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Are You Making the Most of Your Effects Chain?!

June 7, 2016

It’s a question we get here at PGS all the time: “What order should I put my new pedals in? Do I put my Mr. Black DoubleChorus before my Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret or after? Help!”

Pairing multiple pedals in your effects chain raises a great question about what order to place your effects—primarily related to where to place effects in relation to dirt. As always, everyone’s mileage varies—we always recommended trying your pedals in multiple configurations and going with the placement that your ears like best. In the meantime, here’s a rundown with our take on effects placement.

image from artemiscornwallace.tumblr.com

Before Dirt:

Tuner: You probably want to spend the least amount of time tuning, so put this guy first and you don’t have to turn off any pitch-altering pedals. Some people even put the tuner through a bypass box since it doesn’t do anything for the tone.

Compressor/Volume/Boost: The compressor has always been favored by guitarists at the beginning of the chain. Since compressors have a great effect on the approach, dynamics and sustain, placing it towards the front will “preserve the funk” no matter the pedal combination. Volume pedals placed in the beginning react more like the guitar’s volume knob. It will reduce the maximum amount of dirt of an overdrive or give you spacey volume swells before a delay. Volume pedals serve the role of a master volume when at the end of the pedalboard. The exact tone you have will be lowered as if turning down your amp. It’s always a good idea to still place it before delay/reverb to fade out gracefully. Last, a boost is commonly placed after a compressor to compensate for heavy compression or boost lower output pickups. If you have it setup to buffer, place it before your tuner to help those long cables. Of course, a boost will work virtually anywhere in your chain. Try one as a line driver, right before an amp, to make up for any tone sucker pedals.

Pitch Shifting: This includes analog and digital pitch effects like a Whammyoctave, ring modulator and synth-like boxes.  Placing these before dirt is very crucial when it comes to accurate tracking of the guitar signal. Monophonic analog pedals especially like a clean signal or else they get “confused” and warble all over the place. Personally, I place all “tracking” effects after a compressor in order for these pedals to track a signal with its peaks flattened.

Wah/EQ: Place it before dirt if you want a less jarring effect. Let’s say you have it half-cocked for a midrange boost, a distortion after a wah will amplify that frequency while staying in the confines of the distortion’s parameters, maintaining its natural range and character. That same midrange boost after a Tube Screamer will amplify other frequencies not constrained by the overdrive’s output level and inherent compression. The latter is a radical shift in tone which can be effective for de-mudding a scooped fuzz. Personally, I think some fuzz pedals sounds nasty before wah, in a good way. A great example for is the tune “Maggot Brain” by either Funkadelic or J. Mascis. Both versions have blazing fuzz-into-wah sounds.

EQ pedals have a wider frequency range and can be placed pretty much anywhere on the board. When placed at the front of the board, EQ will change the way your effects react. For instance, the Duncan Pickup Booster virtually turns single coils into humbuckers. An overdrive or phaser, for instance, will clip at different points with hotter pickups. When playing bass, I used an EQ at the end of my board to roll off some of the ultra-low frequencies that my old tube amp couldn’t quite produce. That way the compressor and other effects I used saw the full range from the pickups.

Modulation: I’m basically lumping phaserchorus/flange and vibe effects here. These pedals all have a ‘swish’ of some kind. Placing them before distortion will retain the same swish range as when they’re on by themselves. If you like the way a phaser sounds when fed into a dirty Marshall, this is essentially the same configuration because the amp distortion is after modulation. However, there are no rules, so chorus pedals can be placed after dirt to sound more metallic and flange-like. A flanger is definitely not one to be pigeonholed either since those EVH jet sounds most likely have a distortion driving them. On the other side, ‘80s fusion flange and chorus tones are most likely before distortion to sound smoother. For vibes, I always hear great arguments from both sides. Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” was a Fuzz Face iinto a Uni-Vibe but Robin Trower is known to use it the other way around. Some even say fuzz, vibe, and then overdrive to rid the raspy-ness! Maybe the rule of thumb for modulation is lush-pre distortion and intense swish-post distortion.

 

Finally… A Spot for Your Dirt:

Distortionoverdrive and fuzz can be ‘safe’ in this position. “But what about using multiple types,” you say? Fuzz can be a fickle beast, especially germanium-equipped pedals as they don’t have the headroom to take a hot signal. The result is usually a crispy sound that lacks the warmth and softer attack we love about fuzz. For this reason, I put my fuzz pedals first and then overdrive that sound. Here at PGS, I’ve stacked quite a few dirt pedals; three different overdrives placed in various order can produce some very unique sounds. Again, there aren’t any wrong ways to connect them, just different.

 

After Dirt:

 

Delay/Reverb:As I mentioned earlier, flange and chorus could end up here since they are in the same family as delay. Whether it’s digital or analog, I haven’t found too many people that disagree with placing delay at the end of the board. It makes sure every nuance like a fast wah flutter or crazy flange oscillation will be repeated again and again.

If you have an effects loop, it will come in handy for running delay and reverb through it—you will notice a cleaner echo repeat and less muddiness. It’s similar to adding a delay plug-in to a guitar track on recording software versus one right after a Big Muff. The plug-in delay would have a fuller, more distinguishable effect. Plus, using the FX Loop gives you more control of the wet levels. Reverb pedals sit right at home in an effects loop. Like a built-in spring reverb, it is placed after the preamp stage. Just remember the tone of the reverb in an effects loop is now affected by your amp’s settings. If you’ve noticed your reverb and delay are too murky, give that FX loop a shot.

Tremolo: Just like an amplifier’s trem circuit, you will most likely place tremolo at the end of your board. Some place it after delay but before reverb so the tremolo pulses always dominate any tempo coming from the delay repeats. It’s really up to you which sound you’re going for. For a machine-gun stutter, you definitely want to put it dead last for a distinct on-off sound. However, it doesn’t sound very organic to hear a chopping reverb signal, so keep that it mind.


That’s my take on effects placement and it’s a general guideline that is made to be broken. I just slap Velcro on all my pedals so nothing is permanent.

 

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