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I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

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Click on the picture to see an enlarged view.

Wicked Woody “Original” Pedal Board

Summary: Handmade with carpentry-grade wood, this is one gorgeous pedal board. Nothing like making something so utilitarian a virtual work of art!

Pros: Completely handmade with high-grade wood that doesn’t only look great, it’s lightweight as well! Platform is reversible so you can configure the board to have your volume or wah pedal on either right or left sides. Lots of space under the platform to fit a power brick and stow your plug, and the routing on the top makes it easy to run your cables.

Cons: Could use some rubber or silicon feet to protect the bottom from scratching and elevate it above possible spills (think bar gig).

Features:

  • Elevated pedal platform. With an elevated platform, it is both easier to see, and easier to reach all of your pedals.
  • Handmade, of the highest quality certified hardwood plywood. Durable finish that will protect your woody for life.
  • Easy cable management, with the cable chanels routed into the platform it is a cinch to place your pedals in any configuration you desire, and wire them however you would like.
  • Alternative storage, under the platform for your power supply or other storage needs.
  • Measurement: 24″ X 15″

Price: $80 direct

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 ~ I’ve never seen a pedal board that looked so nice. Despite its looks though, I really would’ve liked to see some “feet” on the bottom for some extra protection. Something that looks this good should be really protected. That said, it’s easy to get some hardware that’ll do the job with minimal effort. But if it had that right off the bat, I’d give this puppy a 5.0!

For Goodness’ Sake! It’s Just a Pedal Board!

I would venture to guess that most players don’t really put to much thought into the “look” of their pedal board other than if the cables are nicely arranged and out of the way. But lots of players obsess over the look of everything in their rig; even down to their pedals’ paint jobs. So why not put them on a platform that really shows them off, as well as being useful? Aesthetics are a good thing. Myself, I tend to be far more practical to even consider something like this, but hey! Cool is cool in my book, and although I may not normally consider having a board like this, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is one gorgeous piece of functional hardware!

From my point of view the Wicked Woody pedal board is like a nicely shined pair of shoes. Most people wouldn’t normally notice them, but they do notice that there’s something “nicer” when you wear them. Such is the case with the Wicked Woody. It’s not a showy and sparkly, but it just looks well, nice. Besides, there’s nothing sweeter-looking to me than nicely grained wood, and all Wicked Woody pedal boards are made of high-grade woods, with a nice, smooth finish. In other words, the provide a sweet presentation platform for your pedals!

Setting Up the Board

When I received my evaluation board today, I was amazed by how lightweight it was, but it was absolutely solid. The plywood used would not bend or give at all! But in addition, it looked fantastic! I know, it’s kind of hard to be excited by something so utilitarian, but this board looks so good – it kicks ass!

Luckily, my evaluation board also included some velcro strips, so it was a simple matter of attaching them to the board. I got a fairly long length, so I just cut it in two and laid the strips straight across the board. If I were to actually keep the board, I’d be a lot more meticulous and place strips so the they don’t show at all. But for my evaluation, I just wanted to be able to easily arrange my pedals.

I have to say that I’ve never seen my pedals look so good. 🙂 Here’s a picture:

A very cool thing that I liked immediately was that the platform fits my back line of pedal risers perfectly! Four pedal risers fit exactly flush to the edges of the platform. The folks at Wicked Woody say you might not need pedal risers, and based upon the space between the front and back lines and the nice angle of the platform, I’d tend to agree with that. But with my clumsy, double-E feet, I need every advantage I can get, so it’s very convenient that the platform fits the pedal risers so perfectly.

You can clearly see the route in the center. There are actually two routes, but the upper one is obscured by my pedal risers. But both are very conveniently placed. The platform has a round hole on each side to run cables through as well. That is very convenient as I was able to run the power and connector cables underneath the wah. Then to connect the wah to my next pedal, I ran the connector through one side hole, then out the other side hole to connect to my CE-2. When all was said and done, I was impressed by the arrangement. Plus, the big base board really creates a nice spacious effect.

Now I know there’s a lot of debate with the placement of a wah pedal. Should it be before or after the drive pedals? I happen to prefer mine to be placed after my drive pedals, so the default arrangement, with the wah pedal on the left was perfect for me. However, for those who prefer it to be on the other side, the platform is reversible. You just have to unscrew the platform from the bottom of the board, turn it around, and you can place your wah (or volume or expression pedal) on the right side.

I didn’t take a picture of the back of the platform, but there’s plenty of room underneath. I placed a fuzzy strip underneath the platform, and put my Dunlop DC Brick there then ran the power connectors to the pedals through the routes. Having those routes is a real nice feature because it keeps your power cable runs nice and neat – and hidden from view. There’s also plenty of room underneath to place a spare pedal or two (as long as they have a low profile), and of course, you can stow your plug underneath during transport.

The eval board didn’t come with a case, so I’m not sure if there is one available. Hopefully there is one available because I’d definitely want one to transport the board to and from gigs if I owned one of these beauties.

