sound of pedal steel guitar
… is unique.
As with all amplified instruments, the sound of a pedal steel guitar can be altered and formed whichever way the player wants, and
made to emulate other instruments quite well in addition to making all sorts of more or less musical noises.
The basic, mainly unaltered, sound of the PSG, covers a wide enough range to play on for those of us who do not want to rely too much on “external effects” to make up our unique and individualistic sonic palettes.
Most PSG players insert light reverb and/or echo/delay in their sound chains, but for most of us “light” is the keyword for such effects. Other than those “standard” effects, most of us reserve the more noticeable effects for use in certain tunes and situations, and rely on what we can get out of the instrument itself, fed through a volume pedal for controlling signal levels and sustain, to an amplifier with settings for a more or less clean sound.
optimized personal setup…
The basic sound chain in my setup consists of the PSG PickUp, a buffer-amp, a Volume Pedal, a Power Amp, and Speaker(s). A pretty “skinny”, or minimal, setup, that I only add something to if/when I need particular sound-effects.
I like what tubes do when fed excessive attack peaks – “smear them out with mainly even harmonics” for lack of a better description, making the output of those peaks sound much stronger to our ears than it actually is, without sounding “hard-clipped”. I do however not particularly like anything else about tube amps – quit using any decades ago, so my entire rig is solid state, with as few stages as technically possible.
There are many dedicated buffer-amps on the market, but as any stomp-box size effect unit will act as an impedance
converter, I chose one that pretty much covered all my regular sonic needs, and skipped on the dedicated buffers (Goodrich Matchbox 7A, Goodrich Steeldriver III, Sarno Freeloader) I have in store since none of
them improves the sound in any way – just add forms of distortion I rather be without.
The BOSS LMB-3 I use is of course much more than a buffer*, and with moderate settings it is perfect for my playing style. I adjust it to (in part) emulate the peak handling of tubes, control tone and dynamic range handling to taste*, and otherwise perform the impedance conversion that is a buffer's primary role – 1Mohm in/1Kohm out. Quite a bit lighter (higher impedance) load on the PickUp than what is “the norm” for PSG setups, which in part explains the very clear, slightly trebly and undistorted pick-attack sound I get out of my otherwise somewhat dark sounding Dekleys.
The buffer (almost any type/brand of solid-state buffer or effect unit*) eliminates the need for
a Volume Pedal dedicated for use with the (relative) high impedance PSG PickUps. Thus, any
active or passive VP made for electric/electronic instruments will in principle work just fine without affecting
I have several Volum Pedals – including a couple made specifically for PSG, but my main choice is a BOSS FV-50L dual 50Kohm Log pot pedal* with “minimum setting” … using only one of its two channels for PSG, of course
My Power Amp of choice is the Peavey
Nashville 112, older versions, with original speaker, and with or without electronic upgrades or “modifications”* – all pretty standard.
How I connect it up and use it in my setups, is not quite “standard” though.
I plug my gear into the “POST EQ PATCH RETURN” jack, bypassing the “INPUT” and “EQ” sections. Effectively turning the NV112 into a simple “powered speaker”*, with only the master volume and built-in reverb circuit still in line. All other circuits, jacks and knobs on my NV112s, are “off line”.
what I get…
All audio electronics distorts the signal and adds noise, to some degree. The reduced number of active stages in my regular setup,
assures minimal unwanted distortion and induced noise. What I am left with is the intended distortion –
mainly produced by the BOSS LMB-3 as it reacts to my playing, and an almost inaudible level of distortion
and noise from the electronics in the amplifier itself even at max amplification.*
May not mean much to most players and listeners, but I like to have optimal control over all alterations the signal undergoes, from the PickUp all the way to my ears. Not often I can buy that degree of control on the market without having to modify anything, but in this case that is exactly what happened … some times luck hits home.
There are “fixed filters” in the NV112 amplifier, same as in all instrument amplifiers. These filters are
there for many reasons – filtering out DC for instance, but they do affect the actual signal audibly.
By bypassing the “PRE/EQ” sections I also bypass several such filters, and do among other things pass more of the really low frequencies produced by my extended tunings through to the speaker at higher levels.
Herein lies a danger, as it is easier to overload and blow the speaker and/or the power stage when more lows get passed through to them and demand higher overall energy outputs. I like how my PSGs sound with more of their low fundamentals and subharmonics made audible through a 12in speaker though, so I accept the slightly higher risk for failure.
The following chart shows frequency ranges through the entire sound chain as described above, with changes when “PRE/EQ” sections are bypassed – follow the yellow dots for typical end-result with my setup… As the LMB-3 is far from linear, it does a lot more than affect dynamics and “convert” impedances. It is in fact quite “musical” and “playable” with its fixed and relative slow attack and decay timings – tailored for bass guitar enhancement I presume, which is why it ended up as a permanent element in my sound chains for Pedal Steel Guitar. Many effects tailored for bass guitar work perfectly for PSG, and I always like to try those out whenever effects tailored for regular el-guitar fail to impress.
Perfect linearity and absense of distortion – “HiFi” if you want to put a name on it, is for
reproduction of recorded sound/music. (Perfection hasn't been achieved yet, but that is another matter.)
The setup I am describing here on the other hand, is for sound production – the making of music – where non-linear, more or less distorted and shaped sound waves, are what we want as part of our individualistic expressions. “Distortion” is, in its strictest definition, all alterations applied to a signal on its way from input to output in a sound chain, except pure amplification.
With optimal control of the sound shaping variables, not only in/for the instrument itself but throughout the entire sound chain, we can combine and shape tonal sounds and noises in ever-increasing and intelligent ways, as far as our minds demand and our playing skills allow for.
sound of music…
Personally I want the sound of the Pedal Steel Guitar to be recognizable as such, regardless of what sonic range and type of music the instrument is used in/for. If I want to hear another instrument, it better be the real thing rather than an emulation if they want to keep my attention for long.
However, as I have no permanently fixed musical preferences, I usually listen first and judge later. Good music is good music no matter what it is called and instruments it is played on. No need to spell out what bad music is, and no need for me to listen to it for long either.
Personal taste is otherwise such a wide and diverse field, that it makes little sense to categorize it in much detail when it comes to music. There should be something to listen to for every single person who has any interest in music, and those who still are unable to find what they want, are free to produce whatever it is for themselves. Lucky us…
last rev: 17.jul.2021