Multi-FX Device Used As Fancy Volume Pedal For Steel Guitar
Get All Common SG Effects Into The Bargain
last update: June 16, 2021

Copyright 2021 by H. Gragger. All Rights Reserved. All information provided herein is destined for educational and D.I.Y. purposes only. Commercial re-sale, distribution or usage of artwork without explicit written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. The original units  with their associated  trade-names are subject to the copyright of the individual copyright owner. The Author is by no means affiliated with any of those companies. References to trade names are made for educational purposes only. By reading the information provided here you agree to the Terms of Use.
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Index

Introduction
Why Would I Want A Volume Pedal?
Pot Pedals
Optical Pedals
Modern Fancy Volume Pedals
Multi-FX - Volume Pedal Into The Bargain
The Other Benedictions: FX Galore
Optimum Foot Position And Guitar Height
Busting Some Well-Kept Myths
Reference 

Introduction
Note: there is an older article of similar content from 2011: Volume Pedals And Steel Guitars
Musicians are seldom technically inclined, which is why they often donīt understand the technical prerequisites. They become thus vulnerable to the manipulations of companies trying to sell stuff to them. This frequently results in unneeded gear, sometimes snake oil, very often hyped, but always expensive gear. Pedal steel guitar players (hereafter: PSG) are no exeption to this.

Find out what is true,
or somebody will tell you
what is true.

I concede that peopleīs findings and conclusions are not wrong per se.

They perceived a sonic phenomenon which is valid as a subjective experience. However, due to the lack of recognition of the importance of the technical context, their experience cannot be universally agreed upon, let alone be considered a guideline. Neither can it necessarily be repeated. Consequently, opinions are diametrically opposed sometimes.
Listening to those is a bad idea since all may be misleading.

Although the following represents just my personal experience gathered in years and years of tone tinkering and being sifted through growing technical understanding and musicianship,
even listening to me unsolicited is not recommended.

It is however to be hoped that this work may help you to gain some better understanding on the subject and encourage you to do some hands-on experimentation with hopefully superior results.


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Why Would I Want A Volume Pedal?

As a steel player you wonīt get around a decent volume pedal for playing with expression .


Whenever I play one of my steels I notice how much sweeter my picking sounds when I remove the sharp initial attack. This is of course functionally akin to a compressor, but every dedicated (read: fast) compressor changes tone due to the inherent (and for the time playing at least fixed) attack and release parameters. So this is no replacement and people rightfully complain about compressors changing their tone. Of course you change the way your compression action responds to the mood of the phrase you currently play. This is what gives the goose bumps with steel guitar.

There is no way around a decent volume pedal for a steeler.
Unfortunately getting one is easy, but being satisfied with it is difficult.

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Pot Pedals

To my experience (and I had quite a few volume pedals...) no two specimen (not even two equal types from different eraīs) react the same on a given displacement, which makes it harder to control the effect. The reason is that most of them, at least the vintage style, uses a potentiometer of some sort as rotation detection unit whit whatever mechanism translating this into a linear displacement. There is a plethora of different rotational law potentiometers that try to linearize this movement, so that you can have at least a predictable volume change over the pedal travel of interest, letting alone a perceived linear change.

Pot pedals generally suffer from the following drawbacks:
  • Pot laws give volume changes far from being perceived linear (note: some like this...)
  • linear mechanical displacement does not necessarily mean perceived (due to the logarithmic hearing action) linear volume change
  • pots wear quickly (become scratchy) and the pot you have in there may not be available any more or just for exorbitant prices. Pots were never meant to be used like that, although large vintage type pots last much longer.
  • traditional pedals are built like tanks and are very heavy.
  • vintage shape pedals are very high in profile. They raise your playing position unduly.
  • traditional models have no adjustable heel-back position
Funny aside: some  beginners courseīs advice was to put an (empty) nine volt battery block (just for the shape and availability of it) under the heel-back end of the pedal to stop you from cutting the volume too much down during the learning process...
  • bare pot pedals may be perceived as tone sucking
Passive pedals are still built the way they were 50 years ago, guitar > pot > amplifier.
The guitar "sees" a 500k Ohm impedance or thereabouts. Letīs assume a 1m cord between guitar and pedal, this would amount to some 150 pF capacity with a typical modern average cable. Now this may not hurt your tone much. However, if you use a long cable, say 5m, this would certainly do something to tone. That said, the long cable after the volume pedal will add to the load capacitance and make it much worse which deteriorates even more if you lower the volume (this has been discussed at length here [1]). You need a buffer immediately after the volume pedal (read: ideally inside) to eliminate tone sucking. Unfortunately, electrical units of what sort ever always need to be impedance matched and ideally have a high impedance buffer on the inside and a low impedance drive to the outside. This is what all modern electrical volume pedals have - and all digital ones.
A practical fix to lift a pot pedal sonically to contemporary standards:

if you already own  such a pedal and insist on it, you might as well fix it, if you are good at soldering. Add a small D.I.Y. double buffer (or one you can get from PCBmania for example) into the pedal case with a suitable battery holder. Buffer input and output and sound good. Note that this does not liberate you from the pot wear problem.
You may also add a 50k (lin) pot to the ground side of the volume pot for a heel-back volume preset.

