Every serious studio can make use of a high‑quality pedalboard, but putting one together that’s truly versatile requires a plan...
I’ve written previously about the generous stock of guitar pedals in my studio (https://sosm.ag/mixing-with-pedals), and I used to imagine every studio was like that. But as I started getting gigs in other studios I realised that, while all studios do invest (arguably too heavily!) in equipment such as computers, software, outboard, mics, instruments and backline, most don’t acquire so many pedals. So I’ve been reflecting on how and why we use our studio’s pedalboard, and what advice I’d offer to anyone wanting to assemble a useful and inspiring board for their own studio.
The concept is simple. An in‑house studio pedalboard provides a set of hands‑on tools that help you achieve the main goals of every recording studio: paying clients who walk away with a great recording, and a positive experience that draws them back and means they’ll recommend you. Aside from their sonic appeal, pedals can prompt a conversation, encourage experimentation, spark an idea and get an artist really excited about recording. Even if your clients have their own stompbox collection, they’ll appreciate you having an arsenal of pedals: there’ll always be times when someone has the urge to try an effect that no band member owns, or a client’s pedal breaks down, or their cool effect is too noisy to work with. You’ll be able to jump in, offer a suitable replacement, or suggest something else based on a pedal you know inside out.
You might decide to focus your board on specific effect types, perhaps even avoiding some completely, and that’s fine: part of the joy of a pedalboard is that you can build it to meet your needs and revise it as those needs change. But for now, I’ll assume you want a board with a good variety of effects — something which can serve as a decent starting point.
Before we get excited about pedals, let’s consider the board itself. There are approaches for any budget, from an old shelf or cutting board to lightweight purpose‑made devices such as a Pedal Train. My choice is a Templeboards DUO 24. Manufactured in Canada, they’re incredibly well built and offer plenty of space for cable management, but weigh very little, at just over 1.5kg. I can’t stress strongly enough that you must think about weight, particularly if you plan on taking the board out the studio! Its ‘mod slots’ are what really attracted me, though. The I/O mod gives you a convenient, tidy means of managing input and output configurations in the studio: you can route stereo outputs or, something I really like, dual outputs to different destinations (eg. one to a DI, the other to an amp). DI, XLR and buffered modules are also available. Templeboards also have a screw‑in plate system for pedals, which works well for a fixed touring setup, although I reckon the classic Velcro/3M dual‑lock approach could be more useful in a studio board if you plan on reconfiguring it for different sessions.
When you’ve chosen your board, you can buy some pedals, right? Well yes. But, as with most exciting gear acquisitions, there are some important‑but‑mundane considerations too, the most important being how you’ll power the pedals. Nine Volt batteries won’t cut it on long studio sessions, and you’ll almost certainly want a dedicated power supply that can accommodate any changes you make to your board. If you’d like to dive deeper into the subject of PSUs, check out Paul White’s 'Pedal Power' article elsewhere in this issue, but my choice for our own versatile board is the Strymon Zuma (£235 $279), which has nine outputs rated at 500mA, meaning there’s plenty of power to go around for even the thirstiest pedals. The CIOKS DC10 (£185 $210) is a great alternative, while the latest Fender Engine Room range strikes me as offering great value for money.
Cables are also important. High‑quality patch cables are a good investment that will save you hunting to find the source of noise problems in a future session. Many ready‑made cables will work perfectly but note that the bargain‑basement moulded types generally aren’t the best. I recommend Planet Waves or Ernie Ball (three Planet Waves 15cm patch cables will set you back £13 $10). I’ve always found making my own is a good option that is affordable, allows me to practice my soldering skills, and means I can measure the distance between pedals and ensure a short signal path that keeps capacitance down. I love the quality of Mogami and Van Damme cables, and Neutrik and Switchcraft make reliable jack plugs. You can also have cables custom‑made to the desired length and spec — here in the UK I use Loaded For Bear Audio for this and am happy to recommend them.
The best guitar tone in the world is unusable if it’s out of tune, so a reliable tuner pedal is a must. What constitutes accurate tuning isn’t always as clear‑cut as you’d imagine, though — check out Jack Ruston’s 'Optimising Electric Guitars In The Studio' April 2014 article for more on that. My personal choice is the Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST‑300 Mini (£145 $129), an extremely accurate strobe tuner. But not all clients will find strobe devices intuitive, and I’d happily recommend the classic Boss TU‑3 (£75 $113).
