Ultimate Guide to
ABY & Switchers

In this guide, we're going to take a look at two of the most underrated yet powerful pieces of gear a guitarist can buy. They may not be as discussed as some of their counterparts in the pedal world, but ABY boxes and pedal switchers are used by countless professional, touring musicians all over the world.

Essentially "rig solutions", these units go hand-in-hand for providing musicians with methods to simplify, manipulate and unlock the full potential of their setups. They could just be the secret weapons that take your tone to the next level!

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Written by

Elliot Stent

What Are They?

If you own a couple of amplifiers and want to use both of them live, then an ABY unit is just what you need to switch between them. A switcher on the other hand lets you manage a mammoth pedalboard a lot easier. Say goodbye to tedious tap-dancing around your pedals, as a switcher may be the ultimate resolution to your problems!

So in this buyers guide, we shall explain exactly what ABY units and switchers do. We'll provide advice on how to set them up, and also give tips on how to use them effectively. Not only that, but we'll identify and compare some of the best examples available, with different price-points in mind to accommodate everyone!

ABY Pedals

What does an ABY pedal do?

ABY pedals have a very simple function, so if you have no idea about how they work or what they do, don't feel overwhelmed!

An ABY pedal basically takes the lone signal from your instrument and splits it into two. Those two independent signals can then be sent to multiple amplifiers or sound sources, so you can switch between them for more tonal options. For example, if you adore the clean sound of one of your amps, like that offered by a Fender amp, but prefer the distortion from a different amp such as a Marshall, this is where an ABY pedal becomes super handy.

Where does it get its name from?

ABY isn't actually an abbreviation for anything, it's more of a visual clue. "A" and "B" represent the two amplifiers (or signals) that you intend to switch between or combine, simple. Whereas "Y" is indicative of the incoming signal entering the ABY pedal, with it then being split. Those signals then go into each of your amplifier inputs, with your sound projecting through their speakers.

Why do I need an ABY pedal?

As we have mentioned, an ABY lets you switch between amps for a wider range of tones. It therefore adds an element of versatility, as it gives you the choice between your favourite amplifiers. That may be enough to justify purchasing one, but some ABY boxes can offer far more tonal possibilities.

For example, some ABY switchers on the market also let you use two amps simultaneously and in conjunction with one another. Using multiple amps together can create a far richer tone, with more harmonic content and generally a bigger, more-engulfing sound. There are many high-profile names that use multiple amps for this purpose, such as John Mayer and Adam Jones (Tool).

Looking at the latter in particular, Adam Jones has maintained the same amp combination in his band for almost 20 years. His Diezel VH4 delivers all of the powerful high-gain he requires for his notoriously heavy riff-work. However, his old 1976 Marshall Super Bass provides plenty of vintage mid-range to give his sound more focus and punch. For him, it is clearly a winning combination!

What about stereo?

Another reason why some players use two amps is so that they can form a stereo rig. If you're unaware of what that means, we'll break it down.

Stereo is where you have two sound sources placed left and right. Our ears pick up sounds from all around us, and in music production you'll find that most recorded guitars are double-tracked and panned hard left and right. So to emulate that in a live situation, many players will use an ABY unit to run their amps together, with each on different sides of the stage or separated by some distance.

This just offers a larger, more three-dimensional vibe - and in most instances sounds incredible. Another big advantage of a stereo rig is to use stereo effects in conjunction with your amps. There are many modern pedals that have dual inputs/outputs marked "L" and "R", signifying left and right. You'll find these commonly on delay, reverb and modulation effects in particular. In stereo, they really enhance your overall sound!

For example, most multi-delay pedal like the Strymon Timeline or TC Electronic Flashback will have stereo integration. With multiple delay types such as "ping-pong" available, in a stereo setup the delay repeats will bounce between the speakers of each amp. This provides an amazing aural experience, and is used a lot in the studio too.

How about Phase Issues?

Running two amps together may give you an awesome sound, but doing so can result in phase cancellation. This occurs when similar frequencies from seperate sound sources are played together, which are exactly or partially opposite one another. This is also known as 180 or 90 degree phase cancellation respectively. The problem with cancellation is that it gives an unpredictable and inconsistent tone, essentially neutering your sound.

