For guitarists that love to play with pedals, buffer pedals may seem unexciting and, in some cases, useless. However, these pedals could make or break a pedalboard, depending on a few factors, of course.
Are buffer pedals necessary and where do they go in a signal chain? Buffer pedals are often not necessary when connecting a guitar straight into an amp and even when using a few pedals. However, having a good buffer pedal at a low-signal-level point in the signal chain can make or break the sound and tone of a guitar through a pedalboard.
In this article, we’ll go through what buffer pedals do; the role of a buffer on and in other pedals; whether a buffer pedal or buffer pedals are right for you, and where to put a buffer pedal in the signal chain if need be.
What Does Buffer Mean In Terms Of Effects Pedals?
A buffer, when dealing with guitar pedals, is an active electronic circuit that keeps a guitar signal level strong and its frequency profile intact. In other words, it’s a circuit that preserves tone.
Why would we need to preserve tone?
The most common issue with guitar tone degradation has to do with the length of the cable. Cables have distributed capacitance. Long cables have higher capacitance and higher capacitance means great attenuation of high-end frequencies (the production of a low-pass filter with a lower cutoff frequency).
Another issue could be that an effects pedal has a very weak output or that a series of effects pedals slowly chip away at the tone as the signal passes through each and every one of them.
The buffer circuit will effectively negate the capacitive destruction of the signal by having a high input (load) impedance to accept incoming signal and a low output (source) impedance to output signal.
So then, a buffer is simply an electronic circuit that helps maintain and even improve the frequency response (and, thereby, tone) of a guitar signal by converting the impedance of the signal.
There are dedicated buffer pedals, which this article will focus on. There are also buffered bypass pedals, which we’ll also discuss, that provide a buffer to help maintain signal strength through the pedal even when the pedal is set to the off position.
How Does A Buffer Pedal Work?
Buffer pedals are designed to minimize cumulative capacitance in a chain of guitar pedals by adjusting the guitar signal impedance to maintain signal quality. Buffers act to preserve the high-end frequencies that would otherwise be lost due to these factors, keeping the guitar’s true tone intact.
A buffer pedal will act to minimize the tone sucking (added capacitance) of the pedals (and cables) the come after it in the pedalboard/series of pedals. They do so with high input (load) impedances that can handle higher signal impedance and low output impedances that are better suited to drive the pedals (and cable) down the line.
The JHS Little Black Buffer (link to check the price on Amazon) is a simple and effective buffer pedal. It simply converts the high-impedance signal at its input to a low-impedance signal at its output to effectively drive the next pedal in-line.
The Fender Level Set Buffer (link to check the price on Amazon) is another example of a buffer pedal. This time, there are level and high-end frequency controls (both ± 12 dB of clean gain); a load switch to alter the input impedance and an output for a tuner.
The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a dedicated buffer circuit (the TC Electronic Bonafide buffer circuit to be exact) combined with an incredible polyphonic tuner.
JHS Pedals is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Fender and TC Electronic are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
What Does Buffered Bypass Mean?
If you’re into guitar pedals, you’ve likely heard the term “true bypass,” which we’ll get to in a minute.
The other common, though less celebrated (but equally important) bypass type for guitar pedals is buffered bypass.
Buffered bypass pedals, put simply, can be defined as follows:
When a buffered bypass pedal is turned on, the signal flows through the circuitry and the desired effect is produced. When the pedal is turned off, the signal flows through the circuitry without triggering the effect.
Pedals with buffered bypass, then, will affect the signal tone even when turned off. They will also maintain an input and output impedance and, therefore, act as a buffer.
Just because buffered bypass pedals act as buffers does not make them effective as buffers, though. Some pedals will actually degrade the signal with a high output impedance or through highly-coloured circuitry, even when the pedal is turned off. Some will output very low signals that may even require a dedicated buffer immediately after to bring the signal level back up.
Buffered Bypass Vs. True Bypass
Since we’re on the topic and I’ll be discussing these pedal “types” later on, let’s run through the differences between pedals with true bypass and pedals with buffered bypass. The main differences can be summed up in the table below:
|True Bypass||Buffered Bypass|
|Signal travels directly from input to output when bypassed||Signal travels through same circuit without engaging the effect when bypassed|
|No gain, impedance or capacitance alteration when bypassed||Impedance and capacitance alterating when bypassed|
|Does not colour tone when bypassed||Does colour tone when bypassed|
|Adds length to the overall cable and, therefore, to signal degradation due to long unbalanced cable runs||Adds a buffer to help maintain signal integrity and allows for longer cable runs|
|May cause pops when engaged||Does not cause pops when engaged|
|Hard-stops effects when dissengaged||Does not necessarily hard-stop effects when dissengaged|
|Typically more expensive for same functionality||Typically less expensive for same functionality|
The main difference is that true bypass pedals will switch circuit paths when engaged and dissengaged. When a true bypass pedal is turned on, the signal flows through the effects circuit. When the true bypass pedal is turned off, the signal will flow direcly from the input to the output as if the pedal wasn’t even part of the signal chain (except for the added length in the overall “cable”).