I do generally advise against pot pedals.

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Optical Pedals

Makers like Morley quickly responded to the pot wear problems with their optical pedals, using a photoelement of sorts as the control element, where a light source coming from a bulb or LED was varying obscured by some barrier connected to the moving part of the pedal.

While this did indeed away with wear, it introduced new problems.
  • vactrols or photoresistors have their own law too, meaning the way they change resistance with exposure.
  • They tried to counteract this by giving the obscuring part a determined shape (sometimes even just a piece of tapering cardboard), which worked so-so.
  • Those units were notorious for their current demand and clumsy
  • They were in their simplest form notorious tone-suckers too until they buffered them.

To fix those problems, you may have to add some buffering as described above. I do generally advise against those pedals.

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Modern Fancy Volume Pedals

Modern, boutique pedals are usually digital, at least partially, and of high sonic quality.
  • buffered inherently
  • no-wear (digital control element)
  • selectable laws
  • prohibitive price tags

you can emulate your vintage pedals, if your footīs muscle memory is accustomed to this.

Who would want a ball-and-chain back once you got rid of it?
Of course, you can set heel back volume and all that.

The in my eyes ridiculous price tags stem from the small market segment combined with an comprehendable attempt to make up for the probably substantial R&D costs.

While I agree that these are state of the art technically and sonically, they are way to expensive for my taste. You may be much better off overall going the way outlined in the following.

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Multi-FX - Volume Pedal Into The Bargain


Out of necessity, since my "official" PSG volume pedal had gone scratchy after a while of non-usage and could not be coaxed into working again, and slowly getting cooked over the endless rigmarole of finding, purchasing and swapping pots in futility, I used my Digitech RP-500 multi-fx-processor to serve as fancy volume pedal.
Now that is some overkill - two high-bore DSP processors doing nothing.

It turns out that its expression pedal, which can be wired up to control different parameters, is extremely useful in several ways.
  • excellent mechanical feel. No slippage, maintains a selected position. Perfect non-obtrusive positive friction during movement. Noiseless, no quirks.
  • perfect tone. There is no perceivable degradation of tone. This is no challenge for a DSP of that caliber. I do not believe in any tone degradation anybody can hear with a contemporary system like this.
  • Adjustable heel-back position (minimum volume preset). Have a different one on each patch if you like. This changes the feeling of the pedal a lot and relieves a great burden for a beginner to medium player, since you get what you want without having to gain perfection in controlling the volume pedal.
  • smooth "linear" and predictable volume change over the mechanical range. I like it like that, some like it steep towards the end. The steeper it gets the more precise you need to be.
  • non-wear (digital encoder)
  • corrrect input and output impedances

The Other Benedictions: FX Galore

We have not yet addressed the other effects a typical SG player of today wants.
Back in the times of Jerry Byrd, all they had was a spring reverb at best, or a tape delay if they went fancy.

There are some outstanding recordings being made with just that, and that is something, a modern DSP can do with one hand tied to the back. In fact, with both hands tied to the back. The times of grainy digital reverbs are long gone.

Keeping in mind, that the majority of steel players rants about the Boss Delay/Reverb pedal, which is a plain simple analog effect that certainly has compromises. A DSP can do all that. And, in the light of the Boss et al., donīt try to argue that DSPīs are tone suckers. Not for that simple stuff.

I agree, that a DSP may not excel at simulating complex non-linear stuff like overdriven tube stacks or the like, but it does all linear and time-based effects like reverb, delay, tremolo and the like very well. Note that the most fancy contemporary stand alone time-manipulation effects are DSP-based.

So your plethora of:
  • phasers
  • flangers
  • choruses
  • analog and digital delays
  • reverbs
  • tremolos
  • etc.

are no challenge for a pedal once you decide to go DSP. And you can program them into patches to your heartīs content.

Like for all music instrument industry segments, there are plenty of effects sold for steel guitar specifically, as if it were something new, or  something entirely different. It is not. There is a lot of marketing hype out there, and PSG makes no exception. They want incredible money for a buffer, believe it. Same for "dedicated" steel guitar effects like reverb, delay, chorus, flanging, distortion, yes DISTORTION. The market abounds from shabby dirt boxes for the axe wielders! Donīt get hornswaggled.

