Guitar pedal order, or the order in which you place your effects pedals in your signal chain, is a well-covered subject on the Internet. You can find plenty of recommended FX-pedal signal chains, but always with conflicting information and the inevitable disclaimer: “Your mileage may vary, use your ears and experiment.”
Despite sounding like a copout, it has its basis in truth. The reason for this is that with so many pedals on the market and new ones arriving every day, it’s hard to predict how they will behave when combined with other pedals (and therein can be found a somewhat original sound).
However, there is an inherent logic to pedal placement that once understood, not only explains the conventional wisdom of pedal placement, but also turns organizing your pedals into a creative endeavor rather than a hit-or-miss exercise.
Often you’ll read recommendations that say things such as “put your time-based effects after your modulation effects.” Fine. What does that mean? What are time-based effects as opposed to modulation effects, and if you have a few different types of modulation effects, where do you place them in relation to one another?
For example, chorus, phasers and flangers are all modulation-type effects, so which one goes where?
Once you understand what each pedal type does to the clean signal coming out of your guitar (or the pedal ahead of it), you’ll know how to place them—or at very least have a solid foundation for your experiments in order to produce a sound all your own.
- Secrets of Guitar Pedal Placement
- True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass
- Sidechain Effects
- Following The Signal Chain of Your Amp
- Pedal Function and Behavior Determines Placement
- The First Part of the Signal Chain
- Dynamics Processors
- EQ Guitar Pedal Placement
- Modulation Pedal Implementation
- Say OK to Reverb and Delay
- Volume Pedal Placement
- Where to Place Specialty Pedals in the Signal Chain
- Noise Suppressors, Expanders, and Gates
- Guitar Effect Pedal Management
- Digital Multi-Effects Units vs. Analog Pedal Chains
- Putting it All Together
Secrets of Optimal Guitar Pedal Order
The first secret to understanding pedal placement is to understand how each main effects category works in terms of how they alter sound.
The next big secret of pedal placement is to think about how each type of effects pedal works in terms of its position in the chain.
Put simply, a pedal changes the sound of the unit ahead of it (or the sound that is the sum of the units ahead of it), which then feeds an altered waveform to the unit after it.
For example, if you feed your guitar to a compressor going into a distortion pedal followed by an EQ pedal, the EQ doesn’t change the sound of the guitar or compressor alone, but it does change the sound of the distortion being fed by a compressed guitar. You could think of it as equalizing a compressed, distorted guitar.
However, the EQ does not change the output gain or frequency range of the guitar as it goes into the compressor, or the input signal going into the distortion pedal—but it does change the sum of their sounds. It also changes the signal that feeds the next effects unit in the chain, which in turn alters the sound of everything ahead of it, and so on.
Put simply, when you’re deciding the position of two pedals, for example EQ and distortion, ask yourself if you want to EQ your guitar and then distort it, or EQ your distorted guitar.
In a previous article, we discussed the main categories of guitar effects pedals and how they work, which also provided some basic clues in terms of how to place them in an effects chain.
Now we’re going to go deeper in terms of how the pedals respond to input signals and how they interact.
Once you have a solid understanding of how effects pedals behave in terms of signal flow, instead of hit-or-miss experimentation, setting up your effects chain will become a logical and creative endeavor. Much like soloing, you can either learn other people’s licks, or you can come up with your own riffs. This is when you can create a custom guitar pedal order that works for your own sound.
Before we get into the depths of pedal placement, we’re going to discuss a few important concepts.
True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass
Vintage tone aficionados believe in true bypass and nothing but the true bypass for effects pedals.
True bypass provides the shortest signal path with no extra components in the circuit to color your tone—at least that’s the theory. In short it’s just a hard wire from point A to point B, or a “short,” if you will (only it doesn’t blow anything up).
Buffered bypass, on the other hand, senses a drop in signal level when bypass is engaged and sends some of the output to the input signal to compensate for signal loss. The buffered bypass can change tone, since it’s an active circuit.
Now, the reality is that both methods of bypass can affect your signal. True bypass pedals have the unfortunate tendency to make loud pops when switched in and out of circuit, due to changes in impedance, capacitors discharging DC into ground, or noise from mechanical switches.
True bypass also can degrade tone in large pedal chains.
