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Design lessons from guitar pedals

Design lessons from guitar pedals


·July 1, 2022


> This makes sense, right? Guitar pedals are, after all, a technology that you are supposed to step on. And not in some gentle, delicate manner!

I remember getting a guitar pedal for Christmas when I was like 16 or so. My dad did not believe me that you were supposed to step on them, and was angry at me for mistreating his gift, lol. I showed him footage of real bands doing that and he told me "Yeah and Hendrix used to light his guitar on fire on stage, but you're not doing that either." He thought it was a stage trick.

A well made pedal does feel great though. I still have a Boss pedal from 1988 that works with no repairs. Wish all of them were that durable, the DL4 is notable for having connections come apart internally after about a year. Easy fix, but sucks if it happens on stage.

Point #3 is a big deal, especially being easily readable on stage in no light or lights in your face. I have the Lillian Phaser pictured in #5 and had to put tape over the blue LEDs because they are so bright they blind you when you look down. This isn't an issue specific to the Lillian either. From what I understand, blue LEDs are much brighter than the rest, and most designers don't take any steps to dim them.


Uh, I'm not anything with regards to music (and sometimes, I guess, I'm a cranky dad) but isn't it kind of obvious that you're not going to be using your hands to manipulate something, if you're playing guitar at the same time? Also, the product is called a _pedal_, isn't that kind of a clue-stick?

Not to talk down you dad, obviously, but it seems like such a strange thing to not "get". :( I guess I'm sorry for your sake, that you didn't get to enjoy the gift fully.


it is an interesting phenomenon that people can have such strong opinions about things they have no interest in actually learning about.

reminds me of when I was planning my first gaming PC build as a teenager. my dad kept going on about how "it's great that you're planning something that can run all these games, but have you made sure it will be able to run ms word for school?" I tried to explain many times that 3D games require (by a large margin) a superset of the resources needed to run word, but all he heard was that I didn't care much about school.


I mean at least your example is something that isn't plainly obvious from the widely-known definitions of words. The pedal example is literally someone being upset about using a pedal as a pedal.


Not judging the original commenters Dad, but I had parents like this, and quite honestly there is only one word to describe it and it's ignorance, close-mindedness, or whatever you want to call it. My therapist is quite happy that such a things existed, in my case. LOL.


They're even called foot pedals, so the hint is in there twice.


    if you're playing guitar at the same time?
Pretty common for folks on stage to reach down and futz with them manually between the songs, or even during the songs. That happens all the time. How else are you going to adjust the knobs on the dials?

You know that songs aren't 100% uninterrupted consecutive guitar notes right? lol

So, parent poster's dad's mistake is a little more understandable than you're giving him credit for.

In fact, if you're not watching the guitarists closely, you might not even notice them stomping on the pedals. You might only notice them bending over to fiddle with the pedals manually.


It's not common to adjust dials, especially during songs. Between songs is less rare but still uncommon. A significant number of bands do have a rhythm guitar that's going almost non-stop.

I take a picture of every pedal board I see at every concert I go to, so I'm actively looking for this stuff. Some people even tape the dials so they aren't bumped during shows.


I wonder how his dad thinks a wah wah pedal is supposed to be used? :-)


On the box it usually doesn't call it a pedal, just something like Boss DS-1 distortion.

Don't worry I stomped on it while jamming with a band. But at home it was on the desk :p


It probably doesn't matter now, but all LED's have a resistor connected to them so they don't just burn out. You can desolder it and put a different one in. Since it isn't a critical piece, you can touch contact a few different ones until you get the level of dimness you want.


I wonder why there just isn't a variable resistor on the side or something for that purpose like all of the other knobs on the things? Or an off/on knob that doubles as a brightness control. Could even be tactile with 5 positions or something.


I'd consider that to be over-engineering. It would make sense for someone who sometimes wants it bright, sometimes doesn't. But that's pretty rare. You either see that it is engaged, or not. Laser brightness is easy to tame by using a stronger resistor. It doesn't even cost more to do that.




