Volume Pedal Exposé

If there’s one question I’ve been asked nearly to death since my stint in the effects industry, “what volume pedal should I get” likely ranks near the top. It’s rather perplexing on the surface, especially to those of us that have peeked under the hood of one. However, there’s so much spin about each model and what they accomplish, that even this simple task can be muddied beyond comprehension. What’s more, many manufacturers make three or more different models, which further clouds the data pool. Hopefully, this list puts your mind at ease.

1. Ernie Ball VP Jr.

Let me start off by saying that the Junior is not the only volume pedal Ernie Ball offers—there are seven. Seven! However, the Junior 250k model is the one most often associated when the worlds of “Ernie Ball” and “volume pedal” collide. To EB’s credit, most of these models are different configurations of potentiometer value and size, with the Junior of course being the smaller of the two. Ten years ago, there were no complaints with the Junior, but now, in the age of true bypass this, tone suck that, many camps have derided the Tuner Out jack on this and other passive volume pedals as an ominous sounding “passive split” that eats your tone for breakfast. Some claim that actually plugging in a tuner does irreversible damage, more than occurs when no tuner is plugged in. Be that as it may, the sweep of the Junior is very even and smooth, and it never goes high enough to feel unnatural. Unfortunately, the arrangement inside the pedal consists of a spring and string configuration that doesn’t fail often, but enough to where Ernie Ball sells replacement kits. That said, unless you own a dental scaler, changing the string and spring is harder than trying to stack golf balls.

Pros: Smooth action, parts readily available

Cons: Replacing the string makes you want to punch someone out

2. Boss FV series

Boss takes a little bit of the guesswork out of choosing a volume pedal by offering only two models—mono and stereo—with no choice of potentiometer value to differentiate between active and passive pickups. And unfortunately, they don’t offer a “junior” size like Ernie Ball does. If you’ve ever seen one in person, you’ll note that a junior size would be more than welcomed—the Boss FV series pedals are massive. In fact, I believe that they’re the largest volume pedals on the market. That said, they’re extremely well built; picking one up really exudes an air of stoutness. They include an expression jack (EXP), a tuner out, a tension adjuster and a minimum volume knob. The arrangement inside doesn’t seem like it would ever need to be repaired, as a static arm manipulates the sweep of the potentiometer. However, because this pedal contains a quartet of jacks (five in the stereo model), the dreaded passive split looms within the Boss FV pedals. The features are really nice and the enclosure sturdy, but the sweep feels a tad herky-jerky, and the sweep is a little too tall. And if pedalboard real estate is at a premium, I suggest you keep looking.

Pros: Great feature set, sturdy enclosure

Cons: Really, really big, the sweep feels a bit abnormal, and is pretty tall

3. Mission VM-1/VM Pro

Mission Engineering out of Petaluma, California is the new kid in town, and purveyor of all things treadle. In fact, every floor device Mission makes is in this form factor except for one. This includes four different active pedals and one passive pedal. As the company’s most popular devices are the VM-1 and VM Pro, these are the ones we’ll be looking at. Firstly, Mission’s wares aren’t the cheapest out there, but in true “you-get-what-you-pay-for” fashion, the features easily match the asking price. For one, the tuner out is actually isolated from the other jacks by way of a mute switch, eliminating any trace of a passive split. The active VM Pro is far more sophisticated, providing a crystal clear buffer for preserving every last picofarad of tone. There’s also a minimum volume trimpot inside that’s a precision multi-turn so players can adjust whether or not the heel-down position actually kills the entire signal or just quiets it. However, the dedicated non-muted tuner out requires some kind of funky Y-splitter apparatus, so it looks a little unnatural and adds a bit of clutter to your board. If you’re one of the obsessive types where streamlining is key, this won’t drive you nuts, but it may come close.