For example, if you have a 20-foot cable from your guitar into your pedal chain, plus 1-foot cables between 10 pedals and a 30-foot cable running to your amp, that’s 59 feet of cable your signal passes through when all pedals are in bypass.
That length of unbalanced cable will cause a drop in input impedance, which will load pickups, particularly low-output vintage pickups, which in turn will cause loss of volume and high frequencies. Long runs of unbalanced cable are also susceptible to noise and radio frequencies, further degrading your sound.
Switching specific pedals in and out of the chain will also change the impedance the guitar sees, so, while true bypass sounds good in theory, in practice, it isn’t always the best method of bypass (which is why buffered bypass was invented).
The point is that either method may affect your tone, but with buffered bypass, you are getting a constant full signal with no change in tonal characteristics regardless of which pedals you switch in and out.
In fact, Pete Cornish, pedal maker to the stars, does not use true bypass for these very reasons, and his clients include The Police; Queen; Pink Floyd; Dire Straits; Paul McCartney; Sting; Jimmy Page; Judas Priest; and Black Sabbath, among others. All have used these pedals on their records.
Conclusion: All electronics color sound to some degree. All that matters is that you get a sound you like—don’t worry about the electronics. As legendary producer Joe Meek once said, “If it sounds right, it is right.” (Meek and his associate, Ted Fletcher, built compressors in cigar boxes on the fly during recording sessions that spawned groundbreaking records.)
Sidechain effects are any effect that is processed in parallel or alongside the original signal, hence the word, “sidechain.” The unprocessed signal as it enters a parallel processor is called, “dry,” while the processed signal is referred to as, “wet.”
On effects units that process in this way, there is a control labeled, Wet/Dry Mix, or simply Wet/Dry. This control enables you to dial in the amount of processed signal along with the dry signal.
While any effects processor can be processed in parallel to an audio signal, certain effects units must be processed in parallel. These include reverbs and delays. The reason for this is that both derive their functions from a direct sound reflecting in a room. These reflections are mixed together with your dry signal in reality space.
Running a signal directly through a reverb or delay and processing it 100% wet will completely wash out your sound or overwhelm it with delays. Since most FX pedals process 100% of your signal, effects loops on guitar amps tend to be serial (signal runs fully through one to the next), and that’s where the Wet/Dry Mix control comes in, allowing your to mix wet and dry sound in a serial signal chain.
Following The Signal Chain of Your Amp
Okay, we’ve had enough general theory. Let’s get down to how we place pedals and why.
Perhaps the most obvious clue for pedal arrangement is also probably the most overlooked. To get a sense of how to arrange effects pedals, all you have to do is follow the signal path through each section of your guitar amp.
Another clue is to pay attention to what the pedal is trying to emulate, which will also provide clues for where in the signal chain they should go.
For example, sound leaves your speaker cabinet and then reverberates in a room. It follows that a speaker emulation device should be placed near the end of your pedal chain, followed by a reverb or delay unit.
Getting back to our signal path analogy, the signal flowing from your guitar goes into the preamp of the guitar amp. Its strength is increased with the gain control.
Following the preamp is the equalizer section, which feeds into the power amp, whose output is controlled by a master volume knob (usually).
If the guitar amp has an effects loop, it’s placed after the preamp and EQ and before the power amp.
If it has built-in reverb, you’ll find that just ahead of the master output volume. The amp’s built-in reverb signal is processed in parallel to your dry guitar signal, otherwise, it would completely wash out your sound.
Signal Flow in Recording Console Channel Strips
A recording console channel strip is set up similarly, starting with input trim control (preamp gain), followed by a channel insert (for a compressor), then EQ, effects sends, and finally the channel volume fader (master volume).
The effects sends, also known as “aux sends,” equate to the effects loop on a guitar amp. With recording consoles, reverbs and delays are assigned to the aux channels and processed parallel to the dry signal.
However, aux effects channels are not just for reverb and echo. In mixing consoles, other effects are placed there, such as chorus, flange, phase shift, pitch shift, and even compressors.
All of these effects run parallel to the channel’s input signal, which means the order they are placed in doesn’t matter, since the entire signal does not pass directly through the effects and their outputs all wind up at the main left-right bus together.
