The Game-Changing Boss ES-8

As your pedalboard grows you'll soon realize that you have more options available than you have feet to manage them. This can result in some pretty tricky pedal-dancing moves as you try to toggle two or more pedals when moving into a new song section. Wouldn't it be great if you could totally reconfigure your signal path with a single stomp?

Back in the 80's Bob Bradshaw made a name for himself by creating custom rack-based guitar rigs for some of the era's most famous players. He consolidated a variety of pedals into a single rack unit, cleaned up the power and signal routing and provided one-touch patch changes. Fast-forward nearly thirty years and those custom, one-off rigs that once cost tens of thousands of dollars can be had for around $700. So much for the "good ol' days", right?

The amazing Boss ES-8

The amazing Boss ES-8

The solution can be found in the Boss ES-8. Boss calls this unit an "effects-switching" system, but that name doesn't really do it justice. A better way to think of it is a dynamic "smart router" for your guitar signal through up to eight simultaneous signal paths. The key concept here is  "dynamic" as you can easily reconfigure your signal-chain with single switch.

The Basics

One way to think of the ES-8 is like a mixer. You have basic ins and outs, plus a whole lotta aux sends to monkey with. Your guitar and amplifier's effects-loop send connect to the inputs, the amp input and effects returns connect to the outputs. The ES-8 also offer eight discrete "loops" for connecting your various effects pedals. By connecting the pedals to the ES-8 (as opposed to daisy-chaining them together) you can let the ES-8 control the signal path through your rig.

The ES-8 has two basic modes: Memory and Manual. Manual mode lets you pick which pedals you want on or off by tapping the appropriate foot-switch number. At first blush this doesn't seem like much of an improvement over life without the ES-8. However this mode can be handy when creating new patches.

Memory mode is where the real action is. Here you can configure your signal chain, including which loops are on and in what order. But that's just the beginning. Patches can also emit MIDI program change numbers on activation and be programmed to handle other dynamic actions.

In Memory mode you first select a Bank, which is a collection of patches. With a total of 100 banks, each containing eight patches you have a total of 800 patches at your fingertips…ahem…feet.

The Signal Path

If, like me, you have a "front-end" and "back-end" to your effects rig, you'll be happy to know that the ES-8 can easily accommodate effects loops. Using the so-called four-cable method you connect your guitar to the ES-8, connect the Volume Out to the amp input, connect the amplifier's effects send to the Volume In and connect the Main Out to the amplifier's effects return. If this seems a little counter-intuitive, take solace that you aren't the only one. If it doesn't, well, then no issues right?

Pedalboard Setup

The ES-8 is relatively large unit and you're going to have to make space for it on your pedalboard. But remember that you're going to effectively be moving the footswitches for your existing pedals to the ES-8. That means that you can put your other pedals on the board in whatever way they will fit without having to worry about connecting them to each other or easy ergonomic access.

Before I cut a single cable or velcroed a pedal down, I came up with a sketch of the logical layout of the pedalboard. For a moderately complex job like setting up this pedalboard a guide like this can be very handy to help you keep track of where things are:

Having a game-plan before diving into the pedalboard setup is key to managing the chaos.

Having a game-plan before diving into the pedalboard setup is key to managing the chaos.

Let's work through the signal-chain one bit at a time. The first connection is from the guitar into a DigiTech Drop pedal, then into EVH wah pedal. Notice that the wah isn't connected to a loop. This is for two reasons: one is that I simply didn't have enough loops to accommodate all the pedals but, more importantly, I didn't need it. Changing to a patch just to enable the wah seemed like much more work than simply clicking the wah on. In my setup the wah always goes in the same place so I don't need to change its position in the signal flow.

The remaining loops connect the following pedals:

  1. EVH Phaser
  2. EVH Flanger
  3. Eventide PitchFactor
  4. Boss DD-7 Delay
  5. Strymon El Capistan
  6. T.Rex Overdrive
  7. T.C. Electronics Corona Chorus
  8. T.C. Electronics Spark Mini Boost

The order of which pedal goes in which loop is irrelevant since the actual signal chain can be put in any order I like within the patch setup.

The ES-8 has several nice little touches including a separate dedicated output for a tuner. I leave my T.C. Electronics tuner on all the time. Fortunately the ES-8 also includes a dedicated mute switch so tuning on-stage doesn't have to be a group experience. The ES-8 also supports stereo effects in loops 7 & 8. You can also connect external expression and control footswitches to the ES-8 which can then be routed to the same inputs on any pedals you have that support those connections.

Another item of note is how I put my Ernie Ball VP Jr. volume pedal in between my amplifier's effects send and the input on the ES-8. I could have put this on the front end near the wah, but having it in the effects-loop lets me control the volume of the overall amp output, not just to the front end.

Once I had my signal-path worked out it was time to layout the pedalboard. The first step was to remove all of the pedals from my existing setup. Then I laid down painters tape on a hardwood floor matching the outline of my pedalboard. Starting with the ES-8 and proceeding to the smaller pedals I laid them out until they all fit on the board with enough room for power and audio cables.

It took a little experimentation, but I had a working layout after about fifteen minutes. Remember, the layout of the pedals doesn't matter for any effects controlled by the ES-8 so you can turn pedals sideways if needed to make them fit. My final layout turned out like this:

With the ES-8, you don't need to worry about ergonomics. Just get 'em on there and hook 'em up.

With the ES-8, you don't need to worry about ergonomics. Just get 'em on there and hook 'em up.

