This article was originally published for Machine Bites, the blog section of Break The Machine. BTM is a brilliant site for boutique pedals, and is run with an immense amount of care. Check it out!
If you’re a pedal lover you’ll no doubt have an opinion on the concept of true bypass, that aspect of boutique pedal creation that defines many a marketing scheme. Buffers are bad, true bypass is expensive and good, buffered pedals are cheap and guff, and that’s the end of it.
As is the case with all things in life, there’s a lot more to it than that, and the above statement is neither true nor the whole picture. To this end, I did a whole lot of reading to bolster my existing real-world knowledge of the effects of buffering and true bypass, resulting in an article which I hope will clear up many misconceptions regarding this hotly-contested topic.
First things first – what is true bypass? Well, true bypass is so described because it’s a method by which your input and output jacks are hardwired to bypass the entire circuit, so that when the pedal is inactive, it’s as if it wasn’t there, which leads to the ‘keeping your original tone pure’ angle. The difference between this and buffered pedals is that buffers are, in effect, micro preamps, which bump your signal up even when the pedal is turned off.
The biggest argument when it comes to this is that buffered pedals sap your tone, drain your highs, and interfere with the original, pure signal, hence the broad defence of true bypass as being the definitive method for tonal purity. However, before your signal gets anywhere near the pedal, the truly pure sound of the string vibration into the pickup has to go through quite a bit. Your volume and tone pots, even at maximum, load the signal. Then that signal has to deal with the capacitance of your cable – and the quality of that cable – before it gets to the pedal. Already then, what is your pure signal? It’s a conglomeration of the parts involved in that specific guitar, in addition to the sound that you want to hear from your equipment.
The signal that comes off the guitar is pretty wimpy, unless you’re using active circuitry. This means that when it comes to driving your sound through your pedals and the cables that link them together, a bit of help wouldn’t go amiss. What a lot players don’t think about – and as it’s a technical aspect, that’s unlikely – is that the impedance of an amp input is quite high. In an article written by effects legend Pete Cornish, he addresses this very thing:
“Some pedals have an input impedance which is far from high in real terms; the input impedance of the vast majority of amps is 1 Megohm (one million ohms) and in my experience there are few effects pedals that have the same input impedance. A load on the guitar of less than 1 Megohm will reduce the volume and high frequency content of the pickup signal thus giving rise to complaints that “this pedal loses tone/volume” etc. Many effects I have tested have an input impedance of less than 100 Kilohms (ie: only one tenth of the amp input impedance) and cause serious signal losses in the effects chain.”
- Pete Cornish on true bypass
To clarify this, passive pickups have a high impedance – active pickups have low impedance. This means that passive pickups don’t cope as well with long cabling as their active cousins, and that if you take into consideration that your piffling signal has to get through north of 40ft of cable on average (20ft either side of even a single pedal), having a buffered pedal (or indeed a dedicated buffer) at the start of your signal path can go a long way to helping your sound overall. Numerous articles by companies like Roland, PMT and Neunaber talk about the cutoff for signal degradation being 18.5 ft of cable, so if you’re under that, you won’t notice any real difference. Over that, there’s likely to be some treble loss with true bypass, which again a buffer can help to correct.
There’s a lot of upsides to the tone of a true bypass pedal. Drives can sound clearer, more open and natural than their buffered cousins, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. The nature of the circuit can result in a popping noise when you’re turning them off and on – something that having a buffer in the signal path can help to rectify. Certain companies (Dr. Scientist etc) have tried to reduce this problem by using relay switching, which uses an electronic signal to activate the unit instead of a mechanical switch.
So what do you do if you want the best tone from your board? The answer is anything you want, in truth, but let’s look at three possibilities:
- Go all true bypass so that your signal stays as original as possible, which means using good quality cables and keeping your overall cable length shorter;
- Have a dedicated, quality buffer at the start of your signal path to give the signal a boost before it goes through your otherwise true bypass setup;
- Mix as you wish until you get the sound you want, with a buffered pedal (likely your tuner) at the start of the path.
This is, as with all things guitar related, completely personal and objective, and in this article I’ve tried to take a balanced view of the facts available. From my own personal experience, I’ve run both buffered and true bypass tuners at the start of my setup, run both all true-bypass and all-buffered pedals, and settled on a mix of both, with a 70/30 ratio in favour of true bypass. I leave my compressor on all the time, and when I hear my signal completely on its own it’s quite a strange, slightly disheartening experience. The only way for you to know what works is to try it, but if you want to hear and see the difference that true bypass and buffers have on your signal, here’s quality session man and pedal aficionado Pete Thorn talking with heavy tech Thomas Nordegg about this very thing:
I hope you found this article helpful – let me know what you thought, and I’ll catch you next time!