This would only hold true on a guitar amp if its effect loop send and return is a parallel loop. If your amp has a serial loop, the sequence of pedals does matter, just as it does when placing your effects in front of the amp’s input.
What We Know So Far About Guitar Pedal Order
If we look at a console channel strip like an effects pedal chain, we already have a pretty good idea of how to arrange effects pedals.
The channel strip signal chain is preamp > insert > EQ > aux sends > channel fader.
Relating that to a guitar effects chain, we start with gain altering devices, such as preamp, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz; possibly a compressor; followed by EQ; then reverb and delay, and finally a volume control.
The only category that remains to be sorted out is modulation effects.
In a mixing console they’re used as aux send/returns, which places them after channel EQ and before the channel fader. It follows that in our pedal chain, we should put them in the same position as the aux effects, which is before the channel fader, or in the case of an effects pedal chain, before a volume pedal.
But that’s where the similarity ends.
Guitar effects are designed to mangle a sound, while a mixing console tries to keep as clean and natural a signal as possible, with effects added very subtly (the mixer’s secret sauce).
To sort out guitar effects properly we’ll have to drill down a little deeper into the function of each type of effect and what it’s trying to do to a signal, or what components of sound it’s trying to emulate.
For now, the important thing is that we have our basic signal chain regardless of effects type: Gain > EQ > FX sends (modulation, reverb-delay) > volume.
Pedal Function and Behavior Determines Placement
Certain pedals respond to input gain for their basic operating principle. These include preamp pedals, compressors, expanders, and noise gates.
Other pedals give the illusion of dealing with gain, which include overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals.
However, input and output signal strength are not dealt with as an operating principle, rather, gain-based functions are mimicked via the use of transistor multipliers. The important distinction with these pedals is that they are dependent on receiving a full-range signal and optimum input gain from the guitar.
Therefore, they need to be placed in the beginning of the signal chain.
Modulation pedals include chorus pedals, phase shifters, and flangers. They can thin out a signal by shifting it out of phase and alter its tonality in a constantly changing fashion.
Of these types of pedals, chorus has the ability to thicken a sound, as do certain other modulation pedals, such as the vintage MXR Flanger/Doubler, which, like a chorus, can use delays to thicken a sound, as its last name implies.
Since modulation effects are taking a full-range sound and manipulating it to create something unusual, you can think of overdrive/distortion as the burger, and modulation the secret sauce.
Time-Based Effect Pedals
And finally, we have time-based effects that emulate the characteristics of sound travelling in a room. Based on that alone, we should instinctively place them at the end of our effects chain.
Reverb tends to push a sound back in a mix, since it emulates sound reflecting over a distance. The more reverb, the greater the distance away from the listener, especially in a large room where your electronic reverb will connect with the room’s natural reverb and push your sound farther back in the mix.
There are certain reverb pedals that work for live performance, but not many. A good live performance reverb pedal needs a pre-delay (dry signal before reverb kicks in) in order to produce the effects of reverb while maintaining clarity.
What We Know Now About Effects Pedal Order
Painting in broad strokes and following the logic of our amplifier signal chain, we start with gain-based pedals going into modulation pedals, followed by time-based effects and then volume control.
One could argue that a compressor is a volume control, but since it’s an automatic control that seeks mainly to level sound, we can’t treat it the way we would a volume pedal.
The First Part of the Signal Chain
At least we’ve established that the pedals that should come first are preamp, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Despite the fact that these pedals emulate preamp distortion (except preamp pedals themselves), they need to be placed first in the pedal chain, since they depend on the full frequency range and output of the guitar, and also because they emulate the effects of the first part of the amplifier signal chain.
Fuzz pedals are different beasts, since they are not really manipulating gain to create distortion, but they still sound best when placed immediately after the guitar.
Since we have three types of distortion pedals (grouping preamp and overdrive), in what sequence to we place them?
In truth, it doesn’t really matter, since you usually won’t be using all three types at once. However, if you are using a true preamp pedal, it should go first.
And if you do decide to go nuts and use more than one type of distortion at once, we’ll sort it all out in a bit. The only thing to be sure of is that each pedal of this type has access to the guitar’s full signal via bypass.
