How to Configure Rack Effects
In this article we’re going to discuss some of the many options available for configuring a rack effects system from Gerlt Technologies.
Music needs rules, lots of rules telling you clearly what is and isn't acceptable. Because without rules, there can be no broken rules. And you can't stick it to The Man without breaking the rules!!! Virtually nothing presented here is always the best way to go. Experiment and follow your ears as you look for that tone that you hear in your head. The good news is that with rack effects it is very easy to change things up without having to physically move effects around, unlike on a pedalboard. However, this is not a discussion about choosing and ordering the individual effects in your signal chain. Here we cover the overall design and configuration of your GT rack effects setup. The guidelines here represent some good starting points. If you are new to rack effects and setting up a signal chain, these ideas are worth pondering. There are often some bits of useful info behind those guidelines, even if you don’t follow the guidelines themselves. That info may be useful in multiple ways – things to try, things to avoid, and things to understand that might influence other decisions. In the end, it is not rocket science - maybe a couple of new "tricks". Do what feels and sounds good to you, with your music, with your gear, on your budget. Don’t let The Man tell you what to do!
We’re going to cover a lot of bases, so the diagrams of what we’ll discuss may get more complicated than you would expect. But chances are, you won’t be doing all these things in your setup. Some entire sections of diagrams may be replaced by nothing more than a cable. Please note that we’ll say “guitar” here, but feel free to substitute “bass” in most cases.
The Simple Rack Setup
Obviously, the simplest setup is a guitar cabled to an amp, only 3 pieces of gear, with no rack effects at all. Not very interesting, but it's a starting point.
As you’ll soon see, we’re going to add to our simple diagram as we cover more topics related to setting up rack effects. The resulting diagrams will be more complex, showing numerous options you may have in your rig. There are multiple ways to hook all those options together in different orders. We can’t really show all those possibilities, or carry along dozens of diagrams which would make the discussion too cumbersome. We’ll discuss some of the options, but they won’t all be reflected in the diagrams. We’ll generally use a “typical” configuration in the diagrams. In the diagrams, we'll use some color-coding:
- blue is for audio components and connections
- yellow is for switching/control components and connections
- red is for power components and connections
Selecting A Guitar
We aren’t going to get into the details of guitar choice, or probably even more important for effects, pickups. That’s a topic of its own. The only detail here we’ll remind you about is pickup style. There are many pickup styles, and even different ways of categorizing them.
One distinction that is mostly true is that single coil pickups produce a weaker signal than humbuckers, which in turn produce a weaker signal than active pickups. Typical single coils might produce around 100mV (one tenth of a volt), humbuckers a few hundred mV (aprox a quarter or half a volt), and actives may go over one volt. Effects can sound very different with that range of input voltages. Hotter inputs may easily lead to more clipping and distortion throughout your signal chain, which you may or may not want. If you want to reduce that possibility, you might want to look at module options that provide more headroom, often by running them at higher voltages than normal.
Another mostly-true distinction is that single coil pickups can be noisier than humbuckers, at least under the same circumstances. Actives sometimes have enough gain that they amplify the noise and make the noise seem louder. Some actives have noise cancellation built in and can be nice and quiet. Effects deal with noise in different ways, often making it louder or more noticeable. Noise is also worth a full discussion of its own, but later we will discuss some setup options that take noise into account.
In the “duh!” category, don’t forget that volume, tone, and pickup selection on your guitar can have really big impacts on your effects and tone. Experimentation with them can lead to some of the best tone discoveries available, perhaps allowing you to use less effects overall. Yes, we just said “less effects”, even though selling effects is our business. Our goal is good tone, not more effects. Discovering the versatility of a nice germanium fuzz by controlling it from your guitar is really cool. Who knew that old fuzz might be a great clean boost?!
Selecting A Guitar Cable
You may not realize it, but your guitar cable acts as an effect. No matter what type it is or how long it is, it will roll off some of your highs. This can be completely inaudible, or it can be significant enough to hear. In some cases, artists such as Jimi Hendrix have chosen cables specifically to roll off some highs in their tone. Generally, it is better to have some control over an effect so you can “dial it in” to your liking, so we don’t recommend trying to adjust your tone by selecting a cable to trim your highs. We prefer to think of cables as just connections, not effects, and recommend taking specific actions to make it so. To reduce the impact of your cable on your tone:
- Use the shortest cables that are practical to decrease noise and lower treble loss
- Use high-quality instrument cables with thick wire (lower gauge means thicker wire) to decrease signal loss and noise ahead of the power section of your amp
- Use high-quality speaker cables with thick wire to connect your amps to your speaker cabs
- Use low-capacitance cables to avoid treble loss
- Use shielded cables for audio and power connections to avoid picking up EMF noise in the area
There’s a lot of marketing about cable construction, materials used, etc, but it is often difficult to find the actual technical data about cables. It's difficult to say that those exotic cables provide any audible difference in a live music scenario. Silent studios and hi-fi applications - maybe. Shielding can easily make a big difference. There are different types of shielding that provide better/worse noise rejection, as long as they are properly grounded.
Audio properties aren’t the only consideration for cables. Longevity, warranties, “tangle free” properties, price, connector quality and style, and other factors weigh in. Chances are you already have a few guitar cables. You can always experiment with different cables. If you have reasonably decent cables, you probably won’t hear any differences if you test them objectively. If you can hear differences, choose with your ears. In fact, if you can tell one cable is worse than another, just get rid of the bad one. If you can’t hear differences, it could still make an audible difference later in your chain, so it may be worth your while to try a couple more experiments. Try your favorite guitar cable vs a much shorter patch cable of comparable type. Or if you have a good multimeter, measure the resistance (ohms) between the tips of the connectors. Lower is better. Also measure the capacitance. Again, lower is better, meaning less treble loss. The capacitance of cables should be very low, perhaps in the 100’s of picofarads for a 20-foot cable. Many multimeters aren’t very accurate in that range, so be careful to use a quality meter to get accurate measurements.
