Boss’s well-conceived switching system brings the convenience of a multi-effects unit to your collection of individual pedals.
With many guitar players preferring to use separate pedals in preference to multi-effect units, both live and in the studio, a pedal-switching system makes a lot of sense as it brings some of the benefits of programmability to manually adjustable pedals — look at the pedalboard of a top touring band and the chances are you’ll see one. While such a device can’t actually adjust the knobs for you, it can switch between numerous pedal combinations, change the order of pedals where necessary and, in the case of the ES-5, can also set up parallel effects, provide MIDI control and handle your amp’s channel and reverb switching.
The Boss ES-5 works with any standard pedal, not just Boss ones, and is essentially a pared-down version of the larger Boss ES-8, in that it goes much further than simply selecting combinations of pedals. For example, certain Boss pedals, such as the DD-7, are able to respond to external delay time control, in which case this information can also be stored by the Boss ES-5 within a patch, and Program Change information can be sent to any MIDI-equipped pedals or rack processors when you select a new Boss ES-5 patch.
Up to five pedals can be connected via ‘Loop’ jacks, where arrangements of pedals can be saved as one of 200 user patches for instant recall. Patches are organised by Group (1-8), Bank (1-5) and Number (1-5). If you don’t need all 200 slots (and who would?), the number of displayed patches can be set as required. Most users will never need to venture as far as Groups — the 25 patches available within a single bank should be more than enough for just about anyone!
Taking up only a modest amount of pedalboard real estate, the all-metal ES-5 has five numbered footswitches along its sloping front with two further footswitches above labelled Bank and Mute, though when pressed and held, these are also used to switch from Memory to Manual mode and for activating the bypass. Power comes from an external 9V adaptor.
The audio path is entirely analogue and makes use of relays where appropriate, such as for bypassing the input buffer, and is optimised for transparency. All this is controlled by a digital switching system, while a backlit LCD shows editing and patch name information.
In addition to the rear-panel guitar input, output and the five pairs of ‘loop’ jacks, there are two TRS Ctl (control) output jacks for handling up to four switching tasks, a TRS control/expression input jack and an output to feed a tuner. If mono jacks are used in the Ctl sockets, then only Ctl 1 and Ctl 3 are available. There’s also the ability to control up to eight MIDI effects via the standard five-pin MIDI in and out/thru connectors. All you need to do when creating a patch is to input the MIDI channel, the MSB and LSB of the bank change message (if the device has more than one bank), and then input the patch number (1 to 128). The two TRS Ctl jacks can control up to four switched functions such as amplifier channel switching, amp reverb on/off and so on. If a physical expression pedal, such as a Roland EV-5, is connected, it can be configured in various ways, including as a bpm or MIDI controller.
User control is via robust footswitches. Once your pedals are connected to the ES-5’s audio loops, the on/off state of each loop and the order of the effects can be saved as a patch along with any other pertinent parameters, such as the Ctl switch status and MIDI patch change information, the most obvious benefit being that you can activate each combination of pedals and switches using only a single switch press. Unused pedals are taken out of circuit so can’t affect your tone if they are not true-bypass types.
Memory mode, as the name suggests, is where the switches are used to call up user patches, whereas Manual mode simply allows individual loops to be bypassed. In Memory mode, pressing Bank causes all five numbered switches to flash, then when you select one, only that switch remains lit. A backlit LCD window occupies the left-hand side of the panel and eight small buttons, which include left/right and plus/minus keys, access navigation and editing functions. The Display and Exit buttons can be pressed together to lock out the controls from accidental operation when gigging. A user preference also allows changes to take place when switches are pressed or, alternatively, when released.
There’s input buffering (this can be turned on or off on a per-patch basis as some older fuzz pedals don’t work so well with buffers) and there’s the option to make one parallel connection via the inbuilt mixer. For example, you might want a reverb and delay to work in parallel rather than have one feeding into the other, or you may have discovered a great overdrive sound using two different overdrive pedals in parallel. This same mixer can alternatively be used to preserve audio tails when bypassing a delay or reverb, and there’s provision to set an external control switch for either momentary or latching activation of a loop.
On powering up the Play screen is displayed and the Display buttons step around the five options starting with Patch Name and (relevant for pedals that accept this information) Master bpm. The control output jacks may be set to either operate as simple switches or to output three pulses at the master bpm setting when a patch is changed, allowing those pedals with a tap-tempo input to be synchronised.
Next is the Loop Structure On/Off screen (where loops can be re-ordered and a parallel connection set up), the Ctl Out screen (for the four control jack outputs) and lastly the Patch Number screen. In the Structure screen the loop order is displayed. The user can choose whether the Bank switch cycles through banks 1-5, or whether banks 1-5 are selected by first pressing Bank, then using the numbered switches to select the desired bank. The user can also specify whether the next patch is selected as soon as a new bank is selected, or not changed until a number switch is pressed. Other useful settings include being able to program a level boost into a preset and to reconfigure the Bank and Mute switches to work as Bank Up and Down switches if you find that more useful. Successive presses of the Edit button take you through all the settings that pertain to a patch, including bpm and up to eight MIDI messages — each of which can be on any of the 16 MIDI channels.
The designers have obviously kept things as simple as possible so as not to scare off guitar players, though the options provided by the external control connections (in particular taking over duties from your amp’s footswitches for channel, reverb and tremolo switching) and the ability to control MIDI pedals means that the more advanced user won’t feel limited. In fact the only real restriction is that the single mixer module means that you are limited to one parallel pair of pedals per patch, and if delay ‘carry over’ is required, the mixer has to be used for that instead. The manual is recommended reading, even if you only need to cover the basics, and is essential if you want to delve into anything more complicated, but as with most such devices, the menu hierarchy makes sense once you’ve been around it a couple of times.
In practical terms, I think the designers could have shipped it with a beefier PSU and added a few power sockets to allow it to be used as a pedalboard power supply, at least for 9V pedals, but other than that it seems very well thought out.
Sonically the unit is very quiet with silent switching and a clean input buffer when needed, and it doesn’t appear to change the tonality of the signal passing through it. The blue status LEDs are bright enough without being dazzling, and though the LCD is only a two-line, 16-character-wide affair, it does all that is needed.
By way of cost, the ES-5 will set you back around the same price as two or three decent pedals, but if you are wedded to the idea of single pedals rather than multi-effects, you’ll probably find it worth the outlay. And don’t worry that there are only five loops — you don’t have to use it to control every pedal you have, just the ones that need changing en masse or re-ordering in a hurry, and the MIDI function can select patches in external rack gear, not just pedals hooked up to the loops. Some users have even set up a couple of loop outputs to switch between amplifiers as part of a patch, so the ES-5 is even more flexible than it might at first appear. And while the ES-5 can do things over and above what most players will need, those extra features won’t get in the way if you just want to create basic programs of your pedal combinations and their order of connection.
There are several switching systems out there, with direct alternatives including the G Lab GSC-4, the Voodoo Labs PS-8 and the larger Boss ES-8.