This seems more like a jogged memory than anything relevant to link.


One can say that stomp boxes follow UNIX philosophy. They do one thing and can be connected ("piped") to make complex sounds. For example, if you want distortion, with some modulation (say, some phaser) and a little bit of a delay, you could build a pedalboard ("pipeline") with those three units plugged one into another:

  guitar | distortion | phaser | delay | amp
BTW. in real life, as - by some weird convention - most of pedals have input in right side and output on the left, it looks like that:

  amp                                        guitar
   ^            .-- phaser <--.                 |
   |            |             |                 |
   `-- delay <--,             `-- distortion <--'


Re the weird convention: When you're a right handed guitarist and you're facing towards your pedals, the lead comes out of your guitar going to the right.

That's irrelevant if your pedals are in an FX loop, but if they're actually between the guitar and the amp, it makes perfect sense to avoid having your guitar lead trail across or catch under your stompboxes.


That's exactly right.

Not a weird convention at all.


But is the UNIX philosophy true bypass?


I think “true bypass” is systemd. It sounds like it’s better, but isn’t always. And the kids love it in their “boutique” distros. :)


This is a neat way to look at it.

Having said that, an effects loop is essentially the unix tee commmand in action, if you could manually enable/disable the tee command without breaking the pipe.


> One can say that stomp boxes follow UNIX philosophy.

I suppose it's the other way around as nix is much newer technology. :)


> Physical UIs can be more intuitive and usable than screens

A thousand times this.

Not related to guitars, but I do a lot of off-roading and the multimedia system is only controlled by the big screen. In bumpy roads it's a trial and error operation to skip a song. Give me my previous/next physical buttons back.


It just seems so insane to me that cars are even allowed to have touch screens. The last thing I want to do is to be forced to take my eyes away from the road in order to push a button on my dashboard. I'll never buy a vehicle with a touch screen.


Plus its like the worst touchscreen tech imaginable. Cars if they are going to have a touchscreen, should have that 15 year old blackberry storm touch screen tech with faux button haptics.


This is exactly why I bought a Mazda after loving my previous Subaru to death. Between when I bought my Forester and when I went to replace it, Subaru had gone all in on touch screen interfaces. Meanwhile, Mazda had declared they would never, citing studies they increase road hazard more than drinking alcohol.


> Give me my previous/next physical buttons back.

That's not a guarantee of anything.

For example, the BOSS Katana line of digital amplifiers has physical knobs. Of course, the knobs are digital rotary encoders. But do they have a display like most? No. So you have no idea of what you dialed in at a glance. It's easier to connect your phone through the USB port to the amplifier and manipulate everything through the app. It's appalling.


My old portable CD player had perfected this skipping thing. Didn't even need user input.


>> Physical UIs can be more intuitive and usable than screens

> A thousand times this.

A million times this, also for safety concerns.

The folks at Space-X are not idiots, and they put shiny touch screens in the Crew Dragon spacecraft also for the press to "ooooh! Look at that, ...just like our cellphones!", but all important controls are also behind real physical buttons and joysticks. A touch screen looks amazing and so futuristic, until the moment something hits it in the wrong spot and they lose all instrumentation and controls in one shot. For important stuff I'll always take traditional rugged controls over touch screens.


Yet their colleagues at Tesla did the opposite and put everything on the tablet


> A touch screen looks amazing and so futuristic

Not true. If you examine sci-fi movies from the 1960s onwards, you'll learn that the most futuristic-looking interfaces have the most buttons and physical affordances. Touchscreens were never regarded as futuristic, and thus rarely depicted in sci-fi.


That could be because filmmakers didn't know about their existence. SciFi predicts a lot but also borrows from current knowledge; for example, we've seen black holes depicted in different ways according to the knowledge of the time of the writing/filming. Also, for many years before touch screens became reality the only known direct interaction with a screen was like a light pen, whose operation was slow and clumsy (can't "push" more than a "button" at the same time, wires, etc) which could have discouraged the idea suggesting to wait until the idea of operating screens directly using hands was conceived and became popular; probably in ST TNG LCARS interface.