Wired or Wireless?
Instead of a guitar cable you might use a wireless system. A wireless system also has tone impacts due to its circuitry and should also be considered an effect. Angus Young found that his wireless system was a key ingredient in his live tone, so he has also used his wireless in the studio to capture his live tone. We even offer a module that captures the tone-shaping characteristics of his wireless system. Your wireless system may have controls that adjust the impact to your tone, either by design or by side effect.
Other than that, there are a couple of other tone-influencing factors to consider when choosing between cables and wireless. Most wireless systems are digital. That means your analog guitar output is sampled, converted to digital data, broadcast, received, and converted from digital data back to an analog signal. You lose some of your original signal in the sampling process, which is replaced by slightly incorrect data when it is converted back to analog. The loss is probably too small too hear with a decent wireless system, but it is there. In a live band situation, it is really unlikely to cause an audible difference unless you scrimped and bought the El Junko wireless system. That tiny difference, if you can even hear it, could easily be sacrificed to get the lower noise levels that also usually come with digital signals, as well as the freedom to roam around while you play without the hassles of cables. Sure, we like analog, but pick your "horses for courses".
Another property of wireless systems is that they are actually wireless. The physical wire connection between your pickups and effects is broken, or rather missing, replaced by transmitters, receivers, and a broadcast signal. This can affect the “feel” of your effects or amp. For example, if you have ever had a direct connection to a nicely adjusted high-gain amp or pedal, you experienced the extra “feel” and touch sensitivity of that connection. It’s pretty cool. Your audience can’t hear it, but you can feel it and it could affect your playing, which the audience can hear. Or you may plug directly into some of the old fuzz effects and feel your pickups and the fuzz fighting an impedance battle, again something you can feel but also something you can hear. In those cases, a significant portion of your pickups’ output is being lost, including some serious loss of treble. But as vintage fuzz users know, some of us have come to love the resulting tone. Wireless systems will likely “fix” that impedance problem, making your vintage fuzz feel and sound different. Better? Worse? You decide. It might take a little while to get used to it. In some sense, it is electrically “more correct”, but ever since Keith hit us with his iconic riff in “Satisfaction”, our ears have become accustomed to the electrically “less correct” impedance and the tone it produces, even though it puts some frustrating limitations on the front of our signal chain design. You can still get something pretty close to that tone with corrected impedance, but you have to adjust for it somewhere else, perhaps by rolling off the treble and/or volume from your guitar, or doing some tone shaping downstream.
GT Remote Switching
It is should be noted that the Gerlt Technologies remote switching technology behaves somewhat like a wireless system in regards to impedance. It uses the “more correct” impedance levels. But it does not break the analog signal path. You can still get the touch sensitivity, but some vintage effects may sound a little different unless you make other adjustments in your signal chain.
Selecting An Amp
Again, there are many aspects of amplifiers that obviously affect your tone. This topic alone could take volumes. Here we are only going to get into a very few amp characteristics you might want to consider. We’ll also ignore whether you are using combo amps, head/cabinet pairs, racked power amps, or any other specific amp/cabinet configuration. You may also be “amp-less” if you are running into studio gear or perhaps a mixer into a venue PA system. Regardless of your setup, most of the points below still apply. It’s mostly just a matter of where they are located and what control you have over them.
Tube vs Solid State Amp
Many, in some sense perhaps nearly all, effects were designed in the era when tube amps ruled the world of sound amplification. They were also designed with the knowledge that the output of those effects would be interacting with a tube amp. As a result, there are effects that just don’t sound very good through a solid-state amp, or at least don’t sound like they were intended to sound. Generally, analog effects are going to sound better through a tube amp, but that’s far from universally true. Many sound great with solid-state amps. Some tones, like that heavy Swedish Death Metal tone, are normally produced with a particular analog pedal going into a solid-state amp. Typically, amp choice aligns with your music choice, as do effects, which tends to make effects/amp matching less of an issue.
In most cases you don’t really have to choose between clean and dirty channels. Most amps give you both, or at least one channel that goes from clean to dirty. But you may want to spend a little extra time thinking about and listening to the clean channel/settings. Many effects are meant to emulate the sound of specific amps, like a dimed Plexi, for example. You probably wouldn’t run that effect into an actual dimed Plexi (or maybe you would!). You might instead run it into a nice clean channel. In fact, if you are in a cover band where you might need several different base amp tones, you might use a good clean channel with appropriate effects to get the tones you are after. Obviously, your preamp controls (tone and gain controls), along with channel selections are major effects and provide a wide range of options. If you lug around multiple amps for multiple amp tones, a clean amp and carefully selected effects might leave a little more room in the van for, well, whatever else you need in the van...
Having more than one channel gives you options that can have a big impact on your effects’ tone. It’s not just a matter of “clean” or “dirty”, but “how clean” and “how dirty”. Channels that have separate Gain/Volume controls also let you control how hard you drive your power amp tubes to get power amp distortion. They also give you the ability to get a boost in volume for solos or other sections of your material. Separate tone controls for each channel also provide more flexibility and options. Most of those are pretty obvious. Stacking boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz effects is becoming increasingly popular, although artists have been doing it for decades. Your dirty channel acts like another one of those effects, so you can experiment with stacking gain effects in front of your dirty channel, or after it, if you have an FX loop.