The emperorīs new steel guitar effects unit: 
Magnificent effects that are inaudible to those who are
stupid or incompetent.

This may be the end of all dedicated steel guitar effect units.

Note that you can emulate vintage stuff, if you like, but also can have stuff that is not available in the vintage domain, such as a ducking delay. Although some of those effects are generic, or aim to emulate their analog counterpartīs shortcomings, steel players in general like subtle enhancement, mostly unobtrusive. For that a multi FX pedal is more than ample. It will outperform your average analog effects by a mile by effectivity and efficiency.

Agreed, the RP-500 with all its performance switches and its sheer appearance are an overkill for the steel player. Besides that, for a pedal steel (I played a universal-12 with 7 pedals) it is way too big to go under the steel.
However, I bought a smaller brother of it (RP-255, for 60 bucks used), which is a fraction of the size and serves quite nicely. You have to use angled jacks since the jacks are mounted in the back, away from you. The deviceīs pedal (now I really mean a moving pedal in its truest sense)
is not noticeably higher than the so-called "low-boy models" of volume pedals that counteract the tendency of the pedal to raise your foot so much that it interferes with the body of the PSG for example.
digitech
                                rp-255Digitech RP-255 multi-FX (click for bigger picture)
The expression pedal itself is made of heavy aluminium, the case is cast metal and appears indestructible. Pedal motion exhibits an excellent mechanical feel,  not slippery, and maintains a once selected position. It has just perfect friction during movement. Mechanics is noiseless and has no quirks. I bought it like-new for only 60 bucks.

Note that I have installed a bolt onto the chassis that is non-standard (red arrow). It prevents my foot from inadvertently getting over the patch selection keys. You donīt concentrate on the device when you are rocking the volume and this happens easily. First you donīt notice that you have just changed the patch some 20 numbers upwards, then you are due for a shock if you happen to release the button with a high gain distortion setting. Not exactly the kind of thing you want when playing them sweet palm harmonics in silent passages...

I am not endorsing Digitech, this is just what appeared most attractive back then. While a lot has happened over the years as far as amplifier emulation and the likes goes, effects like reverb, delay etc are timeless. You may as well use any other DSP based multi-FX unit with equally pleasing results if you like the pedal action.

This appears to be the best of all worlds solution for a steel guitaristīs needs and is future compatible.

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Optimum Foot Position And Guitar Height

A remark on where to place your volume pedal (of any kind) relatively to you sitting:

When you move your pedalīs position relatively to the knee forward or backward, your leg will be either tilted forward or backward. In both extreme positions, your footīs angle relative to the leg has to cover a different range of angles in order to go through the pedalīs travel. Try it. A position too far back will force your foot to resume a very steep upwards angle (toes raised) in the heel-back position, whereas a position too far forward will require your foot to stretch out too flat. Both are uncomfortable. You want to maintain a very comfortable foot position as to introduce as little distraction as possible, if you are free to choose.
An aside: when I received the PSG, a used item, I had to raise the whole body by 6 cm. I am 1.92 m tall. It is no problem to raise the legs, they are adjustable (ignoring the fact that the clamping action is insufficient to withstand the downward pressure the pedals exert) but then the pull rods are too short by that amount. I had to have extender nuts made.
You wonīt just buy a PSG and sit there and play, not if you are taller or smaller than the ideal PSG player ;-). So either the volume pedal is too high, in which case you have to stop the knee from bumping against the bottom, or the knee levers, or stop the upwards movement of the knee if your pedal is in the wrong space, or you collide with the levers and and and. It has to be tailored to your size.
Besides that, your knee may introduce a vertical motion if your ankleīs pivoting point does not coincide with the pedals pivoting point, which is particularly disturbing if playing a lap-steel and looks ridiculous. I found that having your leg straight upon toe-down, with the pivoting points aligned, works best as a starting position.

While this all may be easily adjusted for a lap-steel player, it is problematic on a PSG due to limited space. Volume pedals are made for a certain operating conditions, and those are clearly not optimized for the PSG.
  1. All of them come out too high. You may sit at a bare PSG and may beautifully reach all controls, but youīd have to raise your PSG (and of course your seat) unduly in order to being able to accomodate your legs under it once you add the volume pedal. This also makes your left footīs position lower than the right by that amount, and for one of them it is not optimal.
  2. The volume pedal activation angle is not optimal. Sitting at the PSG you tend to sit close up front, which brings your lower leg automatically into a position where a heel back foot position is uncomfortable to sustain. A volume pedal that was higher on the heel side and operates "downwards" were much more comfortable.
  3. Ease of operation for the knee levers becomes impaired, when you move your upper leg closer to the leverīs pivoting point (law of levers). Conversely, if you raise the guitar enough to have optimum leverage on the right side, your left side knee leversī activation will be impaired. You are too low, where the displacement becomes bigger.
  4. Your footwearīs height is a factor too. If you canīt live without your cowboy boots, take them into account.

