How many ways can you create an overdriven or distorted guitar signal? A candid interview with Brian Wampler, founder of Wampler Pedals sheds some light on what is really going on inside overdrive and distortion effects.
There is no doubt that distortion and overdrive pedals are the most popular of all guitar effects ever created. The number of pedals produced since the ‘70s is mind numbing, and more new distortion and overdrive effects are introduced each year than any other product related to the electric guitar. No matter how many new pedals may be launched this year, you can be sure that more will follow, and guitarists will continue to chase the next “best” overdrive, distortion or clean boost pedal. In this regard, competition to identify and acquire the latest and “best” new effect creates a constantly moving target in which last year’s phenomenal new pedal is quickly eclipsed by another, and the quest to keep pace in the race to the top can become time consuming and expensive.
While we can’t realistically point to a single pedal with an ironclad guarantee that it will rock your world, we do know that none of us can ever hope to experience every distortion or overdrive effect that has or will be built. You can never hear them all, so how can you possibly know when you may have finally acquired “the best?” Does the search ever end, or is the quest for the holy grail among overdrive and distortion effects an adventure in myth and fantasy driven by hype, the flavor of the month on your favorite forum, and a catchy name? In the interest of truth and in an effort to gently blow some fresh air into the fog, we approached Brian Wampler, founder of Wampler Pedals with a simple question: “How many ways are there to create an overdrive, boost or distortion effect for guitar, and without giving away any design secrets, what’s the trick in making a more pleasing and musical distorted or overdriven sound that will sound as good in my rig as it does in yours?” Enjoy…
TQR: Thanks for agreeing to walk us through the art of creating cool-sounding distortion and overdrive effects, Brian. Let’s start by touching on the guitar effects that first rocked your world and inspired you to begin building pedals… Which pedals really caught your intention and why?
That’s a good question… I wouldn’t say that there was a certain pedal that happened to catapult my interests. Rather, it was the possibility of what could be done using analog circuitry in order to create something with life, something that didn’t feel stale or cheap. What brought me to that realization was a period of time where I was buying a ton of different pedals in order to achieve certain sounds. I would routinely save up for the next “greatest” pedal that I would hear about via magazines or gear forums and I was quite underwhelmed. A friend of mine sold me a Boss DS-1 distortion that he had modified slightly and I was blown away by how different the modified version sounded from the stock version, especially just by changing some capacitors and resistors. Keep in mind that this was a period of time when I didn’t know anything about electronics really – I just new what type of sounds I wanted and I refused to believe that the only way to get those tones were with expensive and vintage amps.
After picking his brain for a bit I found out there were a few DIY websites (such as DIYstompboxes.com, Geofex.com, and Muzique.com just to name a few) that would help explain some basics of electronics. From there I went on to absorb as much information as I could. I bought a breadboard (which allows one to quickly build a circuit temporarily without soldering) and just practiced building and experimenting with various types of circuits. I figured out what makes some circuits have a certain ‘feel’ or reaction to them, and I learned all the intricacies of overdrive/distortion and fuzz circuits. I never stop growing or evolving with that though – even 14 years later I still experiment with various circuits and constantly challenge myself to do better. When you love this stuff as much as I do, I think its part of the passion.
Several years later I was getting a lot of folks asking me how to modify various pedals to get certain tones, so I self-published a few books. While they aren’t available anymore, I still get a lot of newer pedal company owners tell me that those old books helped them get their start. It’s really humbling to have played a small part in growing the “boutique” pedal industry. It’s an industry that is really different than other industries – many of us keep in contact and help each other when needed. It’s a brotherhood of sorts.
TQR: As the pedal world has grown and expanded, certain terms are now used with vague and uncertain meanings… Can you describe the difference between distortion and ‘boost’ or ‘overdrive’ effects? We are really just referring to different levels of clipping, aren’t we?
Kind of, sort of. Yes, there are definite differences in clipping between distortion, overdrive, and just volume boosting. However, it’s possible to create a very heavy gain distortion and a lighter gain type of fuzz. It’s also a bit of gray area…. What one considers distortion another person may consider it more of a fuzz. However, if I had to really narrow it down and simplify it a bit, I personally would consider these as the main attributes: Distortion utilizes harder clipping, overdrive would be softer clipping, fuzz would be very hard clipping. A boost would more or less just be boosting volume. Of course, these aren’t rules or anything, it’s more or less just my opinion.
