TPS Live! Dan & Mick’s Take on Gain Stacking from Riff City in New Hope

This week on TPS, worlds collided: Dan & Mick took the show on the road and had a “shwang” in our New Hope location. With a live audience just steps away from a roaring Fender 1965 Deluxe Reverb and Victory Sherriff 22, epic sounds washed over the crowd as did insights and advice from Dan & Mick on gain stacking strategies.

As with any live show, the event also took on a life of its own. Demos and dialogue intermingled as Dan & Mick hit on some prepared topics and welcomed diversions in the form of questions from players in the audience. To give an impression of this aspect of the evening and episode, this blog will explore just three of the questions posed in the course of Dan & Mick’s hour or so on air.

What are the fundamental goals and variables of gain stacking?

As Dan introduced, “When we’re talking about gain stacking, the idea is taking pedals that have gain and putting them together to create different sounds.” As Dan added, “and it might not just be overdrive, it might be any kind of gain make up. That could be a boost, it could be your amp, and then you’re adding gain on top of that.” In short, gain stacking is about creating and overdrive architecture that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s about innovating a gain sound that is the result of experimentation and leveraging variables in your equation of tone. It’s about toying with the order of pedals, playing with EQ contrasts and combinations, and perceiving how the sounds of your individual items of gear react and respond when placed in the context of others.

As Mick noted, one of the greatest challenges for gain stacking pedals and amps is balancing between “levels” in the mix and “audibility” of the resulting sound. While there is no single answer or solution to these challenges, there are a few pedal combos and placement hacks to be aware of to make the most of the sound.

Where and when can boost play a role in building an overdrive wall of sound?

With a pedal like the Keeley D&M Drive, the mid-ship toggle switch allows for selecting the direction of the gain stages built into the pedal. This means you can select if Dan’s hitting Mick (heavy drive into boost) or Mick’s smacking Dan (boost into heavy drive). As Dan described, the EQ character of the boost on the D&M is a mid-pushed boost, which means you go from a “smiley” type mid-scoop on clean to a recovered and accentuated mid-frequency kick when the D&M boost is engaged. Mick prescribed this form of boost particularly for Strat players in need of a lift out of the mix during a lead line or solo. As Dan reflected, “What you heard there was that it didn’t go all fuzzy and dirty. All we did there was change that [EQ] shape…a sound like that helps the guitar sit really well in the mix.”

When the drive side was added to the equation and put after the boost with reduced gain, the result was a punchy overdriven sound that retained the dynamic character of the boost without running amuck in a bog of ill-defined distortion. However, as noted in the show, putting the boost after the drive had the asset of enlivening the original gain sound. As Dan commented for the D&M, “my side doesn’t change the fundamental frequencies…instead of changing the character of the gain at the input it came at the output.” In the TPS Live experience, Dan & Mick also played with the Bad Bob from Analog Man to demonstrate what an independent boost can do when placed on either side of drive.

Boost can be achieved in various ways and other places, for example, with an independent boost pedal, EQ pedal to sculpt the range, or a well-articulated compressor pedal. As Dan responded to an audience question, “a compression pedal is limiting the dynamic range without fundamentally changing the tone.” With many compressors these days including mix knobs—like the Keeley Compressor or TC Electronic Hyper Gravity—this allows even more nuance and tailoring of the tone, attack, and range.

What is the best way to integrate fuzz into a gain stacked scenario?

Fuzz is easily one of the most controversial effects. As Dan polled the audience and asked, “Has anyone here struggled with fuzz?” hands shot up across the room.

As Mick demoed at the outset of this section, fuzz is an extremely dynamic and responsive effect. With the Analog Man Sun Face fuzz cranked and the volume pot dialed back slightly on his Strat, the sound was tuneful and inspiring, yet hardly dirty and angry. As he described, “Fuzz Face [style] fuzzes are unbelievably sensitive to the input…so how do we get some definition on that horrible fuzzy mess [when the volume is on full]?” Here’s where buffers come into the equation.

As Dan summed up, “A buffer is simply a one-to-one amplifier and it changes the impedance of the signal.” With pedals this matters most when you’re running a long chain of pedals and/or a there is a long stretch of cables before the signal hits the amp. In the words of Dan, this involves all sorts of added capacitance, yet “a buffer will drive that capacitance so it can make very dull sounds sound nice and bright.”

When it comes to fuzz pedals, traditional gear wisdom would say to put them first in the chain: they just like an uninterfered signal without any buffer in between. As Mick noted, “That’s why that relationship between the volume pot and the fuzz is so sensitive.” The relationship between the fuzz and a buffer is equally essential. “That’s why if you have your buffer bypass wah pedal and a traditional fuzz, it hurts the fuzz to come after the wah.” This plague of fuzzes is particularly so with vintage-style fuzz faces and those with germanium transistors.

As was noted above with boost, the position of a buffered pedal with fuzz nets some intriguing results. By adding the Bad Bob booster after the fuzz, the effect was recovered high-end sibilance to the signal. As Dan commented, “The point about this is that it’s not just the buffers at the input of the fuzz you need to be aware of, it’s also buffers after [that matter], and especially with germanium-style fuzzes.”

As the live show drew to a close, both Dan & Mick reiterated the core idea behind TPS: there are no answers only better questions. Thanks to both TPS anchormen for fielding some of ours in the audience. If you have any questions about the gear featured in the episode, be sure to head over to Riff City and have yourself a “shwang.”

TPS Episode Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Fender Custom Shop Ltd Edition ’59 Stratocaster, Fender American Standard Telecaster (channel bound).

Amps: Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb combo, Victory Sheriff 22 with V212-VH cabinet.

Effects: Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Mini Tuner, Analog Man Sun Face NKT Red Dot, Analog Man Bad Bob Booster, Keeley D&M Drive, Boss GE-7 Equalizer, Mooer ElecLady, Strymon TimeLine, Walrus Audio Monument Tremolo, TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2.

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