Something that may not be as obvious is that switching channels can also provide you with the ability to change the order of one of your effects (your preamp), or stacking of effects. Switching between a clean and dirty channel can have the same effect as turning an overdrive or distortion effect on/off in that position in your chain. If you have a boost, overdrive, or distortion effect in front of your preamp, switching to the dirty channel on your amp lets you stack that effect with your dirty channel. Or you may some other effect that you sometimes want in front of your dirt, sometimes after it. If you have a dirt effect before that effect and then your preamp after it, you can choose between the dirt effect and your dirty channel, placing the dirt either before or after the other effect.
Amps generally have two sections. The first is the preamp that lets you shape your tone with various controls for tone, gain, channel selection, etc. The second is the power amp which takes your weak instrument level signal and boosts it up so it can drive your speakers. You may have also some controls for the power amp, such as a master volume control, switchable power levels, bias controls, or others. An effects loop comes between the preamp and power amp sections. You can use effects in front of the preamp (between your guitar and amp) or “in the loop” after the preamp and before the power amp. You don’t want to use effects or otherwise process the signal after it comes out of the power amp. From there, it is meant to directly drive speakers, which is electrically different from what goes on before the power amp. One exception is the use of an attenuator. We’ll get to that in a moment.
You should think of your preamp as an effect, generally an overdrive or distortion effect with tone controls. If you think of it that way, then you can organize your effects around it. Some effects will sound better before drive effects and your preamp, and some will sound better after drive effects, including your preamp. Those effects can be put into your effects loop so that they are after all the drive effects in your chain.
Built-In Amp Effects
Many amps come with built-in effects. Some vintage amps come with outstanding analog tube vibrato, tremolo, and reverb circuits. Modern amps often have an array of digital effects built in. You can use these built-in effects in your chain just like any other effects. Let your ears guide you. The only caveat is that you may not have a lot of control over where they are in your chain. Refer to your amp’s manual so you can figure out how (or if) you can get those effects where you want them in your signal chain.
Amp Control Footswitches
Many amps have footswitches to control channel selection, built-in effects, or other functions of an amp. There are no standards for these footswitches and how they electrically operate with your amp. You usually have to use the footswitch made for your amp for those functions. These are just additional stomp switches that you place where you need them to operate them – perhaps with the switches that control your other effects. Your audio signal shouldn’t travel through the cables for those footswitches. Those cables and footswitches should only be handling control signals, so most cabling issues don’t apply. You just need to be able to get the switches where you need them.
You probably know that the power section of your amp also can influence your tone, particularly the power amp section of a tube amp. There is a type of power tube distortion that can be awesome, even for (perhaps especially for) clean tones. But you can’t get that sound without cranking the amp. If you have a high wattage amp, that can result in very high volume, volumes that aren’t acceptable in many venues. To get that cranked amp sound, you can use an attenuator. It goes between your amp and your speaker and allows you to lower the volume after you’ve already added your power section distortion. Usually there are other side effects to the tone, but good attenuators should be reasonably transparent and not color the tone. Of course, instead of sending the output of an attenuator to a speaker, you could send it to another amp or mixer, since most attenuators also have a line level out. We won’t get into amp stacking/slaving here, but it is a cool area to explore. You can basically turn an amp into an effect. Instead of getting an effect that sounds like a dimed Plexi, you can use an actual dimed Plexi, but without the earth-moving volume level.
Low-Power Tube Amps
It's funny how things change. When tube amps first hit the market, they were relatively low-powered and often wouldn't really cut it in the smallest of venues. Then along came rock and roll, and the amps got LOUD! They had to be loud to fill the stadiums where they were played. For many years, tube amps were so loud it was difficult to get the best sound out of them without literally damaging your hearing in the process. Distortion required volume in many cases. It was the Golden Age of tube amps, great tone, and hearing loss for a few decades. Now things are much different, and those high-power, high-volume tube amps aren't feasible in many venues. Plus we've learned about the hearing loss problems they can cause. Today there are many great low-wattage tube amps. You can now create cranked tube amp distortion and tones without blowing out your eardrums. A side benefit is that these amps and cabs are much smaller and lighter, too. But even better than that is their pricing. Many are very affordable, unlike their famous high-power cousins. Build quality varies widely, so you can find some best suited for staying at home and others that are meant to take the rigors of touring. Many also have more modern amp features like power scaling, tube swapping abilities, self biasing, and other great features. They are definitely worth checking out.
It Wasn’t That Simple, Or Was It?
Wow! That was supposed to be the “Simple Setup”. We’ve already touched on a dozen important topics, put aside loads of topics related to guitars, pickups, and amps, and we’re only getting started. That’s the nature of designing signal chains. There is *a lot* to consider. Luckily, most of it is not difficult. It just requires a bit of thought and experimentation to make those decisions. But there is one major takeaway to keep in mind. Don’t get complacent about all those decisions. Revisit them from time-to-time. As you change up other parts of your rig or decide to chase tones in different directions, those “simple” decisions need to be reconsidered to see how they impact your new direction. You may find, for instance, that an effect doesn't sound at all like you expect when you add it to your rig. That may be caused by one of those decisions you made a long time ago about your setup which may need to be reconsidered.
Configuring Your GT Rack Effects Setup
We haven’t even made it to the fun part yet (effects!), but now is a good time to start working on the base configuration for your GT rack setup. What does a base configuration include?