Following the channel strip logic, we go from input preamp to channel insert where a compressor is normally place. Looking at the various dynamics pedals, such as compressors and noise gates, we realize that not all are designed to be at the front of a signal chain—so where do they go? Let’s start with the most common type of dynamics pedal, the compressor.
Should You Even Use a Compressor Pedal?
Whether or not you use a compressor depends on the style of music you play and how you play.
We know that compressors take a varying input signal and produce a more constant output level. This can be useful if you’re playing clean styles, such as country. A compressor provides a consistent level between strings, which is good for switching between single-note phrases and arpeggios.
Compressors can add sustain to clean sounds and emphasize attack. If you’re going for the country twang, a compressor can be your best friend.
Using Compressors With Distortion Pedals
When used with distortion and overdrive pedals, a compressor may not be your best bro. Here’s why:
Tube and speaker distortion produce a natural compression, which has the effect of making your sound smaller. You can prove this to yourself with an amp that switches between clean and distortion. Play the distorted channel first and then switch to clean as you play; you’ll hear the sound get bigger.
A compressor placed after a distortion or fuzz pedal will make the sound even smaller and bury you in the mix.
Plus, since compression increases overall average level, it also raises the noise floor of your entire system, so you’ll be adding unwanted noise to your tone.
A compressor placed ahead of an overdrive pedal defeats the purpose of the overdrive, since the point of overdrive is to change from clean to crunch based on the changing output or dynamics of the guitar.
Recall that a compressor limits dynamics, and for the most part, dynamics are what we want—especially if we want to switch between clean and crunch sounds.
Think about it: with overdrive, the harder you play, the more distortion you get due to the higher signal from the guitar. With a compressor, the harder you play, or louder the input signal, the more the compressor clamps down and reduces output.
The softer the signal going into the compressor, the less it acts. If your guitar signal to the compressor does not cross the compressor’s threshold, the output stays at unity, or at normal voltage, which effectively raises volume in relation to when the compressor is doing what it does best; gain reduction.
In short, a compressor and overdrive pedal work exactly opposite to one another: with overdrive, the softer you play, the cleaner the sound; the harder you play, the more distortion you get.
The harder your play into a compressor, the softer the output, since the compressor is now doing what it’s designed to do: turn the volume down. If you play softer, the compressor turns up the volume as output returns to unity gain. This combination takes the natural action of overdrive and turns it inside out.
Using Compressors with Tube Amps
If you use a tube amp for overdrive and crunch, placing a compressor ahead of the preamp will give you a more focused sound for rock styles, plus added sustain, but it does contradict the natural action of volume changes creating clean and overdrive tones.
Basically, it limits your window of volume change, hence the more focused sound.
If you use the guitar’s volume control to switch between clean and crunch, a compressor is not your friend. Once you drop the guitar’s volume down to 6 or below, your sound will completely disappear in the stage mix. If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to leave your guitar’s volume on 10 at all times.
Since, as we discussed, compression makes a signal smaller, it follows that a boost pedal after a compressor-distortion chain may be necessary in order for your sound to cut through on a solo.
EQ Guitar Pedal Placement
It’s important to realize that wherever you put your EQ in the signal chain, it not only affects the sound of everything placed after it, but it’s primarily changing the sound of what comes before it. If you put EQ before a chorus, you’re actually EQing the source that the chorus is hearing.
Referring back to the signal chain of a guitar amp, we reasoned that putting the EQ in between preamp and power amp made sense because we want to shape our sound with EQ and then raise or lower the overall volume of that sound as desired.
An EQ placed after a volume or boost pedal wouldn’t make sense because changes in volume will change the way the EQ “hears” the sound. Since EQ itself amplifies certain frequencies, the problem frequency you cut at one volume level may suck the body out of your guitar a lower level, while the frequency you wanted to emphasize at one volume may take your head off at a higher one.
Therefore, we put EQ after input gain but before master volume. Put it this way: you don’t heat the tea after you drink it.
The most important decision to make about EQ is whether or not to use it at all- does the sound really need EQ, or are you equalizing simply because you can?
EQ Pedals with Compressors
EQ before a compressor can change which frequencies the compressor responds to.
For example, since bass has the most acoustic energy, boosting bass will make the compressor act more aggressively, crushing your sound. Cutting bass will let more signal through before the compressor goes to work, but that can thin out your sound.