A key difference for us in the discussion of buffers, is the following:
Buffered bypass pedals will inevitably colour the tone but will often preserve the strength of the signal. Some other buffered bypass pedals will do a poor job as buffers and cause significant signal damage (in tone, volume or distortion).
True bypass pedals, on the other hand, do not colour the tone but do yield longer cable runs, which may certainly diminish the high-end of the guitar signal/tone.
With that knowledge, let’s move on.
For more information on true bypass (and buffered bypass) pedals, check out my article What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
How Many Pedals Can You Have Before You Need A Buffer?
Let’s start with a few parametersto help us find out just how many pedals we can have before a buffer is needed.
- High-end filtering of a guitar signal can be heard with about 18.5 feet of unbalanced patch cable between a guitar plugged directly into an amplifier. 25 feet is considered by many to be the maximum cable length for usable tone.
- Guitar pickup output impedances ten to be around 5kΩ – 20kΩ in the low end and as high as 100kΩ in the high-end. Pedal input impedances should be much higher (preferably 10 times or greater) and pedal output impedance should be much lower (preferably 1/10th or smaller).
Before we get started with some examples, please note that this is theoretical and that the best way to determine if a buffer pedal in needed in your rig is to use your ears and listen for the tone you want!
So let’s say, as an example, we’re running only true bypass pedals. We have a 10-foot patch cable to the first pedal and a 10-foot patch cable from the last patch cable to the amp.
If we’re to stay within 25 feet, that leave 5 feet of “cable” for our pedals. Again, 25 feet is pushing it.
Let’s say our pedals are all the same size with 2″ of “cable” between their inputs and output. Let’s say the interconnecting cables are 6″.
So, then, 7 true bypass pedals would cause 4’8″ of extra “cable.” Of course, this is only the case when the pedals are turned off. When they are turned on, the signal must pass through the circuitry of the pedal. So, as a guestimate, maybe 5 pedals would be the actually maximum.
Again, this is only an example/thought experiment but it’s a way to think about the amount of pedals you can have before the need for a buffer.
When using buffered bypass pedals, dedicated buffers can often be avoided. However, some buffered pedals have high output impedance or low output levels.
It can be hard to know just how good (or bad) a buffered bypass pedal affects the guitar signal. The best way to know if a buffer pedal is needed is to, first, test each pedal individually.
The test involves plugging the guitar into the pedal in question and the pedal into the amplifier. Listen closely to the tone with the pedal engaged and dissengaged. If it’s dull, you may need a buffer.
If you have a buffer handy, put it after the pedal in question and listen to the tone again. Is it brighter or more defined? This is a tell-tale sign that a buffer will benefit your rig.
This should be enough to determine if a buffer is needed.
We can’t have too many low-output or high output-impedance pedals without requiring a buffer pedal.
On the flip side, a mix of high-output, low-impedance buffered bypass pedals and true bypass pedals may not require a buffer at all.
So the answer, ultimately, is “it depends”. The above discussion is simply a way of thinking about how many pedals a setup can have before a dedicated buffer pedal is needed.
Where Should A Buffer Pedal Go In The Signal Chain?
This is a great question. It’s one thing to know if a buffer pedal will be good (or needed) in a rig and another thing to know where the buffer pedal should be position in the signal chain.
In the vast majority of cases, the buffer (when required) is best situated at the front of the chain.
The buffer should effectively preserve the tone of the guitar and provide a strong, low-impedance signal for the entire pedalboard/series of pedals. SO long as there aren’t a ridiculous amount of pedals with only true bypass, this should work fine.
Exceptions to this rule are with many vintage pedals that have low input impedances. If the first pedal on the board has input impedance above 500kΩ, then a buffer in front of them is likely a good idea. However, if the first pedal (or even the second or third pedal) has very low input impedance, it is likely a better option to slap the buffer down immediately after the pedal!
It doesn’t hurt to have a buffer at the end of the pedalboard as well. Remember that the last pedal is effectively driving the input of the amplifier and should have a low enough output impedance (and high enough signal level) to do so properly.
Luckily, many time-based pedals (delays and reverbs) are buffered bypass pedals and typically take care of the buffer circuit for us. That being said, it can be beneficial to test a buffer pedal at the end of the pedals to see if any issues can be solved within the signal chain.
Of course, you can mess around and experiment with buffer placement and listen to where it/they sound(s) best. To reiterate, though, buffers will almost always serve the board best at the very front.
Where should a compressor go in a guitar pedal signal chain? Compression pedals should, “ideally,” go in between utility pedals and gain-based pedals in the signal chain. The “ideal” signal chain of a pedalboard is as follows:
- Utility Pedals: tuners, buffers, and switcher pedals.
- Dynamics pedals: compressors, filters, pitch shifters, and volume pedals.
- Gain-based pedals: boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals.
- Modulation effects pedals: chorus, flanger, phaser and other modulation pedals.
- Time-based effects pedals: delay and reverb pedals
*Volume pedals can go anywhere in the effects chain.
Why do true bypass pedals pop? True bypass pedals must continuously have power supplied in order to quickly switch between the off and on position without any lag in the effected signal. The downside of this is switching is that the input and output coupling capacitors inevitably leak some electrical potential which is quickly dissipated when the pedal is engaged. This dissipation may cause a rather unpleasant pop!