PP3s analysed, tested, smoked and poked
Has your effects pedal gone dead again? Jon Lewin tests a load of currently available batteries, and gets a powerful shock.
Batteries — doncha just love 'em? Square little bleeders with PP3 written all over them. Those things that keep making the pretty red lights on your effects pedals go out. Bastards that drain more from you than you get from them.
Unless, of course, you use the alkaline/Gold Seal/Duracell-type battery which, according to the adverts (and Spitting Image) gives up to five times the power of an ordinary battery in continuous use.
Trust an advert?
Bearing in mind that musicians use more batteries than anybody else (except cyclists, Walkpersons, and Pacemaker owners), the fearless One Two investigative team decided to look into the complicated and confusing world of ELECTRICITY.
Is it true that the alkaline battery is the greatest invention since the wheel? Will your effects pedals wilt in seconds at the sight of an ordinary battery? Should you really invest in a power supply?
Armed with a plentiful supply of PP3 batteries, effects pedals, leads, a clock (for timing purposes) and a sleeping bag, the team set off for the spare room to watch the LEDs going out over Hammersmith...
The three most common kinds of battery are known technically as the zinc carbon, the zinc chloride, and the alkaline; we know them better as ordinary (eg Ever Ready's Blue Seal), super (eg Silver Seal), and alkaline (eg Duracell, Gold Seal).
Apart from functioning on different chemical and electrical principles, the most important characteristic of these batteries is (not the colour, dummy) their price. The ordinary PP3-type, being the weakest, is obviously the cheapest, and retails for between 60p and 70p. The super PP3 can be found for as little as 87p, though it's more usually available for 97p. The alkaline PP3 battery is sold for £1.60 in Comet discount warehouses, but is more commonly found for £1.80 in supermarkets and newsagents.
It's best, where you can, to buy batteries from places that have a fast turnover of stock. Not only are they cheaper, but batteries go off over a period of time, losing power of their own accord. Never buy a dusty battery.
Boss effects pedals were used during the test partly because they are (arguably) the most popular make in Britain, and partly because those nice men at Roland were kind enough to print the current drain figures on their specification sheets. "Current drain" is the amount of current the pedal draws — the higher the figure (Roland measure theirs in milliamps, or mA), the shorter the time the battery lasts.
Roland/Boss's most power-profligate pedals are the new digital delays like the DD2, which draw upwards of 55mA. To be fair to the makers, they do recommend that you use a remote power supply (their £19 ACA220 in fact), but for One Two's purposes a high-drain pedal meant that sitting around waiting for the battery to run down was a more pleasant experience.
The next most thirsty effect in the Boss range is their BF2 Flanger (at 15mA). The analogue delay takes 11mA, while the hugely popular CE2 chorus uses 9mA. At the bottom end of the scale come the overdrive and distortion units, such as the SD1 employed in our tests, which draws a poultry 3.5mA — mere chickenfeed. (Ahem.)
Diligent readers of instructions might have noticed that effects manufacturers always recommend that the pedal input should have its jack removed when not in use. This is not idle advice, as the insertion of a jack plug therein is what turns the device on.
According to our electrical consultant, Adrian 'Sparky' Legg, actually turning the effect on and lighting up the LED will only add an extra 2mA to the current drain. This may seen significant on the less demanding pedals like the overdrives, but on the digital units the difference is negligible.
Intensifying the effect, from mild chorus to a peculiar gobbling noise on the flanger, for example, will only make a minimal difference to the current drain on your battery, so don't stint on the excess just to save a milliamp here or there. If you want to save volts, unplug. Or should you?
Them thar TV adverts tell us that alkaline batteries give up to five times more power than conventional batteries when in continuous use (for "power" read "use"). This "continuous use" gives the lie to all that money you and I have been shelling out over the last year or three. In continuous use, subjected to a load roughly equivalent to a DD2 digital delay (180 ohms), our batteries performed as follows:
Ordinary — 1.67 hours useable life
Super — 2.2 hours useable life
Alkaline — 10 hours useable life
If we take these figures and divide them by the prices of the respective batteries, we get a figure for hours per pound sterling (these were the cheapest batteries of each type we could find):
Ordinary — 1.67 hours @ £0.63 = 2.65 hours per £1
Super — 2.2 hours @ £0.87 = 2.53 hours/£1
Alkaline — 10 hours @ £1.60 = 6.25 hours/£1
Gosh. The makers (or advertisers) are right — expensive batteries give better value for money. If you use them all the time, without ever turning them off.
