A frequent question asked here at Ant Hill Music concerns the arrangement and order of effects and how the audio signal flows to create the desired tone. This is very valid, especially when there are a lot of pedals in use. Many players even several pros, are surprised by the importance of signal flow. Improper arrangement of pedals can make even the most impressive pedalboard a complete nightmare. Naturally, pedals react quite differently depending on what input is being led into them.
Pedal board setups can be a fun process and can inspire new sounds when tired of the same setup over and over again. It is a fairly deep topic to delve into, and although there are a few basics that can get someone headed in the right direction, we want to attempt to cover a lot of ground in a short period and focus on some more common situations and set ups. Please keep in mind that pedal arrangements can be a subjective thing and largely based on opinion, especially since musical styles and players can differ and change. There are few rules to pedal order, but we still encourage anybody that reads this to experiment with your own sounds and arrangement and not to be worried about a wrong order. There are a lot of different and interesting sounds to be had by changing the order of pedals. We hope this provides a guideline and details what we have experienced about effects order. Let’s start with what an effects pedal does.
It doesn’t just affect the tone of your guitar. It affects your guitar tone and every pedal before it in the chain. First example: You have a delay pedal and a distortion pedal. Ideally you would want to add delay to the already distorted sound, and not distort the guitar and the delay. It’s likely you’ll end up with a more garbled or muddied sound if you distort the delayed signal. Another example: Plug your guitar into an overdrive pedal then into a boost pedal. Some people would want the boost pedal to be placed before the overdrive pedal, in order to boost the overdrive signal and everything after it. Now in this setup, the boost pedal will also be “driving” the OD pedal harder, which can be ideal for some players. However, some players may prefer to place the boost pedal after the OD, in order to just add some sustain and volume to the overdrive signal. In this setup, the overdrive would be pushing the original signal in order to add the “breakup” sound, and the boost pedal would be boosting this effect, instead of boosting the original signal first. Neither setup is necessarily right or wrong, but they accomplish different effects.
When organizing your pedals, you should first determine the purpose of each pedal. To help, here is a basic categorization of pedal types and their purposes:
Pedals that only alter the general sound by increasing gain and optionally changing the EQ. Includes preamp, overdrive, boost, distortion, fuzz and compressor pedals. Some players prefer to place the boost pedal after the OD, to add some sustain and volume to the overdrive signal.
Pedals that adjust the frequency response by enhancing, notching out, or shaping the frequencies in certain ranges. Includes wah,envelope filter, and EQ pedals.
Pedals that cause changes in the overall signal by increasing or decreasing level, or controlling certain peaks. Includes volume, tremolo, and noise gate pedals. A compressor could be considered in this category because of its volume control and ability to smooth peaks and valleys in a signal.
Pedals that modulate the original sound by introducing several signals to interact with the others in order to produce frequencies otherwise not present. Includes chorus, flanger, phase shifting, and rotary simulating pedals. Vibrato could also be considered in this category.
Pitch related effects
Pedals that alter the pitch of the signal by adding octaves or bending the pitch. Includes octave and pitch shifting pedals such as a whammy. Vibrato could also be considered in this category.
Echo and time-based effects
Pedals that simulate the original introduction of the sound by copying and repeating the sound or through an echo effect. Includes delay, reverb, and echo pedals.
Now that the pedals are categorized, we’ll go over a very basic pedal layout, an arrangement that we have found to typically work best, guitar being the start of the signal path and the amp being the end.
Guitar –> Signal conditioners –> Filter effects –>Pitch related effects –> Modulation effects –> Volume/Level effects –>Echo and time-based effects –> Amp
When any overdrives or distortion are first in the chain, the overdriven sounds will be more natural and unaffected than if they were elsewhere. This also helps to prevent other effects being driven too hard, like unnecessarily dirtying a delay signal by having the overdrive later in the chain. Filter effects are more lively and resonate more clearly in this position. Pitch based effects seem to do well here because overdrive pedals already create more pitches when engaged (think of all the harmonics or overtones they can add) so having the pitch related effects afterward help things to stay more controlled. Having a volume pedal in this position works well when doing swells with delay or reverb pedals or even with overdriven sounds. The volume pedal allows the swells to sound more organic and actually swell, instead of sudden nothing-to-all volume changes. When playing with delay or reverb, putting the volume pedal in the heel position would not kill the echoes (this would be like turning the amp off while playing) as it would in another position, but instead the sounds would naturally decay. Having modulation effects in this order helps the sound to be a chorused overdrive or phased distortion or a lead part with a hint of flange, instead of distorting the modulated sounds. Having reverb and delay effects last in a chain helps to emulate the sound of playing in a larger room, typically a desired affect when using delay or reverb, and the delay and echoes sound much cleaner and articulate when in this position.
When arranging pedals in this order, it can be a good idea to spend a lot of time with the specific arrangement of pedals within a category. Many people have different overdrives, different modulation effects, different volume effects and different delays. Arranging within a category can prove to be tedious but well worth time spent.
1. Some of us at the shop have found that the stronger gain pedals, like distortions or fuzz pedals sound better first. Some people have a particular drive or boost pedal that they prefer to always leave on, and this setup seems to work well when stacking the higher gain pedals with the more moderate gain pedals. Others here feel that their best sound comes when the higher gain pedals are later in the chain. This is most noticeable when the drive pedals are not stacked.
2. When using a compressor, we have noticed a large difference in sound when varying its placement. First consider the type of sound you are aiming for before placing a compressor in a chain of pedals. For a more dynamic, rock sound, we have found the compressor works best at the beginning of the chain. This helps the overall sound to breathe a bit more with the introduction of other pedals in the signal path. The compressor is working less hard, allowing slight changes in level and the sound is very lively. The compressor works to even things out, the overdrives are very controlled and detailed. Single notes sustain well and the delay’s and reverb’s resonate more.
We have added the compressor after pitch related effects and before level and volume effects. This adds more sustain to the overall sound and the compressor is doing more compressing. Fewer changes in volume occur when introducing new effects and less dynamics. Having the compressor at the end of the chain helps to achieve a great country sound. Everything is very tight and squashed in a good way. Notes are very even and there is a lot of sustain.
3. Some of us like wah best after the overdrive, for certain aggressive-sounding tones. However, having a wah before overdrive or distortion can make some pretty interesting frequency responses and may be more desired than this setup. The classic example is Jimi Hendrix. He ran the wah first and was able to get some really killer wah tones.
4. We commonly place volume last in its category, right before delay and reverb; it seems most natural when fading out sounds or doing swells. Reverb pedals are placed after echoes or delays, it seems like this brings out the most ambience and the fullest sound.
5.When running an EQ pedal, we believe it works best if it is placed directly after the effect that is being EQ’d. If it is working on the overall sound, it seems to work best after modulation effects or right after volume effects. The same can be true for noise gates. They seem to be the friendliest right before or even after time based effects, but they can also work well right before a really noisy pedal, like fuzz or wah.
Remember, that these are all suggestions and what brought us to these conclusions was time,experimentation, and patience. For the best results, set aside some time for adjusting the order and enjoy the time spent. Your arrangement other than what’s been described can prove to be very satisfying.