Enclosure art: how to make good looking DIY pedals

One of the nicest parts of making guitar pedals is having a personalized design. However, it is quite hard to make good looking guitar pedals.

Here are a few techniques to make guitar enclosures pretty! You can of course combine these techniques to get the best looking pedal possible!

I will present you a lot of techniques, from the most basic ones to the most professional looking ones.


1. Bare aluminum enclosure

It is the simplest way to do: just let the enclosure in bare aluminum.

Please don't do that.
DIY guitar pedal bare aluminum
Bare aluminum enclosure guitar pedals simply do not look good. They really look like something cheap and dirty that you have done quickly in your garage, whereas you have probably spent a lot of hours on it!

It can be nice for prototyping though, you can improve the design later on if you are satisfied with the result. (practically speaking, it is very rare to improve the design... and I like good looking prototypes so not for me!)
  Pros
  • A circuit in a box is better than a circuit without a box... 
  • Cheap
  • Quickest possible method

  Cons
  • Not really good looking
  • Do not really reflect your hard work and dedication


2. Polished / Brushed aluminum enclosure

This already look waaaaay better than the bare aluminum enclosure, and good news: it only take a few minutes to do!

Here is an example of a Big Muff I have made this way:

Polished guitar pedal

Just grab some sandpaper (I recommend to use different grit, 150 for the beginning and 400 for final polishing), and start polishing your enclosure under running water. Finally, apply a varnish layer to protect it!

Beware: I noticed that the maximum quality of the polishing that you can get highly depends on the quality of the aluminum used. For instance, a "mirror" finish can be really difficult to achieve with low grade aluminum. 
If you want to go for the "mirror finish", be prepared to spend some time on it. Use really fine grit sandpaper and a polishing spray for the last Polish.  Here is a good tutorial
  Pros
  • Good looking!
  • Easy to do
  • Cheap

  Cons
  • Can be time consuming
  • Depends on the quality of the aluminum of the enclosure


3. Spray painting

I would not recommend spray painting guitar pedals enclosures. Read my post about it for more detail.

If you still want to go this way, apply really thin layers, at least three times. Wait between each spray for the paint to be dry enough. Finally apply a layer a varnish. For your health, please do it outside and wearing a mask!
  Pros
  • Easy to do
  • Cheap

  Cons
  • Time consuming: 3 layers is a long way to go
  • Toxic: wear a mask and do it outside!
  • Wears off easily


4. Hammertone finish

This is a special kind of spray painting that will give an amazing vintage feel to your pedals. You can create really beautiful textures with this kind of paint and it also does not wear off as easily as spray paint.

Here is an amazing example done by Basic Audio:

hamertone guitar pedal

Here is a very good step by step tutorial about how to use it.
  Pros
  • Easy to do
  • Cheap
  • Looks great!

  Cons
  • Time consuming
  • Toxic: wear a mask and do it outside!


5. Powder coating 

Powder coat is the kind of paint used on cars, and the one used on most guitar pedals as well. It looks very professional and there is a wide variety of colors available.

Here is an example of a commercially powder-coated enclosure:
prepainting guitar pedals

You can either buy pre-painted enclosures, or make it yourself. Making it yourself would require some space and equipment, but it is not that hard.
  Pros
  • Really good looking
  • Nothing to do
  • Professional standard

  Cons
  • Expensive
  • No writings


6. Aluminum etching

Aluminum etching is an easy way to have a custom design without spending too much time and money. It requires a bit of practice though.

Here is a beautiful example:

Aluminium etching guitar pedal
 
You can find a nice tutorial here. It is not an easy technique to master (requires a bit of practice before managing to have a precise etch), but it can give really good results. Moreover, you get a fully custom design with anything you want on it.
  Pros
  • Can be good looking...
  • Cheap
  • Fun! You get a fully custom design

  Cons
  • Hard to make it as sharp and neat as above
  • Beware of acid!
  • Time consuming


7. Reverse etching

It is very similar to the technique above, except that the etching is reversed, so the non-engraved parts sticks out of the paint that you can apply afterwards.

