Mosquitoes in Your Signal

So, it's taken you countless hours to find an awesome collection of boutique guitar pedals, you've spent hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars purchasing them and getting them shipped, and a lot of effort and energy has gone into planning and putting your dream pedalboard together. Then you plug your beautiful vintage axe into the input of the first pedal on your new board, the output of the last pedal into your expensive boutique tube amp, and you power up. But instead of getting the sweet liquid honey tone dripping from the amp speaker like you expected, your tone is weak, uninspiring, and worst of all, has a high-pitched, faint and truly vexing mosquito-like noise that just buzzes around the tone. Tears and/or gnashing of teeth ensues.

Unwanted noise like this is a regular complaint from guitar pedal enthusiasts the world over. The cause - an unsuitable power supply. I've been there before; a few times actually! Well, when it comes to guitar pedals and electrical musical instruments in general that have particular power requirements, having the right power supply really matters. However, in addition to causing unwanted noise in your signal, a bad power supply may actually damage components in the circuitry of a pedal, or in some cases, actually completely fry it! 

The thing is though, that there is a plethora of information out there on good clean power for guitar pedals. So much information in fact, that it is as easy to become really overwhelmed and frustrated with it all as it is with the problem you're trying to solve!  With this in mind, and rather than adding to the frustration, my aim with this article is to save you a whole lot of time and energy with a concise guide to good power supplies for guitar pedals.

The Basics

The first thing I will admit is I that I don’t know a lot about electronics. But you know what, you don't need to know much about electronics to choose a good power supply for guitar pedals! There are some simple things that really help to get a workable understanding though, so below is a basic summary of the essentials (feel free to add anything I’ve missed in the comments at the bottom of this blog page):

  • Voltage is the unit of measure that determines the battery and/or AC adaptor you need to use with a specific stompbox.
  • Power from the wall GPO (General Power Outlet) is AC, varying from 100V (Japan) and 120V (USA), up to 230V (Australia and New Zealand) and 240V (Brunei). This list is a great summary of voltages around the world.
  • Power around the world also varies in frequency of 50Hz or 60 Hz, and in some countries like Japan, both!
  • The power socket on your pedal is DC power, although some pedals have AC power requirements.
  • Current is how much power your stompbox needs. If voltage defines the "type" of power, current defines how much of it.
  • The standard measurement for current in guitar pedals and music equipment in general is milliamps (mA).
  • The modern standard for power sockets in pedals is negative tip polarity and usually 9V DC. This has been standardised by the popularity of Boss Corporation compact pedals, arguably the most common guitar effects stompboxes in the world.
  • There are some pedals that require positive tip polarity DC power plugs, so be very careful that you know what your pedal requires as using the wrong plug will damage and possibly kill your precious pedal!
  • Some pedals require 12V, 18V and sometimes more, and usually come with their own power adaptors. If you want to use them with a power supply that is powering other pedals on a board, there are plug fittings that boost the power such as the Godlyke Iso-Pump from 9V to 12V, 18V, and even 24V. The JHS Colour Box for example needs 18V power, and comes with its own power adaptor to satisfy this requirement. Some larger power supplies such as the Voodoo Lab and CIOKS series have designated parallel outlets with specific voltages to meet this need.
  • “Wall wart” is the term used to refer to standard low cost power adaptors, such as the Visual Sound 1Spot adaptor.
  • Analog overdrives, distortions, fuzzes, generally have very low current draws of less than 20mA. Most simple overdrives for example need only around 5mA of power!
  • Most digital pedals need between 50 to 100mA current. The Flux Effects Liquid Ambience for example only needs 60mA and can work quite well off one of the standard outputs of the Voodoo Lab Power Pedal 2+.
  • Feature heavy digital pedals however from brands such as Strymon, Line 6 and Eventide require up to 400mA current, and need to be isolated (parallel). Powering these off a daisy chain from a standard “wall wart” power adaptor will conjure the mosquitoes, so don't do it.
  • “Dirty power” refers to bad supply from cheap unmatched adaptors or bad wiring from a wall GPO (General Power Outlet). It WILL affect your tone and cause all sorts of extra noise.

Having a good power supply appropriate to your pedals' requirements is essential for not only good tone, but also for avoiding damage or even destroying any given pedal's circuit. Spending a little extra money on having a good power supply can help you avoid a lot of frustration and potentially losing a lot of money! Do not use a cheap power supply from the likes of Dick Smith or Jaycar – you might save a little money in the short-term, and lose a lot in the long run from pedals being damaged or killed!

Below are my personal power supply recommendations for varying pedal and pedalboard requirements:

Visual Sound 1Spot

A fantastic low cost option for daisy chaining a few low current draw pedals, the 1Spot power adaptor provides up to 1700mA of 9V DC power and can be used anywhere in the world (appropriate plug needed) taking 100-240V AC power. The Combo Pack comes with selection of plugs for various non-standard power sockets, including a daisy chain. Large draw digital pedals from companies such as Eventide, Line 6 and Strymon, need to be isolated, and do not work well off the 1Spot with a daisy chain however. It is best to power these off their own supplied adaptors, or using one of the isolated output power supplies such as the Voodoo Lab or CIOKS units.

The 1Spot is a great simple and cheap option for small boards that don't have power hungry digital pedals. However, beware of using it with daisy chain (don't say we didn't warn you)!

