Love me some pedalboard. I really do.
For decades I refused to use any effects on my bass guitars, being strictly fingers–only when it came to dressing up a note. I can’t deny that self–imposed deprivation helped me master my instrument early on without distractions, and taught me volumes on restraint and articulation I wouldn’t have learned had I jumped right into the effects world. However, after 20-odd years my tone had started to get a bit routine, my phrasing uninspired, and I found myself looking for ways to break out of the rut. Salvation came by way of a critical, distorted bassline I needed to cop for one of my fill-in sessions with a Bay Area electronica band – but cranking preamp gain in my painfully-clean SWR SM–900s was a non-starter. So I grabbed a friend’s Big Muff Pi for the gig, and the rest is history. Years later, I’ve worked and gigged through so many effect combinations, sizes and themes to my pedals and pedalboards that I’ve got my preferences and sounds down to a pretty solid philosophical, aesthetic and ergonomic art.
Philosophically, it’s all about having *the right* assortment of tonal choices when I need them, easily accessed, with as little impact on my basic tone as possible. I still prefer a tone that’s piano-clean yet asskickingly fat via mostly 18v active basses- any effects are simply additive to my primary fingers/instrument/amp sound. That way they stick to their role as the spice in my steady diet of groove, never the main course.
Aesthetically, my effects have got to allow me to enhance my normal tone gracefully (compression, EQ, and chorus), distort the signal six ways from Sunday (boost, distortion, overdrive and fuzz), and filter/add to it (envelope, pitch & synth effects). Efficiency is also a factor (wireless receivers, digital tuners). And it’s simply got to look clean and usable, not some random tangle of wires and boxes that could be kicked astray with a errant toe.
Ergonomically, my pedalboard has got to be playable like an instrument, portable and reliable, and fast to set up & tear down at gigs. It needs to be laid out in common pairings/groupings of pedals in close proximity to one another so I can trigger the more complex, multiple effect settings with a single ‘stomp’ (or at least without signficant tap-dancing onstage).
Tall order, but well-filled now in my current pedalboard. Lets take an overview of my main groups of effects.
Basic tonal enhancement doesn’t really warp my sound, just helps shape it a bit. I use these effects the most as they’re the most subtle and nuanced, and work equally well with all the other twiddly-bits on full-blast. My main ingredients here:
- Source Audio MIDI-programmable EQ – set to mostly just shape basic tones to adjust for fretless/fingerstyle/slap techniques, with 4 presets you can cycle through by holding down the switch. Comes right after the tuner so it gets to my tone before anything else, and really helps equalize things between my three basses. I generally have it off for basic tone, on preset 1 for a brighter solo/slap tone, and presets 2-4 adjust for my fretless, 6-string (w/humbuckers) bass, and even a cello I occasionally play through the rig. Takes MIDI in for program changes, so you can have the MD/keyboardist add in a program change to their sequences for you and avoid the tap-dancing a bit song-to-song. Super handy box!
- MXR Bass Compressor – keeps things clean and in line, and helps rein in some of the heavier effects mid-stream if they get too over-the-top (and can save your speaker cabinets, too!). This is a 5-knob pedal with meter- something unheard of at the price point. It sounds fantastic, but I occasionally switch in a Robert Keeley 4-knob compressor (which sounds gorgeous in it’s own right, but is less functional w/o the meter). Either one is the bomb, but with all the effects in this board, having the MXR’s meter to equalize the levels of everything that comes before while kneeling in the dark at front of stage is, quite frankly, indispensible.