I tried this technique once on one of my first pedals (+spray painting):

Reverse etching guitar pedal

Cody of "They Remained Silent" is an absolute expert with this technique and has written up a really good tutorial about it. LIke etching, it can be a bit long before your perfectly master this technique, but it really worth it.
  Pros
  • Good looking
  • Cheap
  • Fun! You get a fully custom design

  Cons
  • Hard to make it as sharp and neat
  • Beware of acid!
  • Time consuming
  •  Requires spray painting...


8. Decal

Decals are a good way to have a fully personalized design. 
Here is a good tutorial about it. Another nice one here on the Big Muff page.

If you are good with Photoshop or Illustrator, you can make your own design on your computer and use it for your guitar pedals. Print it on a decal paper, then apply it on your guitar pedals. You can use prepainting guitar pedals as well.

However, this technique is quite hard to master and to have good results. Most of the times, you will need to apply varnish layers. You can use Envirotex for a professional look,
  Pros
  • Easy to do
  • Cheap
  • Personalized design

  Cons
  • Time consuming
  • Not always so good looking


9. Laser engraving

Some folks use a laser etching maching to remove the paint and engraved their design.

The graphics are thus very sharp and neat looking: a laser cutting machine can be as precise as 0.1mm! Here is an amazing example by function f(x) Third Rail:

Laser engraving guitar pedal

However, it does not work very well with dark colors scheme because of the color of the aluminum (dark grey). One other problem is that you will have to have access to a laser cutting machine, or find a supplier that would accept low volumes, and this can be difficult or expensive...
  Pros
  • Looks amazing
  • Custom design
  • Very precise

  Cons
  • Requires design of the pedal
  • Can be expensive
  • Requires access to a laser cutting machine


10. Laser etched plate

More and more common on commercial effects these days. All the Greer amps pedals are made this way for instance. 

In France, Anasounds makes its pedals with a similar process, on wooden plates, they look great!

Anasounds Guitar pedals
This is a nice way to avoid painting the enclosure, or having to use expensive techniques like UV printing, and still have very professional looking guitar pedals.

You can combine it with powder coating to get even more pro looking DIY pedals. Like with laser engraved pedals, finding the right supplier can be difficult or expensive. However, it is generally easier than laser cutting the whole enclosure.
  Pros
  • Good looking
  • Easy to do
  • Custom design

  Cons
  • Expensive
  • Difficult to find the righ supplier for low volumes


11. Silkscreening

This technique is used by many professional pedal builders. It looks great and you can make hundred of enclosures in a few hours. Walrus used it for their pedals for instance:

Silkscreening guitar pedals

It consists of a fine mesh that will let a special acrylic paint goes through only in specific parts of it (like a pochoir). With a râteau, you can pass the paint over this mesh on a powder coated enclosure, and directly print your graphics on the enclosure. Here is a video of how it is done:


It is a great technique if you have many many similar pedals to make in a row

Making this mesh is quite a complicated process involving projecting UV light on a light sensitive plate, but fortunately, you can order these meshes to specific suppliers. Applying the paint is quite a messy process, which requires both space and practice. 

Once the technique mastered, you can make lots of pedals very quickly. The graphics will be very precisely printed on the pedal, and will last for a very long time. It looks really professional. However, the only problem with silkscreening is that you can only print one color at a time. You have to make one mesh per color and it can become quite time consuming if you want to use more than 3 colors... So adapt your graphics!
Good news is: you can apply this technique to many other usages like making t-shirts or posters for your next gig.
  Pros
  • Professional looking
  • Custom design
  • Do not wear off

  Cons
  • Difficult to make it yourself
  • Requires high volumes
  • Difficult to find a supplier
  • Requires some practice


12. UV printing

The nice part about UV printing is that you can print litteraly anything you like on your enclosures :)
This is the technique I use for my commercial projects like the Dolmen Fuzz or Montagne Tremolo:

Coda Effects Montagne Tremolo


UV printing machine are highly expensive, however it is possible possible to lease it. That is what is done by many professional like Kelley Electronics. A solution easily accessible to hobbyist is to use Pedal Parts Plus services.
 
