Tips for the gigging musician's pedalboard or rig with Bob Bradshaw of Custom Audio Electronics
Welcome to this week's edition of the Tone Tailors Blog. This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bob Bradshaw of Custom Audio Electronics. Bob is a pioneer of audio-engineering. He has built multi-component rigs, audio interfacing units, routing patch bays and/or effects interfacing for the best guitar heroes in the world. If you would like more information on Custom Audio Electronics it can be found here on the website. My intention for this week's blog is to get Bob's tips for the gigging musician's pedalboard or rig.
So let's get into it.
Pedalboard Order: What Are Your Pedal Chain Order Recommendations?
BB: Well, First of all I want to start by saying, "anything goes." There is no one set configuration you can place your pedals in. There's no rules, whatever you like and whatever works for you. However, there are specific configurations that people go with and usually in a nutshell that is; gain things first right after the guitar, modulation things, delays and reverbs at the end of the line and then you go back. That is the basic signal path that is pretty typical most people would do but then again, anything goes, you can do whatever you want. I personally put delays last, where most people put reverbs last and I do that because I like the delays to decay off with everything else that precedes it including reverb and I think it makes the delays more distinct. They don't fall away as much into a wash of reverb as if they were before the reverb sounds. This all depends on whether you're using long delays and a lot of repeats or you have the delay signal relatively high in the mix. Just subtle uses but you can try it either way.
What Kind of Power Source Do I Use for My Rig?
BB: Usually these days with smaller, more compact rigs it's important to keep your power away from sensitive devices like gain things (distortion pedals, wahs.) Things that are susceptible to picking up electromagnetic interference from the transformers inside the pedals. Now the other consideration is the voltage and current requirements for each pedal. You shouldn't "starve" your pedals for current. There's such a wide variety of pedals out these days and it's something you need to be aware of. In my experience be careful of the linear type power supplies that are common (like Pedal Powers and other types that use transformers.) The more current load that is put on them the more they radiate electromagnetic hum. Be aware of that and keep sensitive things away from the power supplies themselves.
BB: A tip for you: one power supply that does not radiate any hum and is a real lifesaver is the Strymon Zumas and Ojais. Those are extremely well made power supplies. They come with the best cables in the business. They are a switching supply so they are worldwide compatible. There are 7 standard 9V outputs, each tap is a 500mA power output. And 2 more outputs can be switched between 9-, 12-, and 18-volt operation. You can pretty much use practically any pedal out there from a Strymon to a tube screamer with one of these outputs and they work. So you don't have to worry about current or the placement since they don't radiate any noise. They are very very good with smaller compact boards.
There are other great supplies from manufacturers like Dunlop. (Iso-Brick, Mini Iso-Bricks are both great) I often use these on rack mount trays for powering pedals.
Let's Talk Cable Quality
A patch cable is a tone control. If you're a guy like Derek Trucks and you plug your guitar right into an amp, that's all well and good, but you better consider a nice cable too. Your cable is a filter to a high impedance guitar. If you don't use anything be aware of that and use the highest quality cables you can.
What Deciphers a Bad Cable from a Good Cable?
BB: The connections, the quality of the cable, the jacket, whether it coils nicely, the connectors and how robust they are and the capacitance which is really important. The lower capacitance per foot the cable is the less it's going to act as a filter to your high impedance guitar.
If You're Starting a Board What Are The Essentials?
BB: A good power supply to start. Good Cables, those are the main things, a layout that is ergonomically easy to deal with and comfortable for you when you're performing on stage. Don't put everything super close together. I see boards on instagram and they are ridiculously non-functional. It doesn't look like they are taking ergonomics into play to have a functional performance board. I think in terms of a professional performance situation, not that it takes a pretty picture on instagram.
What Sets Your Custom Audio Electronics Wah-Wah and Boost Pedals Apart from Others?
BB: The Wah was a collaboration with Dunlop based on modifications we used to do to stock wahs over the years. First and foremost I put in a proper bypass switch so that they are 100% bypassed. Another thing was tonal options, little tweaks to adjust tonality and the voicing of the wah. The MC404 (that you're talking about) has options on the side so you can switch between two inductors to give either a more vocal wah or more of a quackier shaft type of sound. Also it has an output buffer because the old wahs have a relatively high impedance output. So we added the buffer circuit so you could drive the line back to wherever it was going (amp, rack or a pedalboard that's offstage or something.) This helps it retain its tone and character (because again, long cable runs from a high impedance output are susceptible to noise and filtering of the cable links themselves.
BB: The boost is based on a custom built device we made that solved other problems. We buffered the system (long cable runs) and provided a real transparent signal path so it's super clean. It's a flat frequency response that just raises the volume and doesn't change the tone.
BB: Pickups are the electronic component that plugs into the system itself. You could have humbuckers in a strat and the cable and rig don't know what kind of wood is wrapped around that pickup. So that's pretty much it. In the systems that I build, my philosophy is to do no harm to the original guitar signal (as much as possible) That's where it starts, your baseline is plugging your guitar straight into the amp and listening to the tonality of that and then plugging into your pedal board or system of choice to see how it's different. And if it's different then start searching for where it's different and why is it different.
The Role the Guitar Players: What's Most Important with Your Guitar of Choice for Your Tone?
BB: What's important is aesthetics (that you like the way it looks and feels in your hands.) I mean this is what you're touching and the connection you are making to that instrument. The first thing you do before you have an amplifier is you're touching an instrument. How that feels to you and how that responds to your playing style is extremely important. The electronics, down the line, don't know what type wood is involved. The electronics are processing the impedance of a humbucking pickup vs a single coil. The electronics are processing whatever stuff is in line after the pickups, what signal is getting back to the board not to mention the length of cable that's involved. It's all interconnected from here to the speaker.
BB: The best way to dial in your tones is to do so in a band setting. You can do it in your practice room at low volumes by yourself but then all that shit blows right out the window in a band setting. Make your settings at stage volumes, don't do it at little volumes because everything changes when you're up to stage. Volume, especially balances between delays, choruses and reverbs need to be set the level you're going to play at. It's really important. Volume totally changes how the guitar reacts to the amp (whatever feedback component might be there depending how close you are to your amp), the speakers respond totally differently when they are driven harder, the amp responds differently especially the output stage to larger volume then doing it at bedroom levels.
Desert Island Pedals
BB: Tube Screamer, Some kind of delay, something else for fun, who knows, man haha, your favorite guitar, amp, delay and tube screamer and that's it haha.