One of the greatest debates regarding guitar pedals is based on the pros and cons of analog and digital pedals. There are supporters of each of these two pedal types. Advantages and disadvantages are likely to be found no matter the type of pedal you use.
If you’re new to this field of musical gear and there’s still a lot of confusion regarding the whats, whys, and hows of analog and digital pedals, then this post might help you make some light.
Basic differences between analog and digital pedals
The first major difference between these two pedal types is that the signal of an analog pedal is continuous and is processed unadulterated whereas the signal of a digital pedal is made up of various individual points. In order for a digital pedal to work, the signal is passed through an analog to digital (A/D) converter that will translate it into a series of 0s and 1s.
Based on these numbers, the pedal will perform the algorithms needed to alter the sound and then the signal will pass through a digital to analog (D/A) converter so you can get a sonic output of the original signal.
Since the signal rendered by a digital pedal is the sum of a multitude of several individual points and the analog signal is continuous, the difference in the output you will get is usually felt in the pure sound the analog pedal delivers. All the signals that can be found in nature are analog, so that’s why an analog pedal will have a warmer and more natural sound than a digital one.
Another major difference between digital and analog pedals regards the signal sampling. One disadvantage of digital pedals is that they can’t replicate the infinite analog levels. Since the analog signal is continuous and smooth, without breaks, a digital pedal would need a huge amount of individual bits to replicate the exact levels.
This means that digital pedals can’t sample fast enough to reproduce the entire analog signal. This is rarely detectable, however. If an MP3 is poorly sampled, high-frequency notes and components such as cymbals might indeed sound off.
All digital devices will lose information in the signal sampling processing. The thing with this loss is that, once it reaches a certain level, the human ear will notice it. The amount of data that is lost through the sampling process is directly affected by the sampling frequency, which refers to how many samples are used for the analog signal to be discretized.
The human ear is capable of hearing vibrating waves up to 20 kHz (20,000 Hz). When the sampling rate is lower than this, the ear will miss out on higher frequencies and the so-called aliasing happens.
This occurs if the sampling rate is limited to a frequency range yet it interprets sounds that are outside of this particular range. Thus, if one frequency is coded into another, glitches are created.
In the case of certain digital pedals, an issue occurs when the guitar produces various frequencies and many of them are higher than 5 kHz. Thus, the higher frequencies your guitar creates might fall outside the sampling rate of some digital pedals.
Consequently, if you go for a digital pedal with a higher sampling frequency, you will enjoy a better sound. This requires a higher compute power, though, which means that such a unit will have a higher price attached. Therefore, if you want greater signal fidelity, look for a model that features the necessary A/D (analog to digital) processing power.
Digital pedals and programmed effects
Digital pedals make use of an algorithm that will process the sampled sound from the pedal input and that will take into account the same bits of data every time to produce the desired sound. The effects are programmed and thus they will always be the same.
Unlike digital pedals, the analog models alter the analog signal with the many subtleties capacitors, resistors, and transistors create. And it’s this alteration many musicians find to be an advantage or a disadvantage.
A musical instrument will not produce the same analog sound from one per
formance to another, at least not at a level we can find to be disturbing or significantly different. That happens because, for example, the strings of a guitar degrade or the instrument is tuned differently. This means that the sound will change.
When it comes to the digital signal, it is always the same since it is a processed signal. The digital pedal will faithfully reproduce it according to the formula it always uses.
Pros and cons
Both analog and digital pedals come with advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a delay pedal, for example. An analog delay pedal will deliver that natural and warmer sound many guitarists prefer. The drawback is that such a pedal will have less flexibility and less control over the delay as well as BBDs limitations, which means that you will get shorter delays.
On the other hand, a digital delay pedal will provide you with greater variability as such a unit features time and speed controls, programmable presets, and analog delay emulations as we have highlighted in one of our recent articles. They are also cheaper. The downside is that the sound they produce might be too clear for some players.
Another great difference between the two kinds of pedals is the number of effects they can offer. You will find that most of the time analog devices are made for a special kind of effect. Single pedals will be the ones that you choose to get a simple effect or a specialized one. Stompboxes are plentiful in the market, and although you can find analog devices with more than one effect, they aren’t that popular.
Amongst the pros of using singular-effect analog devices is the fact that they are easy to move and switch around in the pedalboard chain. If you want to put some compression near your drive pedals, either before or after them, you can just change the order of the pedals by swapping them around physically.
