In some cases great multi-effects chains can be simply thrown together and the results of this random approach can be impressive but unfortunately, more often than not, we have to put a bit of work into getting things right.
In this tutorial I'll cover some of the psychology I use when putting together insert based effects chains. Of course none of this is set in stone and shouldn't be looked at as 'rules', they are simply guidelines based on my experience. Hope you find them useful!
Step 1: Considering the Chain's Intended Purpose
So, first things first. It may sound obvious but it's a good idea to start out by thinking about what you want to achieve. Often if you can visualise the job in hand the chain will be easier to put together and some of the obstacles we'll hit later should be easier to deal with.
For instance if you have a vocal line that needs cleaning up you can start to think about the processes you may want to apply. Some obvious choices will pop into your head such as gating, compression, equalisation and some spatial effects, such as reverb or delay.
Of course the vocal chain is just an example the processors you pick will depend hugely on what the source audio consists of and what you want to do to it. It's the workflow we are concentrating on here.
Once you have visualised your chain you can start to build it and you should find you already have a plan in mind. This is preferable to throwing a whole load of plug-ins into the mix, making a big mess and producing something that sounds like it was put together by a crazy person.
A useable well thought out vocal effects chain
Our carefully constructed chain in action
An effects chain constructed by a slightly crazy person
The less practical chain plays back
Step 2: Making a Start, Keeping It Simple
I'd say that the first processors you want to insert into your new chain are the most simple ones. These are often the tools you plan to use for more corrective purposes as opposed to 'special effects'. Try starting with equalisers, compressors and gates. I often like to start by using an EQ to remove and unwanted frequencies and enhance any areas that are lacking.
A simple plucked guitar before any processing is applied
Follow up this first treatment with any other corrective processes you want to try, so think about dynamics treatment and gating to remove any noise or unwanted signal. Once you have made these initial moves it should be much easier to focus on what the sound needs next.
The guitar is processed with some EQ and compression to enhance it slightly
The enhanced guitar
Step 3: Getting Decorative
I tend to divide effects processing into two distinct areas corrective and creative. Once we have the corrective stuff out of the way we should have a real basis on which to apply more decorative, creative processes. These creative processes can be anything really but things like modulation based effects and distortions work very well at this stage.
When you are building more run of the mill chains you may not need these special effects but I find that it can be a good idea to include a few, this way they can be activated or bypassed at will to create 'spot' effects at key points in your project.
Finally you will need to add any spatial effects you plan to use, so delays and reverbs are generally best off left until the end of your chain. If you don't what to include these as inserts then you can obviously set up send / return busses but placing them early in the chain is not always a good idea. We'll see why in the next step.
The more decorative effects are added
The effected guitar in action.
Step 4: The Order of Things
Now we get to the real meat of this subject and that's the order in which the plug-ins are inserted in our chain. This is nothing less than crucial and completely dictates the final sound that is produced by your processing. Alter the order of just one plug-in out of three and your sound can be completely changed.
Let's think about a few examples. Placing a distortion after a delay or reverb in your chain would not be a great move as this would distort and repetitions or reverb tail. Place the distortion plug-in before the spatial effects and you should get a great effect.
Another good example of this would be where you place a gate in your chain. Placing gates after the same delay effect could completely destroy a good delay patch. Gates should generally be placed very early in your chain.
As you come to the end of putting your chain together it's worth just taking a step back and thinking about the order you have things in. Maybe experimenting with different set ups to see what sounds best to you.
Step 5: Watching the Signal Path
When you have constructed your effects chain it's well worth taking the time to quickly the check the level at every stage. This means checking none of your plug-ins are being heavily overloaded. The vast majority of modern plug-ins have amazing amounts of headroom and are very difficult to hard clip but it pays to make sure everything is running well within it's limits.
Step 6: Save It for Later
Now with everything running correctly you can save your custom chain for use at any time in the future. Get things right here and you should start to compile a really nice, usable library of effects chains for any eventuality.
Saving the effect chain for later use