Boost pedals are a paradox; they are the simplest of devices, most with just a single knob, yet they can also be a challenge to integrate to achieve the desired effect. Much more than say a delay, chorus, or even many distortions; the heart of a good boost lies not in the boost pedal itself, but in the complex interactions between all the parts of the signal chain from the pickups to the speaker driver. This is why the same boost pedal may provide a nice lead volume increase in one rig, creamy overdrive in another; yet make mine sound like I’m using a smoke alarm as an amp. Let’s take a look and see why this should be.
A boost pedal is really just an amplifier with a single volume control and an on/off switch. The job of an amplifier is to take a low power signal and increase it’s power level. In the case of our boost pedal, it takes the low level output from a guitar pick up and increases it before passing on to the next part of the signal chain. The number of times the amplifier can increase the output power over the input power is referred to as the gain. A gain of two means the amp should output twice the input signal, and so on.
Boost pedals normally list the amount of boost in dB, so how does that relate to amplifier gain? Let’s take a common boost pedal value of 15dB. To convert that to gain in voltage we use the formula:
Where Vr is the voltage ratio and db is the increase in dB.
Converting +15dB gain to voltage gives us 5.623413, or about a 5.5 times increase if we round it. So with our boost pedal, a 1V input signal would be increased up to about 5.5V.
When we put this into our signal chain, there are a couple of things going on. First, we are going to increase the input signal level into the next device. If our next device is sensitive to input level, say a fuzz for example, then we are going to get a change in behavior. Our fuzz is now getting 5.5V on the input instead of 1V. It’s like playing five times harder into the fuzz, so your boosted signal is going to be fuzzier. If we change things around though, and put the boost after the fuzz, then the fuzz is back to getting 1V on the input so the boost is just making it louder. If you place the boost in front of a pedal that’s not that sensitive to input level, such as a digital delay for example, then again the boost is mainly just going to make it louder. Of course, the signal from your guitar is not a steady 1V, it’s varying all the time, but the rule still applies.
The same effect applies to using a boost with a tube amp. Placed in front of an amp that’s just short of break-up, the boost can be used to take the amp over the edge and start clipping, which then increases the distortion from the amp. When used with an amp that has a lot of clean headroom though, the increase in voltage may not be enough to cause clipping and the signal will just get louder.
So this is the first thing to be aware of with a boost. The results will depend very much on where the pedal is placed in the signal chain, and how the other pedals and amp react to the increased signal voltage.
The second factor to be aware of is what is often called ‘clean boost.’ To understand this, we have to go back to looking at the boost as an amplifier. To amplify the signal, the amplifier is taking two inputs and creating a single output from them. The two inputs are:
- The input signal from the guitar pickups
- The power supply (wall power, battery etc)
The important thing to note here is that the load on the output is being controlled by the power supply and not the guitar pickups. The signal from the guitar pickups is modulating the power supply to provide the varying output voltage, but the eventual output power depends on the gain of the amplifier and the limits of the input power supply.
Let’s recall our example where 15dB of boost increased our 1V signal to 5.5V, but now let’s increase our input signal voltage to 2V. (As we said the actual input signal from the guitar pickups is varying all the time, but we’ll use this as an example). Again, we’ll multiply our input signal by our gain, which is now 5.5 x 2V, or an output voltage of 11V. The interesting thing here is that to deliver 11V at the output, the power supply will have to be capable of at least that, or in practice a little more. A 9v battery is not going to be enough, and in this scenario the amp in the boost pedal will begin clipping. It delivers as much of the 11V output as it can and then stops when there is not enough power available at the power supply. It’s called clipping because if you look at the input signal as a sine wave, the output looks like the tops have been clipped off. A clipped signal will sound distorted, so our ‘clean’ boost is only clean within certain parameters.
Some boost pedals are designed to run with higher output external power supplies to counteract this. If we could run our example boost pedal with an 18VDC supply for example, there would be enough power to provide 11V at the output to avoid clipping in our scenario above.
Check the specs of your boost pedal to see if it tells you what voltages it begins clipping at. See if it can run with an external power supply and if so, up to what voltage. Experiment with putting a boost pedal in different places in your signal chain to see what works best for you, and remember that something that sounds one way in one rig may sound very different in another, that’s the paradox of the boost pedal.