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Effects Chain Order

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No guitar setup is complete without some toys... you know, effects! When you listen to bands like The Mars Volta, Sonic Youth, or maybe Radiohead, perhaps you say, "Wow, awesome sound. It must require a lot of effects to make a sound like that!" You probably ask yourself, "How can I get a guitar sound like that?"

You don't need a lot of money. You need to understand effects. Here's the info you need to get started.

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Guitar effects are an interesting phenomenon. No matter how much you spend for guitar effects, you'll get a good sound when you learn how to chain these guitar effects to work together. And how you set up your effects can help you achieve your dream tone. In this tutorial I will explain more about effect chain order.


Step 1: Basic Effects Chain Order

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Guitar ---> Pre-gain effects ---> Gain-related effects ---> Post-gain effects ---> Amplifiers.

Perhaps you're confused when look at the picture above. What does it mean?

This is a map of the basic effects chain order. In the next step I will explain more about how the chain works, and give an explanation of each category and effect. Sound samples are included, which first play the clean sound, followed by the sound with the effect.


Step 2: Pre-Gain Effects

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Pre-gain effects are the effects you place first - effects that clip the signal. These include: utility effects (such as tuner pedals and metronomes), filters (such as wah-wah, envelope filters, other filters and sequential), dynamic controllers (or compressors), and intelligent processors (like harmonizers, pitch shifter or whammy).

Utility Effects

Utillity effects are the tuner pedal, metronome and noise gate.

For example, noise gates are, in their simplest form, merely a switch which gets rid of the noise you hear during quieter parts of a signal by muting (switching off) the sound. This effectively reduces the perceived level of noise in the signal.

Filters

Filters are the process of boosting or attenuating parts of the frequency spectrum. It is one of the most powerful ways to shape your sound. This includes wah-wah, envelope filters, filters and sequential.

For example, wah-wah is a resonator that can have its center frequency moved up or down by moving a pedal. The "wah" name comes from the way it mimics the moving resonance of the human vocal tract in speech as the sound "wah" is made.

Wah-wah sound sample

Dynamic Controllers

Usually a compressor or limiter is the first effect used. This helps to boost the signal level, which helps reduce the amount of noise generated by subsequent effects. However, they are sometimes used after effects which reduce or boost the volume level significantly, like modulation effects and wah-wah.

Intelligent Processors

Intelligent processors include harmonizers, pitch shifters and whammy. Intelligent processors work by changing the pitch or adding extra 'voices' which are harmonically related to the original sound.

For example, pitch shifter is an effect which enables a user to transpose the pitch of the input signal. The simplest pitch shift effects can add octaves above or below the input pitch. More sophisticated pitch shifters can add fourths or fifths.

Understanding Step 2 can help you order pre-gain effects on your pedalboard effectively.


Step 3: Gain-Related Effects

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In an effects setup there is usually gain-related effects which produce sounds by clipping. These effects range from overdrive, fuzz, and distortion.

Overdrive

Overdrive boosts the clean signal so the sound is a bit distorted. You may have produced overdrive by putting too large a signal into the input of an amp, causing the signal to be distorted at the speaker. You were "overdriving" the inputs.

Distortion

Distortion is produced by cutting, strengthening and destroying a clean signal to the extreme to produce a broken and distorted sound "Distortion" is the more generic term, and started when folks noticed that you could get a distorted sound from a little solid state amp that was very nonlinear.

Fuzz

Fuzz boosts and clips the signal sufficiently to turn a standard sine wave input into a waveform that is much closer to a square wave output. Fuzz sounds also tend to have lower mid-frequencies than other distortion types.

Pretty much everyone involved agrees that fuzz is a harder, harsher, and buzzier distortion than overdrive, and is usually considered harder and harsher than distortion by itself. There are no real boundaries to all this - it's just which words you want to use, and not strict definitions.


Step 4: Post-Gain Effects

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Post-gain effects include time-based modulation (chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo and many others) and pure time-based modulation (delay, reverb).