What else you put on a universal pedalboard needs thought, experimentation and self‑discipline: a board intended to do a range of jobs must be focused and accessible. To narrow your choices, think in terms of your body of work. What applications will you likely need this board to cover? What tones are your go‑to choices? It’s also useful to think of pedals occupying ‘pedalboard slots’ such as: Tone Shaping; Dirt & Distortion; Fuzz; Weird & Wonderful; Modulation; Time‑based effects (delay & reverb); and Utilities. The idea is that you’ll have a core setup on your board, with a quality pedal in each slot, all ready to go, so you never need to waste time rummaging around mid‑session. That said, there’s nothing wrong with having lots more options available, and rather than store ‘spare’ pedals away, you should consider dotting them around the studio to provide inspiration. Your ‘slots’ approach will make it easy to drop these other pedals in for a specific session, or to know what to look for if you decide you want to upgrade the pedal in any given slot.
For tone shaping, an EQ pedal might suffice, but I prefer to run a preamp pedal with a built‑in EQ at the front of my board. The volume and gain controls come in handy for gain staging and, at times, adding a little dirt. It’s also useful if you’ll be recording various guitars with a wide range of pickups: getting the tone right at the start of the chain makes manipulating everything that follows much easier!
In terms of recommendations, the Preamp Pedal by Benson Amps (£249 $249) is a solid choice. Based on their Chimera 30W guitar amp, this substitutes FET transistors for the amp’s tubes. Another excellent choice is Audio Kitchen’s Fake Plastic Trees (£375 $499), reviewed in SOS August 2021 and an SOS Award nominee. For a more affordable option, I’d suggest going with the Boss GE‑7 (£89 $137). It has no preamp but the EQ would get most jobs done and if you later want to upgrade it should hold its price pretty well.
Dirt & Distortion
There are so many dirt pedal choices and personal taste is key. I tend to like having two options on my board and, while it’s pretty easy to know if you like a pedal, figuring out how well two pedals ‘stack’ may take more trial and error. Some tried‑and‑tested combinations (a Tube Screamer and a RAT, a Klon and a Timmy, two Boss DS‑1s) work well, but there plenty of other great combinations.
For my own board, I’ve gone with two pedals, one being a new design and the other a modern take on a classic. First up is the Electronic Audio Experiments Halberd v2 (£245 $249), an incredible transistor overdrive which reacts beautifully to your playing dynamics. As well as handy Pre and Post gain controls, it features two tone controls (Tone and Depth) and a three‑way voice‑selector switch (Standard, Clang and Deep). It’s an excellent mid‑gain drive whose different modes mean it can gently sweeten a tone or bring on crunch and character. I’ve enjoyed some great results using it with a variety of artists, genres and instruments; it’s fantastic on bass. There are plenty of other options to consider, though. In the past, I’ve put an Electro‑Harmonix Soul Food (£75 $97), an Ibanez Tube Screamer (£65‑£169 $79‑$180) and a Hudson Broadcast (£155 $285) in this position on my board, and all of them worked well.
My second dirtbox, the Black Mass Electronics 1312 Distortion (£179 $189), is an interesting twist on the RAT circuit. It offers eight clipping options, including various iterations of the RAT, and there’s a filter section. Pair this with a drive which responds to your playing dynamics (eg. the Halberd or a Tube Screamer) and you can cover a huge amount of tonal ground for bass and guitar. At £179 $189 (half the profits go to good causes), this is almost a no‑brainer choice as a distortion pedal. But, again, there are alternatives and some cost less: I suggest trying the MXR Super Badass (£91 $99), Electronic Audio Experiments Dagger (£199 $199), Boss SD‑1 (£59 $59) and Friedman BE‑OD (£179 $200).
