DIY Effects Pedals

I wanted to let it be known I'm still alive and kicking, and still playing, just not thinking about theory / vocabulary ideas at the moment so my posts here have been scarce. I feel like I have a big backlog of stuff to work on on that front and a small amount of time available to do it, so adding to the pile isn't very productive. But also, my musical activities have been slightly taken over by a new thing: building effects.

I'm still more or less a beginner at this game, so I won't say much about it. However, people I've mentioned it to often say they've always wanted to try it too so I thought I'd try to set out a few things about getting started, particularly exactly what kit you need to go out and buy.

First of all, the equipment:

  • A 40W soldering iron. I got this from Maplin for £15 and am still using it.
  • A digital multimeter. I got this for £9 and it's great.
  • At least one breadboard; these are about right for small effects circuits and cost < £2.
  • Wire cutters and small pliers; I like wireworking tools like these, £5 for the set of three.
  • A wire stripping tool; I went all-out and got one of these, which at £17 might be a bit extravagant but it works like an absolute dream.
  • A battery snap suitable for a 9v battery, plus at least two 1/4" jack sockets (£2). These are available much cheaper in bulk on eBay but this is what you need to be able to test your first circuit.

You'll also benefit from having a small hacksaw and a power drill (preferably with a "soft start"), which you might already own. The drill isn't essential until boxing-up time. Many people use something like a "helping hands" device to hold the work still while soldering; I use a big lump of Blu-Tack, which kind of gets on the components a bit but is surprisingly effective.

In general you need a place to work with a bright light, and if your near vision isn't 100% perfect you'll need reading glasses. A magnifying glass is handy to have around too. Keep pets and children away when soldering -- the iron I linked gets up to 480° C, which can really do some damage. And yes, you'll burn yourself when learning. In fact, you will do this exactly once.

Next some consumables that you'll need to have "in stock" to use on every build:

  • A roll of rosin core, lead-free solder. Once the free stuff I got with my iron ran out I got a 500g roll, which seems expensive at £30 but will last a very, very long time.
  • Single-stranded hookup wire. Having lots of different colours helps me not get confused so I buy packs like this (£4).
  • Some pieces of veroboard (assuming you're using this method). I would get 10 small and 5 medium to start you off (£10).
  • A few strips of SIP sockets (£8) -- not essential but you'll probably want them and they're not expensive if you get them shipped from China.

Speaking of which, getting components from China is the way to go at the start. You don't want to be making your early mistakes and monstrosities with expensive mojo-filled parts. The shipping on eBay is usually free and the prices are a fraction of what you pay to get them from a company in the West.

Finally, you'll need a small stock of common components. You don't want to be ordering every individual bit for every project. Try to get as many different values as possible without spending a fortune. You'll also need some way to keep them organised.

  • Resistors. You'll find vertain values used more often than others -- 470, 1k, 2k2, 4k7, 10k, 22k, 47k, 100k, 220k, 470k, 1M (see a pattern?) -- but you need to have the odd ones on hand too. (£10)
  • Ceramic capacitors; the most common ones are from 100pF up to 220nF. (£10)
  • Electrolytic capacitors from 0.1uF up to 470uF, though the smaller values (up to 100uF) are much more common. (£10)
  • TL072 dual op amps; you'll use a lot of these so it's worth getting a bunch up front. (£5 for 10; cheaper from China)

That's a total startup cost -- before you've built your first project -- of about £140. I just wanted to be realistic about the fact that building effects has a cost of entry. BUT, the parts you now need to get to build a working pedal cost a few pounds at most, certainly not more than £10 even if you include the enclosure, which is the most expensive part. That's assuming your project doesn't require an exotic part like a vactrol, a reverb tank or a rare 1970s Ukranian transistor.

And you can do that again, and again, and again; in fact, because you built up a stock of parts you'll often find you can build what you want without spending a single penny. If you have a pedal-buying habit, this will save you money. If you can't afford to buy lots of pedals but could find £150 and have lots of time and patience, DIY is an awesome option.

You will need more parts to make a pedal, usually transistors, diodes and integrated circuits (chips). I suggest buying multiples of the components you need for each project and building your collection that way rather than trying to stock up in advance. They're mostly so cheap per unit (especially if you buy from the Far East) that you may as well buy a bag of ten whenever you need just one. You know you'll use the other nine at some point.

Also, check for substitutes before you buy a particular part number. Sometimes a transistor you don't have is identical to one you do, but with a different identification. Most single, dual and quad op amps are identical (modulo slight differences in sound).

Similar thing with pots (knobs) and switches. These are a bit more expensive per unit but I would still recommend buying more than you need of each type when you need it; it makes experimentation much easier when you can just reach into your bits box and pull out different parts.

When you have something working, you'll want to put it in an enclosure (i.e. a box). This is a whole other art, which I'm still figuring out.

You'll also need some projects to build. While you'll need to learn to read a schematic, a great way to start is with stripboard (aka veroboard) layouts. These are visual, so you pretty much just make yours look like the picture and you're done. The guys over at Guitar FX Layouts have put together an amazing library of 100s of effects, with great advice pages for beginners.

This is still where I get 90% of my projects from because it's so convenient. I suggest starting with the Confidence Booster. Or you could go with the Great Destroyer if you like things a bit more spicy -- that was my first stripboard build. It took me two goes to get it right but I love it. Be careful when ordering the chip that you get exactly the right one!

You'll also need to have or develop some habits of mind. You need patience and the ability to focus on detailed tasks for extended periods of time. Electronics is a pretty unforgiving world, so you need to be able to organise yourself and your work in a way that helps you not make mistakes or miss things out. You also need resilience in the face of failure: you will spend a whole day meticulously building something only for it not to work, to not be able to figure out why and to end up binning it; watch this video on the days when you feel like giving up.

Needless to say, these are all good qualities for musicians to have!

There are a few good YouTube channels, websites and books for beginners; I'll put those into a future post, but they're not so hard to find. And I look forward to sharing some of my successes with you if I ever get back to a state where I can record properly (my studio is in a state of flux, and has now become 80% electronics workshop).

Of course, soon enough there'll be more musical ideas here too. But for now, it's time to return to the soldering iron and try to fix my broken Magnavibe...