In context, think about it this way. If you're playing either a riff or a chord progression with an ABY unit splitting your signal into two, what you're playing is doubled and those frequencies will be the same in speed. However, those frequencies will be slightly different, as they are emitted through different amps with their own unique tonal characteristics. Those simultaneous frequencies may then end up fighting one another if 180 or 90 degrees out-of-phase, which you certainly don't want! Sometimes this is worse with similar amp combinations, but it may not occur with a more diverse combination.

If a power struggle materialises with the opposing frequencies cancelling each other out, you'll be left with a flat and thin sound. So to avoid this, many ABY boxes will feature a "polarity reversal" switch. What it does is obvious from the name. It will take one of the signals and reverse or invert it, so that the peaks of the second waveform will occur closely in unison with the other. That's science...

What are the main ABY units out there?

There are a number of other brands that manufacture their own ABY boxes. The majority of these are in a pedal format with footswitches, mounting easily onto your pedalboard and enabling you to switch between your amps on the fly.

Radial Engineering offer a range of high-quality ABY boxes, the majority of which feature the useful "polarity reversal" switch explained above. Many of their units are generally more specific and tailored towards tube or solid-state amplifiers. The main perk of some of their units is that they allow you to switch between your amps whilst using the same speaker cabinet, keeping them both loaded to prevent damage.

So if you don't want to run in stereo but want to switch between amps, this is a great solution. It also keeps your rig more portable and manageable!

However, if you'd prefer something a bit more substantial that keeps your tone at its optimum, Fulltone have some great ABY units. Built like tanks, these units are roadworthy boxes made to the highest standards. With premium circuitry, these are regarded for their buffered bypass. Some may prefer true bypass for trying to keep their sound as transparent as possible, but this isn't always a good thing.

If you're running many metres of cable between your instrument and amp inputs with pedals in between, you'll lose heaps of clarity and top-end. However, using buffered pedals will prevent this. This is because a buffer transforms your signal into a stronger low impedance, restoring the fidelity and presence.

How about noise?

Fulltone's ABY pedals, as well as many of Radial's, will feature a "ground lift" switch. This is because when running two amps together, they can generate electrical noise and hiss, which is like kryptonite for guitarists. The ground lift is a function that can be used to combat this problem, eradicating the noise that can arise from ground loops in cables.

Another company that are renowned for their ABY units, also offering quiet operation, are Lehle. Harkening from Germany and bringing all the engineering goodness that they are renowned for, Lehle's ABY units are being used by some of the guitar world's most prestigious names.

Made with incredible attention-to-detail, Lehle units are intuitively designed and offer brilliant transparency, retaining the pure sound of your amps. This is thanks to their signature LTHZ transformer, which is "ideally suited to electrical isolation of the high impedance signals normal for electric guitar."

Lehle on Andertons T.V.

The brands that we've just highlighted offer amazing ABY units, which are made with premium components and attention-to-detail. However, if you're looking for a simple, no-frills ABY unit then there are also some great affordable options too!

Boss and Mooer make some basic, affordable ABY pedals that provide the essential functionality to just switch between two sources. Both compact, these ABYs are easy to set up on your pedalboard, so that you can start experimenting with your dual-amp rig.

Electro Harmonix and MXR also offer their own iterations, which are inexpensive and get the job done. These double-formatted pedals have a dedicated footswitch for flicking between amps, but also another switch to engage both. Featuring true hardwire bypass, these ensure quiet, pop-free operation.

Which ABY should I choose?

From what we've explained, it's clear that there is a lot of choice and potential options available. It's great that the price-range is so broad, as if you're looking for a simple ABY on a budget then there are many contenders out there.

However, if you want a more robust and reliable ABY unit which keeps the noise down and retains the full tonal goodness of your amplifiers, then a more high-end option will suit your needs far better.

Essentially there's no right or wrong! Just determine exactly what you want before pulling the trigger on a purchase. And most importantly, do your research before you come to a decision. Many of the ABY units available to buy on our website have customer reviews, so it's worth checking those out to help choose the most ideal product for your setup too. Have fun finding the right one!

Shop ABY Switchers!

Switchers / Loopers

What does a Switcher do?

Switchers (also known as loopers) are made specifically for effects pedals. In essence, they let you manage your pedalboard more efficiently, but offer far more than that. With several inputs (or "loops") you can plug a few or indeed all of your pedals into a switcher.

The main perk of a decent switcher is that it will allow you to engage or turn off one or more of your pedals with just a single click. This means no more frantic balancing on one foot during a section change, whilst you try to turn off and on several pedals. A switcher will take care of it for you!