There’s a wild variety of fuzz pedals out there but some styles meet our ‘variety’ need better than others. For a classic sound, consider something like the SM Fuzz from Scott McKeon (£299 $369), a hand‑made, finely tuned germanium fuzz that really captures the spirit of those ’60s and ’70s tones we’ve grown to love. A more budget‑friendly option is Jim Dunlop’s selection of Fuzz Face Mini Pedals (£129 $130), which get you into Hendrix territory. Electro‑Harmonix have a wide range of their classic and modern fuzzes too (starting at £60 $60). The various iterations of their Big Muff can take you from grunge riffs to huge lead tones but, personally, I love the Green Russian Pi (£75 $103). Variations on the Big Muff can be found from other companies such as EarthQuaker Devices, whose Hoof (£179 $179) is modelled after a Russian variant, and their latest design, the Hizumitas (£159 $149), was designed for Wata of the famous noise‑rock band Boris.
If you prefer a more ‘untamed’ fuzz sound, consider digging into the boutique world. The affordable (£89 $115 each) Mask Audio Electronics YES! and NO! pedals are both two‑knob fuzz pedals with cascading octave generators that can get really hairy. At the pricier end of scale is Death By Audio’s unique‑sounding Supersonic Fuzz Gun (£269 $270), an extreme tonal annihilator that’s handmade in New York City. Your choice really does depend on the purpose you want your fuzz pedal to serve, but if in doubt I’d shoot for more of an all‑rounder such as the Hizumitas. Then, if your budget permits, maybe also keep something a little wilder like the YES! on the substitute bench.
When you’re stuck in a rut... it can often help to just throw some strange options onto the board and start making some odd noises!
Weird & Wonderful
Speaking of wild, my clients have often appreciated me keeping a few weirder pedals around. When you’re stuck in a rut or searching for something unique, it can often help to just throw some strange options onto the board and start making some odd noises! I like using the Intensive Care Audio Fideleater (£166 $265, reviewed in SOS July 2021) and Zvex Lofi Junky (£209 $225) when I want to get some warbly seasick tape modulation going. Holy Island Audio’s Abra Cadaver (£85 $99) is a no‑knob fuzz pedal that’s perfect for injecting unrestrained aggression into your signal, whether pushing other fuzz pedals or turning a reverb into a wall of noise. Dirge Electronics Slowly Melting ($240) is another boutique option for the noise hunters. It seems like a fuzz pedal but is a delay pedal at heart: by overloading the PT2399 delay chip it creates some truly odd noises, including glitches, modulation, and PLL‑style gated sounds, not to mention the Melt switch and knob that control the feedback in the signal chain.
Chorus isn’t just for the ’80s‑inspired producer! In fact, it’s popularity has surged recently. For modulation on this board I’m going to recommend a pair of pedals from Walrus Audio (£175 $199 each). Julia is an analogue chorus/vibrato that can take you from a subtle sense of space and movement to full on seasickness, and I’ve not found a chorus sound that I can’t achieve with the Julia in the studio. It works equally well as a mixing effect and I love it on bass. The other is Lillian, a multi‑stage all‑analogue phaser, which I’d pick over something classic like an MXR Phase 90 purely because of the degree of control it puts at your fingers. Lillian and Julia feature a wet/dry blend, making it easy to dial them in subtly for texture or go into all‑out wobble mode.
Again, there are plenty of alternatives. Electro‑Harmonix once again have a good clutch of value‑for‑money options. Their Nano Clone Chorus is only £45 $53: despite only having a control for Rate, it’s a good budget analogue chorus. Their Small Stone Phaser also comes in at only £65 $79. Another household name you can rely on is Boss: their recently updated CE‑2W (£185 $220) is a take on the classic CE‑2, a favourite of the Cure. Old Blood Noise Endeavours’ Dweller (£199 $199) is an interesting take on the phaser pedal for the more experimental, covering classic sounds to all‑out textural abomination.
Delay & Reverb
Whether it’s an analogue delay or a cavernous digital reverb, I make sure I have time‑based effects available for every session. There’s a bewildering choice for this slot, and many could fit just as well under ‘Weird & Wonderful’, but to keep things simple for our versatile board, I recommend starting with just one delay and one reverb.
For recording sessions, I really enjoy the Strymon Flint. It’s perfect for a reverb‑less amp, as its spring or ’60s setting can be subtle, obviously springy or very boingy. The ’70s mode gives you a plate, or there’s a digital rack hall sound from the ’80s mode. The Colour control lets you dial in the brightness to suit the amp you’re using, and there are three tremolo styles to choose from. It’s quite the powerhouse, and covers a wide enough range to make it useful on pretty much any session. Its stereo I/O makes it very handy for mixing too.
