Effect Chain Order

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When effects first started appearing in the 1960’s, there were very few available and consequently, very few ways of connecting them together. That didn’t stop people from experimenting though! These days there are a myriad of effects available, from the humble stomp boxes used by guitarists to powerful multi-effect processors which incorporate a variety of effects in one box. This gives you a bewildering range of options when it comes to connecting them together.

An example FX chain

Effect placement
In a chain of effects (often called the signal chain) there is often a particular order of effects which will work best, or is most commonly used. These are listed with the effect descriptions below. However, this is not set in stone and it pays to experiment with the order of your pedals. Swap them around and seeing what the results are and what works for you. The more you learn about the sounds they create and how they react with each other, the easier you will come to creating your own sounds.

One very important thing to bear in mind is that there are very few things that are ‘wrong’. While I am going to set out a standard way of connecting effects together, don’t be afraid to experiment and do things your own way. Treat the following as a starting point and then swap things around and see what the results are, and what works for you.

The Different Effect Categories
Effects fall into a number of categories, depending on how they achieve the sound they create. In a chain of effects (often called the signal chain) there is often an order of effects which will work best, or is most commonly used. These are listed below. However, this is not set in stone and it pays to experiment with the order of your pedals.

Lets take a look at the different types, what they do to the sound and some examples:

 

Category Description Examples
EQ/Tone Change the tonal balance Wah-wah, equalisers
Dynamics Control the dynamic range (the range of volumes from quietest to loudest) Compressors, limiters
Distortion Similar to overdriven amplifiers. Overdrive, distortion & fuzz
Modulation Apply a pulsing effect Phasers, chorus, flangers, vibrato
Pitch-based Change the pitch or add extra ‘voices’ which are harmonically related to the original sound. Octavers, pitch shifters, harmonisers
Level Volume control Volume pedals
Time-based Use time delayed sounds Delays, reverbs
Noise gates Helps reduce the amount of noise such as hiss or hum Noise gates

 

EQ/Tone controls
These effects can be placed almost anywhere in the signal chain to tailor the tonal response of the sound, but usually after compression. You will find that an equaliser may give a very different sound placed before another effect to the same equaliser placed after it. A good example of this is the guitar sound in the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing, where a Wah pedal is placed before the overdrive and used as a tone control (by leaving the pedal in one position). This boosts the midrange frequencies and the sound is then distorted. The distorted sound is equalised again to cut the midrange back down somewhat. This gives a sound where the midrange is more distorted than the other frequencies.

Dynamics
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-wahs.

Distortion
Distortion is usually placed after a compressor in the signal chain, this makes for a more sustained overdrive sound. However, will usually be before time-based effects like delays and reverb. Distortion thickens up a sound, adding in lots of harmonics. Because of this, their position in the chain can make a large difference to the resulting sound.

Modulation
Modulation effects are usually placed after distortion and before time-based effects. They can also be placed before distortion, which gives a much more subtle effect.

Pitch-based
Pitch based effects are usually placed after distortion effects and before time-based effects.

Level
Volume pedals are usually placed after distortion pedals and before any time-based effects, where they control the level of the signal. However, if you place them before a distortion, they will work to control the amount of distortion.

Time-based
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.

Noise gates
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.

Noise gates usually come after any effects which generate noise, such as distortion or modulation effects. They should always come before time based effects, as when they shut off the signal to block the noise, the delay or reverb will continue – making for a more natural sound. Most time-based effects are digital, and so generate very little noise anyway.

Better noise gates will feature a trigger input and output (if it is designed specifically for guitar, it will label these ‘guitar in’ and ‘guitar out’). When a signal is applied to the trigger input, the gate opens (lets the signal through). This is particularly useful as you can use the pure, uneffected sound to control the gating of your noisy effects. This effectively eliminates any false triggering (where the gate will open because the noise level is so high, the gate thinks it is signal).

Conclusion
So, put it all together and what have you got?

Remember, this is just an example, not the way things absolutely have to be. Feel free to have fun experimenting.

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