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 the tone.
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… freq chart 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…

sincerely  georg; sign

Hageland 27.may.2021
last rev: 23.apr.2023 advice upgrade advice upgrade navigation