Time-Based Modulation

Modulation effects are usually placed after gain-related effects and before time-based effects. They can also be placed before distortion, which gives a much more subtle effect. This is kind of hard to explain, and will be easier to understand when you hear it yourself.

Modulation provides a unique sound, especially when placed at the beginning or end of the effect chain. So start experimenting with many types of modulation effects, and get the ideal sound! Meet the family.

Chorus

Perhaps the most widely used modulation effect, is so called because it makes your guitar sound like more than one – it sounds thicker and usually a bit “sweeter” sounding. This is done by electronically “cloning” your original guitar sound and adding delay or “modulation” (which is shortening or lengthening the delay) to your cloned signal. Then this is mixed back in with your original signal. Although it can be used as a solo sound this effect is generally used for a clean rhythm sound.

Phaser

This effect is a filter response generated by using long phase delays and mixing with the original signal to cause a number of deep notches and/or peaks in the overal filter response. This mimics the larger number of notches and peaks caused by true time delayed flanging. Most simple phasers do this by generating two notches, although some pedals make four notches. Flangers may make many notches. Phasers may also incorporate feedback to sharpen up the effect of the notches.

Flanger

As with the chorus effect, here the signal is split or cloned and a short delay is simply added to the cloned signal, then again mixed back in with your original signal. This delay has several repeats with the time of the repeats being lengthened and shortened at a steady adjustable rate. The resulting sound is usually much thicker than the chorus effect. Its sounds like a jet plane.

Tremolo

Tremolo produces a periodic variation in the amplitude (volume) of the note or chord, which creates a "shuddering" effect. A sine wave applied as input to a voltage-controlled amplifier produces this effect. Tremolo effects normally have a "rate" knob which allows a performer to change the speed of the variation.

Pure Time-Based Modulation

Pure time-based effects such as delay and reverb usually come last in the signal chain. There is one exception - when you are using a delay to split a signal for parallel processing. Included in this family are delay and reverb.

Echo delay is long. Imagine yelling at a hill or cliff - this would lead to recurrent re-echo.

Reverb is more like a collection of barely audible short delays that create an echo effect in the room. Imagine singing in the bathroom - there are a short echoes. We may call that type "Bathroom Reverb".

Delay

Reverb


Step 5: Full Map

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Guitar --- > Utility effects ---> Filters ---> Intellegent processor ---> Dynamic controllers ---> Gain-related effects---> Time based modulation ---> Pure time based modulation ---> Amplifiers.

This is the final map, which will help you to chain guitar effects.

Please note: While this is a guideline to chaining effects, there's no "right" way to do it. It's all a matter of taste and your personal tone. Let your ears be the final arbiter.

Ring modulators, volume pedals, equalizers, phasers, splitters, or the clean gain booster can be positioned pre-gain or post-gain. They still work well in any position.

If you think another effect position will be more interesting, try it. Why not experiment? For example, try placing the whammy pedal after the gain, and feel how fat a sound is produced. Or place spring reverb before the gain effects to produce a vintage sound.

Also, take care in where you physically place the effects on your board. Don't line them up so your board becomes too elongated. Use the most efficient position to your liking, and experiment!.


Step 6: Start Experimenting!

Compressor Before Gain Effects

Guitar ---> Compressor ---> Gain effects ---> Amplifiers.

This gives a "smoother" distortion sound because the signal level the distortion gets has less variation - the compressor wipes off more of the signal changes, so the distortion works mostly at one level, and the tone quality of the distortion changes less as the note decays.

Gain Effects Before Compressor

Guitar ---> Gain effects --->Compressor ---> Amplifiers.

The compressor adds little but hiss, because the distortion already sets up a fairly fixed output level. The tone quality changes as the distortion would without the compressor.

Gain Effects Before Time Delay

Guitar ---> Gain effects --->Time delay ---> Amplifiers.

The subtleties of the time-delay, chorus, flanger, etc. are generated after the distortion's harmonic hash, so the nuances of the delay can be heard.

Time Delay Before Gain Effects

Guitar ---> Time delay --->Gain effects ---> Amplifiers.

The distortion's harmonic generation tends to fill in the response notches the time delay created, and usually sounds less acceptable.

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