Unless you need to do some corrective equalizing to make the compressor respond the way you want, EQ should go after the compressor. Compressors can emphasize certain frequencies, and can easily kill high frequencies (if attack is too fast), so placing EQ after compression makes sense in order to bring your sound back into balance.
EQ and Distortion Pedals
Putting an EQ before distortion determines the frequency range the distortion acts on, but keep in mind that you’re EQing your guitar, not the distortion; you’re changing the signal the distortion sees.
Boosting high frequencies ahead of distortion will sound differently (smoother) than distorted high frequencies being boosted by EQ after the pedal, because you’re boosting the distortion itself, which includes harsh components that can grate on your ear bones.
However, putting EQ after distortion is a good thing if you’re trying to tame high-end fizz or bring out more midrange to cut through a mix. This is where experimentation with your equipment comes in. First listen to your overdriven or distorted sound and then decide if it needs EQ or not.
When to Place EQ Ahead of the Chain
There is one scenario where you would put an equalizer first in an effects chain. If you were playing a guitar that’s prone to unwanted feedback onstage, such as an acoustic-electric, hollowbody electric, or semi-hollow electric, a graphic equalizer placed first in the signal chain would make sense.
You’d use the graphic EQ to “ring out” your sound by cutting a narrow band where feedback occurs, hopefully without damaging your overall signal. Graphic equalizers are mainly for problem solving, not tone shaping. For tone shaping you’ll want a parametric or semi-parametric EQ.
Modulation Pedal Implementation
We’ve established that the sequence of effects pedals should follow the signal path of a guitar amp or recording console channel strip: preamp to compressor insert to EQ to aux sends to channel fader.
We’ve already determined that overdrive/distortion pedals should come first, either preceded or followed by a compressor (depending on musical style), and then EQ (whether you decide to use one or not). What comes next in our channel strip signal chain is the aux sends and returns.
In a mixing desk, you would use aux channels to send signals to reverbs and delays, as well as other effects, such as flange and chorus, which are modulation effects. In the mixing console scenario, the order of aux-send effects doesn’t matter, since they are sidechain effects that are processed in parallel to the main signal. However, in a guitar effects chain, effects are connected in series, which means the order they are placed does make a difference.
To decide where to go next, we need to broaden our view to encompass what these effects are trying to accomplish or emulate.
Since chorus tries to emulate the doubling effect of simultaneous voices (hence the name, “chorus”) and the thickening effects created by differences in pitch of each voice, it follows that chorus should be placed after distorted or overdrive pedals, since in essence; we’re doubling the guitar, whether clean or distorted, to create the chorusing effect.
Phase shifters duplicate the effect of comb filtering, but not as it naturally occurs, therefore they require special consideration, as does flanging, which is a phenomenon derived from manipulating tape machines in a way they weren’t designed to.
Since modulation effects employ phase shift and phase cancellation for their function, it follows that we would want a full range signal going into them, but since the signal leaving them can be thinner or fluctuating between highs and lows, we wouldn’t want to place them ahead of effects that require a full-range signal, such as overdrive and distortion.
In order for our pedal placement to make sonic sense, we should start with a full-range sound, clean or distorted, and then spin it around with modulation effects.
Chorus, Phasers, and Flangers – Which Modulation Pedal Comes First?
Within each category, there are placement choices to be made if you have more than one type of pedal that fits the profile. Usually, we tend to use only one of each type at a time, which makes specific placement less crucial.
But if you wanted to use chorus, flange, and phase all at once, which should go where? Well, think about what you want to do. Do you want to flange the chorus or chorus the flange? Again, this is the main concept underlying any serial chain of effects.
To figure it out, let’s think about what the pedal does.
Chorus creates a thickening, stereo effect. Phase shifters produce a sound that alternates between thick and thin, alternately emphasizing highs and lows.
It follows that you want the fullest sound possible going into a phase shifter in order for the sound not to disappear when certain frequencies are cancelled by the phase shift. Therefore, it would make sense to put your chorus ahead of the phase shifter. Otherwise, you’re feeding your chorus a comb-filtered sound, which will make it less effective.
