Maybe, you never had voltage issues. In fact, I never had those before I've moved to a new house but, I've noticed those issues when giging, also.
Or, maybe, you are currently having voltage issues and you don't know it!.
We already discussed about the importance of to have a good ground in our mains (see past entry: how to troubleshoot noise in our rig and, entry: Accessories: Socket Tester) and, about the function of some filtering and surge protection devices (Power Conditioner), as well as the role that a good Power Regulator (see past entry: Accessories: Phonic PPC9000E Power Conditioner).
Voltage issues affect to each single device that is actually connected to the mains and, it has more or less impact depending on how many devices are depending on such an energy source.
This entry is just a reflexion about the importance of voltage in our rig, after experiencing myself several related issues and, after observing how it affects to every gear.
Voltage = Dynamics
I don't know if this is a written rule but, what I've observed is that Voltage means Dynamics in Audio.
If you don't know what dynamics means, please read this past entry: Home Studio: Mixing - Part 4.
The more the voltage a certain gear has, the more the dynamic range and, therefore, the more natural, organic and open it sounds. The less voltage, the less dynamic range and, therefore, the more compressed it sounds. And, this seems to be true for every single thing in our gear.
While most of people seems to focus on DC Resistance when choosing its pickups, I am more interested in other specifications.
Maybe DC Resistance talks about the overall EQ of the pickup but, resonance frequency and resonance peak will better talk about where this guitar will be placed in the mix and, how piercing will it be.
In fact, resonance defines somewhat the place in the frequential range called Presence where this guitar will be recognized. If it's its natural place in the mix everything will be fine, otherwise, that track would need extra EQ work to make it to cut the mix. You can eventually have issues trying to differentiate your guitar when playing with your band, also.
Then, one more parameter that interests me a lot is the output voltage of a pickup. This output voltage tells a lot, not only about the strengh of the signal but about how dynamic can be the sound. The higher the voltage, the more gap you can represent between soft and high volume notes and, therefore, the sound will be more natural, open and organic. The less voltage, the more compressed the sound will be.
Pickup voltage isn't depending on your mains source, because the pickup generates it. So, this is the the more special case we are going to discuss here. Rest of gear depends on your mains.
Since voltage in a pickup depends on the magnetic field variation, all components in a pickup have something to say (magnets, screws, rods, coil, wire, etc) and, trying to optimize some pickup characteristic have an impact in other characteristics.
You can get more voltage with a powerfuler magnet but, this can also impact in the resonance peak and make the pickup brighter or even piercing. You can change to a thicker wire to wind the coil or, to wind more turns there but, this will change the overall EQ, by example.
We are choosing pickups for how they sound and, every pickup design is a compromise between the several specification characteristics so, we get at the end a given (maximum output) voltage for each pickup and, we usually don't change it.
If I didn't had the incredible variation in voltage levels in my actual mains, I would probably never noticed how important voltage is for pedals that are being feeded with some AC adapter.
Most pedals are designed to work, at least, with a battery (typically 9V) but, there are some exceptions, like most of Lovetone pedals, that are so small that doesn't have room for a battery and, some other pedals, as EH's Electric Lady or Morley Wahs, have their own AC adaptor and run at higher voltage levels (12V, 18V or even, 24V).
Probably, first time I've experienced the matter of voltage was with the Fulltone OCD V2 overdrive. While I was browsing its characteristics, I've read that it was possible to enhance the sound running it at 18v, instead of 9V and, since I had a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 adaptor that allowed me to use two different 9V outputs to feed a pedal with 18V, I did the test and, I was greatefully surprised with the results.
Since that day, I tried to feed all my critical pedals with 18V. Boosters, overdrives, delays. Anything not needing a compressed sound (as distortions or fuzzes, by example) can benefite of a higher voltage level.
The drawback is that the number of outputs is limited and, that if each pedal needs two outputs, you cannot really have a large chain of pedals.
The Xotic EP Booster is another example of how much open and dynamic the sound can be with 18V.
If you wanted to try this, please be sure to read your pedal' specifications to check the admited voltage range. To run a pedal with a higher voltage than allowed can destroy your pedal.
I love to death Weehbo Effekte's approach. Every Weehbo pedal has a DYNAMIC switch that changes the internal voltage from 9V to 18V. You will need to feed the pedal just with 9V and, the pedal will internally double this voltage, if you want it. That smart switch demonstrates the importance of voltage for dynamics and, in my experiences, converts a good pedal (at 9V) into a top notch pedal (at 18V).
I already saw that inner doubling system in other pedals and, I liked it but, to have a switch outside the pedal is the first time I see it and, something for what Weehbo should be congratulated (among THE sound).
Some pedals, because of their design, will not noticiable enhance their sound when stepping up in voltage levels but this, every time that your mains delivers a consistent and stable voltage level.
Vintage effects can even need a worn battery to sound their best. This is typical in vintage germanium fuzzes, that work better with worn low efficiency batteries (forget Duracell and similar). At this point, you should guess why!. The fuzz is an ultra-compressed sound and, therefore, wants low voltage range to compress the most.
So, to run pedals at higher voltage usually makes sense but, not always. Hear your pedal, stock. Do you feel it could sound better if it had just a tad more dynamics?, then increase the voltage level and, check it.
All that was just related to dynamics but, considering that your mains source delivers a stable voltage level but, in my home, this is far away from real world. I am having voltage variations between 185V to 240V in the lapse of a couple of seconds, some days. Other days, the average level can be at any level . This seriously impacts all my rig, from amp to pedals.