GT doesn’t currently sell rack cabinets, nor is one required. When looking at rack cabinets, cases, or stands, make sure you are getting a standard 19” wide audio rack. That part should be easy. Many racks do not have mounting rails on both the front and back. Many have them only on the front. We strongly recommend getting one with rear rails, or adding rear rails. This is much more important if you gig or otherwise move your equipment around. Attaching our equipment (or anyone else’s) to both the front and rear rails will make it sturdier and more durable. Make sure you have a minimum rack depth (from front rail to back rail) of 15”. The smaller, shallower racks won’t work for GT rack enclosures.
There is one rack feature that is not standardized. It is the type of screw that you use to attach your rack gear to the rack's rails. You'll find two different sizes of rack screws, #10 and #12. The number refers to the diameter of the shaft of the screw, with higher numbers meaning bigger screws. There is a second number, 24 or 32 most commonly, that denotes how fine or coarse the threads are. Luckily that aspect seems generally standardized for both #10 and #12 screws in audio racks. Your rack cabinet will probably come with some screws, but probably not enough. You'll need to buy the same size screws that fit your rack rails. You'll probably also need some extras to replace lost or stripped screws. If you are adding rear rails to a cabinet that doesn't have them, you should probably make sure you select the rear rails to have the same size and thread as the front rails. And if you have multiple rack cabinets, it is convenient if they all use the same size/thread screws so you don't have to keep multiple sizes on hand. Note also that many rails are manufactured by first drilling and tapping the holes for the screws, then painting or powder coating the rail. This can cause the screw holes to be covered in paint or other materials to the point it is difficult to get the screws started. It may also cause screws to cross-thread. You'll eventually get the rail hole threads messed up. To deal with that, you might want to keep a tap and die set with your specific size/thread of screw somewhere handy. You can get simple tap sets at your local hardware store, and their use is trivial. You don't need a big set of them - just the handle that holds the bit, and the bit that is the right size for your screw size and threads.
GT rack enclosures are 3 standard rack units (3U) in height. There are three of them in the picture above. You’ll need one or more enclosures, depending on the number and type of effects you use. You should always power your rack equipment with a good power conditioner, which usually take 1U, sometimes more. Also allow extra rack cabinet space for a tuner, equipment drawers, shelves for third party gear, noise reduction system, wireless system, power amps, or anything else you may want in your rack.
Get solid thick construction with metal reinforcements if you gig or play out. Locking caster wheels are usually a good idea. If your rack is getting tall, consider splitting it into two smaller racks to make it easier to pick up and carry. If you are stacking rack cases, watch out for “ball corners”. Those are great for protecting the corners of your cabinets, but most of them won’t stack on top of each other properly. There are some that are concave on the bottom and are meant to stack on top of the one below. Otherwise, you can add rubber feet to the top case that are thick enough to keep the ball corners from touching the ones below. Those feet also make it easier to take the covers off and put them back on while the cases are stacked. And they absorb some vibration and rough handling.
There are also "gig bag" style rack cases. These are frames with soft covers and shoulder straps. Those are probably only good for the smallest setups and limited travel. There are also very durable and lighter weight molded plastic and fiberglass cabinets that may be good options.
A rack enclosure is the metal box that will house all the effect modules and mount in your rack cabinet. It consists of (2) side panels with rack mount “ears”, top panel, bottom panel, (2) front rails, (2) rear rails, (4) side rails, and a number of screws, nuts, and washers to hold it all together. There are no front and rear panels for the enclosure. Each module comes with a front and rear panel that bolt onto the front and rear rails. All the module panels make up the front and rear panels for the enclosure and are part of the enclosure construction. It is easy to select a rack enclosure, as there is only one to choose from, our 3U Enclosure.
Module Panel Requirements
There are a couple of requirements about the module panels that must be met with your rack effects design. First, the entire front and rear of the enclosure must be filled with panels. If you don’t have enough effects in your enclosure to completely fill it, you must get enough Filler Module to fill the remaining space completely. Filler modules are just “blank” front/rear panel pairs that come in various sizes specifically for that purpose. A rack enclosure takes 17” in width of modules, not counting the extra 1” of rack ears or wings on the leftmost and rightmost modules. Modules and fillers come in a variety of widths that must add up to 17” for each enclosure. You cannot leave gaps because the panels form the front and rear of the enclosure structure and are needed to maintain structural integrity. They also provide a full metal enclosure around your effects to shield them from EMF noise and keep your module circuitry safe from damage.
The second requirement for module panels is that the leftmost and rightmost module positions (or filler if you don’t have a module in the leftmost or rightmost positions) must include rack mount ears on the front panel of the module. We call these module positions “wing” positions and the module configurations in those positions Wing Modules. Not all of our effect modules are offered with wing configurations - see the module description pages for details. Just make sure that you choose a left and a right module or filler module with a wing configuration. We can help with that, of course.
We noted above that you are not required to have a rack cabinet, although our rack enclosures are obviously intended to be rack-mounted. Instead, we can put adhesive rubber feet on the bottom of the rack enclosures, allowing you to place them on any smooth, level surface. They can also be stacked on top of each other with the rubber feet.
We recommended above that you select a rack cabinet with rear rails to better support GT rack enclosures and any third party rack gear. If you do have rear rails, then you will want to add the optional 3U Enclosure rear supports. These supports adjust in depth to support cabinets from 15” deep (minimum required) to around 24" deep. If you aren’t using a rack cabinet, or have one without rear rails, then you don’t need the optional rear supports.
Wing Input and Output Modules
We mentioned above that you need to have wing module configurations in the leftmost and rightmost rack enclosure positions. Any wing modules or fillers are OK, but we typically use the left wing for guitar input connections and the right wing for amp output connections. We offer a number of different modules and configurations that you can see in our Routing Modules. Usually, these modules are not really effects – just convenient utility modules so you can plug your guitars and amps into the front of your rack setup.
