Before or After Dirt
So you’ve narrowed down your favorite pedals and finally bought that pedalboard kit. The next step is often a roadblock for the tone seeker- effects order. It can be especially crucial if you’ve got oddly shaped pedals and you want to cut cables to exact lengths and hopefully do this one time only! Well, the real question to ask yourself is, “do I place it before or after dirt?” Since distortion can have an extreme change in the natural character of pedals, this simple question may help reduce the overwhelming possibilities of effects placement.
Tuner: You probably want to spend the least amount of time tuning, so put this guy first so 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 your tone.
Image Credit whatsthatdudeplay.com
Compressor/Volume/Boost: The compressor has always been favored by guitarists at the beginning of the chain. Since compressors have a great affect on your 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 amount of dirt to 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 Shift: This includes analog and digital pitch changers like a Whammy, octave, ring modulator and synth-like effects. 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. Recently, the Digitech Harmony Man opened up the possibility of pre-harmony distortion with a separate send and return for your dirt pedals.
Wah/EQ: Place it before dirt if you want a less jarring effect. Say you have it half cocked for a midrange boost, a distortion after the 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 Tubescreamer for instance, 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, in a good way, before wah. A great example for your ears is the tune “Maggot Brain.” by either Funkadelic or J. Mascis. Both versions have blazing fuzz into wah sound.
EQ pedals have a wider frequency range and can be placed pretty much anywhere on the board. EQ at the front of your board will change the way your effects react. Take for instance the Duncan Pickup Booster, which virtually turns single coils into humbuckers. Your overdrive or phaser, for instance, will clip at different points with hotter pickups. When playing bass in a side project, 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 FX I used saw the full range from the pickups.
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Modulation: I’m basically lumping phaser, chorus/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 into a dirty Marshall sounds, this is essentially the same configuration because the amp distortion is after modulation. There are no rules though, so chorus pedals can be placed after dirt to sound more metallic and flange-like. A flanger is definitely not one to be pigeon holed either since those EVH jet plane sounds are most likely a distortion driving it. On the other side, 80’s fusion flange/chorus tones are most likely before distortion to sound smoother. For vibes, I always hear great arguments from both sides. Hendrix’s “Star Spangles Banner” was a Fuzz Face into a Univibe 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:
Distortion, overdrive and fuzz can be ‘safe’ in this position. But what about using multiple types, you say? Fuzz can be a fickle beast, especially germanium transistor 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 like the 3 Xotic Booster 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.
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…
An FX Loop is an entirely different issue but I can’t resist mentioning it for these two effects. If you have an effects loop, you will notice a cleaner echo repeat and less muddiness. It’s similar to adding a delay plug-in to a guitar track on your recording software versus one right after your 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 sits 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 tone 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. Sorry I didn’t get to Multi FX pedals, though the RP1000 has the right idea with their FX routing both before and after your preamp section.
See you next time in the corner,