High-end switchers offer full programmability, letting you save multiple pedal combinations as presets. These can then be recalled and switched to other presets, allowing you to create patches for particular sections of a song, for example. And even some switchers have several preset banks, letting you tailor-make presets for a whole song or even a particular gig!

Therefore, a switcher can act as the central controller for your pedalboard. And with most featuring MIDI inputs/outputs, you can use them to control your whole rig!

Why do I need a Switcher?

From what we've explained above, a pedal switcher can be the ultimate secret weapon in your setup. A feature-packed switcher can act as the centrepiece of your entire rig, letting you easily manipulate other pieces of gear in you arsenal. In a live situation, a switcher can be your best friend. If you're not particularly fond of the sounds offered by a digital multi-effects unit, but on the other hand appreciate their ease-of-use, then a switcher is the best thing.

Diving deeper into how to programme a switcher, imagine yourself in this scenario. You're playing a song that has a clean verse, with a heavy chorus that demands the use of distortion. In the verse, you want your favourite phaser and reverb pedals on to add depth and character to your sound (example 1). However, for the chorus you want to engage a thick-sounding distortion, with some overdrive and delay (example 2).

Without a switcher, that means you'd need to quickly turn off the phaser and reverb, and then immediately turn on your distortion and delay to meet the start of the chorus section. That can be a huge pain when you just want to rock out and put on a good show. So with a switcher, all of that can be done by pressing one footswitch!

What are the tonal benefits?

Apart from letting you manage your pedals more easily, a switcher will also improve your tone and give you far more clarity. If you're playing through several pedals, all connected by multiple cables in one long chain, you're inevitably going to lose some high-end and overall fidelity. With all that build-up of capacitance, your sound will be duller and quieter with less sustain.

As a rule of thumb, a shorter cable run ensures a purer, more natural tone.  Whilst buffers can combat the loss of presence by transforming your signal into a lower impedance, switchers are also effective at keeping it strong. This is because most switchers have isolated loops, meaning that the pedals not engaged in a preset will just be bypassed entirely. Some switchers also have built-in buffers, killing two birds with one stone. So a switcher doesn't just make you setup more ergonomic, but it also can improve your tone!

What about MIDI?

If you have lots of MIDI-enabled pedals, then some switchers out there can control those too. If you're unaware what MIDI is, it's basically a signal used specifically by electronic musical equipment. Standing for "musical instrument digital interface", MIDI is the most common method used to allow musical equipment to communicate with each other.

There are a lot of high-end digital pedals that have MIDI integration for this purpose, such as those offered by Strymon and BOSS. Their multi-modulation, reverb and delay pedals let you save particular settings as presets, which can be recalled using a MIDI controller.

How does MIDI work?

A MIDI controller sends what are known as "PC" and "CC" messages across multiple MIDI channels. Ranging from between 0-127, a MIDI message will communicate to an enabled device to initiate a change. There are many switchers that can serve as MIDI controllers, and you can programme a patch on the switcher to send a message (or several) to your MIDI-enabled pedals. A switcher with MIDI can therefore let you access your pedals' presets and change them on the fly. Not only that, but with some pedals MIDI can also let you change their parameters and settings with a particular PC or CC number/message. How cool is that?

Another benefit of using a switcher with MIDI functionality is that you can take MIDI-enabled pedals out of loops. This is because most pedals with MIDI will respond to a particular PC or CC message that can turn the effect/preset on or off. So if you're using a switcher like a BOSS ES-5, that has only 5 loops, then you can keep a MIDI-enabled pedal outside of the ES-5's signal chain and save one of its loops for another pedal.

There are also certain amps that have MIDI integration too. Hughes & Kettner are the most notorious brand for this, who have pioneered the idea of a programmable valve amp. Their popular Tubemeister amps feature a MIDI In on the back panel, which can receive MIDI messages in the same way that a MIDI pedal can. This means with a switcher, you can also flip between amp channels using MIDI. The possibilities are almost endless...

What Switchers are out there?

There's a great choice of switchers available at Andertons Music Co. Ranging from simple and inexpensive, to fully kitted-out rig organisers, we're sure that if you're looking to add one to your pedalboard you'll find it here.

