Better batteries for effects pedals and amps

Effects pedals and battery-powered amps are convenient and portable, but they still run off of disposable batteries, usually of the AA or 9V varieties. I sure don’t need to tell you that buying and keeping stock of alkaline batteries is a pain in the ass and expensive. Surely there’s a better way.

You might think: “rechargeable AA/9V batteries! That’s the answer!” But no, no they’re not. Actually, they kind of suck.

Here’s why:

  • They have lower capacity than regular alkaline batteries.
  • They degrade in capacity over time.
  • There’s no way to tell how much charge is left in them.
  • You need a special appliance to charge them.
  • They are failure prone. I’ve had lots of them just kick the bucket halfway through their operating life and refuse to charge.
  • They self-drain. Don’t use your gizmo for 9 months or so? Too bad, the batteries died in there. You should have recharged them right before putting them in which, like, defeats the purpose.
  • And here’s something you may not have known: They straight up run at the wrong voltage.

On that last point: A rechargeable NiMH AA battery is 1.2V. Alkaline equivalent is 1.5V. That’s a 20% difference in the unfavorable direction. There are 9V rechargeable batteries on the market that run at 7.4V… huh?! That’s not even close.

While most devices have an operating nominal voltage much lower than full capacity, they are optimal at full voltage. And you can bet it will drop below nominal much sooner when you’re running at 20% less to begin with. Further, running at lower voltage for audio gear can lead to lots of nasty distorted sounds that would drive you crazy trying to figure out. I’ve found out the hard way.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could convert your gear to just plug-in recharge… and have a battery life indicator… and operate much longer between charges… and basically work kinda like… you know, your smartphone?

That last thing got me thinking: what about those portable USB LiPo power banks for charging said smartphones? They have LiPo batteries in them, which is a superior chemistry to NiMH. They last super long and have very low-self discharge. They also have convenient LED battery life indicators on them. And you might already have one.

Only problem, though they operate at 5V. Doesn’t really help with pedals and Roland Cube amps which run at 9V.

That’s where a step-up converter comes in. I was able to find these on Amazon (affiliate link), which can step up a 5V USB power source to 9V or 12V. Amazing, right? They terminate to a standard barrel connector which would go right into the AC adapter plug in your device.

Another thing, though. The polarity of the AC power input of most pedals and Roland Cube amps is center-negative. How to tell? Look for an icon like this near the AC jack:

The center dot is connected to a “minus” sign. So that means the middle of the AC connector has negative polarity. You’d see a “plus” on the right and “minus” on the left if it was the opposite case.

Since this converter’s plug is center positive, so you need to reverse its polarity. If you’re lazy and like spending some extra bucks, you can buy a cable to do this. Looks like this:

Here’s a link to that (affiliate link).

If you’re like me and you don’t want the extra bulk and like to take things apart, you can just pop open the step-up converter casing like this:

Then desolder the red and white leads, and flip them around so the red wire goes to “V-” them, like so:

Note that I used a different, shorter cable, so the GND wire is black, but as long as red goes to V- and GND goes to V+ you’re good to go

There, now the center terminal of the existing connector is negative and you can plug it right into a guitar pedal or 9V amp.

As an extra safety measure, I popped off the plastic switch handle and taped over it to prevent myself from accidentally switching it to 12V. Probably a good idea for you do the same.

In order to make things more self-contained, I velcro’ed a thin 10000 mA-hour battery (only cost $15) to my Roland Mobile Cube (I may sing the praises of this little lunchbox-sized amp in another post) and installed a shorter right-angle connector to the AC end. I can power this sucker for weeks of operation this way, and at any time check the battery level indicator to know when I should recharge it.

In practice, I rarely have to recharge. 10000 mAh of 5V is equivalent to ~5555 mAh of 9V capacity (10,000 * 5/9). By my estimation, at a rated operating current of 170 mA, it would run this amp for 5555 mAh / 170 mA = 32 hours?! Seems insane. But sure enough I’ve been using this rig casually out and about for 6 months or so and have recharged it maybe once?