But what should happen, perchance your rehearsals didn't last 10 hours, and you wanted to turn the pedal off? Perhaps you only needed it for half an hour per day? It just so happens that the One Two ammeter electricals have some relevant figures right here, again for an 180 ohms (=50mA at 9 volts) draining pedal only being used for 30 minutes each day:
Ordinary — 7½ hours @ £0.63 = 12 hours per £1
Super — 10½ hours @ £0.87 = 12 hours per £1
Alkaline — 11½ hours @ £1.60 = 7 hours per £1
Not so gosh. These figures have been rounded up from their previous approximations (the Super gave slightly better figures than the Ordinary), but the general effect is apparent: if you are nice to zinc carbon and zinc chloride batteries, they will repay your kindness by giving you more volts for you moolah.
Away from the heady world of digital delay footpedals, we find that power consumption figures for the less demanding CE2 chorus are not so alarming. This light blue box sips delicately at the current at a mere 9mA (or around 1000 ohms). When in use for two hours each day, we get these far healthier readings:
Ordinary — 42 hours @ £0.63 = 66½ hrs/£1
Super — 60 hours @ £0.87 = 69 hrs/£1
Alkaline — 69 hours @ £1.60 = 43 hrs/£1
Should your gigs or rehearsals be slightly lengthier affairs, say around four hours per day, your chorus pedal should behave in roughly the following manner:
Ordinary — 36 hours @ £0.63 = 57 hrs/£1
Super — 54 hours @ £0.87 = 62hrs/£1
Alkaline — 63 hours @ £1.60 = 39½hrs/£1
As for the positively Saharan SD1 overdrive pedal, its 3.5mA current drain imbues any battery that ventures into its circuitry with virtual immortality. Unfortunately, this long life precludes the possibility of serious testing, as even fearless investigative One Two persons need to go out for a bite to eat. Figures in excess of 200 hours service life have been reported for alkaline batteries: long lime = better value.
Whether or not it makes financial sense to buy a remote power supply for your effects pedals is a question of degree. If the sole piece of external hardware in your set-up is a frugal little overdrive, then you need to use it continuously for more than four months to make the expense of a power supply worthwhile.
Talking of expense, a Boss ACA220, which supplies electric to one pedal, has a list price of £19. On top of that (though they may be slightly less in the shops) you must add the cost of a shaver adaptor, as Boss power units come supplied with two-pin plugs. A mistake.
Should you wish to power more than one pedal, it might be worth your while considering the PSM5, which can feed up to five at a time (or double as an effects loop selector). The PSM5, with its own power lead, will cost in the region of £85.
Back to that question of degree: should you be using a lone high-drain pedal (eg: the Boss DD series), a £19 power adaptor is good news; at roughly seven hours for £1 of battery, it doesn't take long to recoup its worth. But what if you're using the Boss carrying-case regulation maximum of five effects? (Who do you think you are, Adrian Belew?)
Assuming an average power consumption of 9mA for each pedal, and a use of roughly four hours per day, I just happen to have some figures that I prepared before the programme:
Ordinary — 57 hrs/£1/pedal = 57 hrs/£5 = 969 hours/£85
Super — 62 hrs/£1 pedal = 62hrs/£5 = 1054 hours/£85
Alkaline — 39½ hrs/£1/pedal = 39½ hrs/£5 = 671½ hours/£85
To put these figures into perspective, 1054 hours of use represents something like 250 rehearsals. It seems that you have to consider the possible length of your career in music-making before investing in an £85 remote power supply.
But before you rush off to the shops to lay in stocks of batteries, there is a further perspective we should consider: our figures are crude averages. Batteries do not all run down at the same rate; anticipating the imminent demise of any one of five power cells, particularly before gigs, is not easy — the only foolproof solution being to replace all the batteries before every important musical occasion. Molto expensive.
Add to this the obvious psychological advantages of knowing that your effects are not about to pack up, and the prospect of spending money on remote power sources begins to look more attractive.
The figures quoted in this article are a combination of empirical observation and data supplied by Ever Ready and Varta.
For the type of use that we normally subject effects pedals to, the PP3-type battery which offers the best value is the high-energy zinc chloride. Not the more expensive alkaline, nor the cheaper zinc carbon battery, but the mid-range model.
Power supplies are expensive, but the security they offer is often considered worth the money — after all, if you can afford more than three pedals, what's another £85?
Feature by Jon Lewin
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