How Not to Fry your Guitar Pedals by Starving or Saturating Their Power Levels

Most any piece of guitar gear is designed to work under optimal circumstances. When your amp is breathing, you’re playing your best, and everything is powered appropriately the world is as it should be. But what happens when you feed your pedals lower or higher wattage?

Well, one thing that can occur is you fry your precious pedals. Nothing ends a jam session like the smell of burning circuits and the sound of your heart breaking in two. So take this as our Riff City proviso at the very outset: do your homework, know the power needs of your pedal, and experiment with varying levels of supplies only for those pedals whose manufacturers specify this is a good option.

For those pedals that are designed to take a range of voltages, however, there is the potential to open up a spectrum of new sounds. This, in turn, can result in a seldom realized tonal hack that results in a different feel under the fingers and new interactions with the other gear in your rig. This week, Dan & Mick go further in depth about pedal power levels.

The Impact of Varying Wattages on Your Effects

Part of anticipating what your pedals might sound like with starved or saturated power levels means understanding how this affects the operation of the circuit. In short, it all has to do with the amount of headroom the power level enables.

Think of your circuit in its most basic form as a sign wave, that beautiful curvy line of a gentle roller coaster. Now imagine this sine wave is set within two horizontal lines, say on a sheet of ruled paper. The power supply determines the height of that space — the more power, the more headroom. Now imagine shrinking that space. Naturally, as the rails encroach on the sine wave, the rounded and smooth peaks and valleys will become clipped and hardened. The result is an overdriven sound. When you decrease the voltage, either by a controllable power source or dying battery, you’re limiting the space between the parallel rails. As a result, you get a new type of saggy, collapsing, almost gated-feeling overdrive.

With that technical lesson behind us, what pedals might you want to use to explore this phenomenon? Since you can never go wrong with gain boxes by Fulltone, let’s look at a pair of examples from the TPS board this week.

Exploding and Crumbling the Fulltone OCD with Different Voltages

As Mick commented, “the OCD by Fulltone is among the most popular overdrives of all time,” which makes it an ideal point of departure for this experiment. This stompbox was designed to work and operate at nine or eighteen volts as well as anywhere in between. In its most natural nine volt state, Dan simply remarked “that is such a great sound!”  But what happens when the power is dropped or cranked?

With an eighteen volt supply feeding the pedal Mick noted that the sonic result was “a really great sound” with some occasionally different harmonic content “where you hear every single nuance of every single note.” As the player in this experiment, Dan noted that “in the eighteen volt setting it wasn’t compressing as much and the attack was a little more immediate in a way that I really, really liked.”

In this example, then, the changes in voltage not only impacted the overall gain structure but the response and interactive quality of playing.

New Headroom Structures in Overdrive and Clean Sounds with the Fulltone Full-Drive

If the Fulltone OCD wasn’t quite your thing, Mick noted the Fulltone Full-Drive is a close contender for popularity as it is “an update of one of the most loved pedals of all time.” Like the OCD, this pedal was designed with variable voltages between nine and eighteen volts in mind.

For the Full-Drive the biggest differences were found in the comp cut mode. As Dan remarked, “that’s much more sensitive and you can hear how much more creamy it got once the voltage was decreased.” As with the OCD, the feel and sound of different power levels was most apparent in higher gain settings. The question then became, however, how the pedal behaved in cleaner sounds with variable headroom.

Both Dan & Mick agreed for cleaner sounds, the impact was more subtle in sound but apparent in feel under the fingers. This was certainly the case with the overdrive pedal and arguably even more apparent with a compressor, such as the Cali76, which exhibited entirely new compression curves when starved or saturated with power.

As highlighted above, the most important thing is doing your homework on whether or not a given pedal was designed to accommodate changes in power. While the manufacturer website and manual should include all of this info, don’t forget that each pedal listing on Riff City online includes a “Features & Tech Specs” section which highlights everything you need to know about a pedal, including its power supply needs. So be creative and shop smart!

TPS Episode Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster, Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster, Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul Standard, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335.

Pedals: TC Electronic PolyTune 2 mini, JAM Pedals Fuzz Phrase, Fulltone Full-Drive1, Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe, Fulltone OCD, Analogman Bi-Chorus, Wampler Ethereal Delay & Reverb.

Amps: Victory V40 The Duchess with V212-VC/ Celestion G12M-65 Creamback speakers, Vox AC30 (1961) with Celestion Alnico Blue speakers.

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