- MXR Black Label Chorus – a great chorus that lets you shelve off the high and/or low end independently, to help more of the fundamental come through. Chorus notoriously washes out a good bass tone without some form of low-pass filtering available, and this was one of the first I found that did it well with a tone I liked. Many other pedals are more bass-focused now (in fact, MXR has a new Bass Chorus Pro pedal that does some of this too), but I’ve used the Black Label for years on bass and guitar – and LOVE IT. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it…
This is where the crispy, crunchy, wooly goodness gets involved by altering the gain of my input signal and normalizing it again before further tweaking. Although you can get by with one good fuzz pedal or clean boost, the subtle nuances in fuzz boxes are hard to ignore if you’ve got spare pedalboard room. So… I use:
- Source Audio Multiwave Bass Distortion – the command center of my distorted effects, but mostly used specifically in tandem with envelope filters and octave effects. It goes from normal distortion/fuzz sounds to foldback and octave distortions, to some combinations that are just plain screwed up (in a good way). This is not your grandfather’s fuzz/overdrive unit. This is a freaking gain factory that covers serious ground, and has the good sense to include a pro-quality noise gate so you can leave it on without pissing yourself off with all the buzzing between songs. You can even *separately EQ* each preset to laser-target it to the frequency range you’re filling in the mix. I still probably only use 10% of what this thing can do, and feel like I overuse it.
- MXR Bass Fuzz Deluxe – A constrained, polite fuzz pedal that fits neatly between the insane Pickle Pie B (next bullet) and the calculating Multiwave Distortion (previous bullet). If I was being totally honest, I’d tell you that this is the one I use when someone asks for ‘dirty’, but doesn’t want ‘fuzz’. It’s polite and sits neatly in the mix. Not a rebel, but a solid base-hitter that I kinda like having around.
- Wren & Cuff Pickle Pie B ‘Hella Fuzz’– My balls-out, one-step-from-meltdown, go-to fuzz sound, with about 25% clean signal blended back in for serious low-end fidelity/punch. At lower settings it’s restrained and actually a bit mellow, but who wants that? This baby goes yard, and holding it back seems unfair (that’s why I have the others!). If the Source Multiwave Distortion is my precision distortion surgical tool, this is the 20-ton tonal sledgehammer that smashed my old Bass Big Muff Pi off of the chain for good after the first day. Love it love it love it love it.
- Wren & Cuff Phat Phuk B – A not-quite-so-clean boost with Wookie-sized balls. Gives a slightly-broken-up warm tone, great for solo sections & pop-out moments, or fattening the previous effects. This can, at times, just get left on – so I don’t usually set it up for a big volume boost, just a little bump where it counts. And OMFG, it can really count (especially with the Pickle Pie).
That list goes in order of insanity – although the Source Multiwave effects are more distorted, they’re also a very controlled, mature distortion that doesn’t get out of control nearly as easily as everything else in this chain and feature their own built-in noise gate – great for chaining in with the octave/envelope filter sounds (as it doesn’t increase the noise floor much, if at all). The MXR and Pickle Pie get used solely by themselves and are like taming wild beasts, both can feed back like crazy if not used with care and touch.
The Phat Phuk B deserves singular note for one reason- it’s great by itself as a little ‘extra balls’ for your basic tone, but is even better when used after any of the other distortion effects. It adds this nice, cohesive ’round’ tone to any of the other distortion/fuzz units basic tone, reins in their fuzziness, and really pulls the tone together into something not just good, but great.
If I had my way, I’d have a separate pedal board just for this category. But what I generally carry with me is:
- Source Audio Bass Envelope Filter – the command center of my envelope effects, and Hot Hand sounds. We’ll talk about the Hot Hand a bit later. For now, suffice it to say this is the main device for all the funky, quacky, phasey effects I love. The Envelope Filter itself, however- is one slick, badass box of purple love. It covers flanging, envelope filter/wah effects, and a ton more. With three switches, it’s usually set up with the left button a wah (using the Source Audio Dual Expression pedal), middle button is a basic envelope filter, and the right (where it can be easily triggered along with the left Multiwave Distortion switch and the MXR Octave Plus switch in one foot-stomp) is the Hot-Hand dubsteppy preset that uses a foldback distortion and octave effect alongside the BEF, which sweeps the envelope as I move my right hand up and down (allowing me to use my feet for other things simultaneously, like playing synth or expression pedals). What a unit!