Some of our routing wing modules have options for adding buffers so you can be sure your signal is good and not losing treble in your guitar and amp cables. Finally! We are at least mentioning some effects now! Hang on two more minutes, though. Let’s get through a couple more base configuration topics.
With the exception of our Tube Reverb module, all of our modules that need power are expecting 18V DC. Our 18V Power module provides two channels of clean 18V DC power, enough to power more modules than you are likely to ever have. Each module page at our site gives some estimates of the power consumption for the module, in milliamps (mA). The actual usage depends on the module configuration and options, but most require 50mA or less, many of them 20mA, or even 10mA, or less. In the picture above, the effects connected to Channel A were using 229.2mA and those connected to Channel B were using 198.9mA. Each channel of the 18V Power module provides 2000mA of 18V DC. We don’t recommend that you push to those limits, but some simple math shows that those two channels will usually power a lot of modules. The result is that even if you need multiple enclosures to hold all of your effects, you still probably need only a single 18V Power module, perhaps two of them if you want to have a spare.
You don’t have to use the GT 18V Power module. You can use some other 18V DC power supply. See the 18V Power module page and our Power discussion for more detailed information.
You will need a Rack Switch module and footswitch(es) to control your effects. You can see all the details and options for this on the Rack Switch page and the pages for our 3-Button Footswitch and 12-Button Footswitch. The decision really comes down to the number and type of footswitches you need. There are two versions of the Rack Switch module to accommodate the two different types of footswitch units.
The “DIN” version of the Rack Switch supports one to four 3-button footswitches. These footswitch units have a fixed length cable that should be adequate for small venues, practice, or playing at home. If you do not use many effects, then you can get fewer switches at lower cost by using the DIN footswitches.
The “VGA” version of the Rack Switch supports our 12-button footswitch. If is built like a tank for the rigors of road use. With reasonably good quality VGA cables, you can run your footswitch a long ways away from your rack. We've tested with mediocre VGA cables up to 100' long and had no problems.
The footswitches are pictured below.
Choose one of those two styles for your rack configuration. If you use lots of effects, you can add additional switching modules and footswitches if 12 switches aren’t enough.
Effects and Chains
Finally, here we are at the fun part – talking about effects. This may be a little anti-climatic since we’re not going to discuss the individual effect or effect types. But there is an important aspect of your overall signal chain we will cover. There are multiple sections in your signal chain, or at least the possibility of multiple sections depending on your overall chain design. Let’s work our way from your guitar to your amp.
Front of Stage
The first section is what we’ll call “front of stage”. This includes everything you have “up front” with you, as opposed to in your rack and amp locations.
We just discussed the first thing you’ll have up front – your footswitch(es). Each footswitch will have a cable (VGA or DIN) running from it to your Rack Switch module. No sound travels through this cable, just switching control signals and a tiny bit of power that is provided by the Rack Switch module.
Your guitar signal must get to the input of your rack modules, probably a Guitar Pass Thru module. In the simple case, you just plug your guitar cable in there. Since your rack probably isn’t where your pedalboard would have been, you may need a longer-than-normal guitar cable. If so, consider adding a buffer option for your Guitar Pass Thru module. Or your wireless receiver would plug into the Guitar Pass Thru module if you are going wireless.
Switches and guitars may not be the only things you need out front. Big, visible rack tuners are great, if your rack is somewhere you can see it. Or you may just prefer to have your tuner out front so you can stay engaged with your audience better. Beyond that, there are a couple of other effects that aren’t (yet!) offered as GT rack modules - wah and volume pedals. But don’t worry, even though we don’t yet offer them, we haven’t ignored them.
Tuners and wah pedals are generally at the beginning of your signal chain. You might also place your volume pedal there, perhaps using it as a “mute switch” between songs. It’s easy to accommodate them. You just keep them up front, plug your guitar into them, chain them together, and run the output back to your rack input. Now we’re adding the potential need for two more items: a small pedalboard for your front of stage effects, and a power cable (unless you use batteries for all the front of stage effects).
You could, of course, have a whole pedalboard full of stuff up there, with the output going back, or maybe even back and forth, to your rack effects. That’s up to you. You might want to add a buffer somewhere if you are running long cables, especially if you are running multiple cables back and forth between your rack and whatever you have up front. Note with that configuration you are splitting that one long cable run (if you have one) from your guitar to your rack effects. Now you can have a long cable from guitar to front of stage and another long cable from front of stage to your rack. That may give you more “room to roam” up front. Of course, both cables could be replaced by wireless systems. If you do use two wireless systems (one from guitar to front of stage gear, another from front of stage gear to rack), consider the power requirements for the transmitter at your pedalboard. Many have good battery packs, so you shouldn't have a problem with those. Others may require an power cable to be routed to your front of stage location.
If you want to stay minimalist up front, we have options to help out. Our 12-Button Footswitch has the option to add on a Buddy Board, and power a very small number of effects on it, without having to run additional power cables. The power feed should handle a tuner, wah, and volume pedal OK, but read Buddy Board, Tuners, Wahs for details about configuration limits. The Buddy Board is small and will only hold a couple of pedals, but you could have one on each side of each 12-Button Footswitch. Just don’t try to exceed the power capacity of the power feed.