I remember seeing touch screens in sci-fi when the touchscreen is a large table or when the touchscreen is being projected into air.


It starts with guitar pedals, but once you get into eurorack synth modules, the UX is completely fascinating. Counter to the article's emphasis on obvious a clear functions, some of them are as mystifying as your first encounter with a unix command line, but once you get them going, holy crap. The depth of information you get from a synth is (literaly) infinite compared to what you get from text or images on a screen.


If you have never seen a modular synth in action I urge you to check out lookmumnocomputer on youtube.

Very hn, he makes lots himself, he resurrects old machines to the extent that he has a museum to keep it all in!


Modular synths are very similar to analog computers. You can even patch an analog computer into the modular synth


what depth of information are you talking about? the synth outputs sound. It might have a small screen. there may be knobs with number scales. but overall you aren't taking a ton of information out of a synth.


I don’t know what exactly the OP means by depth of information, but modular synthesis is a lot richer than what you describe.

You may be pulling in signals from bananas (literally), driving them through a dozen modules with three times as many patch cables and using them to drive a video signal and a few stepper motors alongside your audio out.

And you’re doing it with a lot of bespoke little modules made in small batches, sometimes with faults, and almost always capable of things that were neither envisioned or documented by their original designer.

It’s a whole different world than guitar pedals or even a single big commercial synth (which is what your description sounds like).


I know what modular synths are, I just don't consider them to be good design, or to offer 'depth' of information when you have to trace wires from module to module to figure out what things are doing. The mod matrix on a microfreak or polybrute are great design that summarize many ideas in a small space. Modular is the opposite of good design - its a totally custom system that you have to have built to understand what the heck is going on.


So, I have a very nice synth made by AMS, the Hydrasynth.

It's not a modular synth, but quite the opposite... it's a digital synth which is more like a computer than, say, a minimoog.

It has a great UI and much of what it does it shows you very well.

Still, it has a massive modulation matrix, in which the 5 LFOs and the 5 Envelopes can be sent about anywhere, often controlling the 3 oscillators or the 2 filters.

And in order to actually see the 10 or so setting for each of those 10 modulators going to the myriad of places that they could go (and noting that you can route the oscilators themselves to various points) you have to have both some willingness to dive around the small menus or some knowledge of how the patch was created.

That's nicely facilitated by the UI which has a lot of nice buttons for quickly selecting element, but still.

By contrast, you can look at your modular synth and see the physical connections which reveal the routing of the patch. While there are all kinds of things that can hide the complexity such as normalized connections within devices or devices that have their own micro-controllers doing who knows what, the network of wires is, itself, quite a lot of information.


and yet from a design perspective the hydrasynth is a much better ui, not requiring you to trace tens of wires from module to module to figure out what the heck is going on from non standardized module to non standardized module.

a modular synth is like a totally custom rig that nobody but you can understand, because you built it. It's bad ui from step 1.


the synth outputs sound. Synths are complex beasts. Modular synth are a both "sound" and control voltages. The control voltage turn on or off a filter or oscillator etc. But you can also reverse the order so you "listen" to the control voltage that is controlled by the "sound". It basically an analog computer


The kind of synth's GP is talking about generally have no screen, dozens to hundreds of knobs and sliders, and dozens to hundreds of audio inputs and outputs for routing the signal.


I know what modular synths are. I think they're absolute disasters in terms of interface. A modular synth is not what I would call a good interface to learn design from.


If you like synthesizers, I’d strongly suggest checking out one of the synths op talked about. They’re an immense amount of fun and are closer to an IDE than say, a Juno-106.