- MXR Bass Octave Deluxe – this is, were we to really get down to it, my desert island effect (aside from a good compressor). Two separate styles of octave (Girth, i.e. FAT, and Growl, i.e. growly), which blended together with a clean signal, make for tons of variations on the octave theme. Also included- midrange boost (which can fatten things up, especially if you scoop your main amp EQ). The Multiwave Bass Distortion (above) also covers some octave fuzz effects, but they’re octave FUZZ effects. This is just for the clean stuff (witnessed whenever I’m ripping off Pino Palladino’s sweet fretless/octave tone).
- Source Audio Hot Hand 2 Wireless Sensor – A wireless finger ring/sensor combo that lets me control parameters on the Bass Envelope Filter with my hand motion. Trust me, this shit is trippy cool. You can pull off crazy dubstep effects, smooth fx tweaks on the fly, and perfectly-timed phasing/rotor effects with complex rhythms in a way you just could never do as well using a pedal. However, any significant overview of the Hot Hand really can only be shown via video (coming in part 2), alas. It’s just way too cool for words alone.
Although they’re far too specialized for constant use, I’ve got a bunch of odd pedals that I like to use but will only bring along if I don’t need tons of distorted tones and need to hit the synthy sounds hard. They get rotated into the upper-left ‘fuzz’ section when called into play (or sit aside the board entirely using 1 of 4 extra power jacks), and are in no particular order:
- Chunk Systems Octavius Squeezer – gravely misunderstood and insanely difficult to program, this ultimately flexible, beautiful bass synth is what I’ve got all my go-to synth sounds programmed on, and it even backs ’em up with a SD card. Total one-stop shop for synth, envelope, octave and fuzz effects – but also – total overkill unless I’m doing R&B or hip-hop where it’s more about the crazy-assed sounds I can pull up on command than about a few kick-ass combinations I’d go to regularly. Takes MIDI in so I can program patch changes with the keyboard player and/or MD if needed (although I get a bit nervous when my effects are switched without my foot involved, I’ll admit).
- Morpheus Bomber – it’s a Digitech Whammy Pedal without all the tracking errors, cheapie creased-metal construction and horrible D/A conversion. A truly bulletproof, rock-solid digital pitch-bend pedal that, unlike the Whammy, never ever flakes out on you mid-gig 0r drifts out of pitch when it gets hot. I can’t believe all the Justin Chancellor drones haven’t wised up to this pedal yet, and still obsess over eBaying the crappy old Digitech Bass Whammy units at unrealistic markup… ah, you fanboy dumbshits. 🙂
UPDATE: As Tom from Harman/Digitech notes below, the Digitech Whammy V was released to address a lot of the earlier models’ construction/drift issues, though after painfully re-evaluating the Bomber alongside the newer Whammy V, I ended up sticking with the Bomber as it just sounded better when A/B’ed in the studio. But it’s a fair point- the W5 did improve the Whammy brand quite a bit, which is why I’m still astounded at how much the crappy older units sell for on eBay (to what appear to be, largely, Tool fans who trying to mimic Justin Chancellor’s hardware and Whammied tracks).
- Moog Bass Moogerfooger (Bass MuRF 104B) – Can’t really say much more about this unit aside from that it rocks. Best and most true-to-form Moog-style synth sounds ever. Not as convenient as the Octavius, but gets all the tones that the Octavius can’t touch. On the down-side, it’s a big, bulky unit that never really fits right anywhere, and I love for the sounds, not the form factor.
Utility and Efficiency
Playing live (or in the studio) is tricky work, so you need to make room for a few things that just make your gig-life easier. There’s a few things that fall into this category for me on this pedalboard.
- TC Electronics Polytune – my favorite digital tuner, footswitch to mute/tune, and you can just hit all the strings at once to see their individual tunings. Super easy to use and fast to tune between songs. Any time I have a pedalboard I just assume I’ll need room for this pedal. If you ain’t in tune, then everything sounds like shit. Plus, it has an extra 9v out from it, so you can buy back an extra slot in your power supply. Bonus!