They can UV printing pedals for a reasonable price. However they are based in the US so you  can unfortunately expect some shipping delays and customs issues... Anyway the people there are great and really helpful so I highly recommend it.
  Pros
  • Really good looking
  • Custom design
  • Durable and professional

  Cons
  • Expensive
  • Minimal volumes necessary


There you go! I hope that you liked this post! Show me your best guitar pedal and let's share our ideas on the Coda Effects Facebook page. You can also follow Coda Effects on Instagram.

Relay Bypass: final code

After the crowdfunding campaign, I decided to update the relay bypass code.

Indeed, this first version was nice, but one main drawback that was feedbacked to me is that the switch was activated on release, which was not always very intuitive or easy to handle. Moreover, I wanted to add a "temporary" bypass option in the Montagne Tremolo.

Montange Tremolo Relay Bypass

In this post, I am going to explain a bit the new code and to show you how I did it.

If you have not read my post about Relay Bypass, I highly recommend you to read it before reading this post. All the basics of microcontrollers are presented there.

  Tip! The full code is available on Github. With the relayonpress.c and header.h files, you will have everything needed to code or burn chips.

If you already have a GitHub account, you can Star the project for updates, or Fork it to modify it and make your own Relay Bypass code.

Lets go!

Ground loops and guitar pedals

Yesterday, I received an email from a beginner that decided to make his first guitar pedal. I always enjoy this kind of emails and answering questions is part of the game. This time, he asked me a question that I had several times: "my circuit is noisy, could it be a ground loop?"

Ground loops are part of the legends and myths around DIY guitar pedals. When asking about noise in a setup, it is the most common answer, and is supposed to be the main cause for hum, hiss or other noises that you can have on your first circuits.

Montagne Tremolo PCB

So I decided to write a post about it, starting from the begining:


What is the ground?

The ground connection is the reference point of the circuit, with a 0V potential. On schematics, it is represented by these symbols:

Ground schematic


It is very important that the reference point is the same in all the circuit, so all the ground connections should be connected together!

To make it easier, lazy PCB designers like me usually add what is called a "ground plane". It is a large conductive surface that is connected to ground and allows easy connections of grounds together.

On this picture, you can see the ground plane between the components and the tracks. I circled a pad of R21 that is connected to the ground plane:
Ground plane connection

You can clearly see the cross-shaped pad that connect it to the ground plane.

So what happens if you do not connect the ground connections together? By doing that, the reference point is not the same in every ground connection: you create a potential difference that is to say a voltage! Most of the times your circuits will not work, so pay attention to it!



So, what is a ground loop then?

Most of the times, ground is connected to "earth". This is the third plug that is usually on your power outlets. It avoid electrocutions by connecting metallic parts of the device to ground.

However, it sometimes happens that earth connections are not connected to each other. This can cause a slight difference between the two grounds reference point, creating a small voltage between the two grounds!
Ground Loop

Even if this difference is generally quite low, it is sufficient to generate a current if you connect these two grounds with a jack! This current will generate noise, usually modulated by the frequency of your outlets (50 or 60Hz depending where you live): it is a ground loop!

Ground loop guitar pedals

In this case, the ground loop would be caused by your electrical setup. This happens quite on lot on crowded pedalboards in houses with old electricity installations.

However, the same thing can happen between your effects pedals! Sometimes, each pedal can have a reference point that is slightly different and create current in the ground! This is why it is generally better to use power supplies with isolated outputs.
Ground loop guitar pedals
However, even with the best power supply available, ground loops can still happen between the grounds of the jacks. You understand that it is no simple solution! 


This is why it is important in to design pedals that do not have this kind of problem.
But how to do it?



Ground loop and star wiring

Ideally, multiple path to connect two different grounds should be avoided. If many paths connect ground together, it can create potential differences that will generate noise! That is why a ground plane should not be divided in several parts.

A good practice that I always recommend for your DIY pedals is the "star wiring": connect all ground connections in one point, most of the times at the negative pin of the power supply jack.
This is what I recommend in my post about guitar pedal wiring.



Ground and antenna

As you see, everything is very simple... So let's add one more level of complexity: did you know that the ground connection can behave like an antenna?

