REVIEW: RJM Music Technology Tone Saver buffer

If you’ve ever tried to use a pedal (or ten) with a couple of long cables, you’ve undoubtedly discovered the horrible tone suck that can occur. It usually manifests itself as a loss of treble, a noticeable dynamic weakness and a general cloudiness of detail. But there’s a way around it: an audio buffer will prevent the signal from being robbed of its sparkle. RJM Music Technology has been including buffers as an essential element of their highly regarded audio switching systems for years, but now this circuit is available in a pedal-sized, 9v-powered magic black box in the form of the Tone Saver.

The Tone Saver can be used in a bunch of different ways: at the start or end of a pedalboard, in an effects loop, or simply as a standalone unit for players who want to plug straight into the amp but who also need to use a long cable run on a big stage. It doesn’t add anything to your tone, but it prevents it from getting lost. There’s a single input and two outputs (a regular one and a transformer isolated output for splitting your signal to a second amp or to a tuner), an almost-hidden gain adjustment, and a green LED which lets you know the power is flowing. Although it runs on 9 volts like most pedals (via an adaptor), the Tone Saver internally converts this up to 18 volts, giving you increased audio performance and more headroom. If you use a TRS (Tip/Ring/Sleeve) cable, the isolated output doubles as a balanced output, allowing you to send the signal to a balanced guitar input. There’s a Ground Lift switch for the Iso Output jack hidden away inside the unit if you need it.

The isolated output means you can send the signal to a second amp without getting that awful ground hum that can ruin your tone and your day. Or it can be sent to a tuner so you can monitor your tuning in real time as you play, without the tuner messing with your audio signal. This is especially handy for those who like to do the old David Gilmour trick of watching the needle on the tuner while performing string bends in the studio!

I tested the Tone Saver at several locations in my rig: at the start and end of a pedalboard, in the effect loop of my amp when using delay and reverb pedals, and as part of a small recording rig with a tuner, wah wah pedal and the TC Electronic Spark Booster. Wherever I placed it the result was the same: an articulate sound with a definite sense of ‘air’ around the notes compared to an unbuffered signal with the same cable length. Just like with using a very short cable, clean tones take on a dynamic depth reminiscent an acoustic or unplugged electric guitar. Distorted signals have more harmonic richness, attack and detail. But the real star is that semi-overdriven, vintage-tinged classic rock sound. The Tone Saver restores the separation between the notes of ringing open chords, and it seems to enhance the harmonic overtones of double-stops too. And with up to 15db of boost available from the Gain Adjust control, you can either use the Tone Saver to restore a little lost signal or to really heat up anaemic-sounding pickups or a wimpy preamp channel.

By the way, it’s important to experiment with your signal chain order if you want to get the most out of the Tone Saver. Some vintage wah wah and fuzz pedals work best when they’re interacting directly with your guitar’s pickups, and a buffer will mess with these pedals’ ability to reach their full potential. So if you have an old-school fuzz or wah, try placing the Tone Saver after them instead of before, so you can maintain the strength of their output signal.

After playing with the Tone Saver for a few days I realised that the best way to really appreciate what it does to a long cable run is to take it out of the signal chain for a few minutes. When you play without it, it’s almost like putting your hands over your ears, or a blanket over your speaker cabinet. Obviously it makes less of a difference for short cable runs, but any signal can benefit from its tonal mojo. And the unit itself is so low-profile that you can easily stash it on the underside of most pedalboards, leaving all your precious pedalboard surface space for your actual pedals.

The Tone Saver is an unassuming, subtle little unit, but once you try to go without it you’ll really start to miss it. It doesn’t change your tone – it prevents long or otherwise crappy cables from robbing you of your tone. It gives you back the detail and dynamic range that true bypass pedals can take away from you when they’re bypassed, and it just generally helps your music to sound as clear and refined as possible. It’s not an effect, yet its impact on the guitar’s sound is so helpful, musical and useful that it’s practically essential for anyone who uses pedals or lengthy cable runs.

You can buy the Tone Saver directly from RJM Music here.