Don't forget the most common pedal-controlled electric (and now electronic) appliance, the sewing machine! In that case, the speed control pedal was a natural development from earlier machines powered by treadles and bicycle-like pedals. There's a parallel in flexible-shaft rotary tools (basically high-end Dremels), which also require simultaneous continuous speed control while both hands are occupied with the work being done. The lack of this requirement is probably why the other machines that were pedal-powered prior to electrification--grinders, saws, (dental) drills, and lathes--did not retain pedal controls.

Other "edge-case" pedals:

- various vehicles

- foot-operated computer mice, for accessibility (

- elsewhere in music: piano, timpani, kick drum, and harp; organs (and rare pianos) with pedal keyboards (in etymological contrast to manual keyboards)


Also, motor-driven pottery wheel, and old school transcription machines, where the pedal controls the rate and direction of audio playback


Bach didn't like the piano when it was first introduced. He was used to organs and harpsichord, where keys are kind of on or off. A piano is velocity sensitive and play style is quite different. He went on to work with piano developers to make the piano a better instrument.


I really don't like articles like these. The author takes a cute analogy and turns it into guiding principals.

> Physical UIs can be more intuitive and usable than screens

Physical UIs also don't need to help the user navigate digital content. Hugely different to physical content.

> When tech is rugged, it’s a joy to use

It is? I would say that when tech accomplishes its job of connecting the user with the purpose of the tool (in an easy way) - then it's a joy to use. Ruggedness can be a boon here, sure.

Personally, as a musician, I've never been on stage and given preference to knobs & dials - I've given it to the sound and what I want the audience to experience with my playing or a song - not the joy of me stomping something.

Bit of a rant, sorry about that. But these sorts of "full of content, but no message" articles bug me.


Honestly, modern UX is frequently so stupid that, apparently, articles this simple are necessary.

Lookin' at you, Tesla touchscreen.


The Tesla touchscreen + 2 steering wheel jog dialy encoder things is the best car interface I've used, having owned ~35 different cars of various makes and classes over the years. Model years ranging from 1962 to 2021.

My advice to make peace with the Tesla screen: Embrace the car for what it is.

Fewer moving parts not just in the drivetrain, but as a philosophy.

Why clutter up physical and mental space with a control you'll use once a year?

Embrace "automatic" for things like climate and wipers.

Embrace picking something to listen to when you set off, and leaving it there.

Embrace the (at least if you have a 3 or Y) highly tactile steering wheel buttons.

You can fiddle with the volume and track selection from the steering wheel, and on the right side the voice works just fine for things like changing the temperature, or making a phone call. On many trips you may never touch that screen while the car is in motion.


"Make peace."

No. No no no no no, a million times no.

We do not "make peace" with the objects we buy, because what that means is "surrender autonomy to the company."

We do whatever the hell we want with the objects we buy, limited by law, true safety, and decency, not by what serves the company.

Stop encouraging being a sheep.


Has the word 'embrace' become a euphemism for surrendering control?


"Physical UIs also don't need to help the user navigate digital content. Hugely different to physical content."

Consider the Beat Buddy pedal (automated drum accompaniment pedal) which can play lots of digital content via user commands. Yes the foot commands are limited ("add a fill", "splash sound", "next phrase", "end song"), and so are the dials ("choose playlist", "change tempo"). However, the proper stomping really helps if you want to add an extra solo or just chill with a beat while you tell a story.


"When we spoke, he told me how deeply he admires the interface design of musical equipment like guitar pedals."

Keyboardist here, so I cannot say much about guitar pedals, but I very much agree in general. Of course there is a ton of bad UI design also, but I think well designed musical instruments beat the best designs in other areas.

For example: I have a modern digital stage piano. It's a computer with several gigs of RAM an yet the whole manual is like eight pages. This is the complete manual, not some quick start guide.

While it's no DAW it's not simple either, you can do a lot with it and still my child uses it without ever looking in the manual.


One UX issue that I've seen on most stage pianos is that while there are direct physical controls for most of the commonly used functionality due to lack of display and some menu system configuring “uncommon” things (like MIDI) leads to totally undiscoverable configuration modes, multi button chords and what not that you have to read the manual to find out.


