Pedalboards and effects are an essential part of any guitar or bass players arsenal, and analog effects have started becoming extremely popular for all kinds of other instruments too. They open up all kinds of sonic possibilities, help create your own unique voice as a musician, and can even be used as inspiration or songwriting tools. I'll be going over the basics of signal flow and how to make sure your board is optimized for the best possible sound so you can just plug in and focus on making awesome music.
The order of effects is dependent on the general category an effect would fall under. We'll get to the order of things later but for now I'll just give you the basic categories and some examples of effects that would fall under that label. Gain-Based Effects
- Anything that adds gain (or distortion) to your signal, which can include overdrive, distortion, fuzz, and sometimes clean boosts as well, depending on how you use them - more on that later.Modulation Effects
- These usually include some sort of filter-esque effect like flanger, phaser, tremolo, wah etc. These effects are usually "moving" effects that are continuous in your playing, but can also be controlled manually either by your foot or the way you play.Time-Based Effects
- This pertains specifically to reverb and delay. You can think of these as anything that adds time to what you play or hangs on after you stop playing.
These are the three main effect categories to remember, and although there are effects that are not included in these categories - as well as ones that can fit in more than one category - this covers most sounds and is all we really need to get started building our pedalboard. Now we can start looking at the proper order of effects on our board.
Once you understand the different types of pedals we can look at proper signal flow. Effects are supposed to be used to create new and interesting sonic ideas and in that sense they should be experimented with in every way - including placement, but there are general guidelines for how you should order your pedals. It can be confusing to think about but it does follow a basic logic. This logic is about asking yourself "What do I want this pedal to do and how should it interact with my tone?" I'll explain what the usual desired outcome is as I explain each type of pedal. What's most important to remember is that wherever your pedal is, it will have an impact on every BEFORE it, and have little to no impact on everything AFTER it.
Let's get one of our "non-categorized" pedals out of the way first, which is a tuner. If you have a tuner pedal you have three options, first is to put it at the beginning of your signal chain. This means that your tuner would be getting the most natural, authentic, accurate depiction of what your instrument is putting out. Another option is to put the pedal at the end of your pedalboard, which means that when you turn your tuner on it will cut all signal before it. Usually this doesn't really matter since it would cut your signal wherever it is placed in the chain, but if you have any pedals that are particularly noisy then putting your tuner at the end will also mute all the noise from those pedals, and not just your instrument. Lastly, if you use a volume pedal many of them come with a "tuner out" where you can connect it. There are benefits to using it as well as down sides depending on the volume pedal and how the rest of your board is set up, but that's an entirely different subject, and worth looking up if you have a "tuner out".
Generally, the order of effects reflects the order of effect types as listed above. The first area of your board is where you should put all of your gain-based pedals. Typically you'll want your overdrive pedals first, your distortion pedals second, and your fuzz pedals third. Usually lower gain pedals are used to boost higher gain pedals when stacking gain effects, so this is a typical setup. Another reason for this is to mimic a different tone scenario. A common technique is to take an amp that is on the distortion channel and boost it even more by putting an overdrive in front of it. Therefore, if you use a distortion pedal you can achieve a similar sound by putting your overdrive pedal in front of it.
Next is where you'll have your modulation effects, anything from phaser and flanger to tremolo and chorus. This is usually something you want to layer over top of your "base tone". If you put these effects in front of your gain effects your distorted signal will be applied on top of the modulation, meaning your distortion is going to have some weird, ever-shifting characteristics to it. Putting your modulation effects first will change the way your gain pedals act, but you won't be able to hear the true color and sonic quality of your modulation effects that way.
Lastly we have our time-based effects like reverb and delay. The point of these effects are to leave a trail of sound after you stop playing. Since a reverb is supposed to copy the effect of being in a large space and having the sound reflect back to you, placing it at the end of your chain will most accurately reproduce that sound. Delay pedals are supposed to take whatever you just played and repeat it, so putting this near the end of the chain will also best serve the purpose it was intended for. If you use both reverb and delay it's most common to put your delay pedal first, this way you get authentic recreation of your tone in the repeats, without it also repeating the reverb. It's also important to note that because these effects usually comes after distortion, if you are using the and amp that has distortion on it you'll need to put these pedals in the effects loop of the amp.
