Close up of a keyboard.

Choosing a Sustain Pedal

This article looks at a variety of sustain, or damper, pedals on the market, and offers some thoughts, observations, and advice to help you make an informed choice when buying one.

I’m fortunate in that my local music store carries a good range of sustain pedals, as shown in the photo below. From left to right they are the Roland DP2, Roland DP10, Yamaha FC4, Yamaha FC3, Korg DS1H, and M-Audio SP2. The prices, shown in Japanese Yen, give some indication to readers living in other countries of the relative price of each pedal (UK prices are shown in the chart at the end of this article).

A display of six sustain pedals.

Many keyboard manufacturers seem to describe the humble sustain pedal as an ‘optional extra’. However, for piano sounds (acoustic or electric), ensemble sounds, and synth pads, the sustain pedal could better be described as an ‘optional necessity’!

A sustain pedal is simply a non-latching on/off switch, and thus requires no batteries or power source. All the pedals I have seen terminate in a quarter-inch jack plug, and have quite long leads, typically around six feet, which is long enough to reach a keyboard on the upper tier of a two-tier keyboard stand adjusted for playing standing up.

Some sustain pedals closely resemble the pedals found on real pianos, both in size and shape, whereas others are smaller and flatter. All good pedals will have a non-slip rubber base to provide the maximum amount of friction between the pedal and the floor. This is important as pedals have a tendency to slide backwards in use. However, the top-of-the-range Roland DP10 pedal gets around this problem by having a thick piece of rubber that swivels around from under the pedal to give a base for your heel, see photo below, making it much less likely to slide away in use. Full marks to Roland for this design.

The Roland DP10 sustain pedal, showing its swivel out rubber base for the heel.

The piano-style pedals featured in this article all offer a degree of resistance approximating that of a real piano. As a pianist I’ve never given a second thought to pedal resistance on a piano, so providing the pedal you want to buy has a reasonably stiff resistance when operated by hand on the shelf or counter, I’m sure it will feel fine under foot.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus between manufacturers concerning polarity. This means that when some pedals are connected to some keyboards, pressing the pedal will turn off the sustain – the exact opposite of what should happen. The easiest way to avoid this problem is simply to buy a pedal from the same manufacturer as your keyboard. However, this severely restricts choice so the other option, at the risk of stating the obvious, is to ask at the store if the pedal you want is suitable for your keyboard. Take your keyboard in if necessary, but before doing this check to see if your keyboard has a ‘sustain polarity’ setting in one of the menus. If it has you have no worries, but if the worst comes to the worst, and for whatever reason you find yourself with a mismatch, simply reverse the connections in the jack plug. If your soldering skills are not up to the task, any place that repairs electronic equipment should be able to do the job quickly and cheaply.

At this point the M-Audio pedal deserves a special mention, as it is the only pedal featured in this article to have a polarity switch, making it truly universal. The switched is recessed into the underside and is shown in the photo on the right below.

The M-Audio pedal viewed from above and below.

With the exception of the Roland DP2, all the pedals have strong plastic bodies, with the actual pedal parts being made out of metal. The DP2 is all plastic, and probably robust enough to do the job, but the other pedals inspire more confidence. However, the DP2 is significantly cheaper than piano-style pedals and represents good value for money. I’ve had mine for over twenty years, but carry it around as a spare as I find it a little stubby and lightweight.

The Yamaha FC2 sustain pedal.The Yamaha FC5 is flatter and wider than the Roland DP2 making it, arguably, more comfortable under foot. Its all-metal construction makes it robust, and the rubber pads covering the top and base help reduce slip. It does slide backwards, perhaps even more so than the larger piano-style pedals, but it continues to function well at oblique angles and is easy to clasp between your feet to pull back into position at an appropriate moment. The other advantage is that it’s smaller and lighter than the piano-style pedals. Priced at 1.575 Japanese Yen it's only slightly more expensive than the Roland DP2.

Conclusion

For home use any of the piano-type pedals featured in this article would be good, particularly on a carpeted floor. I’ve used three of the five piano-style pedals appearing in the first photograph and found that in spite of having rubber bases they all slip backwards too easily in use. The Roland DP10, which I haven't used, with its swivel-round base for the heel, looks as though it wouldn't suffer from the same problem. Also, the larger size and weight of the Yamaha FC3 may prevent it from slipping back as much as some of the others. For the gigging keyboard player the pedals could be taped to the floor, or placed on a piece of carpet, to prevent them slipping, but this all adds to the workload and setting-up time.

Of the seven pedals featured in this article (five of which I’ve actually used live), I particularly like the Yamaha FC5. I’ve used mine a countless number of times, on different continents, over a good number of years, and have no complaints.

Sustain or Damper?

A sustain pedal and a damper pedal perform the same function – they make a note continue to sound even when the note is released. In other words they ‘sustain’ the note.

Acoustic pianos have felt ‘dampers’ resting on the strings to stop them vibrating unless a note is played, in which case the damper lifts off the strings but returns to ‘damp’ the sound when the note is released. A damper pedals lifts all the dampers off the strings so that when a note is released the damper doesn’t return to the strings, thus allowing it to sustain. As keyboards and synthesizers generally don’t have dampers, ‘sustain’ pedal is technically a more accurate description than ‘damper’ pedal.

 

Table showing the UK prices of the pedals mentioned in this article (prices obtained from Amazon UK, November 2011).

Yamaha
Roland
Korg
M-Audio
FC3
FC4
FC5
DP2
DP10
DS1H
SP2
£46.27
£32
£19
£15
£35
£35.64
£22.74

 

Read a full review of the M-Audio SP2 Sustain Pedal.

 


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Just arrived on this site:

Sept. 25, 2017. This month sees the addition of a new piece of music - Heaven's Door.

Aug. 29, 2017. This month I've added a small selection of old photographs to a new page entitled Gallery - Archive.

July 26, 2017. The question I attempt to answer this month is Why Pay For Music? Leaving aside the legal argument there is much more to consider. Read the article to find out more.

June 28, 2017. This month features an article on how to make DIY Acoustic Panels that don't need attaching to a wall with screws or glue.

May 29, 2017. New this month is a selection of six Royalty Free Radio Jingles.

April 30, 2017. After a half-year break from adding new material to this site, I've added an article / review on Headphone Holders.

Jan. ~ Mar. 2017. New posts coming soon.

_________________

Sometime Somewhere...

cd

A relaxing Smooth Jazz CD. Listen to extracts of all 12 tracks now.

 

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