In recent years, true bypass pedals have become a go-to solution for musicians looking to preserve their tone. True bypass pedals directly connect input to output when the pedal is switched off, thereby ensuring that the pedal’s circuitry does not interfere with the guitar’s original tone when it is not in use. In short, with a true bypass pedal, if it's not on, it's as if the pedal is not there at all. Sounds ideal, right?
Carvin Audio’s VLD1 Legacy Drive tube preamp pedal features true bypass switching when bypassed.
In some cases, it can be. If you use only a few pedals, a 100% true bypass system may be right up your alley, especially if you love the sound of your guitar or bass without any pedals at all. However, if you end up expanding your pedalboard and throwing more pedals in the mix, you probably will want to start looking at adding a buffer of some sort.
Simply put, a buffer is a preamp stage built into a pedal that maintains the strength of your guitar’s signal. That leads to the question of what weakens your guitar signal, and actually, a few factors in your setup can. Let's imagine a setup in which you have a pedalboard with ten pedals, and half a foot of cabling in between each one. In addition, you have a twenty foot cable connecting your guitar to your pedalboard, and then a twenty foot cable connecting your pedalboard to your amp. All in all, that's almost fifty feet of cable!
Simply put, long cable runs add noise and capacitance to your signal, the result of which is a weakened tone with noticeably reduced treble response. This is especially pronounced if you are using lower quality cables. A good buffer will help drive your signal and prevent all your pedals and cables from weighing down your tone.
How to tell if you need a buffer
The easiest way to determine whether or not you need a buffer is to play your guitar through your pedals and then directly through your amp (without plugging into any pedals), using identical settings and a shorter cable. It is best to conduct this test at a moderate volume, so you can really perceive the nuances. Then, compare the two. When plugged in through your pedals, is there less treble in your sound and/or does it sound duller? If so, you probably need a buffer. If you have no noticeable signal loss, then you’re good to go.
Where should the buffer go?
In most cases, a buffer works best as close to the beginning of your pedal chain a possible. The reason is that a buffer can only affect the length of cable that comes after it, so to make the most of it, it should be placed up front to drive as much of your signal chain as possible. This is not a one-size-fits-all application though; certain pedals, like some fuzz and overdrive pedals, do not play nicely with a buffer right in front of them. A buffer may make them sound too hot or harsh. Feel free to move your buffer around your chain and see where you like it best. Its job is to help your tone, not hurt it, so just like any other pedal; you will need to experiment with it.
What are my options for a buffer?
Buffers come in many forms. Some pedals, like Boss pedals, come with a buffer built right in, but this maybe a sacrifice to having a true bypass when the pedal is switched out. Some manufacturers offer independent, dedicated buffer pedals that are often compact in size for ease of installation on your pedalboard. Certain preamp and DI boxes also come equipped with buffers, which are great solutions for bass players especially. Remember, not all buffers are created equal, and different ones will have different effects on your tone. In fact, the “tone suck” that is associated with certain buffered pedals can sometimes be attributed to the player simply not liking the buffer.
Do you have a buffer in your chain? If so, what are you using? Let us know in the comments!