- Line6 Relay 50 Wireless system – These units are the first wireless units I decided to jump back to, as they sound super-clean and full, not compressed like earlier wireless units. I use their middle-of-the-road Relay 50 unit, as I kinda like the receiver right there with the pedals and not back at the rack/backline, where I’d need to run a line back out to the front of stage for the pedalboard and introduce noise into the chain. I keep two transmitters and three cables on hand – one straight plug, two 90-degree plugs (as nearly all of my basses/guitars have the input jack on the side of the guitar like a Les Paul, except for that damn Strat).And if you don’t want it in the chain, you just plug your cable straight into the tuner there on the right, and rock out. Simple and painless.
Although they aren’t on the board specifically and/or come into play gig-to-gig in parallel:
- DBX 160a Compressor – My main go-to compressor for my primary live rig, which consists of, quite simply, a DBX 160a in the effects loop of either one or two SWR SM-900 amps with either 2x Goliath III 4×10″ cabinets or 1 Goliath III 4×10″ and 1 Big Ben 1×18″ cabinets for each amp. I also have a third 160a in my home studio with a SWR Grand Prix preamp for bass tracks, as it’s a perfect tonal match to the live rig so I stay consistent with my preferred tone from studio-to-stage.
- Source Audio dual expression pedal – although the Hot Hand is great for non-standard effects/envelopes, sometimes you just need a good expression pedal. When the left preset on the Envelope Filter is active, this is a wah pedal. It also has a second line out for the envelopes (hence the ‘dual’ in it’s name) that controls the distortion gain/amount so I can dial up/down the grit as needed. Esoteric, yes- so it doesn’t always get plugged in unless I really need it. But ULTRA handy. Oh yeah- it also uses the Cry Baby form factor/design, so looks sweet sitting off to the side.
- Robert Keeley full-bypass effects loop – a small, clean, efficient effects loop pedal, handy to bring effects in and out in batches without all the toe tapping. I now have a layout that allows me to ‘chord’ various combinations, so this wasn’t as necessary. But if I’m doing a lot of chained effects in a gig I may just put this in the place of one fuzz pedal and loop everything aside from compression and boost in one fell swoop.
- Radial Systems Bassbone – for studio gigs where I need fretted/fretless and they don’t want me to bring any amps/preamps (specifically). A/B instrument inputs with a super-clean DI makes this a real go-to pedal- I just stick my pedalboard entirely into it’s loop and leave the wireless out of the chain entirely. Before I started playing with the Aguilar (below), I leaned heavily on the Bassbone with my Keeley 4-knob compressor for live/DI/IEM gigs.
- Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/DI – If I’m going live/direct/IEMs, this pedal-based preamp now gets the gig a bit more than the Bassbone simply because I dig it’s preamp tone, and sits left of the chorus pedal on a spare 9V power jack, allowing me to virtually amp myself before sending a DI to the FOH/monitor guys. If it’s a really funky gig I occasionally bring the Eden equivalent (I dig it’s slap/thumb sounds a wee bit more for some reason), but it’s pretty much always the Aguilar these days if I don’t tote an amp.
- Shure IEM monitor with Sennheiser IE8 earpieces – What I use here is pretty inconsequential, the point is that you should really carry your own in-ear monitor (IEM) rig if you’re playing sessions live more than occasionally. It’s just easier to get comfortable with your own gear when you’re always using your own system, with earpieces that fit your ear perfectly. Get the molded earpieces at whatever the cost, your ears won’t forget it and you’ll be thanking yourself after the first gig when you see how much easier they are to manage, and how much better they sound. Don’t skimp here.
And that’s the rundown of the parts and philosophy of my bass pedalboard. Parts 2 and 3 will be video posts (OMG, I’m trying something new!)- as the footwork to trigger effect ‘chords’ (i.e. part 2) evolved over a decade, and honestly needs audiovisual support to make sense. Part 3 will follow, and discuss the chain ordering, and why certain effects are placed earlier or later in it. After 30+ years of playing bass, this pedalboard is truly turning into a “second instrument”. But after all that said…
… my main, go-to bass tone is still that clean, bright and punchy sound off my pickups – without no effects whatsoever. Gotta have a rock-solid tone before you start mixing all that fluff into it!