Troubleshooting Your Pedalboard

NPD!!! WTF!?! Hey there, Erksin again!

Nothing spoils a New Pedal Day like a board on the fritz, so I thought I’d share some troubleshooting tips. Damn that rhymes – look out Bob Dylan!

Okay first things first, whenever you go to hook up a brand new pedal, try it on its own before you tear apart your board – just instrument -> pedal -> amp. Learn what the pedal sounds and feels like on its own, familiarize yourself with the controls and how they interact, how it responds to playing dynamics or different instruments, and if you have the gumption and means see how it behaves being powered by different sources too (battery, 9vDC vs. 18vDC, etc).

Once you feel like you’ve got a good handle on it go ahead and choose the best spot for it, if you refer to my ‘Plumbing Your Pedalboard’ blog post last week, it discusses placement suggestions for various types of pedals that might be of some help in deciding what spot is best for your new one.

So you’ve chosen the perfect spot and have everything wired up and ready to go, you smack a chord and it sounds different than it did on its own. ARGH! This is usually the time you fire off a carefully worded email to a customer service guy asking “What the hell is up with this pedal?” While understandably frustrating, it’s likely a pretty simple fix and these are the areas you can check out to see if they are the culprit:

Patch cables. Sometimes the simplest things cause the biggest headaches and cables more often than not are the #1 offender. Check for shorting/crackling, improper insertion (wait for it), excessive lengths that could be robbing highs, etc. If you are running a bunch of true bypass pedals and just added another one (and another patch cable to go with it) it might be time to invest in a buffer of some sort if you’re losing high end content.

Batteries. Is it a fresh one? You’d be surprised at what a difference this makes.

Power supplies. These things can be the bane of my existence as a CS guy because there are so many variables to chase down.

First, is it even intended for use with pedals? You’ll want at the very minimum a decent quality supply that is regulated. A regulated supply will filter dirty AC noise from the wall and maybe even some of the RF/EMI noise as well if it’s a good one. If you grabbed the 9vDC adapter from your calculator (Grandpa Erksin, what’s a calculator..?) and now you’re hearing white noise or the local Mariachi radio station, there’s a good chance it could be your unregulated power supply.

Second, double check that it’s a DC supply if the pedal can also run on batteries. I can’t count how many emails I’ve had from people who’ve mistakenly plugged in an AC supply into a pedal and smoked the protection diode. If you have pedals that run on AC, I suggest getting some colored electrical tape from Radio Shack and mark those AC plug ends to flag them so you don’t wind up frying your DC pedals by mistake, it’s cheap insurance!

Third, make sure you’ve got the proper polarity plug for the effect. Most modern effects take a center negative plug (all Catalinbread effects are center negative), it’s usually the older fuzzes that take a center positive tip, but there are others as well.

Fourth – will the supply you choose provide enough milliamps for the pedal to draw what it needs? Most supplies offer anywhere from 100mA up to 2000mA, depending on what kind of effect you are running you could potentially be under-powering it with too small a mA rating. When in doubt, find out!

And lastly, check the power supply cabling itself, they are prone to failure just like the patch cables. Try to keep their lengths to a minimum too if you can.

Daisy chains. If you have a supply that has the ability to daisy chain several pedals together off the single wall plug, there is the potential that you could exceed the mA rating of the supply with the wrong combination of pedals and wind up under-powering some of them. Take the time to determine the total mA draw for the entire effects chain and ensure that it doesn’t exceed the max rating of your supply, in fact it’s a good idea to have some mA in reserve, so if you’ve got a 200mA supply it’s best to not draw more than about 190mA total if you can help it. There is also the possibility that certain pedals can introduce noise when chained with other pedals, so listen closely and isolate those offenders if you can. Ground loop hum can also be problematic with daisy chains, so if you’re running a lot of effects it might be best to invest in a supply with multiple isolated outlets rather than chaining them all off a single power source.

AC wall outlets. This is another one that drives people crazy. If your pedalboard is sharing a wall outlet with a TV, computer, fluorescent lighting, dimmer switches, or motors (like a circulating fan) those items are renowned for introducing noise into a signal chain. Try isolating your board from those items by plugging it into a different outlet in the room or barring that a good quality power strip with AC/RF/EMI filtering can help cut down some of the noise.

Cell phones. Hear that chirping sound? Check your pocket!

Well I hope you find some of this stuff useful, I’ve been there myself and know how frustrating it can be when things aren’t sounding right. If you still find yourself stuck, gimme a shout at erksin@catalinbread.com and we’ll work it out together.

Until next time!

Mike Erickson (ERK-sin)
Catalinbread Customer Service Manager