Putting all of that together, here's a diagram for the "front of stage" portion of your setup:
OK, now we have our front of stage gear connected to the rack input, probably a Guitar Pass Thru module. What’s next in line? In our simple configuration, it was the front end (preamp) of your amp. And that’s still where we’re headed. You cable from your Guitar Pass Thru module, through all the effect modules that you want in front of your amp. We'll call those "pre-amp effects", meaning you want them before the input to your amp's pre-amp. For this discussion, we’ll just leave it at that, without going into the actual effects and their ordering. Of course, the types of effects you'll likely have here include compressors, boosts, overdrives, distortions, fuzzes, and others - almost anything goes.
Amp FX Loop
The last of your effects that go in front of your amp will probably be cabled to the back of an Amp Pass Thru module in your rack. On the front of that module, you run a cable to your amp input. What’s next? It depends on your amp. If your amp doesn’t have an FX loop, or you choose not to use it, then you connect your amp output to a speaker cab and you’re finished.
If you want effects “in the loop” between your preamp and power amp sections, then you run a cable from your amp’s FX loop Send jack back to the Amp Pass Thru module in your rack. From there you cable into the chain of effects modules that you want in the loop. These often include modulation and time-based effects, such as reverb, delay, chorus, maybe phasers or flangers, etc. You might even have dirt effects here that you want stacked after your preamp. We'll call those "loop effects". The last of those modules goes out through your Amp Pass Thru and is cabled back to your amp FX loop Return jack. Then your amp cables to your speaker, perhaps through an attenuator, and you’re finished.
Adding Pedals and Third-Party Rack Effects
Anywhere along the way, you can cable in guitar pedals or third-party rack equipment. That shouldn’t need much explanation, as you’re probably already familiar with cabling in pedals and third-party gear. It works the same with mixing them with GT modules. Just don’t forget that you have to get power to them - batteries, wall transformers, or perhaps a GT Warthog module. They can physically be rack units, pedals on pedalboards, or pedals somehow mounted in your rack shelves or drawers – whatever you like.
We do provide another capability that may help with your third-party effects and pedals. You might find it nice to leave your favorite pedal in the rack, but control it like your GT modules with your GT footswitch. No problem. Just use one of our Bypass Looper modules. Put the pedal(s) in the loop of the Looper module, and leave it on all the time. Turn the loop on/off with the footswitch controlling the Looper module – simple!
Other Routing and Switching Options
We’re trying to keep things fairly simple here to avoid detail overload, but there are many more options you can consider. We have additional switching modules that let you control your pedals in much more complex manners. See our Switching, Switch +, and Switch X pages for more details. While you can build up some pretty complex switching control systems, they still are just plug and play cable solutions – no programming!
We also have a number of routing modules to build up more sophisticated signal paths. We have ABY, Amp Selector, Mixer, Swapper, and other Routing modules available. We also have a couple of modules with stereo outputs. Others are in planning and development.
Putting everything in this section together, here is a diagram for the portion of your setup in the rack and connected to your amp:
When you see the back of a rack of effects, it can look like a big mess of cables – and maybe it is! But good cable management practices and a little knowledge can greatly simplify it.
Here at GT, we are probably the worst example of cable management you will see, a source of some embarrassment. But we are constantly moving modules around in our racks, trying and testing new gear, preparing for events where we give demos, and all sorts of stuff most players wouldn’t need to worry about. We don’t even try to clean up our cabling, since whatever we do will soon be un-done. Here are a few tips to help keep cabling under control:
- Use the shortest cables that will work
- Use cable ties to neatly bundle excess cable length
- There are rack cable ladder bars that are basically just a piece of metal that bolts in between your rear rack rails. They help keep cables where they should be, and give you a place to cable tie to.
- Use straight connectors instead of right angle. One exception is that between adjacent effect modules, right angle pedalboard patch cables can provide a very neat audio cabling solution.
- Avoid “fat” connectors that take up too much space and may not even fit
- Color code your cables depending on their purpose (see below)
- Label both ends of your cables with what they connect to. That way if you need to unplug some stuff, you can easily plug it back together without having to figure out your signal routing again.
- Use shielded cables to prevent adding noise.
Remember, the physical order of your modules in your rack enclosure doesn’t really matter. It is the order of your cabling on the back. You do not have to move a module to try putting it in a different place in your chain. Just adjust the cabling on the back.
If your effects take up more than one 3U enclosure, that’s fine. You can freely cable from one enclosure to the next. However, if those enclosures are in different rack cabinets, you will need to unplug some cabling to put the rack covers on. In those cases, a rack cabinet big enough to hold everything may be a good option. Of course you’ll be making a tradeoff in size and weight of your cabinets.
It’s best to think of your cabling as four separate chains of cabling for separate purposes: audio, power, switching, and speaker.
Audio Audio is the primary chain of connections when we think of when we design our signal chains. The audio chain begins with your guitars and ends with your amps. The order of the connections in this chain determines the order of all the pieces and parts in your signal chain. These connections include your guitar and amp cables, as well as all the patch cables between your effects.
Power Most of the items in your signal chain require power. But before we get to that, let’s get one thing out there. If you aren’t using a good quality power conditioner, you should be. Power probably causes more problems than any other single thing in your setup. You can fry stuff with bad or poorly conditioned power. You can also introduce loads of noise. You can make audio effects and amps generally sound like crap with bad power. We think a good power conditioner is a great investment and should be made before you ever plug anything into the wall. There is a wide variety of features, functionality, quality, and pricing. Do your homework and figure out what works best for your situation. You can get excellent power conditioners that take up a single rack unit (1U) and cost about the same as a nice pedal or module. Do yourself a favor and make this your first rack module! If you can, spring for models that display the voltage they are receiving and the amps your gear is using. Those are very helpful when troubleshooting power problems.
