears seems to show some interesting and unexpected results. In the grand scheme of things, however, we think it’s safe to say that the difference was negligeble. Many of the differences were picked up by the EQ that we didn’t perceive, which speaks volumes in many ways; these are differences that the average player simply wouldn’t notice.

Despite the arguably negligeble difference that was made to our guitar signal, our conclusion has to come back to our original hypothesis:

Having more effects in your chain weakens your signal volume and quality.

From what we can tell, the number of pedals in your chain doesn’t necessarily weaken your signal, but we can objectively say that it does affect it in a number of ways. We noticed a gradual (albeit feint) decline in volume and punchiness, as well as a softening of the top-end, but by the end of it we saw an increase in low-end presence.

Lessons learned

While we were able to come to some sort of conclusion, conducting this experiment was a learning curve in terms of process. Consistency was key in getting reliable results, so with the benefit of hindsight, we realised that we could achieve better results using different methods:

  • Record loops rather than play for each chain; that way, we’ll get maximum consistency throughout the experiment
  • Taking EQ analytic screeshots at the same timed points in the recordings – again, this will ensure consistency
  • Elaborate on the other variables mentioned earlier in the article; bypass, FX loops etc.

We may well experiment with these points in the future to see if we can dig a little deeper – thanks for reading, folks!

What do you think about the results of this test? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

If you’re interested in finding the answers to some of the most notorious guitar myths around, check out more of our Labs articles.

Sam Beattie
Sam Beattie
Sam is one of our content writers, as well as being our resident southpaw. When he's not busy being left-handed, he spends his time composing for music libraries and playing in a post-rock band. Sam plays a Mexican Telecaster and a Vigier Excalibur, and is never more than 5 feet away from his Electro-Harmonix POG.

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