Reexamining Vintage Analog Effects

The recent proliferation of rack-mounted digital multi-effects processors has created a surge of interest in analog effects pedals. The reason for this

The recent proliferation of rack-mounted digital multi-effects processors has created a surge of interest in analog effects pedals. The reason for this surge is obvious: analog effects sound different from digital effects. And if you want true analog sounds rather than digital re-creations, you have to go analog. This trend parallels the ongoing retro craze occurring in professional audio recording, in which musicians are eagerly buying up vintage and vintage-style analog processors in order to restore warmth and life to cold digital signals.

Pedals, however, have their high and low points, and vintage pedals can return you to a different era's many problems even when bringing you its great sounds. With this in mind, let's look at the historical development of analog effects, the sorts of problems people typically encounter when using them, and some solutions to those problems. Although I am writing this article from a guitarist's point of view, the information presented here pertains to keyboardists, bassists, and all other effects users.

A RASH OF EFFECTSThe earliest effects were created using tube technology, and they were relatively bulky. The invention of transistors that followed not only let manufacturers use smaller circuits-thus making floor-model "stompboxes" possible-but also began the virulent tubes-versus-transistors debate. (Ironically, these two diametrically opposed technologies are now lumped together under "analog" in the controversy over analog versus digital technology.)

The first commercially available effects, tremolo and vibrato, appeared in the late 1940s. The confusion regarding the difference between tremolo (which modulates volume) and vibrato (which modulates pitch) persists to this day, as evidenced by the use of both terms to refer to a guitar's whammy bar.

The engineering behind many of these early effects was quite imaginative. For example, DeArmond's tremolo used a motor-driven wheel to rock a small tube of mercury that opened and closed a circuit, thus modulating the volume. Leo Fender's tremolo circuit, which he called "vibrato," used a low-frequency oscillator to pulse a light source directed at a photoresistor. Fender also produced a combination vibrato and reverb unit called the Dimension IV, which used the questionable technology of an electric motor rotating an oil-filled can in front of a light source.

Stand-alone echo and reverb units were next on the scene. Les Paul created echo effects using modified tape recorders in the '40s, but dedicated tape echoes-with names such as Eccofonic, Echolette, Echoplex, and Copicat-didn't appear until the '50s. The Binson Echorec had one of the more exotic designs, using a magnetic disk rather than magnetic tape. However, it was engineer Ray Butts who developed one of the first commercially available tape-echo units, for use in his EchoSonic amplifiers-a combination that helped define the early guitar sounds of Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Luther Perkins.

Mechanical reverb units were the result of attempts to emulate the sound of echo chambers. Rather than using a room for reverberation, manufacturers attached transducers to large metal plates or tightly coiled springs. The Hammond Organ Company developed one of the first spring reverbs and licensed it to Fender, who issued the GA-15 Reverb unit in 1961.

BIRTH OF THE FUZZAlthough the first effects pedals appeared in the early 1960s, many of their circuits were developed years earlier. For instance, examples of fuzzy-sounding guitar solos can be heard on several late-1950s records, and Chet Atkins says he had a transistorized distortion device custom-built for him sometime in the '50s. The first commercially made distortion pedal, the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, was introduced in '63 and was based on a circuit developed a few years earlier by Nashville studio engineer Glen Snotty. This circuit emulated the sound of a blown channel in a tube mixing console. After Tommy Tedesco and Keith Richards used fuzz boxes in 1965 (Tedesco on the theme from the television series Green Acres and Richards on the Rolling Stones hit "Satisfaction"), it seemed as if everyone wanted that sound.

The wah-wah pedal was first released in 1966 by Vox. Called the Real McCoy, it was named after trumpet player Clyde McCoy, who wanted something that would give his organ a trumpet-mute effect. The pedal bears his picture on its underside (although later models have only his signature).

By the late '60s, most guitar amplifiers came with reverb and either tremolo or vibrato, and fuzz boxes, wah-wahs, and tape echoes were de rigueur for guitarists. Dozens of companies produced literally hundreds of versions of these and other effects, including overdrives, compressors, phase shifters, octave splitters, and time-based effects such as delay, chorus, and flanging. But after the initial effects craze peaked, many of the smaller companies faded away, and only the larger manufacturers continued to offer comprehensive lines of stompboxes.

THE OLDER, THE BETTER?The debate over the superiority of tubes versus transistors was hot in the '60s and '70s, and it continues to this day. For example, most musicians consider distortion produced by tube saturation sonically superior to distortion produced by a transistorized circuit. Tube versions of early tape echoes, like the Echoplex and Copicat, are also considered superior to the later solid-state models. But because tubes take up more space and the technology is more expensive, all but a few of the classic stompboxes are solid state, including the most coveted distortion and overdrive pedals.

Bear in mind that for every great fuzz box or wah-wah pedal created, there were dozens of mediocre imitations. And the pedals that sounded bad in the '60s and '70s haven't improved with age. Because prices for old pedals of every type are at an all-time high, and because price is not necessarily an indicator of sonic quality, buyers should beware. If you decide to buy a legendary pedal, keep in mind that individual units may vary considerably, particularly those models that were manufactured over a period of many years.

When tracing an individual pedal's pedigree, true pedal aficionados rely on serial numbers, variations in color and graphics, changes in transistor types, and other empirical data. A pedal's value is determined by its rarity and sound quality, and a slight difference in knob style or logo can sometimes distinguish a good pedal from a less desirable one.

