Introduction to Effects Pedal Signal Chains

Here at Pro Audio Land, we tend to talk a lot about guitar effects pedals and it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Effects pedals are not only one of the most versatile and numerous pieces of equipment in pro audio, but they are easily well within the reach of any player’s budget. Whether it’s through our many reviews (which you can find here) or our massive product page (which you can find here), there is no shortage of effects pedal information if you feel like understanding a certain model a little better. Sometimes it can get a bit difficult trying to properly depict certain aspects of pedals to our newer musicians out there since much of music tends to be described in an intangible sort of manner which relies heavily the assumption of prior knowledge and personal tastes which is why we try our best to not get the pros out there the meat of the information they are looking for, but describe it in a way that players of even entry levels can comprehend. So with that in mind, one of the more complex aspects of effects pedals for newer musicians is their implementation on a signal chain.


What is an Effects Pedal Signal Chain?

An effects pedal signal chain is simply the order in which a series of pedals are connected. If you have ever seen a player use a pedal board, the order of his pedals make up his signal chain. And if by some chance you thought that you can simply place these pedals in any sort of order and still get the same results – think again! Even if you’re just working with two pedals, you will get a different sound depending on the order.  Let’s suppose we are using two very common effects pedals – a wah-wah and distortion. Distortion followed by wah will give you an overstated, thick, duck-like quacking sound while placing the wah before the distortion will give you a much more subtle (more importantly, musical) tone. Now, for most players, deciding what should go where on a signal chain simply came through trial and error along with a good dose of common knowledge. And while a player’s signal chain should be his or her own, those of you out there new to creating a solid signal chain can benefit from some of the general 'rule of thumb' type of advice that can get you started in the right direction. First of all, a good way to begin figuring out the best possible setup for creating an effects chain is by understanding the relationship between a guitar’s signal, the way effects  are applied, and the amp that will decipher the sound.  


Understanding How a Signal Chain Should Work

Let’s start off with a guitar’s signal. As the driving force behind the entire effects chain, a guitar’s signal (more importantly, it’s voltage) must travel through the input cables and all of your effects pedals before it can reach the amp. As you can imagine, by the time a guitar’s signal finishes making its way all the way to the amp, the signal will undoubtedly suffer from a bit of degradation, losing its tone and body in the process. It's not your guitar's fault, it's simply the nature of electricity. Now, imagine having that same signal but with your guitar’s volume on its half way setting. That same degraded signal comes out even worse as it only had half of the voltage to work with from the get go. In order to minimize the amount of signal loss, it is always suggested that the guitar’s volume be kept at its max setting and either manually adjust the output level from the amp or better yet, from a dedicated volume pedal, as is the choice for most professional musicians. A volume pedal in an effects chain will control the output volume of everything that is placed before it, so it’s pretty much almost always a good idea to place it at the end of the chain if it’s going to be your main form of overall volume control. Several professionals don’t limit themselves to just a single volume pedal either and will actually get a bit creative with its implementation, having it certain pedals adjust the volume of only certain effects in a chain.

A common way of organizing a signal chain is through a pedal board

Another popular method for keeping that signal strong is by way of a booster pedal such as the MXR Micro Amp (pictured above) which pretty much gives your signal a dose of added voltage in order to avoid degradation. Booster pedals become increasingly necessary when working with a signal chain involving a good number of pedals in order to keep that signal strong by the time it hits the amp, but depending on whether you just want to boost the overall signal strength or the strength of certain effect, placement becomes important. While it may sound like a good idea to place a booster pedal towards the front of your chain in order to send that added voltage out from the get go, some pedals can’t handle high levels of voltage which can cause feedback and other problems. Also, you don’t want to simply place it at the end as there is not much benefit in adding voltage when the signal has already lost much of its clarity. It would be like enlarging an already fuzzy picture when what you really want is to keep it from getting fuzzy in the first place. Taking the volume pedal into consideration for this little analogy, the booster pedal keeps the signal sharp and the volume pedal enlarges it. So, where to place it? Well, it depends on the rest of the pedals you’re working with, but as a general rule of thumb, boosters work best anywhere but the ends. For now, on to the other effects.


Placement order is IMPORTANT

While some effects can create a drastic change in a signal’s sound, other effects act more like a coating that add subtle variations of texture rather than a huge makeover. Texture-adding pedals like time-based or ambient effects – such as reverb, delay/echo, vibrato, flange and chorus – work best when added to something much more pronounced instead of the other way around (which in a signal chain means they go towards the end). More pronounced effects on the other hand – such as distortion and overdrive (which are pretty much always the primarily featured effect when used) – should always be placed in the beginning of the chain (and never after more subtle effects) in order to achieve the best quality of tone. Placing a texture-based effect such as chorus before distortion basically means that the chorus effect will be distorted rather than the distorted tone getting some chorus. That may sound kind or original and appealing to some but trust me – you do not want to waste your distortion pedal effect by distorting an already subtle effect. This very concept is extremely important in determining the correct placement of your effects.


Common Paths for Signal Chains

Alright, so far, our effects chain should look a little like this:

Guitar > distortion/overdrive > ambient effects > time based effects > volume pedal > Amp

Remember to place the more subtle effects towards the end, such as delays and reverb. Here’s an example with a bit more detail, as well as with a booster pedal placement (which depends more on the player, but this is my own setup):

Guitar > dist/ovrd > booster > phaser > wah > chorus > flanger > delays > reverb > volume pedal > Amp


Other Tips

Tier One Effects: Octave dividers, ring modulators, synthesizer pedals, distortion/overdrive/fuzz; These effects should be treated like distortion/overdrive in that the work best with the most amount to raw signal, meaning towards the very front, with the most prominent effect your going at the very beginning.

Much like booster pedals – where its placement depends on what exactly you’re looking to boost – the location of compressors and wah-wah pedals in a signal chain will vary depending on what type of sound you are trying to create. In this case, you are encouraged to experiment with their order and see what you like best. Although as mentioned above, try to keep the wah-wah after tier one effects as they generally do not sound that usable in that order. Compressors on the other hand can be placed before any pedal, even distortion, as it shapes the signal rather than modifies it.

And finally, it is always a good idea to have your amp set on with clean settings in order to get a clear image of the sound of your effects chain. Hitting the distortion on the amp for example will distort EVERYTHING in your chain, so it’s best to leave the distorting to your pedal where it can be better contained.


In the end, experiment! While these are merely a few suggestions of the general way a signal chain works, you are only limited by your creative implementation.

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