I’ve only belatedly realized that setting up a pedalboard is not just a craft, it also consists of equal parts art and science. Here is a runthrough of my journey so far:
I have been on and off with pedals ever since I got into electric guitar playing in the late 80s. It seems that every cycle starts with needing a pedal, then adding a few that I want, and then some annoying stuff happens, I develop an aversion to the darned things and sell them off. Then we’re back right at the beginning. I’ve spent more time off pedals than on. This is the longest “on phase” ever, possibly due to the fact that I haven’t played a gig since April, 2013, and this pedal-buying frenzy started four months after that. It is telling that that gig was done with a clean floor, just my guitar straight into an amp. It is always logistical issues related to stage performance that bring about a decline.
However, I do think that if I were to do a gig right now, I would be just about as prepared as I ever was. It’s been a long journey lined with frustration and misguided purchases, but I’ve picked up a bit or two of wisdom along the way. First and foremost, I simply had to get a proper pedalboard, not that Rockcase piece of crap. The Pedaltrain PT-2 turned out to be just the thing for me. One of the things that sold me on Pedaltrain was not just that they seemed to make good, solid metal boards. I was also amazed by their Pedalboard Planner site. You basically load an image of one of their pedalboards, on top of which you can add small JPG images of pedals (obviously to scale) and slide them around until you have the arrangement you want. Before I was aware of the brand or the site, I arranged all my pedals on our dining room table, attached the cables properly and measured the collective footprint. It turned out that my pedals would fit the PT-1 rather handily, and then I stepped up one size just to have some room to grow, and verified the entire deal as far as I could using Pedalboard Planner. The drawback with the Planner is that you have to take patch cables into account, which is harder than it sounds. Those pesky plugs are always thicker than you’d imagine! And the patch cables themselves are never long enough, or they’re too long.
When I finally got everything mounted, connected and powered and started using the board, it turned out to be just about the opposite of the Rockcase. Because of the open construction, you can mount pedals right up to the edges, and thanks to the metal build, you basically have to have an elephant stomp on your wah to make the board sag like the Rockcase did. I like that it’s angled, mostly because it’s more ergonomical, but also because that provides space underneath for your power supply. Which brings me onto the next part in my Pedalboard Journey:
I would never have bought a power supply unit like the Cioks Big John unless it was absolutely dealbreakingly necessary. It’s no fun at all to buy guitar stuff that doesn’t have buttons or LED:s and doesn’t make a sound of its own. However, without a proper power supply, none of the blinky lights will come on, so you have to have one. The Big John came highly recommended, but I didn’t know what to expect from it and I didn’t know how to evaluate it once I plugged it in. It’s a power supply, it supplies power, what more can you ask of it? One big advantage was that I was able to get away from that big, bulky Boss wall wart which always seemed to rattle loose from the socket when I least wanted it. The Big John is a box, with an AC cable with a sleek little plug, and seven outlets for 9V DC power. It worked well enough when I had a tuner, a noise gate and perhaps an overdrive. It was only when I started mounting it on pedalboards that I realized that it just didn’t work for me. No matter how I did, either the AC cable or the DC outlets were at the wrong end of the thing, and when I got the PT-2, there was no obvious way to mount the Big John underneath it. I will come clean straight away: I am not a tinkerer. I want things to work out of the box, and if they don’t, I will not use them, and in good time I will get rid of them. A more handy person would probably have seen all this as a challenge to be overcome, not an insurmountable obstacle like I did. I sacrificed a pedal to make room for the Big John on top of the board until I could get around to buying the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus, which fit the brackets that were included with the PT-2.
By that time I had realized another thing. A pedalboard is big, rather unwieldy and surprisingly heavy once you have 8-9 pedals and a power supply in place along with all the associated cables. The novelty of it quickly wore off, which is quite frankly not surprising given the fact that I’ve actually spent a bigger part of my playing career off pedals than on them. Whenever we had a combined songwriting/jamming/recording session, I found myself carrying a gig bag, a big pedalboard, a laptop case as well as a fourth bag with my sound card, microphones and studio paraphernalia. Something had to go, and to lose the pedalboard was the natural solution for someone like me. But I had got used to having the pedals around, I liked coloring clean passages with phaser or vibrato, or boosting my lead tone with the TC Electronic Spark. Then it hit me that I could set up a smaller travel board, so that’s how I came to buy the Pedaltrain Nano+. This is a straight, i.e. non-angled, board. It has (just about) room for five of my MXR- or TC pedals as well as the Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer, but I wouldn’t want to gig it like that. I’d likely keep the overdrive and ditch either the phaser or the Uni-Vibe. I haven’t tried it with Boss pedals since I no longer own any, but you could quite likely put four on there, maybe five if you have thin enough plugs. Just to be sure, I bought four EBS flat patch cables, which turned out to be really great. To solve the power issue, I decided to try Pedaltrain’s own Volto. The Volto is a rechargeable litium-ion 2000 mAh power supply that powers up to six 9-volt center-negative pedals with the attached power cords. It is specifically designed to be mounted underneath Pedaltrain’s mini boards, and is a snug but perfect fit under my Nano+. You charge it for a few hours and then you have enough juice to power your pedals at least for a gig, maybe more, although I would probably make sure that I charged the thing right up until lights out. I think it’s a fabulous little contraption, it eliminates a cable and it charges using a USB cable either into a computer or the supplied wall wart. It is basically a smartphone battery, or more properly a powerbank, but adapted for guitar pedals. Li-ion batteries have a finite lifespan and only last so many charging cycles, but I figure that by the time this one gives up the ghost, I will have moved on to another solution, or perhaps entered another one of my no-pedal phases!
Now that I finally have a workable pedalboard, I find that there is nothing constant about it save for a select few must-have effects. I once had a starry-eyed idealistic notion that with eight pedals (nine with the Dunlop volume pedal, which is passive and doesn’t count towards my energy budget), I would be able to do anything that might occur to me. But I was cured of that when I realized that I cannot go from 60s covers via modern covers to progressive rock to thrash metal with just eight pedals. Maybe if I daisy-chained both my boards!