For example, the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (see Fig. 1) has several versions, and the hard-core collector knows that the best is the original version with the JRC4558 IC chip, the on/off switch that can be opened and cleaned, and "AC ADAPTOR^AC109 DC9V" printed at the top of the rear panel. Similarly, the Clyde McCoy and several other early Vox wahs are distinguished from later models by the sorts of rectifiers, transistors, and pots they contain.

To complicate things further, pedals that come from the same batch and have identical physical characteristics may have distinguishable sonic differences. One Clyde McCoy pedal may sound thin and wimpy while another sounds big and fat, and there's no way to distinguish between the two except by using your ears.

DO YOUR PEDALS SUCK?Vintage effects pedals have drawbacks, such as their tendency to attenuate high frequencies and change the tone of a guitar. This problem, known as tone sucking, results from impedance mismatches and inadequate bypass circuitry. Tone sucking occurs even when the pedals are supposedly off. Connecting several pedals together exacerbates the problem and creates new ones, such as amplifying noise at every gain stage in the signal path. Though effects pedals have improved incrementally over the years (for example, most of them are no longer radiophonic), newer pedals can also suffer from these kinds of problems.

One common solution is to build a custom switching system that allows individual pedals to be removed from the signal path when they're not in use. Even so, signal attenuation and impedance mismatches can still occur when several effects are active, so the input and the individual effects loops need to be buffered and level-matched. More advanced systems allow you to switch the order of the pedals. After all, a wah-wah effect placed before a rotary-speaker effect sounds very different than it does when placed after it. And it's nice to have both options available at the push of a button. The fanciest switching systems store snapshots of the different pedal arrangements in onboard memory, where you can access them via footswitches.

Guitarists with sufficient coin can commission specialists like pedalboard gurus Bob Bradshaw and Pete Cornish to build custom systems for them. These systems go far beyond simply switching pedals around. Sometimes individual effects are removed from their boxes, mounted together on a faceplate, and hardwired to the relays and footswitches that compose the switching system. In other cases, the effects are built into racks, with the pedalboard serving only as a remote switcher.

If you want a particular sound but the pedal that produces it is problematic, a cleaner version can be custom-made and substituted for the original. Usually, all the effects are connected to a regulated central power supply, eliminating the need for batteries and multiple adapters. These systems can be very expensive, however, and they deal only with pedals that go between your guitar and your amp's input. If you want the system to control your rack-mounted effects as well, you'll almost certainly need some sort of MIDI interface, making your setup all the more complex and costly.

WHAT TO DOSwitching systems like those described above can cost thousands of dollars, not including the effects. You can extrapolate some of the basic concepts, however, and employ them in DIY fashion. A good place to start is with signal flow-in particular, the signal flow through your cables. Using the highest-quality cables can greatly reduce noise and improve your overall sound, with or without effects pedals.

Next, listen to each pedal individually and determine the extent to which each modifies your guitar sound. If any of your pedals are tone suckers, the least-expensive solution is to avoid using them. If you must use them, consider having them modified with "true bypass" circuitry, which routes the signal around the pedal's electronics when it's inactive. Sonically this is the best solution, but it can be costly and will reduce whatever value your pedal may have as a collector's item.

An alternative that doesn't alter your pedal but works nearly as well is to use a loop selector. Loop selectors are passive devices that switch one or more effects loops in and out of the signal path. The more sophisticated loop switchers employ active electronics to buffer and level-match signals of varying impedance loads.

For example, my vintage PMP BUF IV combines a small active-A/B switcher, loop bypass, and gain booster. I put my Little Big Muff Pi and Cry Baby (two fearsome tone suckers) in the loop, so that I can bypass them when I don't need them. I also set up the A/B function to toggle between my amp and my tuner, which allows me to switch the latter out of the signal path except when I need to use it (the tuner also sucks tone). Effects-loop switchers of all types and configurations are available from a variety of manufacturers.

You may also find it convenient to mount your pedals on a pedalboard. This lets you transport them as one unit and alleviates repatching. Many manufacturers, and some custom shops, offer empty pedalboards that you can configure to your tastes. If your pedals are AC powered, you can plug them into a power strip and have a single power line for your rig. Battery-powered effects can benefit from a regulated power supply that feeds all the pedals from a single source (see Fig. 2). A number of manufacturers make power supplies specifically designed for use with effects pedals.

STOMP ITVintage effects pedals may require special handling for their full potential to be realized. Before you step into the past, take a look at the floor-based and rack-mounted multi-effects processors currently available (see Fig. 3). Some have special features such as tube circuitry and digital emulations of vintage effects, and the majority have more switching, routing, and programming power than even the fanciest custom-switching systems.

If you simply must have a bunch of old effects underfoot, though, try some of the solutions I've suggested here. And remember to hold on to your digital effects, because someday they'll be vintage too!

When he's not playing guitar in the improvisational quintet Cloud Chamber (, or fooling around with his vintage effects pedals and tape echoes, Barry Cleveland is editor of EM's Personal Studio Buyer's Guide.

Enthusiasts of vintage pedals will find lots of resources available on the Internet, including dealers, auctions, custom shops, and parts suppliers. The list below will point you in the right direction. Many of these sites also feature educational materials and offer links to additional sites.

Amp Heaven:

Analog Man:

Binson Echorec:

Custom Pedal Racks:

EH Man:

Eli Rose Pedals:



Mel Music:

Mojo Musical Supply:

Neals Music: