The Myth About True Bypass
“Is this pedal true bypass?” That’s a question we are literally asked daily from the 500+ stompbox demos we’ve put on the interwebs. However, we find that few people actually know why they’re compelled to ask the question in the first place. No doubt, the importance of true bypass to the common guitarist has reached mythic proportions these days. It’s always touted as an improvement over buffered pedals which are the often described like Chupacabras of tone. So in this issue, I feel it’s necessary to explore the mystique of true bypass.
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It’s been said many ways but to boil it down, the warped school of thought is if you want the purist tone, every pedal needs to be true bypass. Well, there is some truth in that your signal isn’t being ‘colored’ by extra circuitry because the guitar’s signal is routed straight to the output jack of the pedal. Certain pedals like the original MXR Phase 90 and vintage wahs are known for adding a ‘special’ quality to your tone because they are neither buffered nor true bypass.
You can clearly notice some change in high end from these units which is why people mod them. I think this and cheaper made 80’s pedals are what spawned a lot of hype about true bypass being the ultimate way to go. But the myth of true bypass gets busted hard when you talk about true bypass pedals and signal integrity over the length of stage sized cables. Without getting into capacitance and low/high impedance explanations, your signal goes through changes which will affect your tone and that’s one reason buffers were placed in pedals to begin with.
The buffered solution is still in use by big names like Boss, TC Electronic and EHX. By using an input and output buffer (a series of components like transistors) it allows your pickups to squeeze out their full range without the common high end roll off that’s the result of extra load on your pickups, a.k.a. “tone sucking”.
Buffers can also be used alone like the MI Audio Boost N’ Buff which allows for long cables to your guitar because of its high input impedance. So why isn’t everyone sticking to the buffered method? In short, the quality of components used for the buffer may affect the bypass sound, especially with a string of pedals. Since they affect the signal whether on or off, you’re basically adding extra components between the guitar and amp. Personally, I had a cheap buffered tuner that clearly affected the high end of my amp. I recorded a quick A/B test to make sure and ended up with a true bypass tuner in its place.
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Pedalboard Guru Pete Cornish, who does not use true bypass in any of his world famous systems, would be a good example of buffers done right. You’ve seen his custom creations used by David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Andy Summers and more. Check out his website here.
Alan Durham, maker of the Sex Drive pedal says, “We tried true bypass, and we didn’t like it.” What’s important is that he let his ears decide, rather than worrying about a true bypass craze.
Image Credit durhamelectronics.com
In the end it didn’t stop Charlie Sexton from using it or others like Eric Johnson who stated the buffered Sex Drive was “very transparent, hi-fi sounding, didn’t color my sound at all.” Other pedal makers give you the best of both worlds, true bypass and buffered modes. The analog delays from Malekko offer a switch for a high quality buffer or true bypass. When we demoed many of the delays at PGS, I almost always used the buffered mode because it brought the guitar signal back to life and gave a contrast between the sparkling clean tone and warm repeats. Plus, in the delay world if you want trails after you switch off the pedal, buffered is the only option for now.
Is your head spinning yet? Well, I can tell you after researching for this article I felt the same way but I had to step back and remember the most important part, does it sound good to you? Ideally, a buffered pedal in the mix is a good idea to combat cable issues but If you like the way 10 boss pedals sound in line, go for it! If you need to have every pedal separated by a switcher to get your tube amp to respond a certain way, that’s a great way too. I certainly enjoy the boutique companies that wire exclusively in true bypass but even they know the importance of a buffer. Look at the Line Driver from Lovepedal who is known for his silent true bypass switching(very smooth, by the way).
Image Credit lovepedal.com
But it’s important to lose the mantra that the best tone comes from having all true bypass pedals because you’re just limiting yourself to new sounds in the end. Modeling pedals aren’t going to be true bypass nor are most loopers. Keep in mind that the ‘tone coloring’ of vintage wired pedals might be the secret ingredient to replicating sounds like in ‘Eruption.’ It only reminds me that none of my guitar heroes were fixated on this idea of true bypass so I won’t start either. Also, few pedals these days actually suck tone like back in the day because technology has come a long, long way. With my job, I see and play new products everyday and they all seem to deliver great tone with minimal noise and suckage.
DO experiment by taking boxes in and out of your signal chain, that’s how I discovered the weak signal coming from my old tuner. Also, I found that my personal needs require at least one buffer (FoxRox Wah Retrofit) so I can enjoy my fuzz face clones in conjunction with a wah. Plus it’s always a good idea to use good quality cables no matter what, to avoid capacitance and interference. Again, trust your ears and don’t let the idea of true bypass boss you around.
See you next time in the corner,