Tone Tip: Pre vs Post Gain Boost Pedals

Let’s talk Clean Boost pedals. It’s a relatively simple circuit, usually one knob, and it’s main goal is to take whatever signal is being fed to it and, well, boost it. You can find boost pedals that have have EQ controls for further tone sculpting, or boost pedals that only boost the treble. For purposes of this blog, I’m going to talk about a simple clean boost without any further tone coloration.

There are really two options for placing a clean boost in your signal chain: either before the gain stage or after the gain stage. If you are using your amp’s built in distortion, then a post boost would be in the effects loop. If you are using a distortion pedal into a clean amp, then the clean boost can be after the distortion pedal and into the front of the amp. If you have other effects in the signal chain, then experimentation may be needed to find out how well it plays with your chorus, wah, ring modulator, miku, etc.,

When to use a Pre Gain Boost

A Pre Gain Boost is best for when you have a mild distortion, say a rhythm tone, and you want to increase the amount of distortion without changing the general characteristics of the tone. The act of distorting a guitar tone is inherently very compressive, and the more gain you have generally the less dynamic it will be. Adding a Pre Gain Boost generally won’t add much to volume, especially if you already have an amp pretty cranked. This can also be helpful to push a relatively low gain amp into higher distortion.

In real life usage, I use a Pre Gain Boost to turn my one distortion pedal/clean amp rig into the equivalent of a 3 channel amp. I’ve tried having 2 separate distortion pedals for having both low and high-gain distortion (my cover band plays a wide variety of music). I ran into trouble because unless I had two identical distortion pedals, they would sit in the mix differently. Since we don’t have a sound guy and just “set-and-forget,” I need all of my tones to sit consistently in the mix. It never failed that one of my distortions wouldn’t poke through the mix like the other. Without a sound guy standing guard to make adjustments on the fly, I need to have as consistent of a tone as possible. Having a Pre Gain Boost into one distortion pedal allows me to have essentially the same tone, but with two different levels of distortion. The low-gain distortion pedal on its own will cover most classic rock while the higher-gain boosted distortion pedal will handle the modern stuff without having to adjust the front-of-house mixer. A clean boost can also be found cheaper than a 2nd distortion pedal.

When To Use A Post Gain Boost

A Post Gain Boost, on the other hand, can be used to simply increase the decibels of the overall sound. This, of course, is dependent on the amount of headroom available in the amp. A 5 watt tube amp at full volume will not have the headroom of a Fender Twin with the volume on 2. Headroom, simply put, is how loud an amp will go before the power amp will start distorting/compressing. A Post Gain Boost will interact completely different with each rig. The coveted power tube distortion is a very pleasing tone. When an amp is out of headroom, the Post Gain Boost will just push the power amp into more distortion.

A Post Gain Boost into a high-headroom amp is a different beast. A Fender Twin or a high-power solid state amp (think vintage Peavey) will push enough volume to shake open a portal to hell before the power amp will start distorting. It’s in this type of setup that a Post Gain Boost will be most effective. Again, without a sound guy for my band, it’s up to my feet to be able to boost a searing guitar solo then lurk back to the shadows from whence I came when the vocals kick back in. Placing a clean boost post-distortion will take the tone I already have and just make the whole thing louder. It doesn’t change the characteristic of the tone. This is the setup I use for most gigs with either my ZT Lunchbox or Peavey Bandit.

There is a happy middle ground between adding a Post Gain Boost to moderately volumed amp and obtain juicy power tube goodness. For gigs in medium sized rooms, I’ll turn the master volume on a 15-20 watt tube amp up to the point where it just starts to distort, then back it down slightly. At this point, a clean boost will both increase the volume slightly and add some power tube distortion to a solo. For tiny rooms with well-mannered drummers (as elusive as a Sasquatch riding a unicorn, I know), a 5 watt tube amp will do the same.

Closing Thoughts

A clean boost pedal is a relatively inexpensive and versatile tool to have in a gigging guitarist’s toneage arsenal of eardrum assault. I always have a boost pedal on my board to take my solos to the next level, both on an aural and spiritual level. Whether you use it wallop your preamp in the face or light a fire under your power amp’a tuchus, you’ll be amazed what a little box with one knob and one button can do.

Here is a quick video demonstrating the difference between a Pre and Post Gain Boost. Just for expediency of recording, and, quite frankly, because I made the video whilst my wife and daughter were asleep, I used the Line 6 HD POD. It’s a Marshall Plexi Model set up pretty cranked. The boost is the Graphic EQ effect, but with all of the EQ set flat and the gain increased. Played with my Esquire partscaster and recorded directly to my iPhone camera using a Roland Go:Mixer. With the digital realm aspect, the Post Gain Boost is of the clean headroom variety. I’ll fire up a loud amp one day when I’m home alone to demonstrate the aforementioned happy middle ground.



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