Extra lazy and want to spend a little more? You could also skip all this modding nonsense altogether and just get one of these guys:

It’s a rechargeable 4400mAh 9V battery, and comes with all the ports and cables to power up to 7 analog effect pedals, or anything else that runs on 9V. I have one and it works just fine. Though you should make a note of how much rated current your device pulls. If it’s more than 100 mA, you need to plug it into the single port labeled “300mA”.

Wireless guitar systems: cooler than I thought!

A question I have found myself asking: “do I, generally low-key jazz guitarist, need a wireless guitar system?” My reply to self was often, “No! Of course not! Those are like for rock guys who jump around and stuff”. That’s not exactly my vibe.

This archtop’s input jack is mounted to the pickguard, a cable stomp could potentially be disastrous. Among other benefits, the wireless system prevents that.

But my curiosity about these gizmos was revitalized when I noticed that they were starting to hit the market for very cheap… like as low as $40 cheap. And what’s more: they are no longer this clumsy, VCR-sized receiver appliance paired with a belt-clipped transmitter box that I remember folks rocking in the late ’90s. Now they are a pair of internal-lipo-battery-powered devices that plug directly in to your amp and guitar. And they’re pretty small–I’ve seen objects dangling from ears that are bigger.

While I’m not jumping around arena stages, I do find myself in very awkward cable situations. I manage a weekly jam session and find myself on my feet shuffling around a lot to rotate musical guests in. It only takes a couple of guitarist sit ins and the floor becomes cable spaghetti. I also sit when I play, and when I get up I have done my fair share of cable stomping, resulting in awful electronic pops at best and busted cables/output jacks at worst.

In the past few years, I’ve seen a couple of acoustic jazz musicians start to show up with these wireless things and sing their praises and I figured it was time (shout out to Duo Gadjo, Alex Fernandez and Jess King). For $50, why not? Some guitar cables cost more than that.

There’s a wide range of these things on Amazon from various Chinese companies with prerequisite nonsense names like “Flamma”, “Getaria”, and “Masingo”. Makes me wonder if they name them by throwing darts at a wall of phonetic sounds.

The various options that might be confusing at first, but the real things to look for are which frequency band they transmit on. There’s three classes of these: 2.4ghz, 5.8ghz, and UHF.

While cheaper overall, 2.4ghz is the same range that wifi broadcasts on, so it’s more likely to get signal interference. I’d stick to the latter two types: 5.8ghz or UHF. But I do know people with 2.4ghz units with no complaints at all, so your mileage may vary.

I ultimately ended up with the 5.8ghz Lekato model (affiliate link). It didn’t exhibit the noise gating*, and I haven’t noticed any issues in terms of connection and interference right out of the box. Sound wise, I can’t detect much of a difference A/Bing these with physical cables. They last about 5 hours on a charge, which is enough for a couple of gigs at least.

It’s been several months with these things and I still use them. Some unexpected benefits:

  • I can walk out to the audience area and soundcheck the band while playing.
  • I can easily change positions on stage and communicate with the band without shouting across.
  • I can put my guitar on a stand without unplugging it (can be difficult with endpin jacks)
  • Makes unexpected sitting in at a gig super easy. Just hand the receiver to a person with an amp with an extra channel or PA to plug in.
  • Works great with ukulele, which always feels weighed down by cables.
  • I can parade around with the tip bucket while taking a solo! (Ok, that was uncharacteristic of me, and it was a pretty wild night at Club Deluxe).

One thing with these is that it’s really hard to tell between the receiver (plugs into the amp) and the transmitter (plugs into the guitar). They look identical, save some tiny text on the front. My “stick a piece of blue tape on it” life hack fixed that problem right quick.

Blue tape = plug this end into the amp, dummy.