If you want to add flanging to a sound, keep in mind that a flanger also requires a full-range signal in order to be most effective. Therefore, if we put a phase shifter ahead of our flanger, it will alternately see only high frequencies and low frequencies, which means its ability to produce the Doppler/jet engine effect will be reduced in either event.
Conclusion: if you want to use chorus, phase shift and flanger together, putting chorus first, flanger second, and phase shift last makes the most sense from a gain structure perspective. Of course, you may or may not like the combination, or find the sound musically useful. This is where personal taste and context come into play.
Say OK to Reverb and Delay
Now that we’ve rather firmly established that modulation effects should come after gain-based and gain duplicating effects, what about reverb and delay?
As we stated in the previous section, we need to broaden our view from simply following the lead of channel strips to encompass what type of effect the pedal is trying to duplicate in reality space. Reverb and delays are meant to emulate what happens to sound after it leaves your speakers and bounces around a room. Therefore, we have no choice but to put reverb and delay at the end of our effects chain.
As an aside, you should be cautious about using reverb altogether, since it has the effect of masking sound—not a desirable effect when being heard is what you’re going for, especially when you’re soloing. As we stated earlier, large rooms already have a natural reverb, which will connect with your digital reverb, pushing you farther back in the mix.
Delays, on the other hand, particularly those in the Haas zone, can thicken a sound, which is something we do want.
We’re still left with the dilemma of which comes first, reverb or delay?
In reality space, when sound bounces off reflective surfaces in a room, there is a short period between the time you hear dry sound and reverb occurs. This is called, “pre-delay.”
Within the pre-delay period between the dry signal and the beginning of reflections off the nearest surfaces, there are often pre-echoes that occur within the Haas Zone (which thickens sound, as you know). These are the reflections off hard surfaces near the sound source. The pre-echoes precede the reverb.
If our reverb and delay pedals are going to duplicate what happens in reality space, the only thing that makes sense is to place the delay ahead of the reverb, set it to a short delay within the Haas Zone, and then set the reverb to taste. That gives you thickening and clarity, since we’re hearing dry signal before the onset of reverb.
Once again, we see that understanding what happens to a signal informs pedal placement, whether it’s electronically manipulated or occurs in reality space.
Volume Pedal Placement
All that remains to be sorted out is the volume pedal, which according to our analogy mimics the channel fader or master volume of a guitar amp. On a mixer channel, we have the ability to send dry signal to reverb and delay pre- or post fader.
Pre-fader means that the reverb gets a full signal regardless of the level of the channel fader. As such, the reverb can sound irrationally louder than the signal output.
Post-fader sends allows the reverb to match the level of the dry signal and decay accordingly. This is the most commonly used setting in mixing consoles, since it makes musical sense.
Therefore, if we want volume pedal placement to duplicate a post-fader send, we put it ahead of reverb and delay, which enables them to act on the changing signal level and decay naturally along with it.
If you use a tube amp for clean and crunch, placing the volume pedal before the preamp acts like a volume control on the guitar. In this scenario, you’d leave the guitar volume all the way up and use the pedal to clean up or distort your sound.
The same holds true for overdrive and distortion pedals; a volume pedal in front of them changes the tone. If you want to create the backwards effect of volume swells, as well as master volume, put the volume pedal after overdrive and distortion pedals, ahead of modulation and reverb/delay.
If we want our volume pedal to act as an overall master volume control, put it at the very end of the effects chain. Once again, it’s all about understanding how input and output levels affect the operation of pedals before and after (can’t stress this enough).
Where to Place Specialty Pedals in the Signal Chain
Certain pedals don’t seem to fit into these categories at first, but with a little examination, we can figure out what they do and where to put them.
Where to Place the Wah-Wah Pedal
A wah-wah pedal alternately boosts and cuts high frequencies. Therefore we can think of it as an equalizer. (You can duplicate the effect by sweeping a high-mid frequency knob on an equalizer.). Since the wah-wah pedal affects gain in relation to frequency, we know it belongs with equalizers, and once again, whether you place it before or after distortion pedals is a matter of taste.
Placing Rotary Speaker and Ring Modulator Pedals
Pedals that emulate rotary speakers are not boosting or cutting frequencies, nor or they causing distortion. To create the illusion of a rotary speaker, they must be using delays to create the illusion of a speaker horn that changes its distance from the listener as it spins—kind of like a phase shifter.
