Power to the Pedals
By Daniel Brooks
Like many guitarists, your collection of effects has probably evolved along with your playing. You may have started out with some inexpensive distortion, picked up a funky old wah-wah pedal along the way, or perhaps a chorus or maybe even a delay. In time, you began to really create something truly magnificent, an otherworldly sound for the ages, and you and your pedal collection became a presence to be reckoned with. Now, the lingering problem, that some pedals burn through batteries much quicker than others has made you realize, hopefully sooner than later, that there must be a better way to power it all.
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Not that there is anything wrong with running a pedal on batteries, effects that achieve their sound by way of relatively simple circuits, like overdrive, EQ, wah, and so on, can work just fine and even sound good for quite a while on a single 9 volt battery. But running a lot of effects on batteries can be inconvenient if not problematic. Most guitarists find them to be unreliable. When a battery starts to run out of juice it will degrade the performance of your pedal, degrade the quality of your sound and will finally shut down the pedal, and your sound, altogether. You just never know when this might happen, hopefully not in the middle of a set.
One common way of addressing this problem is to power your effects with an ac adapter. This works well for individual pedals that rely on more sophisticated processing, like delay, advanced chorus pedals, some reverb and specialty effects that draw a lot of current and are, therefore, unreliable to use on stage if powered with a 9 volt battery. If you are powering only one high-current effect with an ac adapter, it should work just fine. Some guitarists will power multiple pedals with a daisy chain, an adapter cord with parallel connectors that allow more than one and sometimes as many as eight pedals to draw power from a single adapter.
There are a few daisy chain cords on the market. In some situations it can be a simple, inexpensive answer to the problem of sudden battery loss. It would be wise to recognize and avoid the limitations of a single daisy-chained ac adapter, as there can be some significant drawbacks. Each of your high-current effects will still require the same substantial flow of electrons to operate properly. Too many pedals drawing from a single power source will affect the performance of each of those pedals, leaving you with the same degraded, poorly defined, muddy tone you get from weak batteries.
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How many pedals are too many? Well, that depends on the current consumed by all of the pedals in your pedal train in relation to the current available through your ac adapter. There is no standard current requirement for all effects. Every type and brand of effect can use far more or less than others. Information about each effect’s power use can usually be found on the bottom of the pedal, in the manual or online. As a general rule of thumb, overdrive, distortion, fuzz, and analog wah pedals typically draw less than 10 milliamps (mA), analog modulation effects like chorus, flangers and phasers usually consume between 10 and 50mA, and digital effects like delays, reverb or any digitally processed magic box will draw between at least 50 to more than 150mA. The accumulated current draw can add up quickly, and if you have an ac adapter delivering 500mA to a sequence of eight pedals that requires more than 500mA, your sound will suffer.
The best way to get reliable performance from your all of your effects, without any signal degradation, is through the use of a power supply. Essentially an elaborate ac adapter with multiple outlets, each one completely isolated, regulated and filtered. Isolated outlets provide a separate ground for each effect, preventing ground loops and other residual interactions that can create hum or signal noise. A regulated power supply keeps the current at a specific value regardless of the load placed upon it, while the filter keeps any power spikes or surges from disrupting your signal or damaging your effects. You take great pride and joy in your pedals, a good power supply allows for peak performance from each one and lets you and your music come shining through.