That is why it is very important to connect the enclosure to ground. By doing so, you create a Faraday cage that prevents the circuit from being parasited by outside electromagnetic fields. A metallic enclosure is thus a must to make guitar pedals. Avoid plastic enclosure and use aluminum enclosures like Hammond enclosures for instance.

This can also be a huge problem when mixing analog and digital circuits. Indeed, the high frequencies used by digital chips can be received by the analog ground and create noise. It is thus very important to separate analog ground from digital ground physically and connect them only in one point.

This was one of the main difficulty that I encountered when I designed the Montagne Tremolo circuit board. It was quite a lot of work to solve it out!


There it is, I hope that everything is clear for you now! If not, post a comment!

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Icons used to desig the diagrams in this post are from the Noun Project and are protecte under the Creative Commons License.

Development Hell: multiple fuzz pedal

Today, I am going to introduce the concept of Development Hell: it is a special place where projects stay when they need a lot of fine tuning before properly work. Unfortunately, I have a few projects that are still burning there, like the one I am going to present today.

It is a multi-fuzz machine! I always felt that a lot of Fuzz are quite a "one trick pony", they have a very characteristic sound that can be modulated by mods, but still sounds "like a fuzz face", "like a big muff"...etc. Moreover, fuzz are usually quite simple circuits, and I find that allowing one spot per fuzz on a pedalboard can quickly be space-inefficient.

So I decided to create a multi fuzz pedal, with no more than 3 different fuzz inside : a germanium Fuzz Face, a Muff Fuzz and a Companion Fuzz, which should provide the 3 main "flavors" of fuzz in this world: a classic warm, soft fuzz face, a "chainsaw", very raspy Companion Fuzz, and a compressed and heavy Muff Fuzz.

On top of that, I added an upper octave generator that allows to combine it with any fuzz, with a potentiometer to adjust the amount of octave. It is based on the Green Ringer circuit, which is a small, but efficient analog octaver circuit.

And of course, I made it fit in a 125B enclosure...

Here it is in its current form:



Hakko FX888D: a $100 high quality soldering station

Let's face it: your good old soldering iron is not always the best pal to work with.

I had some troubles with mine: no support to put it when I busy doing something else than soldering, which can be quite dangerous if it falls or burn something. Moreover, the power cord was quite short and not very flexible, so it was not always easy to find a good "spot" for it in order to be perfectly comfortable. Finally, it takes a long time before getting hot enough to solder, and 30W is sometimes a bit low to solder big potentiometer or jack legs.

So I decided to invest a bit in a soldering station.

After reading a lot on the web, I have found this little gem: the Hakko FX888D, a Japanese soldering station that you can find for $96 on Amazon

Here is mine:
Hakko FX888D

Vintage Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1-A (1966)

The Maestro Fuzz-Tone is simply the first fuzz ever! I felt a bit like an archeologist when inspecting this effect ! Someone gave me this one for repair, experiencing some issues with the built-in jack and the switch. Here it is:

Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1-A 1966

It is quite in good shape for a 50 years old guitar pedal! The pots allowed me to date it, from 1966. There is a serial number as well, but I do not really know how they work. I think each serial correspond to the number of the unit. Thus, the lower the serial, the older the pedal is. This fuzz is not that big for a vintage fuzz, especially compared to the 1973 Supa Tonebender that I had on my bench before.

At the front of the pedal, there are two controls: Volume and Attack (translate by "Fuzz"). It is the second version of the Fuzz-tone, the FZ1-A. The two knobs are also original, and are the same "reflector" knobs used on vintage Les Paul.

Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1-A 1966

Indeed, the pedal was made by Gibson in the same factory as the Les Pauls, in Kalamazoo, Michigan! Thus, a lot of parts are shared with vintage Les Pauls: the knobs, potentiometers and some low value capacitors. I believe that it allowed Gibson to lower a bit their prices, selling this pedal for $40 at the time (which should be around $300 today though...). Gibson even included it in some bass produced at that time, like the Gibson EB-0F, Gibson EB-SF 1250 and Epiphone Newport EB-SF!

Inside, the circuit is dead-simple. Three pnp transistors, wire on an eyelet bakelite board create the saturation. They are Motorola 2n2614, old germanium transistors. The original FZ1 used germanium 1n270 transistors, whereas the FZ1-A version used Motorola 2n2614. It has also old carbon-comp resistors, from the sixties!

Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1-A circuit

The electrolytic capacitors had been replaced (very common, old electrolytic transistors tend to leak, and are often replaced in vintage builds like this one), the yellow Suntan capacitor is not original as well. Apart from that, all the rest is original! It feels quite extraordinary to discover a perfectly preserved circuit like this one when opening the pedal, it feels a bit like opening Toutankhamon's tumb!

Close up on one of the transistors:

Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1-A transistors

The fuzz has only one input, and a jack allows you to connect it directly to your amp. Well, it is one the first guitar pedals, so pedalboard were not really an option at that time!



History of the Maestro Fuzz-Tone

The Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1 was the first fuzz  pedal ever! In the early 50s, blues guitarists started to push their amps to make it distort and create a weird, unusual guitar sound: saturated guitar sound. Some players even made holes in the speaker to make the distortion even greater! In 1961, Grady Martin bought a faulty transformer creating a weird distortion, and recorded a song called "The Fuzz" with it. The name "Fuzz" was born!


The song became really famous, and many artists did want to use the same sound. However, the transformer died shortly after the song was recorded. Glenn Snody, the original owner of the transformer and Revis Hobbs, a radio engineer, wanted to recreate the sound of the transformer using transistors. And this is how the Fuzz-Tone circuit was created! Snody and Hobbs showed it to Gibson, who developed a prototype and commercialized a first batch of 5000 units in 1962, selling it for retail price of $40 at the time.

The original Fuzz-Tone advertisement is quite amusing, they say it can sounds like an organ or mellow woodwinds... I would rather say: a huge screaming dirty nasty sound that will crush your ears lol! Here is the record:


I do not know how they made the recording, I cannot reproduce any of these sounds at home! This record feels like listening to the really birth of rock...

The Fuzz-Tone was quite a commercial failure: besides the 5000 units shipped in 1962, Gibson did not sell any other fuzz pedal until 1965! Indeed, in 1965, the Rolling Stones issued "Satisfaction". Keith Richards did use the FZ1 on the records to make the main riff. It was used to emulate the sound of a horn, because the Stones did not have horns in their band at the time.

The Fuzz-Tone became then really famous (the hype for guitar effects was already there :) ), and Gibson sold more than 40 000 units later! It also inspired many other manufacturers that begin to create other fuzz circuits like the Tonebender, Fuzz Face...etc.



Versions and other models

The FZ1 was declined in several models. The FZ1 was quite a commercial failure, and Gibson did not make more of them... It is also the more collectible version fo the FZ-1, as only around 5000 units were manufactured (less than the Klon Centaur!). You can distinguish between these four version by looking at the front of the enclosure. Here are the four main versions of the FZ1 (spot the differences!):


In 1965, the Rolling Stones made it famous, and Gibson issued another model, the FZ1-A. It did not use the same transistors (2n2614 instead of the original 2n270), and used only one AA battery!
There was a few change to the circuit: the two 20uF coupling electrolytic capacitors were replaced by 1uF ones, and the second collector resistor was changed to 10k instead of 1.5k, maybe to compensate the lower voltage. The name of the model is clearly written on the front of the enclosure, with "FZ-1A" instead of "FZ-1".

It was first manufactured in the Kalamazoo factory in Michigan, and then, after 1968 (not so sure about the exact date though), FZ1-A were later manufactured in Lincolnwood, Illinois. The location of the factory is written below the Gibson logo. The serial numbers are also higher (see below).

Finally, the FZ1-A was a reissue in 2002, exactly reproducing the circuit and the enclosure, with the same transistors! Fortunately for us, it was manufactured in Nashville, Tennessee, which is written just below the Gibson logo. Also, the reissues do not have a serial number engraved.

The FZ1 also had successors. Later on, Maestro issued the FZ1-B, which uses silicon transistors. The circuit is thus quite different, powered by a 9V battery, and the Fuzz does not sound quite the same. It is less saturated, and a bit buzzy. It is pictured on the left here:


Later on, the FZ1-S model was issued in a huge enclosure, with a very cool looking metallic circle. It has three controls, and a switch for the tone control: you have guessed it, it has almost nothing to do with the original Fuzz Tone! It is closer to a Fender Blender or an Univox Super Fuzz (no octave though).