With this possibility, you won’t need to think too much about how to arrange your setup, as there are simple ways to do it. Furthermore, simple stompboxes don’t have screens that require you a lot of time to navigate and select a certain effect. They are simple, they come with a bunch of knobs, and when you adjust those knobs your ears will certainly pick up the difference.
The bad thing about small analog stompboxes is that they each need to be powered individually. That is why you will need a power brick to give power to all of them at once and that may become costly if you’re using many small pedals.
Furthermore, you can’t do much experimentation with a single analog device. If you want to get more effects you will have to go and buy some more pedals, and again, this will become costly in the long run. You will also notice the fact that with many pedals, your pedalboard will become clustered and heavy.
You thus have a choice to make – either you have a few pedals that do a decent job but don’t offer you too much versatility, or you have a pedalboard crowded with stuff that is both expensive and heavy.
Digital pedals offer more effects
Now that we discussed analog pedals and their pros and cons when it comes to stompboxes, let’s see what digital pedals have to offer in terms of effects. The good thing about digital devices is that they have come a long way since they first appeared on the market and it seems that they are getting better and better.
There are huge units that are made to replace entire pedalboards and they can offer you a large number of effects without sacrificing tone and quality. As you might have understood by now, digital devices, thanks to the way they are made, can offer you a multitude of effects, in a small format.
As a result, you get multi-effect pedals that are able to process digital algorithms in an instant and that increases their response rate. They don’t have to wait for signals to pass through resistors or other things like that, as they do it all digitally. Digital pedals use something called DSP chips, and these chips are being improved upon year by year, so it’s very possible that in the near future you won’t be needing analog pedals unless you’re looking for the vintage look and feel.
Like we already suggested, one of the pros of digital devices is that they can offer you a huge selection of effects and combinations at the press of a button. You get lots of things to experiment with. When playing with delay, for example, you have more than just a “tape delay” or a basic “digital delay”.
Furthermore, multi-effect pedals will let you experiment with sounds that you wouldn’t normally dare to do. With stompboxes, if you want a sound you need to go out and look for a pedal that can produce it. But with digital multi-effect pedals, you can usually create the sound on your own if you’re using a quality pedal. No need to go out and buy additional pedals.
If you really want to get a separate pedal, you always have the possibility to try new effects and combinations on a multi-effect pedal. Another great thing about multi-effect pedals is the fact that they don’t require so much power to work, and you can power them from a single unit, instead of connecting them to more outputs of a power brick.
But are more effects better?
Multi-effect pedals will let you go wild, they will be versatile enough to suit any style, and for some guitarists that play a lot of different styles, they will also be more cost-effective. The downside is that these pedals often come with small digital screens that are often hard to follow. They require you more attention than just pressing a button or two.
Another thing to know is that their presets are often not great. If you’re a beginner you will struggle with a multi-effect pedal, because the original sounds aren’t great, and the many modifications that you have to do can be overwhelming.
There can be too many options for some people and that will end up being confusing and frustrating. Having so many options makes it harder for some to choose the ideal tone, and it can also mean that some guitarists create tones and effects that really don’t work well and sound awful.
One thing that is being said about multi-effect pedals and digital pedals, in general, is the fact that they are the jack of all trades, master of none. Some players think that although you can get many effects out of a digital pedal, they don’t sound as good as the ones coming from pure analog devices. It’s true that analog pedals give a more natural and raw feel, but at the end of it all, it’s a matter of debate.
Let’s not forget that a digital device doesn’t reproduce the original sound at a perfectly-sampled rate. Instead, it gives a rough approximation of how that sound “should be”, and depending on how good the digital pedal is, this approximation can sound well enough or off.
Choosing between an analog and a digital pedal is, after all, a matter of personal preference. Many players, though, prefer analog pedals because they will never have the imperfections digitally created signal might have. A digital pedal comes with pre-programmed effects and some voltage-related constraints. This means you will get the same effect over and over again.Some players actually prefer that, so they go digital. Others like the way an analog fuzz pedal reproduces the subtle nuances of one’s performance. Such subtleties are reproduced thanks to the circuit elements that are analog. If your budget allows you, you can get both a digital and an analog pedal for your board and alternate them so you can enjoy the benefits provided by both types.