TQR: So, how many ways can you really create distortion, overdrive and various levels of clipping with a pedal design? There can’t be that many ways to do it…
There are several different ways, mainly using transistors/ FETs of some sort and connected in a few various ways to boost and/or clip a signal, op-amps set up various ways, as well as other IC chips (which can be used to clip a signal). You can also saturate a small transformer, even though it’s not common. The real beauty is in the details. For example, a tube amp uses the same basic process to clip the signal, but every amp sounds dramatically different… a JCM800 sounds nothing like a Blackface twin even though they are both tube amps. There are a ton of variables that go into creating a really good sounding and feeling overdrive or distortion – resistance, capacitance, EQ, the number of stages, types of stages, bias of stages… many different ways. I look at it like cooking. There are a million things you bake with flour, depending on what other ingredients you add to it and how it’s used.
TQR: What makes some pedal effects sound rich, lush and juicy, while others may sound less musical and pleasing? Where is the secret sauce in shaping the tone of effects?
Without giving away specifics, each circuit is tuned to react in a certain way. While no one is using some magic component in order to create a dirt circuit, the magic is in the details. It’s what sets us apart. As I design things, I’m doing it with a guitar in my hand, while most guys start with a computer in front of them. I know how different clipping circuits react, and generally I have a good understanding of what type of circuit to use to achieve what I want just from tons of experience and tenacity.
TQR: Most pedals use op-amps to boost the signal, right? We also hear about mosfet pedals… What does that mean?
Not always – both op-amps and mosfets can be used to boost a signal. Op-amps are basically a type of circuit and mosfets are a type of transistor. There isn’t one type that’s necessarily “better” in every application though. Mosfet’s have a particular sound and feel, just as NPN transistors, JFET’s, and opamps do. All have advantages and disadvantages. For example, mosfet’s have a good sound and feel, but they can also tend to have odd impedance issues with other pedals. Same with NPN or PNP type transistor boosts. If a person wants a full frequency type boost with very little noise and distortion, then an op-amp based booster may be best. Once again, these aren’t rules per se, but they are more of a general guideline. As with everything, exclusions apply, especially depending on the exact circuitry.
TQR: It would seem as if the sweep of the pots used for things like gain and volume would determine how pedals behave to a great extent. True?
A bit, yes – however it’s much more than that. A gain pot is just changing resistance, so depending on the circuit, an ‘audio’ taper may increase gain more gradually than a linear pot for example, however, it won’t change the EQ, and it won’t change the amount of gain if they are the same value. Geofex.com has an excellent article that describes pot tapers, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to read into more about that.
TQR: Should we care about the impedance of a pedal?
Yes, to an extent – I usually strive for high input impedance, and low output impedance. Most importantly is really just how they sound and react though – if they inspire a person to create or not. However, it is definitely true that every pedal works together cohesively in a way that makes impedances matter a bit. For example, many traditional fuzz style circuits do not like a buffered (low output impedance) signal – noise can result as well as the circuit not sounding as intended. Some wahs can be finicky as well, but it’s not just limited to those two types of circuits – if in doubt, send an email to the pedal company whose product you are contemplating purchasing and they should be able to help guide you.
TQR: Is true bypass really so important? Pete Cornish says, “no.”
The answer isn’t that simple. The true answer is yes, and no. Sort of like asking “is cookie dough bad?”… Here is my preference. All true bypass pedals without one buffer as close to the guitar is bad. All buffered pedals are bad. Too many buffered pedals can be bad, but there are no hard and fast number as to what that is. My preference is to use as many true bypassed pedals as you can, run a buffer up front as close to the guitar as possible (except after a wah or fuzz), and try to use pedals that have an analog signal path. I’m not a fan of pedals that convert the signal to digital and then back to analog again – I feel something gets lost in the sound and definitely the ‘feel’.