Pros: Buffered, minimum volume setting (Pro), mute switch to eliminate passive splits (1)

Cons: Relatively expensive, Pro’s tuner out needs some strange device

4. Visual Sound Visual Volume

Perhaps known best for the 1spot line of power adapters and irregular pentagon-shaped pedals, Visual Sound comes to us with the aptly named Visual Volume. Though the company isn’t particularly renowned for its volume offerings—and this is the only one—it’s a shame because it’s a very full-featured pedal, perhaps one of the most full-featured in this writeup. The unit features true stereo in and out, active (with buffer) and passive modes, a gain control in active mode for a little extra boost, a tension adjustor, and a nifty array of LEDs on the side for precise, on-the-fly adjustment. The construction is very robust—it’s solid metal, though it looks plastic—and it uses the same rack and pinion type treadle arrangement as almost all wah pedals. That said, should that contraption fail, spare parts are readily available and easily replaceable. With six jacks adorning the top edge though, the pedal is pretty wide; it’s definitely closer to a square shape than any other pedal on the list. Playing pedalboard Tetris just to replace an existing volume pedal with a new one might be more trouble than it’s worth. Still, the feature set to cost ratio is among the highest, and if this is your first volume pedal, it’s a fine choice.

Pros: Extremely versatile feature set

Cons: Kind of wide, awkward to fit on a board, sweep isn’t the smoothest

5. Hilton Electronics volume pedal

For those not in the know, the Hilton Electronics volume pedal is the Cadillac of the volume world with the price to match. The most basic model comes in at $269; some users might think “what’s 30 more dollars” and opt for the pro model at $299. Truthfully, the Pro model has so many upgrades over the standard that the extra $30 is actually a steal. The Pro model includes a tension adjustor, standard power (the original takes a 24-volt center-positive adapter, by no means standard) and the ability to use the pedal without power—a feature the standard version lacks. While the original model comes in regular and low-profile versions (low-profile for use by sitting steel guitar players), the Pro model is optimized for standing guitarists. What’s more, all Hilton volume pedals are built like a brick house and use optical circuitry. There’s a light, a photocell and no other moving parts. There’s nothing to go bad in a Hilton volume pedal.

Pros: Excellent clarity, custom transformer, optical, wonderful feature set, rugged enclosure

Cons: Really, really expensive

6. Dunlop DVP1

Dunlop’s DVP series fulfills a niche in the volume pedal world by offering a large, foot-friendly pedal with the smoothest, longest sweep in the game. While this may not be the most convincing selling point for a guitarist’s volume pedal, every keyboard player out there would kill for a pedal like this. Like most manufacturers, Dunlop offers more than one volume pedal—there’s the flagship DVP1, the DVP3 and the DVP1XL. Of these, the DVP1 is the largest; it’s a very large pedal with some serious grip on the top and a strange Airstream-like design. The product pages for the Dunlop volume pedals boast a patent-pending frictionless drive mechanism which sounds as if no parts will ever wear out, but I wasn’t able to open the unit to inspect. Removing the four screws on the bottom wouldn’t budge the enclosure, which is both good and bad—good because even intentional fiddling wouldn’t jar it loose, bad because the unit may not be constructed for aftermarket repair. There is a tuner out, and with it being a passive pedal, this is something of a no-no. The DVP1XL and DVP3 offer an output to use the pedal as an expression pedal. At any rate, the action doesn’t get any silkier than this; shop accordingly.

Pros: Likely the smoothest sweep on the market

Cons: Very large, passive split, seemingly impenetrable

7. Morley volume pedal

These pedals are old volume standbys. You’ll see them on pro boards from time to time, and this is due to its sheer ruggedness; the pedal is made from cold-folded steel and is likely the most durable of the bunch. And once again, like most companies, Morley offers five volume pedal designs—optical, active, passive, a miniature pedal and a Steve Vai signature model, (the Little Alligator). In fact, the Alligator used to be Morley’s standby, with a minimum volume knob located in the heel. Morley’s old optical designs used to be built out of paper, and in my days as a bench tech, several came through with sweep issues. Morley has addressed these by showing users how to adjust the taper by bending and tweaking components inside—that said I’d probably skip the optical model and go straight for the “moving parts” version. Morley’s pedals are tough at the expense of being pretty unforgivably bulky, and the bulk only seems to mock the user as there’s a lot of wasted space on the flanges of the base unit. Still, if you’re in the market for a volume pedal that could survive a nuclear war, Morley is probably your best bet.

Pros: Super tough, relatively inexpensive, nice foot weight

Cons: internal construction is a little odd on the optical model, the non-mini pedals are pretty large

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