Analogue vs. digital guitar pedals

Written by jonathan lo
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Analogue vs. digital guitar pedals
(Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Guitar pedals appeal to musicians for their ability to affect the tone of an electric guitar. Some of the possible effects include distortion, phaser, wah-wah, tremolo, chorus, delay and pitch shifting. The plethora of consumer pedals available all fall under two categories: analogue (also spelt “analogue”) and digital.

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History

The first guitar pedals became popular in the 1960s, used to physically manipulate electrical signals between the guitar and speaker. This function, in turn, affects the tone of the guitar's sound that comes out of the speaker. In the 1980s, when computer chips became faster and cheaper, digital guitar pedals entered the market.

Analogue Vs. Digital

Analogue guitar pedals use only continuous, physical signals from input to output. Digital guitar pedals convert the analogue signal of a guitar to a digital signal (ones and zeroes) and use software to adjust the digitised signal. The digitised signal then converts back to an analogue signal and runs out of the pedal to the guitar amplifier. Both variations accept an analogue signal and output an analogue signal; the difference occurs within the pedal.

Analogue Advantages

Analogue pedals have an arguably better sound quality. The entire guitar signal passes through the circuitry without any analogue-to-digital conversion, which may result in the loss of part of the signal. A greater history for analogue pedals means that more well-known musicians use analogue effects. If you want to replicate the guitar tones of your favourite guitarists, you will likely need to use the same analogue effects as on their pedal boards.

Digital Advantages

Digital pedals may cost less than purchasing multiple analogue pedals since recent technology allows software computations at low cost. A processor can easily apply multiple effects on a digitised signal all at once. Digital systems also may emulate famous guitar amplifiers and analogue effects, resulting in similar sounds with less hardware. A specialised effect, the digital delay, allows you to “tap” the pedal with your foot to determine the delay length.

Analogue Disadvantages

Analogue pedals do not have a system to store “presets.” If you set the tone, level and distortion knobs on an analogue pedal, a stomp on the pedal cannot make use of a different variation of those three parameters. If you move any of the knobs, you cannot recall the previous setting with precision. Also, multiple single-function pedals will take more set-up, space and money than a single digital processor.

Digital Disadvantages

If the device that turns the analogue signal to a digital signal (the “analogue-to-digital converter”) runs too slowly, the pedal will lose information from the inputted guitar signal. This can result in an impure sound. Also, as a computer executing multiple programs runs more slowly, a digital processor may add an undesirable delay time if used heavily.

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