Serial numbers of the FZ1: date your pedal easily

Sometimes pots have been replaced, and the pedal can be hard to date. I tried to decipher the year of each serial number. This is not an official statement, however, I have emailed Gibson about it, maybe they have more infos to give me. In the meantime, if you are the lucky owner of a FZ1, you can give me the serial number and the date of your pedal. Thus, we can complete the table!
Model Year Factory Units shipped Min-Max
serial seen
Serial
between ?
FZ1 1962 Kalamazoo, Michigan 5461 870-4628 1-5461
FZ1-A 1965 Kalamazoo, Michigan 3454 6174-? 5462-8916
1966 Kalamazoo, Michigan 20943 10665-21354 8917-29860
1967 Kalamazoo, Michigan 6625 22933 29861-36485
1968 Kalamazoo, Michigan ? 42276 36486-42276
FZ1-A Lincolnwood, Illinois ? 43762-44537 43762-44537
FZ1-B Lincolnwood, Illinois ? No serial number no serial
FZ1-A Reissue 2002 Nashville, Tennessee ? No serial number no serial
The easiest way to do it is to do these steps:
  • Find the name of the model (FZ1 or FZ1-A?)
  • Find the place it was made (Kalamazoo, Lincolnwood or Nashville?)
  • Read the serial number
  • If your pedal is not in the serial numbers indicated above, open it and look at the potentiometers. The date should be on it, like on vintage guitars.



Circuit analysis: how does it work?

As mentioned before, the circuit is based around three transistors:
Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1A schematic

Like usual, let's divide it in functional parts:

Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ1 schematic


It has a negative polarity because of the PNP transistors, and use only one AA battery, so 1.5V only!


Input stage

The input stage is basically a small buffer that also cuts some bass.

input stage FZ1

First, there is a coupling capacitor of 0.01uF. It avoid parasitic DC current to enter the circuit, and also filter some low frequencies: you loose a bit of bass. A 1M resistor connected to ground prevents noises when the pedal is switched on.

The first transistor is wired in emitter follower (not really common in guitar pedals), in order to adapt the impedance of the guitar signal. The emitter is indeed connected directly to the power supply. Thus, it has a gain of around unity, and does not amplify the signal.
There is another electrolytic coupling capacitor after this capacitor.


Saturation stage

This is where the fuzz happens! A transistor is pushed beyond its limits and saturates because of the gain that it too high.
saturation stage FZ1
The bias of the base of the transistor is defined by R4, R5 and R6. The fuzz knob is wired as a variable resistor, in parallel to R6. So when the Fuzz knobs changes value, the bias of the base of the transistor varies. Basically, the more you turn the "Fuzz" potentiometer to the right, the higher is the current going through the base of Q2.

Basically, there is too much current going to Q2, which creates saturation: the fuzz is there!

Note that the emitter of the transistor is wired directly to ground to make the gain of Q2 maximum! 10k is also quite a high value for the collector resistor, and it helps increasing the saturation even more. If you replace it by a bigger value, you can increase the saturation even more!

C3 is a coupling capacitor that prevents any parasitic current from the collector to go in the circuit.



Output stage

This stage amplifies the signal and can even boost it a bit to get a nice volume output.
maestro FZ1 output stage

It is very simple : the Q3 transistor amplifies the signal a lot (and saturates as well : there is no emitter resistor, plus a high value collector resistor = very high gain!).

The C4 capacitor is a coupling capacitor that prevents parasitic DC current to go out. C4 also cuts some bass, as it is quite a low value (10nF). If you use a bigger value, the pedal will be more bassy and muddy. I actually like it with a higher value, it really changes the character of the fuzz.

Finally, a volume knob sends more or less signal to ground. If you turn the potentiometer to the right, the resistance increase, and more signal goes out the circuit instead of going to ground: higher volume output! It is the same control that is used in the Fuzz Face.


There it is! I hope that this post was helpful and fun to read! If you have any remark or question, post a comment below!
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