BOSS have developed a range of switchers that are becoming somewhat of an industry standard. Their ES8 and ES5 units are feature-packed monsters boasting MIDI integration, with 8 and 5 loops respectively. With an ergonomic screen/interface, you can effortlessly navigate through their multiple settings. Letting you create and store many presets and pedal combinations, the ES series switchers are among the best you can buy.

An advantage they have over others units is their super-intuitive signal chain re-order feature. With most switchers, you have to determine the order of your pedals and place them in the loops in that sequence. However, with the ES series switchers you can edit their order completely on the fly. This means that you don't have to worry about your pedal chain at all, avoiding that awkward mess of re-arranging cables.

Another amazing thing about this feature is that you can also place pedals in parallel. This is where two pedals essentially run side-by-side in the chain, so that a pedal running after another is not compromised by the sound of the one before it. Many players will run delay and reverb in parallel for this reason, so that delay repeats have more fidelity. This means that you can also run effects in stereo, and split them so that they are separated by the amps on different sides of the stage. Which, by the way, sounds unbelievable!

Providence's PEC-2 is a slightly less expensive alternative to BOSS' ES8. Featuring the same number of loops, the Providence has 5 loops wired in series with the other 3 loops completely separate. This means that you can easily split the pedals that you prefer running in the front of your amp with the ones sent through your amp's effects loop.

For example, you would conventionally place your overdrive, distortion, fuzz and compressor stompboxes in front of your amp for the best tonal results. Therefore, plugging them into the PEC-2's 5 series loops would be the best solution. That means the 3 separate loops can be saved for your reverb, delay and modulation effects. This makes the PEC-2 somewhat more logical to setup, whereas an ES8 or ES5 will need to be wired using the "4 cable method" in order to run effects through both sides of your amplifier.

The PEC-2 also has versatile buffered and non-buffered inputs. So if you're running a long length of cable into and out of the switcher, the high-quality buffer will restore your signal's presence. But on the other hand, some fuzz units react badly to buffers that are placed before them in the signal chain. They are very temperamental beasts, and buffers can make them sound anaemic and weak. So if you are using a fuzz pedal, it would be best to plug into the non-buffered input so that it doesn't affect your fuzz's sound. However, if you still want the perks offered by buffer, you should buy a dedicated buffer pedal. That way, you can place your fuzz in loop 1 with the buffer pedal placed directly after it in the second loop.

BOSS have recently released the MS3, which is a switcher/multi-effects hybrid. Featuring 3 loops, the MS3 has 112 built-in modulation, reverb, delay and other effects that can be used alongside pedals that you have connected in the loops.

The best way to set the MS3 up is to place your favourite overdrive and distortion pedals in the loops. That way, you can then use the MS3's high-quality built-in effects to colour your core tones. The MS3 is thus ideal for smaller pedalboards, if you want a more low-maintenance pedalboard that's simpler to manage. Not to mention, it's more portable too!

However, if you're looking for a less-technical solution that just allows you to switch between your pedals on the fly, then we recommend reading the next section.

Although far more basic in terms of operation, these switchers can still serve as great tools to simplify your pedalboard and make it more manageable.

Walrus Audio offer a number of simple, easy-to-manage switchers that won't break the bank. Their Transit series switchers come in various sizes, sporting between 3 to 5 loops. With no MIDI integration or programmable functions, these switchers are no-nonsense utility boxes built for guitarists wanting to just tidy up their pedalboard.

With a master input and output, and its loops wired in series, the Transit switchers are very easy to setup. If the multiple functions of the BOSS and Providence switchers intimidate you, then these are a great shout. Their small footprint also means you can save essential real estate on your pedalboard!

Summary

Similarly to the ABY units we covered, there are some great switcher options out there. They may seem quite overwhelming in terms of they do, however after doing some research you will soon realise how powerful they can be. We certainly hope this guide has helped you understand them better!

Make sure that before purchasing a switcher, you have everything you need to set it up. Most switchers will include a power supply, but if not, make sure that your pedal PSU can supply enough current/voltage. As the majority of switchers are digital, they will require high mA in order to work. If you don't feed it enough current, it won't work and may damage the unit. Preparation is key!

You will also need lots of patch cables too, so you can wire up all of your pedals in the switcher loops. We recommend using solderless patch cables in order to do this, as you can cut the cables to the appropriate lengths you need. This makes your pedalboard cleaner and look far more tidy.

Shop Switchers / Loopers!

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