picture from http://www.ericwrobbel.com
I like to build guitar effects pedals. Maybe 'like' is a strong word. I'm not really sure what the word is for the emotional space between not finding exaclty what you are looking for, and being too poor/cheap to buy it even if you could. That's how I ended up building some of my own guitar fx pedals. In the end, I'm not really sure I'm saving myself any money, but when they actually light up after hours (and sometimes hours and hours and hours) of work, it's a very satisfying feeling.
Once upon a time, I heard local guitar player Julien Kasper ripping trough a boutique silicon Fuzz Face clone. It sounded kinda like this (fuzz comes in at solo). The tone was so outrageously gorgeous that I had to have it for myself. So after patiently waiting, I went out and bought the exact same Fuzz Face clone on Craigslist. After making the exchange at the obligatory Dunkin' Donuts rendezvous, I rushed home to plug the pedal in. And the pedal sounded... awful. I was crushed to discover that the fuzz pedal sounded like a rain-soaked cardboard box of lukewarm farts.
Still, I was undeterred in my quest for fuzz. With the aid of the internets, I moded the pedal to death. Literally. When I fried the circuit board, I started from scratch with a whole new DIY fuzz kit that I got from the fantastic General Guitar Gadgets. This was my very first guitar pedal build. Suprisingly it worked, and in the end, I was able to get something that sounded pretty good.
Along the way, I researched everything that I could about Fuzz Face tone, and I came across quite a few axioms/myths/old guitarist's tales. Many of them pertain specifically to batteries, and that is what I am going to be focusing on for this experiment. These are the fuzz commandments that I am going to be testing.
1. A Battery Sounds Better Than an AC Adapter With A Fuzz
2. A Vintage Style Carbon Zinc Battery is Better Than a Modern Alkaline Type
3. A Fuzz Sounds Best When the Battery Is Just About to Die
4. DIfferent Brands of Batteries Sound Different.
Commandment number 1 is widely accepted. I myself never use an AC adapter with my fuzzes. This is party because the fuzz is always the first pedal in my chain, and while I leave all the other pedals plugged in on my board, I always unplug the guitar from the first pedal before putting the pedal board away. Thus, I don't have to worry about draining the battery on the pedal. Also, fuzz pedals don't seem to need alot of battery sauce; they last a really long time.
Commandment number 2 is also pretty widely accepted. Initially, I used only carbon zinc batteries in my fuzz pedals until I got lazy and just started throwing whatever I had around into the pedal. One nice advantage to carbon zinc batteries is that they are extremely cheap. Often times you can buy them 2 for $1 at the dollar store.
Commandment number 3 is a slightly less common than the others, but still traded around quite a bit. I've heard that Duane Allman liked to use 'mostly dead' batteries in his fuzz pedals (There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead). I've heard people say he liked them around 6 volts. I'm slightly skeptical about this because, while I'm not by any means an Allman Brothers expert, I don't recall ever hearing a fuzz on any AB recording, and furthermore, I have trouble imagining Duane Allman working a multimeter, unless he was using the probes to pick food out of his mustache.
Commandment 4 is an urban legend. In an interview, Eric Johnson allegedely stated a preference for Duracell batteries. Although I am an EJ fan, I've never read this interview and I don't know for sure if this statement was ever truly made. However, people on the internet still tell of this tale, so why not test it out!
I recorded a guitar lick into my TC Electronic DItto looper with my Stratocaster. Originally, I ran the looper straight into a germanium Fuzz Face clone bulit with the "Mike Fuller Mods". The idea behind using the looper was that I wanted to eliminate any variations whatsoever in the signal chain and performance except for the battery swaps. However, anyone who's ever experimented with a Fuzz Face knows that it can be pretty finicky about any pedals that appear between it and the guitar, and it's standard practice to plug your guitar into the fuzz first in your pedal chain. A fuzz performs best when it's delivered a high impedance signal straight from the guitar, and the output impedance of the TC Looper, while to complicated for me to measure, is most definitely a low impedance signal just like most guitar pedals. So the effect of running the Ditto Looper straight into the fuzz where disapointing.
However, some great folks over at diystompboxes.com (thanks induction, psychedelicfish and gus!) turned me onto a cool 'Guitar Pickup Simulation' circuit designed by Jack Orman which uses a transformer (and a few other passive components) to impersonate the correct impedance and response of a guitar pickup, volume and tone control circuit. You can read about it here. It definitely helps bring the experiment very close to what it sounds like when you plug a guitar straight into a fuzz.
So I re-ran the experiment with my fancy new guitar pickup sim. Here was the signal chain.
Guitar --> TC Ditto Looper --> Guitar Pickup Sim --> Fuzz Face --> vintage Fender Deluxe Reverb mic'd with an old SM57 and a Michael Jolly moded ribbon mic. The audio recordings are slightly panned stereo recordings of the two mics.
Here are the batteries/power sources being tested.
1. Sunbeam - I purchased this at the Dollar Store for 2/$1. While it doesn't say "Carbon Zinc" it is most definitely a carbon zinc battery.
2. Duracell - EJ's "favorite"
4. Pedal Power 2 - This is an AC unit capable of powering mulitple pedals. I used the battery clip cable to plug it right onto the battery clip of the fuzz.
Using my multimeter, I measured the output of the Pedal Power 2 to be 9.07v. Using the DMM and my car keys, I measured and discharged all the batteries until they were pretty close to 9.07v.
(Note: I'm not sure that this is a very safe or responsible way to handle batteries. One time in college, I put a fully charged 9 volt battery in my pants pocket along with a whole bunch of coins, and I almost torched my brown corduroy pants on fire. This an embarrassing and cautionary tale)
One at a time, I changed out the power source, and recorded the looper playing the guitar lick into the fuzz. I also recorded a "control" recording of the looper without the pickup simulator so that you can hear that effect that the pickup simulator is having on the experiment.
Next, on remembering the corduroy pants incident, I placed a bunch of quarters on the batteries and I discharged them down to around 6 volts (thanks Skydog!), and used the 'sag' feature on my Pedal Power 2 to lower the voltage to around 6 volts.
So here are the results! There is no signal proccessing with the exception of normalization. The clips with the weaker batteries are noticeably lower in volume, and I know that most people hear louder = better, and I wanted everything to be on the same footing. I'm very confident that the normalization didn't effect the integrity of the clips.
As a bonus, I recorded a second set of files without the looper, where I am performing the guitar lick with every battery type. I was curious to hear what it would sound like to go straight into the fuzz. Obviously, there is going to be a ton of variations with that part of the experiment, and the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. In an attempt at consistency, I did record these clips to a click, and I was very careful to pick over the same part of the strings, but it's impossible to give the exact same performance every time.
Hopefully, by triangulating these recordings with the looper recordings you will be able to decipher a clearer picture of how a battery effects a fuzz circuit, and also the veracity of the "Four Fuzz Commandments" that have been chiseled out before us!
I had fun running this experiment and I hope you find it helpful in your own quest for the perfect fuzz tone!
///WITH THE LOOPER///
///WITHOUT THE LOOPER///