There has been a sort of long term marketing trend with effects pedals where companies tend to really lean into this idea that true bypass is a desired attribute of any pedal worth its weight. TC Electronics even puts the "true bypass" label right on the face of some of their most popular pedals.
But what is true bypass, and is it always preferable over buffered pedals?
This article will look at the difference between true bypass and buffered pedals, the pros and cons of both, and some modern solutions that can help you be sure that you're getting the best tone out of your pedalboard without having to replace any of your favourite pedals regardless of whether they're true bypass or buffered.
What's The Difference?The difference between true bypass vs buffered bypass pedals has to do as the name would suggest, with what is happening inside the pedal when it is being bypassed (when it's turned off). In a true bypass pedal, when the pedal is turned off (bypassed) your guitar's signal is bypassing the circuitry of the pedal and the pedal is no longer having any impact on the tone of your instrument. In a buffered bypass pedal, when the pedal is turned off your signal is still being affected by the circuitry of the pedal.
If you're not sure whether your pedals are true bypass or buffered, there is an easy way to tell. Connect your guitar to the input of the pedal in question, and connect the output of the pedal to the input of your amplifier. Turn on the amp, and turn off the pedal. Now, disconnect the power source from the pedal. If your guitar is still being amplified through the amp, your pedal is true bypass. If there is no signal reaching your amplifier, the pedal has a buffer.
True Bypass Pros and Cons
True bypass pedals are the best way to preserve the tone of your instrument and your amplifier, with as little coloration from your pedals as possible. If you are anything like the rest of the guitarists on the planet, chances are you spent a great deal of time and consideration, not to mention money carefully picking out the best sounding guitar and amplifier that you could afford and like the rest of us, you would like to preserve as much of that tone as possible. True bypass pedals will not colour the tone of your guitar when the pedal is disengaged.
Many of the best overdrive pedals on the market feature true bypass switching.
The problem with true bypass pedals comes into play when you consider some of the electronic properties of your guitar and its signal chain. If your guitar is passive (the pickup has no battery) it is a high impedance signal. High impedance signals are subject to tone loss through cable length. This means that the longer your cable is from your guitar to the amplifier, the more high end you will lose. Some sources will tell you that as little as 10 feet of cable is enough to cause a perceivable loss of high frequencies, others will tell you it's more like 18 feet. In any case, if you consider how much cable you run from your guitar to the amplifier at even a small venue, it really starts to add up. If you use just one true bypass overdrive for example, but you run a 20 foot cable from your guitar to that pedal and another 20 foot cable from the pedal to the amp, that's 40 feet of cable. Now consider how much cable is in your pedalboard, and it starts to put the real magnitude of this issue into focus. Additionally, all of this cable will not only reduce high frequencies, it will also introduce noise into the signal chain.
There are variables here to consider. Higher quality cables will lose less tone and introduce less noise, and certain venues will also affect noise differently, but the loss of tone and introduction of noise is inevitable with nothing but true bypass pedals.
Buffered Bypass Pros and ConsA buffer is actually a preamp, and is used in the inputs of all active audio equipment. Active bass preamps are driven by buffers, active acoustic guitar preamps are buffers, mixers have buffered inputs, etc. Many effects like chorus or delay or reverb require an input buffer in order to work properly. Because of the loud noise that turning an active buffer on and off can have, pedal manufacturers design buffered pedals in such a way that the buffer is always turned on, even when the pedal is being bypassed. The benefit to always having the buffer on is that it eliminates tone loss through cable length, and reduces the level of noise introduced into the signal.
Since the buffer is always on, a buffered pedal will always affect your tone, even if the pedal is turned off. Poor quality buffers can have a negative effect on your tone, but high quality buffers can sound great. The issue with many high quality buffers is that often these will require power sources that are higher than the typical 9v guitarists are accustomed to with so many widely available pedals.
Is There A Solution?Given all of the above information, is there an objective answer to which is better? Obviously no, but there are certain ways that you can design your pedal board to take advantage of the positive aspects of both true bypass and buffered pedals.
Many guitarists will include a buffered pedal at the beginning of their signal chain in order to benefit from the noise reduction and elimination of tone loss, but will use true bypass pedals afterwards in order to prevent the possibility of multiple buffers of varying quality affecting their tone at the same time. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to use a BOSS TU-3 tuner pedal at the start of your signal chain.
BOSS is well known for their line of buffered pedals, and I have used the TU-3 for years and have found it to be a reliable and well built pedal. For those who aren't a fan of the buffer inside BOSS pedals, there is a wide range of dedicated buffer pedals that are available.
Dedicated buffers are great because they can be placed anywhere in your signal chain and you can shop around and find the buffer that you think sounds the best to you.
Another common practice among guitarists is to run true bypass pedals at the beginning of the signal chain into a buffered pedal at the end of the signal chain. Strymon has some really fantastic delay and reverb pedals that are built with high quality, great sounding buffers. The power requirements for these pedals are a little higher than the standard 9v, but nine out of ten guitarists will agree that these pedals are well worth it.
The best solution to this issue that I'm aware of is the use of a loop switcher pedal. Rather than the signal chain of your pedal board running from one pedal into the next one, a loop switcher will allow you to run from your guitar into the loop switcher, and from the loop switcher into your amplifier. From the switcher, you can then engage different effects by activating the loop that they exist on. This way, if you want to bypass a buffered pedal, you will actually remove it from your signal path, effectively giving you the best of both worlds.
Thank you so much for checking out my article! As always, thank you for making me a super small part of your journey with the guitar, its a privilege that I never take for granted. If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to reach out to me!