If I had a significant budget to put into reverb, I’d undoubtedly go with the Chase Bliss Audio/Meris CXM 1978 (£899 $899), reviewed in SOS April 2022; it is full of gorgeous Lexicon‑like tones, but obviously doesn’t come cheap! At the opposite end of the pricing scale, I’d be very happy with a Boss RV‑6 (£149 $170) or Electro‑Harmonix Holy Grail Plus (£139 $160). These could all offer something useful on every studio session. For a more ‘stylised’ reverb, I’d suggest trying something from Old Blood Noise Endeavours, such as their Sunlight (£189 $209), which is sensitive to playing dynamics and has three different modes (tape, comb and pass) — you can conjure up very enjoyable effects, including some great evolving drones and wild soundscapes. Just be aware that they might not be usable in every project!
For delay, my first choice is simple: the Boss DD‑8 (£149 $180). With 10 delay types, a looper, stereo I/O and decent sound quality, it’s hard to beat on value for money. For a more ‘premium’ digital delay, I’ll recommend the latest one from Red Panda Labs, the Raster 2 (£299 $299). Full of all the deep features Red Panda are known for, it’s also stereo and has many pitch and modulation tools built in. For an analogue option, I always recommend the Asheville Music Tools ADG‑1 ($347), a fantastic delay pedal designed by ex‑Moog engineer Rick ‘Hawker’ Shaich, who worked on the famous Moogerfooger range. Utilising a pair of Xvive high‑voltage BBDs, this delay features up to 700ms of harmonically rich echoes, an extensive, fully analogue control set, and a switchable modulation section that can enhance your echoes or combine with a short delay to create a deep chorus. Its top dollar for a mono delay, but the sound speaks for itself... and it’s nowhere near the price of the out‑of‑production Moogs!
Finally, don’t overlook the host of utility pedals that can help you get more out of your other effects. With a simple expression pedal, for example, you can access another realm of creativity, and put control over different parameters at your feet. An affordable option is the Moog EP‑3 (£49 $49). In a similar vein the Old Blood Noise Endeavours Expression Ramper (£59 $59) is a great and affordable pedal which, in a nutshell, applies an LFO to the ‘heel and toe’ expression positions and cycles through them at a user‑definable rate.
Buffer pedals are another great tool to have around, whether to support a signal through a long cable run or vast signal chain. The 29 Pedals EUNA is not cheap (£269 $270) but is excellent, and includes features such as an effects loop and switchable filters. Other buffer options I recommend include Red Panda Labs’ Buffer (£75 $79), which has a tiny physical footprint, and the Empress Effects Buffer (£99 $99). Some other pedals with buffered bypass, such as the Boss TU‑3 tuner, can do a serviceable job as a buffer but, ultimately, it comes down to how much control you want over your tone — if you have the budget for something better, conduct some A/B comparisons if you can. For a more detailed explanation of buffers and how they can help you avoid the dreaded ‘tone suck’, check out Paul White’s November 2021 article: www.soundonsound.com/techniques/tackling-tone-suck
Hopefully, this discussion has given you some food for thought. Feel free to stray outside my recommendations, of course — whatever choices you make, having a pedalboard set up and ready to play with both feet and fingers really can inject some energy and interest into a session. But I would definitely encourage you to start with the focused, planned pedalboard ‘slots’ as the core of your setup, even if, eventually, you go as far down the rabbit hole as I have!
I can already hear the cries of “Why not just get a multi‑effects pedal and be done with it?!” If you find sounds that you both like and feel comfortable programming on the fly that’s certainly an option. But while some such devices can sound stunningly good, I find they often interrupt the flow in a session. Fractal Audio’s Axe‑Fx III, for example, sounds wonderful but I don’t find it inspirational to program when the pressure is on — if I’m ever tempted to try, it inevitably puts a stop to my session. With my pedalboard, I’m really looking for a setup that can inspire, and the easy workflow, immediacy and fun factor of a set of pedals just can’t be beaten in the studio.
Some pedals, such as the Strymon Mobius, may offer a happy middle ground, though — it features many modulation types and is very flexible, but it also makes most parameters accessible on rotary knobs, meaning performers can still get hands‑on.