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Building Your Own Effects

Isn't it cheaper to make my own?


It is NOT usually cheaper to build something that is not a "vintage" item.

If you want to tinker and play around with building effects because you like it, go ahead. However, if you're after a vintage effect, the prices may be so outrageous for re-creations or originals that you can duplicate it for a song. (sorry, I had to...)

If you want a few effects and think it is cheaper to build your own, think long and hard about it. The economies of scale being what they are, the commercial companies can produce a finished effect and sell it at retail for less than your cost of parts. Common semiconductors are from three to ten times cheaper in thousand unit lots than in ones and twos. Finished, painted, lettered boxes to put this stuff in are ten to fifty times cheaper for a manufacturer to make than for you to do. See Appendix A - Effects Economics 101 below.

Most people who start down this path never build an effect. Effects are hard to build -* mechanically *- not electronically, so the interest in electronics is immediately subverted when you try to package one. Making one reliable under typical music conditions is even harder. If you are not already involved to a signifcant degree in electronic tinkering, it will be expensive to acquire the tools and parts to build effects. Faced with these problems, most folks give up.

If, on the other hand, you just love tinkering with guitar effects, have some electronics know how, and have some money to put into the hobby, forge ahead. It is my personal choice of a good time. Has been for a couple of decades.

You have to be really good with digital logic and programming as well as prototyping to make a sophisticated Digital Signal Processing kind of integrated effects box like the rack units. With some experience, you can make effects which are not commercially available, or have your own personal likes written into the wires and parts.

It is also in general NOT possible to build a good wah pedal or other rocker kind of pedal, as the mechanical construction of a reliable rocker-pedal mechanism is impractically difficult for the average Joe. However, you can often find a dead-or-dying Cry baby or other wah pedal to cannibalize for the case and pedal; I've seen dead ones for as little as $15.

Effects Economics 101

An effect that you build will likely cost you
     box          $10
     jacks          2
     stomp switch  15 
     paint          4
     controls       2
     knobs          1
     wire           2
     PC board       3
     electronics    5 - 12
for a total of $32 to $51 if you have to buy all this stuff new. This does not count any tools or other supplies like solder, pliers, etchant, and so forth, nor does it count your time and effort. Musician's Friend sells stomp boxes for $30 to $100, the top end being some things that are not really reproducable at home. Notice that the electronics that do the work are only 1/3 to 1/10 of the cost of the finished article.

Some economies are available if you already have tools, or a dead pedal to cannibalize for the box, controls and switches.

How practical is building my own effect?

Yes, you can build effects that perform as well as commercial units, or surpass them in terms of noise, performance, etc. It's not hard, for the analog kind of stomp box. It will take a lot of time and energy. If you're not prepared to approach this as a learning experience or a hobby, don't do it.

Skills and tools for building effects

There are some minimal skills and tools you'll need to be able to understand an effects schematic and have some hope of building something similar.

Skills Bibliography

    Reading Schematics
  1. The Design and Drafting of Printed Circuits by Darryl Lindsay, Published by Bishop Graphics ISBN 0-9601748-0-X
    Electronics Construction:
  1. Electronic Projects for Musicians by Craig Anderton
  2. Electronic Projects for Guitar by Robert Penfold

Effects Packaging

This is HARD. An effects box needs to be sturdy, and either metal or lined with metal or a conductive paint to keep the circuit from picking up hum or radio interference. It needs to be big enough to hold the circuit, but compact enough to be usable. I have bent up boxes from sheet metal, with varying results, but to be sturdy enough, you need very heavy (hard to cut and bend) sheet metal. Worse yet, good effects boxes are hard to find in commercial lines as well. There are a few bent sheet metal boxes that are about the right size and shape, but might not be durable in heavy use. Open up some commercial effects cases to start getting an idea about what is common in effects.

You can package several effects together in a rack enclosure or in some of the schemes espoused by Anderton. I don't personally like this, but it is a reasonable way to package your effects. Penfold doesn't say much about boxes, for some reason.

