Strategies for Always-On Pedals: Buffers, Preamps, and Compressors

The idea of an “always-on” pedal is often implied in gear convos but rarely explored or explained. What are they? Where should you place them? How can they enhance or extend your rig? This week on TPS, Dan & Mick delved into the topic with a suite of preamp, compressor, drive, reverb, and delay pedals to capture the aims and assets of this broad class of pedals.

As Dan summed up, “the concept of an always-on pedal is having something on your board that you leave on all the time and it just makes a good thing better.” Before looking at a few options to get the job done, why might go this route in the first place?

There are many reasons: (1) you love the sound of your amp and guitar but want to enhance it, (2) you need to improve the responsiveness and feel of your rig when playing at lower volumes, (3) you want to add some signature character or space to your sound in a mix, and (4) you are trying to find ways of getting more out of the other pedals you already have onboard.

If some or all of those strategies sound like your situation, here are four pedals that can add some natural color and contour to your sound as an always-on option.

Fender Level Set Buffer

Chances are, you already have a buffer or two in your pedal board. Some pedals, such as those by Boss, have built-in buffers to keep your signal moving. So what is a buffer and what does it do? As Dan described, they give your signal a boost in capacitance. Each inch of cable between your guitar output and amp input results in a tiny bit of signal loss. A buffer will help keep this level up throughout the chain so the signal your amp sees is happy, healthy, and heavy. Note, however, that a buffer will only do this job until it hits another buffered source. So think strategically about where and when to place it in your chain.

On the TPS episode, Dan & Mick experimented with the new Fender Level Set Buffer pedal. Right out of the gates, they both remarked “that is really transparent.” Functionally, Dan added that the Level Set has the asset of a high frequency control nob, “which is really handy if you’re changing guitars [with different pickup outputs], so you can just tweak this to save you from having to change the characteristics of your amplifier.” In this way, the always-on buffer added a new hue as well as served a very practical purpose of adapting things mid-gig if necessary.

The Benson Preamp & JHS Clover Preamp Pedals

As Dan noted, “the idea with [preamp always-on pedals] is you want to have your core sound but the option of shaping a bit of EQ.” This is particularly relevant when playing an amp that is either at low volume or one that has an inherently flat EQ character. With two recent entries in this category by Benson and JHS sky-rocketing in success, Dan & Mick decided to have a play with both.

Based on the preamp section of their famous Chimera amplifier, the Benson preamp offers a range of sounds from subtle to smacking. For the purposes of the always-on experiment, however, Dan & Mick were most interested in its playability in low gain terrain.  As Mick remarked, “that is really lovely. Of course, there’s no valve in there but it reminds me just of another gain stage stacked in the front of your amp, just like the amp’s juiced a bit more.”

Launched at NAMM 2019, the JHS Clover preamp is based on the sound of the famous Boss FA-1, which as Dan noted, has achieved cult status due to its use by U2’s The Edge. The big difference, however, is that the JHS pedal has a broader range of EQ tweakability. Features include: dedicated bass, middle, and treble controls as well as a three way selector for variable EQ structures. As an always-on option, Dan commented “there is just something about this preamp that imparts its own character” and enables your amp to get into its sweet spot quicker.

The Cali76 Origin Effects Compressor

One final strategy deserving honorable mention is the use of a compressor to tighten up and extend your already awesome sound into always-on bliss. As Dan noted, this is a natural solution since “if you think of what a cranked amp is doing, it’s limiting the signal… In short, compressors are like the overdrive for your clean sound.” Dan & Mick highlighted one of their favorite compressors, The Cali76 Effects Compressor, now available in the Stacked Edition release, which, as the name suggests, includes a set of compressors.

One of the features Dan & Mick hailed about the Cali76, however, is something that has become more and more common on modern compressors: a blend control. Having the ability to dial in your compressed tone and then determine the mix of your dry and compressed sound is an ideal way of establishing an always-on compressed vibe without losing out on attack and impact of your playing. Other pedal options that have this feature include: the JHS Whitey Tightey and Pulp n’ Peel, Keeley Compressor Plus, TC Electronic Hyper Gravity, and Walrus Audio Deep Six.

Whether your always-on sound is a Tubescreamer into an already exploding high-gain amp or a subtly set pedal nudging an amp on the edge of breakup, head over to Riff City instore or online to find your best stompbox option.

TPS 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, Benson Preamp, Fender Level Set Buffer, Taurus Servo, JHS Clover, Keeley D&M Drive, Snouse Black Box OD2, Origin Effects Cali76 Stacked Edition, Boss DM-2W Waza Craft Delay, Catalinbread Topanga Spring Reverb.

Amps: Hiwatt DR-103 Custom 100 (1973) with Marshall 1960AX cabinet/Celestion G12M Greenback speakers, Vox AC30 (1961) with Celestion Alnico Blue speakers.

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