Why Buffers are Important
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For most players, guitar pedals are exciting things to obsess over. From fuzzes and drives to the most ambient of effects, everyone has their favorite sounds they are chasing. Buffers are not fun or exciting. And I have yet to hear of the guitarist who is searching the earth far and wide for that perfect buffer circuit.
Yes, unfortunately, buffers fall into that rather bland category of pedals known as utility. However, they are not to be scoffed at. Just like things such as tuners and power supplies, buffers are very important to all pedal users and serve a very specific purpose. But what is that purpose? And is it applicable to you? Well, those are a couple of the questions that I will help you answer in this article.
What is a Buffer?
If you want to dive into capacitance and resistance, there is a lot that you can understand about why buffers do what they do. But I am aware most people here are not looking for that answer. Basically, a buffer will help to keep your guitar's tone clear and lush with all the frequencies that should have to begin with. What causes these frequencies to be lost? The main thing to blame is cables. Having long or cheap cables between you and your amp introduces issues. While a buffer can’t do much with a cheap cable, it can help out quite a bit on the length side of things.
True Bypass/Buffers Types
While all buffers do function in essentially the same way, they are not all created equal. Some reading this might already be aware that many pedals already have buffers in them. Often times pedals that do not have a buffer (true bypass) use this fact as a selling point, saying that it adds to your guitar’s tonal clarity. This is not totally inaccurate, but it is a little misleading. While yes, true bypass is a good thing for a strong healthy guitar signal, if you are suffering from tone suck than true bypass cannot do anything to help that. For example, say you have a massive rig with 50+ feet of cable running from your pickups to your amp. Even if every pedal on your board is true bypass, you’re still going to have problems. These problems are remedied in part by a buffer.
Getting back to buffers built into pedals. Typically, Boss is the place to look for solid built-in buffers, most of them contain one and they do a really good job. There are plenty of other specific examples, but Boss is the only major brand I can think of that just makes pretty much everything buffered. Now, with a lot of cheaper pedals, you will run into bad buffers more frequently. The problem with low-quality built-in buffers is they will color your tone, often in a not very pleasing fashion. But regardless of the way it colors, you really don’t want to have another factor to deal with in terms of tone. So, with that said, mostly true bypass with a couple dedicated or really good built-in buffers is considered to be the best option. More on this later.
Do You Need One?
Buffers are a tool meant to solve a problem, so if you don’t have a problem, don’t waste your money. How do you know if you have a problem? Well to start, you shouldn’t be using a buffer if you are not going through any pedals, just make sure your guitar cable is not too long (under 18ft. is considered safe). Additionally, if you are only using a few pedals and not much cable to get to your amp, you are most likely fine. But once you start to accumulate more and more pedals, you’ll want to make sure your signal is staying healthy. The best way to make sure your signal is strong is to play through your board with everything off, then plug straight into the amp. Repeat this process a few times, ideally, your guitar should sound the exact same no matter if you go direct or not. If you notice that going through your board is muddier or loses some high-end compared to going straight in, then you may need a buffer.
It is worth noting that there are times where the properties of a buffer would not be wanted. There are several famous guitarists that are known to have combated harsh frequencies with longer cables. These cases were often brought about by playing bright pickups into very trebly amps. This is likely not the situation you and most others reading this will be in. However, if you are constantly dealing with too much high-end, a buffer may not be a good buy.
Best Practices When Using a Buffer(s)
If you are going to be using a buffer there are a few things to keep in mind. The main thing to think about when using your buffer is where you are placing it in your signal chain. For smaller to medium-sized boards often the buffer will be best sat as early as possible but after the drive pedals. This is because some drives (especially fuzzes) love the guitar signal going straight in with nothing in front. While a good dedicated buffer should not color your tone much at all, you still want to give certain pedals as much of the original signal as possible.
If you have a large board most people will agree the best option is to sandwich your pedals with two different buffers. Meaning the first and last thing your signal touches should be buffered. You may just need one dedicated buffer at the front if you already have a delay or reverb with a good built-in buffer at the end. Preferably everything in between these buffers would be in a true bypass loop switcher, but that’s taking things a step further.
While this topic is not as exciting as some, I hope you are now able to see that it is still an important thing to discuss. The buffers in your rig (or lack thereof) can make a massive difference in your guitar tone. So, keep in mind a few of the rules and guidelines I’ve mentioned above and maybe try to implement a buffer or two into your signal flow.
There is a lot more that you can learn regarding buffer i/o impedance, capacitance, and other related topics. This article is a really solid chunk of information for the average player out there, but never be afraid to dig deeper.