We’ve also found a second power device that frequently comes in handy when we are on the road. It is called a Variac. It lets you adjust the voltage coming out of the wall and going into your power conditioner or other rack units. You can adjust the voltage up or down. EVH famously used one to starve his Marshalls. We use them because at different venues we get a variety of voltages, some of which are dangerously high for most electronics, including everything we have in our racks. In the US, power is often in the 120-125V range for “normal” power. Years back, normal was more like 110-115V. Vintage amps were designed to work best with 110-115V power. Depending on how you bias your amp, you might find it sounds better at lower than “normal” voltages. At one venue, we were getting 135-140V of power. That’s easily enough to damage gear or cause our good power conditioners to shutdown and disconnect to protect your gear. Dialing it down to 115V is easy with a Variac. They are relatively inexpensive (under $100), but a bit bulky and heavy. Definitely worth considering if you play on the road. Note this isn't useful just for dodgey places with low quality wiring in the building. We've seen this in major convention centers and venues where you wouldn't likely expect it.
Now, back to power cabling… First, the 18V Power module must be plugged into the wall. Other than our Tube Reverb, it is the only module that needs wall power. You can read the detailed information about the 18V Power module and our Power system in general. Pertinent to our discussion here is that there are two power outputs on the 18V Power module. You can plug in standard pedalboard power daisy chains into each of the power outlets and use them to power a large number of modules. In fact, you can even add additional daisy chain cables to the end of other daisy chain cables to reach even more effect modules. Just try to balance the load between the two channels of the 18V Power module. The load for each channel is displayed on the front of the module. You can freely cable to any of our modules without worrying about polarity, voltage, connector type, positive vs negative ground, etc. The power boards in each module take care of all that. It’s that simple – just chain ‘em up.
Switching There are two separate sections in the switching cabling. First there is the cable connecting your footswitch(es) to your Rack Switch modules. These are either VGA or DIN cables, which we’ve already discussed.
The second section is the group of up to 12 connections from the back of the Rack Switch module to the switching inputs of other modules. This too is very simple. The switches on your footswitch are numbered (although not labeled) from 1 to 3 (and 4 to 6, 7 to 9, and 10 to 12 for the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th ) for the 3-Button Footswitch, or 1 to 12 for the 12-Button Footswitch, from left to right. The jacks on the back of the Rack Switch have the same 1 – 12 numbering. Regardless of the order of the audio connections, you can connect each effect to whichever footswitch you want. You might choose to connect them to the footswitches in the same order as the audio connections. Or you may want to put the effects most often used on the bottom row of switches because they are easier to stomp. Or whatever you like. The order of the switches has nothing at all to do with the order of the effects in your chain. Once you separate the switches from the effects like we have, you can do whatever you like with each of them separately.
Speaker The last type of cabling is generally overlooked. That is cabling from your power amp output to your speaker. Of course, in combo amps that’s probably already done for you. If you use an attenuator between your amp and speaker, then it is in your speaker chain and you’ll need an extra speaker cable to connect it.
Remember that speaker cables carry a much stronger signal that your audio cables. You should not use audio or instrument cables for speaker cables. They could pose a fire hazard when used that way. It’s a good idea to clearly mark your speaker cables and keep them separate from your audio cables.
We've only discussed building a single chain from your guitar to your amp and speaker. By using our various Routing and Switching modules, you can build very complex chains and sub-chains, switching them in and out of your active signal path by stomping a footswitch.
You can also build multiple completely independent signal paths, which may be easier than one big, complicated one. You can cable them separately from beginning to end, or cable them in parallel and switch between them. The non-audio portions of those chains can still be shared - cabinets and enclosures, as well as 18V Power and Warthog modules and power chaining and Rack Switch modules and footswitches.
If you connect those multiple chains appropriately, then they can all be in use at the same time, for different instruments, for different band members. You may need an extra enclosure to hold enough modules, but you may be able to share some of the gear (rack cabinets, power conditioners, enclosures, power and switching modules, guitar and amp pass thru modules, etc) to reduce the startup cost of getting your entire band racked up.
We'll have separate discussions about noise and how to manage it, so we won't go into all the details here. However, if you are using some sort of noise reduction system, it will affect how you connect your effects. Here are a few points to consider about noise reduction.
Noise is any unwanted sound that gets into your rig. Very generally, there are two types that cause the most problems. One is dirty power. If you have noisy power, you will feed that noise to all your effects to be processed along with your audio signal, usually making the noise louder and much more noticeable. Once the noise is in there, it's in there. In a live band situation, you can cover up a fair amount of noise much of the time, but we all know we just don't want it there in the first place. If you play quiet venues or have quiet passages in your music, even small amounts of noise can be a problem. The best way to handle power noise is to use quality power filters and conditioners. You can get a pretty good one for reasonable cost - not much more than the cost of decent pedal. This is probably one of the best investments in sound improvement and gear longevity you can make. Add to it shielded power cables so you don't pick up EMF noise with budget cables and add it back into your nice clean power. Avoid any equipment with digital switching power supplies, which includes most computer and digital gear (watch that wireless system!). Digital switching power supplies can really pollute your power.
The other type of noise is EMF interference. Every piece of wire is basically a radio antenna and will pick up all sorts of noise that is broadcast into the atmosphere by radios, dimmer switches and lighting, electric cables, appliances, and a million other devices. The noise produced in this case is that annoying hiss, maybe even radio broadcasts. It is difficult to avoid all this type of noise. Shielding helps. Use shielded cabling and keep it away from known noise sources. Make sure the shielding is properly grounded, or it will not get rid of the noise it absorbs. Humbucker pickups or active pickups with noise reduction will help.