Diago Powerstation

This is a fantastic mid-range price adaptor that has almost double the current of the 1Spot, at 3000mA. The Diago Powerstation is essentially just a bigger and more powerful version of a wall wart like the 1Spot though, so you will still need isolated supplies for big digital pedals. You can however use special isolating extension units such as the GigRig TimeLord to power these digital monsters off a Powerstation, as the current it produces is certainly enough for a big pedalboard. A TimeLord is still strictly not an entirely isolated line though, but rather reduces the "mosquitoes in the system"!

Again though like the 1Spot, the Powerstation can be used anywhere in the world taking 100-240V AC power. I have personally used one in Australia and then toured to Japan, simply changing the lead out for a Japanese plug lead, and it worked really well! Highly recommended for medium sized boards for the travelling musician as it is quite lightweight.

Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2+

This is getting into the big boys, and something like the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2+, ISO-5, or Digital is needed for the massive pedalboards that need trailers to transport (which I am guilty of)! The Pedal Power 2+, and its siblings the ISO-5 and Digital, are purpose designed for big pedalboards with a lot of power draw that specifically need isolated power outputs. Along with the CIOKS range they are currently arguably the most popular choice for this category.

They come with a variety of outputs, being standard 100mA outputs, larger draw 250mA outputs, and even 400mA outputs for the power hungry pedals. The Pedal Power 2+ also has “sag” outputs for getting that dying battery sound that some say makes fuzz pedals in particular sound great. They are all isolated outputs, however due to the nature of their design these units only come in AC power options applicable to your country, so I cannot use my 230V Australia Pedal Power 2+ in the US for instance. There are other options in this class though such as the CIOKS range that give AC power-halving switch, but still are not as flexible as the humble wall wart.

If you do have a really big board with lots of Strymons or Eventide, I would personally recommend having a Pedal Power 2+ for the majority of the board, and an ISO-5 or Digital for the big power draw digital pedals you have. Yes, that’s a decent investment in power supply, but you’ve already invested a lot on pedals so why run the risk of killing your tone or damaging your hardware by compromising the essentials?!

There are also other options out there in the vast world of guitar gear, and the products listed above are a small selection of the options. Below are other recommended power supplies, however they have their own individual limitations, so be sure you know what you really need before you let your wallet decide:

  • Godlyke Powerall
  • Dunlop DC Brick
  • CIOKS range
  • T-Rex Fuel Tank range
  • BBE Supa-Charger

A side note, Pedaltrain pedalboards (the most popular and practical boards in pedaldom) actually come with mounting kits specifically designed for Voodoo Lab units, which allow the power supplies to be fixed underneath their pedalboards.

My Tips

  • NEVER use cheap power adaptors from electronics chain stores as your guitar pedal power supply!
  • Use only power supplies designed for use with guitar pedals, or even better, the power adaptor the pedal came with.
  • Only use daisy chains with low current draw pedals like overdrives, distortions, fuzzes, simple analog modulation effects.
  • Ensure you know the polarity of your pedal power socket - most are 9V negative tip like Boss pedals, however do not assume this. My general rule in life is NEVER ASSUME!
  • Some guitar pedals require more than 9V supply, and some older models even take AC power rather than DC. Again, make sure you know what each pedal needs before you plug in and power up.
  • Make sure you run power hungry digital effects off isolated outputs. Anything over 100mA usually needs an isolated supply of its own.
  • Pay the extra for a good power supply. Skimp on this to have more for a new guitar pedal, and you may well damage them all.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a good power supply for guitar pedals! Not doing so is like having cheap $50 tires on your expensive sports car, or soy milk in your coffee; it’s just not right. Do the right thing for your tone, extend the life of your precious guitar pedals, and respect your ears by making sure you have the right power supply for the job.

Thanks for reading and I truly hope this was helpful. Enjoy your cleanly powered tone!

 

PS I would also recommend referring to this article from Beavis Audio, which goes more in-depth into the electronics of guitar pedals and some great advice on batteries, not covered here (anyway, who uses batteries anymore hey!). It is still simple, but may help you understand the workings of guitar pedals.

 


Written by Rodger van Raalte
Owner and director of Signal Chain
"The pedal cabinet is the best part of any music store"

 

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Comments (4)

Commented by Griffo
November 24 2014

Great article. The intricacies of power supply for pedals became a reality earlier this year. After running a DC Brick as my power source for many years, it all of a sudden became problematic when I added a Diamond Memory Lane Jnr delay to my board. The buzzing was incessant. The problem? Some of the cheaper power supplies run in series and my new pedal was sucking the life out of the DC Brick and affecting everything else. I upgraded to a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2+ and it has solved everything (it’s powers the pedals using a parallel system rather than a series system). I instantly noticed how much better EVERYTHING sounded through the signal chain. It’s expensive but totally worth it and I learned a valuable lesson – quality of your power supply is as important as your pedal, guitar and amp config.

Commented by Rodger
November 24 2014

I absolutely agree Griffo! The DC Bricks are great supplies, but yes, essentially an internally daisy chained supply. Your reference to series and parallel is correct, and another easy way to look at it. Guitar pedals definitely are fussy little things though, and giving them the right power like a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2+ makes ALL the difference.

I just wish someone had told me all this a long time ago and I would haven’t wasted all the time and money on several cheaper options rather than one good supply. Lesson learnt!

Commented by MO
November 25 2014

Great article. Have to mention the GigRig power supply though, especially for larger boards. I’ve tried a lot of the ones you mentioned and I’m sticking with the GigRig unit.

Commented by Rodger
November 25 2014

I haven’t had anything to do with the GigRig unit, but do like the TimeLords. Thanks for the comment on this MO as others may benefit from this option.

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