Once I had the pedals laid out, it was simply a matter of connecting everything up. I started by routing the power cables from my Mooer Micro Power bricks to each pedal. I have a few oddball pedals that don't work well with the standard 9-volt power supplied by the Mooers (I'm looking at you EVH Flanger), so there are a few wall-warts I had to figure out.

After power was routed, it was time to connect the audio chain together. I bought a 50-foot length of George L cable and a bag full of connectors. The George Ls not only sound great, but they're completely solder-less connections and the thinner profile of the cable makes it easier to route them through the various nooks and crannies of the pedalboard. 

Each pedal use two cables (the send and the return) to connect the ES-8. Once I had all the connections in place, I put the ES-8 in manual mode and checked the connections for each pedal. A few tweaks later, everything was working right and it was time to secure the cables.

Zip-ties and custom cable lengths help minimize the crazy rat's nest of cables.

Zip-ties and custom cable lengths help minimize the crazy rat's nest of cables.

Because I use the four-cable setup (the effects loop) it's easy to make the wrong connection between the ES-8 and the amp. After screwing this up more than a few times I decided I needed to make it easy to connect things correctly every time. My solution was to mark cables for specific connections with a Sharpie like so:

S = send

S = send

I = amp input, R = return

I = amp input, R = return

With my cables appropriately marked on both ends, I simply connect them in S-I-R order ("yes sir!") on the ES-8, and connect the other other ends to the amplifier. Easy-peasy. With all of the wiring out of the way, it was time to move on to setting up my patches.

Patch Creation

My main musical outlet these days is my classic rock cover band. We strive to replicate the sounds of the original recordings as much as we can. We have a pretty broad set list in terms of styles and sounds which requires a lot of different effects in different configurations.

My first approach to was to create one or more patches per song. What I quickly realized is that there are a lot of songs that can use the same setup. There's no reason to duplicate patches, so I put my most common patches in bank 00 in the first four banks. For other songs with more specific sounds (e.g. the heavy pitch-shifting use in Stone Temple Pilots' Plush) I have separate patch just for that song.

Multi-Patch Songs

Some songs require several different patches. For these I put the main or starting sound on the left-most patch, with the variations going in higher-number patches. A great example of this is the setup I use for Billy Idol's Rebel Yell. That song has several different changes that used to require several pedal changes at once. With the ES-8 the changes become much more manageable.

The first patch (bank 01, patch 1) is relatively simple. It routes to the Boss DD-7 (set to a very short, subtle slap-back), and then to the El Capistan for more ambience. Both of these are routed out the effects loop since delay and reverb effects always sound better to me in the loop, especially with distortion.

When we get to the guitar solo I need a signal boost and I also need to momentarily trigger a setting on the Eventide PitchFactor to replicate Steve Stevens' famous "ray-gun" sound. Bank 01, patch 2 replicates the delay and reverb settings of patch 1, but also includes the Spark Mini-Boost (at the very end of the signal chain).

That essentially boosts my main sound for Rebel Yell, but what about the ray-gun? For that I have a special patch on the Eventide PitchFactor that does a pretty convincing imitation. Because the both the ES-8 and Eventide supports MIDI I can send a MIDI Program Change when I switch to my "Rebel Yell Solo" patch to load the ray-gun sound. Because I don't need the ray-gun until later in the solo, I leave the Eventide out of the initial signal chain. To bring it in I programmed the ES-8 so that when I click the same patch number switch on the board it momentarily engages the Eventide. When I press the switch down the ray-gun is in the loop, as soon as I step off the Eventide is disengaged.

For bonus points, it's nice to know when you have the ray-gun effect on so the the ES-8 also lets me light up any LED on the board for the same footswitch action toggles the Eventide.

Like That, But More

Another common thing I ran into was needed a solo boost for a given pedal configuration. For example my "5150" sound includes the El Capistan and a subtle pitch-shift patch from the Eventide. We play a handful of songs where I want the same basic sound but with a volume boost.

The trick is to build an ES-8 patch with the basic configuration, then configure a special action to bring the Mini Spark into the signal chain. To keep things simple I configured an action so that when I press the same footswitch as the patch I'm on the boost pedal is enabled and the "Bank Up" LED is lit up to remind me that I have it on. In short, it helps me think of solo boosts as "like this patch, but more".

Conclusion

If you're a pedal-junkie like me and are running into issues managing all of them, the ES-8 is worth a look. It's a very solid, well-constructed unit. All of the hardware feels like it will stand up to the rigors of playing live.

It's also an extremely powerful and flexible unit. I was surprised at how many esoteric things I could make it do to help simplify my rig management. I've barely scratched the surface with MIDI and there's a whole world waiting for me in routing control and expression pedal data to specific pedals.

My only complaint with the unit is that interactions with the unit are limited to the onboard LCD interface. The hierarchy of menus can be a little daunting until you get to know them. I desperately wish it had a USB port and some Mac/PC software to go with it to configure it externally. That would also help me sleep a little better at night knowing I have a backup of all my settings. Right now the only way to do that is with a MIDI SysEx dump, and I haven't yet figured out how that would work.

Those minor issues aside, the ES-8 is an absolute game-changer for me. It brings the power of a Bradshaw rig to my lowly pedalboard at a very reasonable price. More importantly, it makes multi-pedal jumping a thing of the past, which means I'm much less likely to lose my balance and fall over right before I go into face-melting solo. That alone is probably worth the price of admission.