So, you’d think there’s not much to just turning your pedals on and off, right? Hitting the footswitch engages the effect, and pressing it again turns it off and allows the signal to flow through to the next pedal unaffected.
But believe it or not, it’s not quite as easy as that. There are two different types of bypass you will encounter: true and buffered.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you are confused about what these terms mean. It can be a little tricky figuring out exactly what the differences are on your own, so let’s look at them now!
True Bypass vs Buffered Bypass
True bypass options promise to deliver a crystal clear, 100% unaffected signal when you do not have effects engaged, whereas buffered pedals boost and restore your signal level down the line in the chain.
But does that mean one is better than the other? Before we get to that, we need to look at the fundamentals of how your signal flows from your guitar, through your pedals, and into your amp.
Understanding Signal Path
Before we dig into the nuts and bolts, it’s important to break down how signal paths work in the first place – and how these pedals are designed to maximize the sound coming out of your instrument.
The second that you plug your guitar into an amplifier, it creates an electrical signal, allowing the audio signal to flow through to the speaker. Plug your guitar in via a high-quality cable that is relatively short (say 12 feet or so) and you’ll get a signal that is super strong.
But because guitars are musical instruments with a high level of impedance, the second that you start to stretch that signal over longer cables – say 20 feet or longer – you’ll run into issues with noise and interference.
This degradation is almost immediately noticeable and gets worse and worse as the cable gets longer and resistance gets stronger. The sound coming out of your instrument will likely be significantly diluted and “dull” compared to a shorter cable.
If you introduce a couple of pedals into the mix, you’ll likely add another 6 feet or more of cable for each one through the patch cables connecting between them, as well as the 2 cables you’ll need on each end of the signal. Without even realizing it, you are likely subjecting your guitar signal to nearly 50 feet of cable before it even gets to the amplifier.
Thankfully though, with just a little bit of effort (and a high-quality buffered or true bypass panel designed to fight high impedance) you can clean up that signal, clean up your sound, and improve the way your instruments respond instantly.
What Does True Bypass Really Mean?
True bypass refers to a simple, no-frills bypass that patches the input of the pedal straight to the output without applying the effect. If a pedal has true bypass and you turn it off, it’s effectively the same as removing the pedal from your chain and patching straight into the next pedal instead.
As highlighted above, the high impedance from your guitar makes a significant difference to the signal path. True bypass pedals are designed to effectively “remove” themselves from your signal chain and keep your instrument at the proper impedance when they are turned off.
This is a fantastic option for those that play in smaller recording studios and do not need super long cables.
Those that are playing live, especially on bigger stages, are going to want to use shorter cables when they are running true bypass pedals. This will ensure they have the shortest possible length of cable between the guitar and amp. Ideally, you want to try to keep it under 20 feet.
What is Buffered Bypass?
With buffered pedals, you’re looking at a signal that is going to be strengthened and boosted as it runs through the pedalboard – buffering and improving the signal. Some pedals have built-in buffers, but you can also purchase separate buffer pedals that do the same thing. These usually have a boost or other simple effect built in to justify the space they take up on your board.
A buffered set up can make it significantly easier to keep a rich and strong guitar signal regardless of cable length.
A buffer pedal helps to restore the integrity of the signal, by creating an active buffer that keeps your guitar’s impedance where it should be. This negates any signal loss that would normally occur with a longer cable.
The reason the jury is still out on buffer pedals and pedals with buffered bypass instead of true bypass has nothing to do with signal loss, but instead to do with a claim that buffered pedals make your guitar lose high-end frequency content.
Ultimately, this really comes down to personal preference, as study after study has shown that these kinds of effects pedals actually don’t alter the sound of the high-end that much but instead allow for a much more responsive kind of signal. Even if they did alter the high-end in some way, it would still not negate the benefits of buffered bypass pedals.
Which Type of Bypass is “Best”?
This is where things get a little tricky. Truth be told, there’s no perfect answer or “one-size-fits-all” solution as to whether or not you should be running true bypass pedals or buffered pedals.
There are a lot of different variables in play in your overall guitar setup, such as the specific power of your amp, the impedance of your pickups, the varying impedance of any individual pedal within the chain, even the specific brands and lengths of cables that you hook everything up with will change the signal quality.
Any one single component can have an audible effect on your sound, and as such different situations might require different solutions to provide the best sound for you.
Here is an example setup to show the benefits of both true bypass and buffered bypass:
If you are using a relatively short signal chain – up to 20 feet total – then you can probably get away with nothing but a true bypass pedal set up and you will not encounter any audible issues. Most pedal manufacturers are aware of the reality that players use multiple pedals and so they try to limit the impedance with this in mind.
If you’re running anything longer than that (and most musicians today are), the true bypass set up will likely result in tone loss from the length of your cables.
In reality, most guitar players today are going to benefit from a buffered bypass setup. If you run more than 1-3 pedals at any given moment you are likely to have more than 30 or so feet of cable between your guitar and amp, which can result in a lot of signal degradation from resistance buildup.
If you’re going to be stretching that chain out a little longer – running cables a decent stretch between instruments, pedal, and amplifiers – a buffered pedal setup will give you the best sound and prevent any tone loss.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that whatever setup you choose is only going to be capable of so much “heavy lifting” in the grand scheme of things.
It’s not a bad idea at all to consider investing in high-quality pedals, amplifiers, and cables that neutralize impedance issues as much as possible without having a negative effect on your sound. OK, so we don’t all have unlimited money and resources to go for the absolute highest quality all the time. But you also shouldn’t go for the cheapest if you care about sound quality at all.
Of course, it’s also not a bad idea to mix and match true bypass and buffered pedal setups, either.
The effect you get here when you daisy-chain them together is fantastic. It’s really the best of both worlds – so long as you’re not using low-quality pedals that can fail when they are properly boosted by the buffered pedals.
It is also important to think about the order of your pedals in terms of where to place your true or buffered bypass pedals.
A lot of modern guitarists put a tuner at the very beginning of the chain before adding in a buffered pedal. This guarantees that you get the kind of sound you are looking for and also ensures that the signal is significantly boosted throughout the rest of the chain thanks to that buffered connection being in the “pole position.”
If you reversed the configuration and put the true bypass pedals in the early stages with a buffered option at the end, only the very end of your signal chain is getting boosted. That’s not going to help anyone!
It is important to take the time to do your research to find high-quality pedals before you consider if they are true or buffered bypass. Read the reviews, check out some demos on YouTube, and experiment with pedal order to find the options that work best for you!