Noise reduction systems are meant to help remove the noise that gets into your gear in spite of your preventative measures. There are numerous types of noise reduction systems and designs. All of them may also remove some of your audio signal, too. You have to understand how they work to know how to use them properly, so tailor the ideas below based on the actual problem you have and the gear you are using:
- Much of the noise comes from your guitar. Some of it is from your pickups picking up EMF noise. Some can be improper grounding of your guitar and cable. Some can be related to playing style. Consider putting a noise reduction solution on your guitar input before it goes anywhere else. Let the noise reduction system see just your guitar signal without changes so it can do the best job it can in cleaning up your signal at the source. Any noise that sneaks through here is going all the way through your entire chain to your amp.
- Noise gets amplified (along with your guitar signal) by several types of effects that add gain. Compressors, boosts, overdrives, distortions, and fuzzes are key offenders. And don't forget your amp's pre-amp section, probably the second largest offender in your chain for adding noise (as opposed to just amplifying noise that is already there). Many of these effects will be in your pre-amp effects section of your chain. Consider adding a noise reduction system that goes from the beginning of your chain or first gain effect to the input of your amp to remove as much noise as possible before it gets to your power amp. If your amp has an FX loop, you can reduce the noise from your pre-amp by moving the end point of your noise reduction circuit from the front of your amp to the beginning of your FX loop. This can have a dramatic effect on overall noise levels.
- If you have noisy effects in your loop, include them in your noise reduction circuit, too. But you have to be careful. Noise reduction systems sometimes "look" for signals that are being added to your audio signal, assuming they are noise. They will try to reduce or remove those signals. Some effects are meant to specifically add something to your signal. A delay is a great example. You only play one note, but the delay will add copies of it to your signal. Some noise reduction systems will try to reduce or remove those echoes, so you wouldn't want your delay in your noise reduction loop. That is also true for reverbs and perhaps to a lesser extent chorus and flangers or any other effect that has some sort of delay/copy in its design.
- You may think that your modulation and time-based effects add a lot of noise, just like your gain-based effects. They might, but that is usually not the case. The nature of those effects is that they often make the noise more noticeable by giving it "motion". That's sort of like having your noise jump up and down, waving its arms, and screaming "here I am, here I am!". It's often also true that when you are using those effects, you may be playing more quiet, ambient sections of your music where there is less good signal to cover up the noise. It is also true that many gain effects don't add much noise, even high-gain effects. But they can take an otherwise tiny amount of noise and amplify it enough to make it a major problem. That's why it is so important to prevent the noise getting into your chain in the first place.
Of course, noise reduction usually comes at a price. Some will remove some of your good signal, some may not remove enough noise. Sustain and dynamics can be impacted. They can require considerable tweaking in different environments with different types and levels of noise. Definitely do your homework to match your noise solution to your specific problem. In terms of where to focus when you are trying to reduce noise, these are the likely offenders:
- dirty power (get a good rack power conditioner!)
- pickups and/or guitar grounding
- unshielded cabling
- gain effects (Note that as you increase gain, you often get to a point where you can't hear much change or improvement by increasing the gain further. But the gain is increasing, and continuing to multiply your noise even more. Backing off your Gain and/or Volume/Level controls small amounts can have a big effect on noise levels with little audible change to your actual distortion tone.)
You should find that GT rack effects are very quiet. By that we mean that they add very little noise. Our power is clean and filtered multiple times, and our effects are quiet and well-shielded. We use shielded external cabling and power conditioners ourselves. Of course we still hear some noise. There may even be a lot of it, depending on what else is in the rig. We find that almost all of it comes in from pickups and from the pre-amp sections of our tube amps. We have a great deal of EMF noise in our location, so we are very sensitive to noise issues. Even with just a guitar and amp, with no effects of any type, we can rarely tolerate the level of noise picked up by single coils and tube amps. We often use noise reduction systems to combat our excessively EMF-noisy environment. We have tried a number of systems over the years, and have found that we greatly prefer the ISP Decimator Pro Rack G systems. We have no relationship with ISP, other than being a happy customer. We have several Decimator units. They do a great job of explaining how their system works and why it works so well. Check them out!
We'll also give a shout-out to a great pickup manufacturer, Kinman. We love single coil sound, but the noise kills us. Kinman has some fantastic pickups of their own designs, unlike any others I know of. They are roughly in the category of "stacked single coils" that give wonderful single coil tone without the noise. They have numerous styles of single coil designs, as well as humbuckers, P-90s, and bass pickups. We've been using them for years and really, really like them. When we go to shows, we use Kinman pickups in our demo guitars. Naturally, if players hear noise in our effects, they will assume the effects make the noise. Our effects don't make the noise, our guitars and amps do. By using Kinman pickups, we virtually eliminate the noise during our product demos at shows. In a sense, you could say we trust them with our business, since noise is an important criteria to evaluate when you are selecting effects. Once we are out of our own EMF-noisy environment, at shows and demos, the Kinman pickups basically solve any noise problems at other locations. We don't even use our great ISP Decimators at shows, although they are in our racks. We still get a little amp noise sometimes, but without the pickup noise, there usually isn't enough to matter. We have no business affiliation with Kinman, other than being a happy repeat customer!
It Still Wasn’t That Simple, Or Was it?
Well, it took a while but we finally made it to the end. There’s a lot of information crammed into this discussion, but if you keep it broken down into small pieces, you’ll find that each piece is pretty straightforward and easy to manage. Nothing is complicated, there’s just a lot of it. Of course, we’re happy to help guide you through the process. The biggest part you’ll have to figure out mostly for yourself is which effects you need to get your sound, and the order you want to connect them.