The easier way to avoid this issue would be to run all my pedals with batteries, instead of feeding them with a power adaptor. But, you know the drawbacks of this. Batteries worn really fast in some pedals and, can leave you without a certain effect during your performance. If you forget to remove each input patch cable in each pedal, your batteries will dead while you sleep and, you will have no pedal board next morning.
Since power adaptors are my way to go, there are some things I could do. First, to claim the company and ask them to deliver me a good electrical line (something that I've already did with more or less same outcoming). Second, to buy a Power Regulator, to ensure a consistent and filtered electrical power (something I cannot do because of its price).
Probably, the company can fix issues at my home (after several claimings, I hope so!) but, this will not solve the issues when I have to gig outside. I had exactly same issues when giging. So, probably, best solution is to buy a Power Regulator and bring it with me in any circumstance.
But, while this is economicaly possible, what I've recently noticed, while testing a couple of Weehbo units, is that pedals with a higher voltage suffer the less that voltage dropping.
I loved Mad Professor and Wampler pedals, while they were sounding good (when my voltage was correct) but, without knowing the root cause, I moved from Mad Professor to Wampler because I've noticed that the sound was very inconsistent in Mad Professor pedals, to finally discover that I had same issues with Wampler pedals!!!.
As Weehbo pedals are doubling the input voltage, I guess that there is always more than the original 9V available for that pedal. Imagine that the voltage that the Power adaptor delivers at the end falls to half (4.5V). This will be very poor for an unit that was designed to work at 9V and, that's why Mad Professor and Wamplers were failing delivering the right sound in my case. But, since Weehbo is doubling the voltage internally, 4.5V x 2 = 9V, I will get the minimum voltage to get an usable sound from that pedal (that sounds good at 9V and incredible good at 18V).
I didn't thought on this when buying those Weehbo pedals. I was just so interested in how they sounded but, this smart design helped me to have a consistent sound even when my electrical line was delivering a weak voltage.
When I was trying the Carl Martin Octaswitch MKII unit, I tried it with the wrong power adaptor. Since they current needs of the Octaswitch where so high, there was no way to feed it with the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 and, therefore, an additional adaptor was a must. My first try was to re-use some of the adaptors I had around (with less current levels) and, the result was an awful wistling and permanent feedback, when switching on the unit.
With weak current and voltage levels, I've noticed that even top notch pedals can start generating strange or unexpected noises, high pitched sounds, etc.
The design of an amp determines its dynamics and, there is really few you can do to increase it without hard moding it. A vintage-voiced amp has usually way more dynamics than a high-gain-voiced amp (designed to cover highly compressed sounds). There are amps with several channels and, each channel very differently voiced and, with very different dynamics.
What I've noticed is that the more dynamics the amp has, the most affected by voltage variations is. I instantanely recognize that my mains is weak when that amp starts to sound thin, weak and liveless. I take a look to my Power Conditioner's voltimeter and, I visually confirm that I am having voltage issues.
When this happens, all my rig is being compromissed and the resulting sound is just annoying. We already discussed about the convenience of a Power Regulator to fix this issue.
When the electrical line delivers an stable and regular power, I've noticed that tubes can change a tad dynamics of the amp (always within the boundaries stablished by its own design). Even same tube maker / model, with different characteristics (output, transconductancy, etc) can make a difference.
Usually, tubes with a higher voltage output are increasing dynamics, also. As happens with pickups, to optimize certain tube characterist affects the rest of them so, maybe getting more voltage means to have less transconductancy (inmediatness) or less output (strength) or any other parameter (EQ, break-up spot, ...). As we do with pickups, we choose tubes based on how well perform for a certain position of a certain amp and, therefore, we are somewhat limited by amp's design and tube's design, respect of our dynamics. A very dynamic tube that produces an sterile sound interest us nothing, at the end.
What I've noticed is that the impact of voltage drop in amps is less dramatical than in my pedals. If pedals work fine, the amp can stand more range of voltage drop than pedals can. So, even that there is a clear change in sound quality, by using those Weehbo pedals, the sound remains usable most of the time. Just extreme voltage drops seriously affect the resulting sound and, make me to hung the guitar and switch off everything.
GAS or need?
Indeed, we want everything we see and buy just what we can, even if we shouldn't do that!. This is GAS and, it's difficult to deal with it.
I recognize that apart of one amp and one guitar and one pedal of each type, everything else I've got is GAS but, in the particular case of pedals, my move from one to the next one was motivated because I wasn't achieving a good tone with such a pedal.
Did you ever noticed that that pedal that was sounding incredible good and that you loved to death is lately sounding annoying?. If so, maybe you have a voltage issue. Check it.
If I probably knew the real impact of this kind of issues, I would save a BIG amount of money if I'd purchased just a Power Regulator first and, then those pedals I liked more.
First pedals that were sounding incredible nice for me where Mad Professor's ones. But, since (before understanding what was going on with my mains) I was finding myself re-tweaking each pedal several times in same session or, every new session. I was fed up and, decided to move to other maker and, Wampler was my next election. But, once more, I am having same issues. I KNOW those pedals sound awesome, because I'VE ALREADY HEARD them but, I cannot get a consistent tone and, I am tweaking those pedals constantly, what drives me crazy.
The issues seems to be less dramatic with Weehbo pedals, by now but, for sure, I need more time to be convinced on that. Clearly, I need a Power Regulator but, that's a lot of money so... time to Time. I hope my own (bad) experiences can be of help to you and, I hope that you can save more money than I did, also.