It becomes quite clear that the volume pedal was a later add-on that was never responded to with subsequent PSG design. It is amazing how people get used to a ball-and-chain. Ideally, both knees should be at the same plane, and indeed, the PSG is layed out for that. A riser kit should account for your size, not the volume pedalīs size.
Again, I recommend to never buy a pedal that is not low profile for PSG.There is a good article in Steel Guitar World forum on that subject[3] .

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Busting Some Well-Kept Myths

While we are talking steel...
I recently wondered why they have omitted the controls on PSGīs. I often use them on my lap-steels and always retrofit them on my PSGs. I found a lot of controversy on the web:
 
Myth #1: I do not need a volume control on my PSG, I have a volume pedal.
Answer:
Your volume pedal is ideally used as an expression pedal. Yes you may use it to mute the signal once you cut it right back in playing pauses, but it certainly makes no sense to have one to just set your target volume and leave it at that.

All pedals have some "law" incorporated in them, meaning how volume changes with a certain physical displacement. This feeling might not be constant over the travel, so once you are further back, the whole feeling might have changed, let alone a different "muscle-mind-map" that has to be entrained due to a different foot pivot range.
Some might have gotten used to that. But some eventually also get used to a ball and chain.

Ideally (if you are using it as expression pedal), you set your target volume on your steel, then use your volume pedal like your foot is used to.
Myth #2: My volume control (on the steel) is tone sucking.
Answer:
No it is not. It is the lack of impedance matching (see above: pot pedals, and[1]). Use a simple buffer.
Myth #3: My tone control (on the steel) cuts too much treble.
Answer:
Use a smaller tone cap. The usual 22nF or even bigger are way too big to be useful. Once turned fully up, the influence of the tone control is negligible.
Myth #4: I have to always bypass my controls because they suck tone.
Answer:
After bypassing those you have a lower impedance (pickup impedance only and somewhat less cable influence, but still not the great tone you could have. Revisit Myth#2.
Myth #5: I donīt need a tone control, I shape my tone later.
Answer:
  • Depends on the setup. Local post-buffer controls may work for some.
  • Wrong in case of Hawaiian Music. Jerry Byrd explicitly explains why he has treble down, and true, you need a mellow tone there. The guitar alone may sound too dull to you, but it will sound great in band context. Also depends if you use a reverb that is bright (a.k.a. liveliness)
  • Wrong for Speedy West Boo-Wah (faux wah) effects[2].
Myth #6: Most 6 stringers (standard guitar-) players donīt use their tone control either.
Answer:
Plain wrong. It has been documented to times way back to the beginnings of electric guitar that tone controls have been used extensively for sculpting tone prior to further processing[1] for good reasons.
Observation#1: The controls on the steels sound different than later controls (amp or fx unit)
Explanation:
True because a) they may be different electrical circuits (passive controls are first order filters)
and b) local controls always interact with the pickup (damping/resonance). This is something active filters cannot do.
Remedy: Try a buffer. Passive controls do have their merit.
Observation#2: The makers have stopped putting controls on their guitars since a while.
Explanation:
Changes are very slow in musical industry and mistakes have a tendency to be perpetuated endlessly ("donīt fix it if it is not broken..."). I am thus inclined to believe that they had practical reasons rather than tonal reasons, such as that the controls are physically vulnerable on the butt-end of the guitar, since they are exposed. Note that old PSGīs had some bracket there to protect the knobs...
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Reference

[1] Aquataur Music: A Sonic Wrapper Around A Vintage Pedal - Getting That Vintage Tone (In Any Sequence...)
      http://me.aquataur.guru/musicstuff/wrapper.html
This article explains in depth why buffers are crucial to maintaining good tone and where they need to be located. It also explains the intricacies of cables (resp. cable capacities) as tone-shaping elements and their interactions with other impedances. It also highlights the necessity of "voicing" the guitar, i.e. shaping basic tone before further processing.
[2] Boo-Wah is an effect used extensively by Speedy West and others from that era. The player quickly turns the guitarīs
     tone control
forward and backward, achieving an effect similar to a wah, although not as pronounced as a dedicated effect. It
     lives from the
fact that the tone controlīs  capacitor forms a resonant circuit together with the pickup coil directly on-site.

[3]Steel Guitar Forum: Volume Pedal - Choosing Between Standard and Low Profile,
      https://bb.steelguitarforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=215070
   
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Update History
  • June 16, 2021, update  on optimal foot position and guitar height
  • April 18, 2021,  initial release
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