A good box for an effect should be about 3 inches wide, 5 inches long, and 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep. A sloping front for the bypass switch is nice, but not essential. A very good starting point is the line of Hammond die cast aluminum boses - tough, durable , easy to work, almost ideal. Try the 1590B or the 1590BB, about $10 from DigiKey or Mouser.

The 1590BB is a cast aluminum box with a fitted base/cover. It is very durable, and inexpensive in quantities of one. It is reasonably easy to find, and about the right size for an effects box. The early MXR effects like the Phase 90 and Distortion plus were packaged in a box the size of the 1590B, just slightly smaller than the 1590BB, and were very tightly packed indeed. The 1590BB is big enough for a non-manufacturer to get a whole effect shoehorned in.

Other boxes that are about right are:

 Hammond 1590B 		-similar to the 1590BB, but smaller, the size of old MXR's
 Hammond 1590C 		-similar to the 1590BB, but bigger, about 2 1/4" high.
 LMB #138      		-folded sheet metal, not too sturdy, but cheap
 LMB #139      		-folded sheet metal, not too sturdy, but cheap
 LMB MDC 642   		-folded sheet metal, sturdier, moderate price
 LMB MDC 532  		-folded sheet metal, sturdier, moderate price
 LMB UCS 1 3/4-5-5 	-folded sheet metal, much sturdier, also pricier

Putting it all in the box

Figure out in advance where things will go inside the box and how the board will mount, where the controls go, and where the battery mounts. This amounts to a three dimensional layout of the box. Once you are sure of your layout, mark and drill the box for mounting holes for the jacks and controls. Do this before painting or finishing the box.

A big part of making it come out right is the right selection of controls and their placement on the box. Think about commercial effects you may have used, and how the controls are placed, how close together they are, etc. Make several drawings, or better yet, mount your controls in a cardboard or foam-board mockup of your effects box before you drill and possibly ruin your box. It is easy to drill holes and hard to grow them closed again.

Making It Look Good

There are lots of ways to do this. Anderton outlines several in his book. My preference is to paint it with a good primer, bake it in my oven at 200 degrees for an hour, cool, and paint with an auto touch up paint, then bake again. When this is cool, the paint should be reasonably durable. I found a neat painting trick over in rec.crafts.polymer-clay (yeah, there really is one of those...). If you'll go to your local Goodwill store, there is almost guaranteed to be a toaster oven there. You know, the little sits-on-the-cabinet unit that you put bread and chicken pot pies into to heat. This is perfect for baking paint on small objects - like effects boxes. Mine cost $7.00. You don't need the oven for lacquer finishes, but for enamels, it is great. Baked enamels flatten out to a high gloss and get really hard and durable. If you used a light color paint, you can use your laser printer or copier to print labels on clear laser-printer labels from an office supplies store, and letter the controls easily and neatly. If you use a dark color, the direct transfer lettering from electronics shops will work, but this will need another coat of clear spray to be durable.

If you want to do good labeling artwork on a box but can't get it screen printed, the "Toner Transfer System" sheets sold by DynArt for making printed circuit boards can help. This is a laser printer/copier sheet that has a water soluble release layer. You print on it, then iron it onto copper clad. You can also print on it, spray the sheet with clear lacquer, and then water release the lacquer film, which holds the black toner. This can be slid onto a box (or glass, or anything else) that you want to letter. If you print on the sheets in a color laser copier, you get - yep- color laser decals. The black printing is good for light colored boxes, though. I recently ran onto a material called "IBFOIL". This is a sheet of plastic with a very shiny colored metalic foil appearance available in silver, gold, blue, red, and green. This material is intended to add color to ordinary copies by being heat-fused to the toner on the sheet. You can print to the Dynart sheets, iron the Ibfoil onto the dynart and peel it away, leaving bright metal lettering, then spray lacquer and make decals. The artwork you can do is limited only by what you can print on a laser printer or copier...