Some other issues I have with it, which are mostly not the fault of the device itself, but good to know:

  • The slider power switch tiny and sort of awkward to toggle. I’d prefer a tactile toggle button.
  • Can be easy to forget to turn them off to save battery life and you have to do it on both the receiver and transmitter ends.
  • Makes a pop sound when turned off.
  • I often forget to unplug them and unknowingly leave it on the guitar when I case it. Thought I had lost one on multiple occasions, it was just plugged in to the guitar.
  • They have separate micro-USB charge ports. It comes with a Y-cable for charging both simultaneously, but would be cool if they could be attached in series and you could charge them on the go with a cell phone battery and a single cable.
  • As the player, you’re in the worst position to determine if the battery is about to die, since you can’t really see the unit from behind. Last time I got close to that, my band members pointed out “uh your thing is blinking red”, so they will probably let you know 🙂

*Warning: the first one I bought (on recommendation) was the UHF-based Swiff WS-50. I don’t know if all UHF units do this, but it turned out to cut the volume significantly, and have a horrible noise-cancelling / noise gate effect which absolutely destroying the sustain and dynamics of my instrument. I’m honestly shocked any musician would want to use it and I sent it back immediately. So avoid that one, and be sure to read the bad reviews specifically to see what folks are complaining about.

Update: another colleague rushed to the defense of the WS-50 and said his does not exhibit this problem. It’s possible I got a lemon or they addressed the issue in later revisions.

Bugera AC60 vs. AER Alpha

“Hey, Bugera… Knock It Off!”

I’ve been curious about the Bugera AC60* for a while. After seeing one picture of it, it was obvious that it is a flagrant knock-off of the AER Compact 60*. But the most compelling thing about this little poseur is that comes in at around $250.

That’s more than 5x less than the $1300 AER! Now I’m all for supporting quality boutique products, but I’m also a musician that earns a fraction of a real salary and I love a good deal.

Coincidentally, one soon popped up on my local Craigslist for $150. I sat on the decision for a while. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is real and my apartment is not getting any bigger. But curiosity got the better of me and I’m sure I made some flimsy justifications such as: “it can be my backup/travel/loaner/practice/whatever amp!”, “maybe I can use it as a portable PA!”, “I could use it as an extension cabinet!” (editor’s note: these situations have occurred exactly 0 times in several years).

Needless to day, I took the plunge. Here it is tagging along next to it’s fancy cousin:

 aer vs bergara

Luckily for me, it was virtually unused. It still had some of the protective plastic covering on the logos. The fella selling it was definitely a casual player. He even asked me if I wanted to start a light rock/country band before even hearing me play.

After picking it up I took it straight to a gig (no doubt it’s first) where I planned to use it for half the night. I ended up using it for two sets and switched back to the AER for the quick last set.

In short: I didn’t notice a “night and day” difference that would justify the 5x premium. I simply set it up the way I would an AER and I didn’t have a miserable time with tone or trying to dial it in. Now that may sound lukewarm, but in my experience, “not being miserable” equals high marks in the acoustic guitar amplification space. Both my bandmates were also using AER amps and they too were quite surprised by it.

The next day, I set it up as above with an A/B switch. I noodled around while toggling between the two amps and again, didn’t hear any total dealbreakers. They are both sufficiently loud, nice-sounding amps.

But how about an audio taste test with some samples? Read on….

Continue reading “Bugera AC60 vs. AER Alpha”

Project: Amp Tilt-back Stand


Update: These are on sale now at my store!

Video demo:

Being a working musician, city-slicker, and general disliker of ridiculously loud music, big heavy amps are not my thing. While it would be a great honor to someday be featured on the venerable Rigs of Dad, for now I’ll save my back. My chosen tube amp to date is the classic 10″ Fender Princeton Reverb. Light enough to carry with one arm, and enough power to get me to the Tone-Zone®.

However, one problem I have with smaller combo amps is that they can be difficult to hear in live situations. Amps placed on the floor simply aren’t pointing in the right direction to be heard by someone standing on stage. Sometimes I’ll hike my amp up on a chair, but that also takes up a lot of space and is unsightly. What I need is some tilt-back assembly, which would allow an amp to point upward at an angle.

Continue reading “Project: Amp Tilt-back Stand”