Demystifying Buffer Pedals and Avoiding the Dreaded Tone Suck

The Gist: Buffer effect pedals help prevent tone suck (signal degradation) as a result of a fully loaded pedalboard and/or using long cables.

TC Electronic BonaFide Buffer

TC Electronic BonaFide Buffer

Let’s start with some givens:

  • A buffer is an active circuit that preserves the strength and tone of your guitar signal.

  • All guitar cables have capacitance, and lower-quality and longer-length cables will introduce more capacitance than higher-quality and shorter-length cables.

  • Some effect pedals, particularly vintage effects, pass signal through the circuit even when the effect is bypassed or off. The result will be a reduction in the high and/or mid frequencies, which is referred to as “tone suck.”

Many modern effects are “true bypass,” meaning your signal bypasses the circuit entirely when it’s in the off position and simply passes from input to output. We’ll cover the topic of true bypass in a future article but, suffice to say, you’ll most certainly suffer some signal loss by running longer lengths of cable through several true-bypass pedals.

In that situation, a buffer would help “boost” your signal. Other pedals, such as those from Boss and Ibanez in particular, include a buffer within the circuit. This buffer is “on” even while the effect is bypassed. In fact, you may already have a buffer in your signal if you are using one of those ubiquitous Boss tuners in your signal path.

How to Determine if You’re Suffering from Tone Suck

JHS Little Black Buffer

JHS Little Black Buffer

Compare the sound of your guitar while plugged directly into your amplifier to when it’s going through all of your effects, in the “off” or bypassed position. Does it sound different? Better or worse? If you are missing volume, mids or highs when you run through your pedals, a buffer will likely do you some good, assuming you are using shorter, higher-quality cables. Figuring out if you suffer from tone suck is just that easy.

In addition to effects with built-in buffers, several companies make stand-alone buffers. Analogman and JHS, in particular, are very well regarded. These can be placed at the beginning or end of your chain, though there are a few exceptions.

Volume pedals and some vintage circuits, a Fuzz Face for example, do not play nicely with buffers and you should consider placing them before buffers in your pedal lineup. That said, there are no strict rules, only suggestions. Ultimately, you should allow your ears to guide you. I’ve seen some pretty unconventional pedal orders yield fantastic results.

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Johnny Balmer is the owner of Alchemy Audio, where he builds, repairs and modifies guitar effect pedals.

Learn more about effects pedals on our Effects Pedals: What Do They Do? | The Basics homepage.

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