TQR: It might be helpful at this point to clarify what a buffer is and what it does…
A buffer is a device that changes a high impedance signal into a low impedance signal to drive capacitance. You generally only need one buffer in order to drive the signal into the amp as a low impedance. However if you use a pedal that happens to have a high impedance output then it may be necessary to use a second buffer after that effect. The thing you will notice most without a buffer is that you will lose quite a bit of highs dependent on how long of a cable or cables you are using. Some pedals (for example some Boss or Ibanez) use buffers in the signal path at all times. Sometimes those pedals have two, even four buffers that are in the signal path when the pedal is off. These buffers are generally simple transistor type of buffers which some feel are not of the highest quality and do not always have a very good signal-to-noise ratio. So including multiples of these types of pedals can give you a lot of extra noise hiss as well as a little bit lower signal due to the fact that these type of buffers are not always necessarily 1:1 (an exact gain of 1).
TQR: Can you recommend any specific buffers?
There are several different buffers that are pretty good. I always recommend an opamp based buffer. As far as examples, our “decibel +” pedal works as a standalone buffer, and Emperess makes one as well. I know there are others – check http://proguitarshop.com/ effects/buffers.html Note that some of the buffers on this page are transistor based, which personally I’m not a fan of. The opamp based buffers tend to have a better signal to noise ratio, as well as better signal (actual 1:1 ratio, or gain of 1). Some of the transistor based buffers have a gain of a little less than 1.
TQR: What uncharted territory remains for you to explore as a designer and builder?
Tons of things in the works, look for more pedals of course (including more delays, a tremolo, phase, more 2 in 1 type pedals), a line of bass effects as well as some other companion products.
Having devoted much of an entire issue to the vintage Market Electronics Echoplex in December 2010 and interviewed the late Mike Battle, inventor of the original Echoplex in August 2001, you could call us big fans of tape echo. Not just for the ‘echo’ effect, but for the way it can be used to fatten the sound of the guitar without resorting to heavy slapback repeats. Tape echo is simply one of the all-time classic guitar sounds, yet we knew when we published our in-depth articles on the Echoplex that many of you would understandably shy away from the initial expense involved in finding an old Echoplex and dealing with common restoration and maintenance issues.
When we discovered that Brian Wampler had developed a new faux Tape Echo, we jumped at the chance to evaluate it on your behalf. Compact, intuitive, yet feature rich, we approached our evaluation with high expectations, and we were not disappointed. Wampler has succeeded in creating a very warm, pure analog tape echo effect with the added clarity of digital technology while preserving the fundamental, unaffected tone of your guitar and amplifier. In addition to the basic controls, he has also added Tap Tempo Controls. Level controls the level of the delayed signal, interactive with the Shade and Repeat controls. Repeat controls the level of feedback and at higher settings, very interesting oscillation effects in combination with the setting of the Level control. Lots of fascinating effects to be mined here… Shade functions as the name implies, coloring the tone of the delayed signal from soft and warm to more fluid and defined in the high frequencies. Delay controls the actual delay time, from audible ‘slap’ at around 9 o’clock to 300 ms at 12 0’clock all the way to 600 ms beyond. Extending the delay time adds soft distortion at the end of the notes in keeping with the character of an analog tape delay. Tap Tempo is a soft switch set by tapping on the switch several times to set the tempo, overriding the Delay control setting. The tempo you set is also displayed in the red LED. Faux Tape Reel emulates the character, wow and flutter of true tape delay. A toggle switch takes you in and out of the tape reel modulation effect. Within the Faux Tape Reel controls, Movement controls the rate of modulation, and Sway controls the depth of the modulation effect. Neither of these controls affect the sound of the pedal when bypassed.
The quickest way to get started is to follow the three example settings provided in the owner’s manual. They will provide you with a good understanding of the broad capabilities and extended range of each control, and from there you can begin to experiment with different settings and combinations. You really couldn’t wish for more flexibility or varied delay sounds within the Faux Tape Echo controls, but most significant is the smooth and real analog fidelity that Wampler has achieved. As a result, our old standby Japanese-era Boss DD3 and its bucket brigade COMPANDER chip will be retired.
Wampler’s Faux Tape Echo is the new standard in compact delay pedals for guitar, period. Quest forth… TQ