So… overall impression? I dig this board. It looks fantastic, but it has some very nice features that make setting up your pedals a breeze. It literally took me less than 10 minutes to get everything hooked up. Granted, if I owned one of these, I’d take a bit more time to make everything perfect, but one could do a lot worse.

Update: April 1, 2010

Just got a message from the folks at Wicked Woody. They don’t have a case for their boards yet, but should have one as an option within the next couple of weeks. This is great news!

For more information, go to the Wicked Woody site!

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stagetrix-pedalfastener

Click for full size view

I wrote about StageTrix Pedal Risers awhile ago, and how they elevate the back row of your board to make your pedals more accessible. I’ve been using them since, and they really are a godsend! I did mention that they already came with the fastener already installed, so all you have to do is place the riser.

I really like the fastener they’re using. For one, the material is thinner than most kinds you buy at a store, which means it shapes well to contours. Another thing – and more importantly, in fact – is that the glue StageTrix uses on the fastener can withstand up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the best thing. We’ve all had the experience of getting velcro glue on our fingers. It’s a gooey mess! Well, that’s solved with the Pedal Fasteners.

For $9.95, you get a pack of three (click on the picture to get a full size view). You can install a fastener with the middle, or you can remove the middle part, and only use the fastener on the edge of  your pedal. Very cool stuff!

For more information, check out the StageTrix Products site!

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stagetrix_riserOne of the things that completely pisses me off when I’m gigging is when I reach my foot out to activate a pedal in the back row of my board, and I end up also activating a pedal in the front row. Aiiiyeeee!!! This happened to me recently at a church gig. I was playing a nice, sweet, clean solo, and want to texture my sound a bit by adding some reverb.

To give some background, my reverb pedal (Hardwire RV-7) is the last pedal in my chain and it sits right above my Holy Fire overdrive. Instead of a toggle switch, the RV-7 has a switch plate, and the travel before it actually activates is enough so that I have to really point my toe so I don’t brush my Holy Fire’s knobs or accidentally activate it. Well, in this instance, I did both: I somehow completely dimed the overdrive knob AND activated the pedal. The next note I struck not only startled me, but also startled the prayerful assembly – enough so that some people actually squeaked! Yikes! No doubt, it was a bit embarrassing…

Then today, I got a Twitter alert that a new user called StageTrix was following me, so I went to Twitter to do an exchange follow, and on StageTrix’s site, I saw a Twitter reply from Premiere Guitar. Intrigued, I checked out their site, and was greeted with a solution to my problem: An 18-gauge steel pedal riser that you can use to prop up the second row of your board to make your back row of pedals more easily accessible! What a great freakin’ idea! It’s one of those ideas where you slap your forehead and say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” 🙂

I had the opportunity to chat with one of the StageTrix guys a few minutes ago to discuss StageTrix’s invention. They’ve apparently been developing it for about a year and a half, and doing prototypes with various musicians. And their reason for building it? Exactly for what I was lamenting just above!

Here are some details from their site:

  • Raises the second row of pedals to the perfect height.
  • Front, back and side openings enable effective cable routing.
  • Premium 18-gauge steel.
  • Attaches to board via heavy duty hook-and-loop fastener on base, which holds firm up to 200°F.
  • Designed to withstand temperatures of up to 200F without melting, so leaving your pedal board in your vehicle on a summer day won’t result in a gooey mess with all the Velcro peeling off.
  • Works with most pedalboards. To be sure, check that you have an extra 1″ of clearance when case is closed. The vast majority do.

If you go to their site, they’re doing a promotion by putting several of these units up for bid on EBay, with a starting bid at a $1.00. These pedals list for $23.99 on their site, so it’s possible that if you get the winning bid, you could get one for significantly less…

Right now, they’re only available through StageTrix, but they should soon be available in stores. I will be getting a review unit within the next week or so, and will do a review.

Check out the StageTrix site now!

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LavaCable CPS

LavaCable CPS

Introduced at Winter NAMM, the Lava Cable CPS (Configurable Pedal Board System) is what Lava Cable claims is the first fully configurable pedalboard system ever. They may be right, and are certainly on to something. The CPS consists of individual, notched pedal “blocks” that fit flush together. You then screw the pieces together in whatever fashion you wish. Imagine growing or shrinking your board at will! For pedal junkies like me, this system could be a bit dangerous. The limited size of my current board makes getting more pedals prohibitive, and that’s a good thing. A system like this would allow me to expand it ad infinitum!

In all seriousness though, being able to flexibly lay out your board is a totally cool concept to me. You’re not reliant on the shape of the board nor, if you’re into doing it yourself, must you cut out your own templates. For more info, go to: http://www.lavacable.com/lavacps.html

There is also an interesting discussion on The Gear Page with some pictures people have taken of their setups. http://www.thegearpage.net/board/showthread.php?t=487904

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