We can conclude that the rotary speaker pedal is a modulation effect. Also, we should consider what it’s trying to emulate, which is a speaker. As such, it makes sense to put it near the end of a signal chain (like an actual speaker), along with modulation effects, but ahead of time-based effects (reverb/delay).
A ring modulator, such as those built by Moog, tells you where to place it based on the name alone. (Usually, we’re not that lucky.)
Pitch-Altering Pedal Placement
Pedals that change pitch dramatically or create pitch effects, such as an octave divider or a whammy pedal, also need to act on a full frequency-range sound, which means they would need to be placed before modulation and after EQ.
Again, think in terms of what the pedal is doing, what it will do to the sound ahead of it, and how the pedals after it will be affected. It follows that placing an octave divider after a modulation pedal, such as chorus or flange, will feed it frequencies other than the fundamental pitch of the notes you’re playing.
In the case of a flanger in front of an octaver, it could be pretty unsettling, since the octaver would have the ever-changing pitch shift of flanging to deal with. Therefore, it makes sense that we place the octave shift ahead of any modulation effects in order to feed it the purest possible pitch to act on.
On the other hand, it might sound really cool, particularly if you’re more focused on the sound of flanging than the guitar itself.
In the case of the whammy effect, again, think about what it’s trying to emulate: the tremolo or whammy bar on the guitar. That means it needs to be in a position that enables it to act on the notes themselves.
Technically, you could put either pedal (octave and whammy) ahead of distortion effects, but experience tells us it makes more sense to place them after overdrive and distortion.
Analyzing Specialty Pedals for Placement
The trick to placing a specialty pedal, or any kind for that matter, is to listen to what the pedal does by itself.
- Is it boosting, EQing, or modulating a sound?
- Is it gain-dependent?
- Does it change output volume or produce a steady-state output?
- Does it change output depending on input volume?
- Does it change timbre or pitch
- Does it thicken a sound or thin it out?
Once you can answer these questions and apply what you now know about how pedals operate, you can determine the most likely place for a pedal to go in the chain. Don’t forget to think in terms of how the pedal will affect the sound of the units ahead of it and after it.
With all this in mind, finding the perfect placement to suit your tastes will become a creative effort rather than a hit-or-miss process.
Noise Suppressors, Expanders, and Gates
In this category we have noise gates and expanders, which fall under the category of dynamics processors, as well as noise suppressors. While we list expanders as a separate category from noise suppressors, be aware that suppressors use expander technology.
Two examples of this form of noise reduction are Rocktron’s Hush pedals and ISP Technologies’ Decimator II pedals. Both were designed by Buck Waller, who sold Rocktron and started iSP Technologies. Of the two, the Decimator is arguably superior, since Buck had to outdo himself when he founded iSP—and he did.
An expander works opposite to a compressor by expanding the dynamic range. The expander’s threshold determines which sounds below a selected level are subject to gain reduction (turning them down even more), whereas with a compressor, sounds that are above a selected threshold level have gain reduction applied. As we said a compressor lowers the bridge, an expander lowers the river.
Noise Gates vs. Noise Suppressors
In comparing the function of a noise gate to that of a noise suppressor, such as the Decimator, the primary difference is that the gate acts on the signal at the end of the chain. Once the signal drops below a certain point, the gate starts to close.
Gate chatter is the signal fluctuating around the threshold as it decays. The gate opens and closes rapidly as the decaying signal fluctuates (this is accentuated by modulation effects).
Gates have different controls for dealing with gate chatter, which are Hold and Hysteresis, but they can be difficult to dial in—and when you change sounds from clean to distorted, threshold settings need to change (tricky thing to do when switching from rhythm to solo).
Another problem with gates is that some attack transient is always lost in the time it takes for the gate to act on the input signal and open.
In our experience, the best and easiest-to-use noise suppressor is the iSP Technologies Decimator. In terms of placement, the Decimator is both at the very beginning of the effects chain and at the end (connection procedure is in the manual).
Since it takes its input directly from the guitar (instead of the end of the pedal chain), the Decimator preserves attack and dynamics. The gate threshold doesn’t need to be changed between clean and high-gain sounds, and chatter is a non-issue. If you’re playing heavy distorted guitar through a high-gain amp, the noise can be pretty obnoxious. A Decimator will make your amp sound as if it’s on standby until you start to play.