This is so true, especially for master keyboards. Mine is a stage piano and it kind of side-steps this issue by having only a very simple MIDI setup. For a piano that is not meant to be the control center of everything else this is ok.

If anyone knows a good master keyboard that has solved this issue satisfactorily, I'm all ears.


I used to think classical musical instruments were the epitome of design because they evolved to their function over hundreds of years.

But then I started trying to learn to play one and began reading about the problems with physical injury that professional musicians persistently face. I realized musical instruments were full of design compromises like everything else.


cries in the strained neck of a violinist


A perfect instrument is physically impossible imo. There is always going to be a compromise because you are playing with fingers and their limited range of motion versus pure thoughts.


As a gigging musician I've found that pedals aren't without their own UI/UX problems. Nearly every pedal has a gain control ... but they can interact in non-linear ways. Tiny changes make a bigger difference when the overall-gain is low, compared a chain with more amplification. When you're plugging into a venue desk (and not going through an on-stage Amp) ... it can be a nightmare trying to figure out what combination of gain settings and pads would work. Worse is that important parts of that are often hidden; pads are usually toggles just hidden on the side. And there's no feedback UX ... I'd love a simple VU meter on a DI or EQ-stage pedal for example (Studio V3 tube amp pedals have this, but it's not common). I have hundreds of photos on my phone of my pedal board memorializing the settings for a particular song, piece, or venue .... because good luck saving state across multiple pedals. Strymon have their own standard for this, but there's not much inter-operable, or you can spend on a multi-thousand dollar multi-effects pedal. Anyway, I could rant for hours about pedal UX.

But yes, way better than my Tesla.


Love when we go back to physical items to get lessons for GUIs.

"The design of everyday things" it's an amazing book to start in this area, specially if you work with something that mix hardware and software like IoT.


Other ux points he didn’t include:

One knob per option, not deep menu diving.

One pedal per function, not one pedal to rule them all.


That's only partly true. There are a lot of foot pedals that emulate the whole chain, and some of them even do speaker emulation. They tend to be at a minimum double-width and often have a wah that also can act as a volume rocker.

But for the standard pedals, you are totally right.


Whole chain emulation + cab impulses are a thing, with digital modellers like Line 6's Helix or Fractal's FM9. I do get the impression you were referring to "analog" pedals, though even those are often more digital than not.


I am by no means a musician. This friend brought me his guitar pedal because he could not fix it (got stuck somehow and he had not read the manual properly, that’s it).

After “fixing” it, he showed me how he used it (I had never seen one in use).

Those are true marvels of UI/UX. It was possibly one of the simplest pedals, but the things you can do with it and just “one” button. Unbelievable.


If you get a chance, drive a car from the 90s, especially a fully mechanical one (mechanical transmission, windows). Once you get adjusted, you'll find that you're almost totally relaxed while driving. There are few controls, and the ones that are there are immediately responsive & tactile.


Modern cars are so numb. Engineers have worked hard to remove all sense of tactile inputs and feedback. My 2000 manual acura I could drive blind. I could feel intimate details of the road surface through the wheel, and exactly what rpm I was at through the pedals and the shifter especially (to a lesser extent the wheel and seat as well because the entire car would vibrate). Put snow tires on and go out in a blizzard and you are in complete control of all things. You feel the minute traction slips, you feel how it feels when it comes back, you feel what its like to hold traction and maintain control versus letting it go. You become a much better driver.

Unfortunately due to some circumstances I am saddled with a 2018 era econobox that feels like its made by fisher price, but should my finances change the first thing I'm doing is buying something old enough to order its own drinks. Peak car was 25 years ago. We had our 35mpg by then and side curtain airbags. We are on the decline. Buy these assets now while they are still under 25 grand or be forever lusting in the decades from now when no sensible car is made anymore and all the decent used stock is going to collector auctions instead of used car lots.