That covers the majority of what you'll need to know for pedal order, but I'll throw out a couple notes about some of the "non-categorized" effects as well. Wah is typically first in the chain (or after your tuner if you have that first). Pitch shifting effects like whammy or octave pedals usually work best at the beginning of your chain because much like the tuner, we want the pedal to receive the most accurate, uncolored representation of your tone in order to improve its tracking. Compressors should go first in the chain, or right after your tuner if you want, before your wah if you've got one. Any EQ pedals can be moved around, but will have a more drastic effect on your tone if you put them after any compression and gain pedals (which also compress your tone). This way the changes you make with your EQ don't become compressed, and therefore less noticeable.
Maintaining Signal Quality:
Now this topic gets very complex and science-y, so I'll spare you the details and summarize things for you. The topic I'll be covering briefly is tone loss.
Tone loss happens when you are running long amounts of cable and/or many effects together and your signal has to pass through a lot of stuff before it reaches the amp, and is most noticeable in the high end of your tone. If you run a bunch of pedals together and very long cables, you may notice that you have less treble in your signal than if you just plugged straight into your amp, even with all your pedals turned off. Think of your tone like water, and your pedal chain and cables as pipes. In order to maintain proper water pressure (tone quality) you need good quality pipes! The two types of "pipes" we need to keep in mind are your cables, and your pedal's bypass construction.
Your pedal's bypass type refers to how your pedal treats your guitar signal when the pedal is turned OFF. If your pedal uses buffered/analog bypass, that means that even though your pedal is turned off your signal is still passing the effect's circuitry before going to the output of the pedal. If a pedal is true-bypass however, this means that when the pedal is turned off the effect's circuitry is disconnected, so your signal goes straight from the input jack to the output jack until the pedal is turned on. This way we reduce the amount of wiring your signal has to pass through, preserving the original tone.
Now not all buffered bypass pedals are bad, it depends on the situation. A good quality buffer can help push your tone further, allowing you to add length to your signal chain without losing high end. True bypass however is generally lower noise and more transparent. Ideally you want a good combination of buffers and true bypass. Many smaller "boutique" pedal companies sell buffers by themselves, without being attached to an effects pedal. These are usually very high quality and meant to boost your signal in the best way possible, without having to pay for a really high end pedal that you don't want or need.
Now that you understand why both high quality buffered pedals and true bypass pedals are important, it should be no surprise to you that you should also be investing in high quality cables for the same reasons. Cheap cables are cheap for a reason, and the higher quality ones are definitely worth the price when it comes to preserving your tone.
It's easy for unwanted noise and hum to creep into your signal from any number of places, especially when building a pedalboard with many different parts. There's three major ways you can prevent this. Firstly, high quality cables. Yes, not only do they prevent tone loss but they also are better at keeping out noise! Are you convinced yet? Ready to throw away those $5 patch cables? Good! And don't just replace your first and last cable, all the short little cables between your pedals make a big difference as well, so don't skimp on them either. Secondly you need to have a dedicated power supply with isolated outputs. Not only does this mean that you can plug all your pedals into one box and only need to have one outlet to power all your pedals, but having isolated outputs is what really makes a difference in noise. Some larger power supplies offer the ability to plug in multiple pedals which helps cut down on noise, but isolated outputs are what will really
kill the noise. Lastly, sometimes you just have to play a gig at a place with bad power, where everything is plugged into everything else and it's just a noisy setup from the get-go. In cases like this there are products out there that help eliminate sound right at the outlet like the Hum-X. These are great for those "worst case scenario" gigs, but they are like noise gates - they should be a last resort, only to be used after making sure you've covered every other aspect of your signal chain.
That's about it for the basics of building a pedalboard. Now that you know the proper order of effects, how to prevent tone loss, and how to eliminate noise, you should be well on your way to making a killer pedalboard that sounds great, works great, and lets you focus on the music. Happy tone chasing!