Guitar Effect Pedal Management
One of the advantages of multi-effects pedals is that they make switching between complex effects chains easy. Since all the effects exist in the digital domain, a single button-press can call up complex chains.
As analog effects pedal chains get longer and more complex, switching between several pedals can make you look like a trick horse tapping out his age onstage. And unless you have the fancy-feet skills of a tap dancer and the speed of The Flash, there’s a good chance you won’t make it from rhythm to solo in time.
Since it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with two sounds that can be switched with a single button push, it’s important to devise a way to switch between various combinations of pedals in such a way that we can avoid the Mr. Ed hoof-tapping effect.
The solution is a pedal switcher, which enables you to set up various effects chains and switch between them with a single push of a footswitch. There are a number of pedal switchers on the market, including:
- Voodoo Labs Pedal Switcher
- OneControl Crocodile Tail Loop
- Decibel Eleven Pedal Palette
- Musicom Lab EFX MKiii+
- EC Pedals Custom Shop Super Switcher
These units range from $200 to $750, and are designed to handle switching in complex pedal chains. These units have anywhere from four to 8 pairs of sends and returns. Some of the pedals claim true bypass as a sonic advantage, and in the context of certain setups, it may very well be.
Some manufacturers of pedal switchers may trash the concept of buffered bypass, but if you recall our discussion from earlier, buffered bypass often gets a bad rap it doesn’t deserve. The important thing is to be able to switch between effects quickly and quietly—and whatever gets you there is fine.
Digital Multi-Effects Units vs. Analog Pedal Chains
Considering the complexities of organizing analog pedals and setting up not only an effective pedal chain, but also a means of efficiently operating a complex analog pedal chain, you may wonder, “Why bother—why not just go all digital and get good sound and convenience without needing 100 patch cables?”
While it is true that digital effects sound good on their own, they tend to get lost in a mix. Digital effects are very good at transients and high frequencies, but midrange is not their strong suit. As a result, your sound may walk away from you in the mix, or sound thin and scratchy in musical context.
Also, if you use them with a tube amp, you’ll need to keep the tube amp as clean as possible, since all your effects, including distortion, are coming from the digital unit.
Keeping a tube amp clean means that you lose the rich euphonic sound of tube saturation and distortion. Also, since tubes saturate at higher volume levels, you may find that keeping gain low for a clean sound doesn’t give you enough level.
If you are determined to go all digital, then a solid state amp would probably be a better way to go, since solid state amps stay clean at very high levels (right up until they distort, which is not pleasant). However, sometimes volume alone isn’t enough.
If you want the rich euphonic tone of tubes, you have to go analog and push a lot of air. After all, the real world is analog.
Putting it All Together
We can see that there is logic to sequencing pedals with room for a little rule bending.
From our exploration of how pedals work and resultant effects on sound, the sequence should be:
compression first (if you use compression) > overdrive/distortion pedals > EQ and filters > pitch related effects, such as whammy or octaver > modulation effects (chorus, flanger, phaser) > volume or level effects (which includes boost pedals) > delay followed by reverb if you’re using both.
And don’t forget to try a little rule bending.
There’s only one question left to address once you have your pedal chain figured out: how to connect it all to the amp.
When connecting reverb, delays, and modulation pedals, it’s best to use the effects loop of your amp, provided it has one. The reason is that the effects loop is operating at unity gain, and is not affected by the amp’s gain control. As a result, modulation and time-based effects are not colored or distorted by the preamp and EQ. Also, ambient noise created by the pedals is not amplified either. The result is a cleaner sound overall.
Phew. We covered a lot today.
At this point, you should know enough about pedals, their operating principals, and effect on sounds to set up a pedal chain of your own and be reasonably assured that it will work for you.
Also, if you buy a pedal switcher, you can apply what you now know about pedal placement to create your custom presets.
Armed with the knowledge of what various effects pedals do to your guitar sound and a little experimentation, you’ll be well on your way to being the boss of your own pedal board.
Don’t be afraid to get creative and deviate from some of the advice we covered today…at the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference and who knows, you may open up new and exciting possibilities for creating killer sounds that will take your music to the next level!