A very durable, cool looking paint is now available in spray cans at most hardware stores. It is called "Hammerite" and comes in many colors. It is advertized as "no primer needed". It is a bumpy finish like the old Fuzz Faces, the red is a great match for the ORIGINAL red fuzz faces.

I got a tip on how to make even really ugly boxes look good - All about Bondo auto body filler.

Procuring Parts

I used to try to ferret out the used- and surplus-electronics stores in a town to see what I could find cheaply. Two suppliers have changed my habits. These are DigiKey and Mouser. They stock a broad line of electronics parts, including parts to make packaging easy, and although their prices are not the best possible deals or surplus, they are reasonable for first quality commercial goods. They ship fast, and stock what is in their catalogs. Mouser, in particular ships the same day as your order, and since they have a warehouse in Dallas, I get my parts the next day.

Both Anderton and Penfold have good discussions of which parts are good, and which are not. I will add to that only where I think I'm really adding.

I list some recommended suppliers in the next section.

Recommended Suppliers

 Mouser Electronics   Mouser Electronics       Mouser Electronics
 11433 Woodside Ave.  2401 Highway 287 North   12 Emery Ave.
 Santee CA 92071      Mansfield TX 76063       Randolf NJ 07869

 Mouser Electronics
 370 Tomkins Court
 Gilroy CA 95020
Catalog Subscriptions: (800) 992-9943 (Continental US only)
Sales & Service: (800) 34-MOUSER (800-346-6873) (US, Puerto R., Canada)
Very complete catalog of brand-new components. Usually quick service, $20 "minimum" ($5 charge under $20). When ordering, you may want to be sure to ask about availability and shipping locations; they have several warehouses, and frequently orders will get sent from several warehouses (which drives up the shipping costs). Export orders have a $100 minimum, except for Canada and Mexico.
 701 Brooks Ave. South
 P.O.Box 677
 Thief River Falls, MN 56701-0677
 +1-800-DIGI-KEY (344-4539)
 +1-218-681-3380 (FAX)
No minimum, $5 handling under $25, free and very complete catalog, very nice indeed. Prices aren't always the best, but rarely excessive.

Maplin Electronics is a BIG supplier to the home hobbyist of electronic parts and kits in both the UK and Europe. They can be contacted at:

  Maplin Electronics
  PO Box 777
  Essex SS6 8LU
  Fax: +702-553935
  Modem: +702-552941 (sorry, don't know paramaters, try 2400,8bit,1 start,1 stop)
Maplin is reported to sell an Arrow DPDT equivalent for 3.76 pounds (~$6 USA) each in one off quantity. (I'll have to try that one!!)

Antique Electronic Supply lists the following germanium transistors:

 Part No     Description                                 Price ($US)
 U-TRB-1     PNP similar to 2N107, 2N218, CK722 etc      $1.49
 U-TRB-4     NPN similar to 2N170                        $1.69
 U-TRB-5     NPN similar to 2N193, 2N388, 2N1302         $1.29
 U-TRB-6     NPN similar to 2N170, 2N292                 $.95
 U-TRB-7     PNP similar to 2N111,2N139, 2N218           $.95
 U-TRB-8     PNP similar to 2N107, 2N218, CK722          $.95
The address is:
 Antique Electronic Supply
 P.O Box 27468
 Tempe, AZ 85285-7468
 Ph (602) 820-5411
 Fax (602) 820-4643
Hosfelt Electronics has the CLM6000 opto-isolator that is ubiquitous in the projects in Craig Anderton's book. They are about $3.50 US apiece.
 Hosfelt Electronics
 2700 Sunset Blvd.
 Steubenville OH 43952
 +1-614-264-5414 (FAX)
 No minimum, $3.75 S&H.  Surplus electronics.
The Electronic Goldmine has a good listing of surplus electronics, useful for run-of-the-mill construction.
 Electronic Goldmine
 P.O. Box 5408
 Scottsdale AZ 85261
 1-602-451-7454 voice
 1-602-451-9495 fax

R.G. Keen Back to the Effects Page Back to the top of the Effects FAQ