Guitar Effects 101: Categorising Stompboxes

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  • July 22, 2016
pedals

Setting up an inspiring chain of effects pedals can be one of the most satisfying experiences when tracking guitars in a recording studio. It can be the key to creating a signature tone, shaping the course of entire mix. The fact that pedals are tactile and somewhat limited in parameters (some more than others) adds to the personality of each pedal: their limitations define them. So, how do we get the most out of stompboxes?

effect pedal chains

Photo: Paula McCallister

There are three major categories of guitar effects: colour, modulation and ambience. Understanding the fundamentals of each can really help unlock a myriad of tonal options when thinking about how they sit in a chain.

Categorising Pedals

If you are uninitiated to the deep and varied world of pedals, it might help to broadly categorise the sounds that they can produce, in order to narrow down your choices. Why? Well, there are thousands of pedal varieties, each with their own subtly different, or wildly individual tonal personality. If there is a tonal goal in mind, that will help guide the pedal choices.

There are three (very) broad categories that encompass tonal variations in stompboxes:

Colour

Colour can be defined as pedals that can add a certain saturation to the signal. These typically range from compressors/clean boosters – the more subtle end of colouration, but can still possess individual characters. They are great for “hardening” the guitar tone to help them stand up in the mix. Moving through the spectrum will take you to overdrive pedals, which can bring a little more dirt to the sound, while maintaining the ability to still mix in the clean tone. At the extreme end is full-blown fuzz and distortion for unmistakable rock tones.

analog man bi comp

Modulation

This category is particularly massive. There are many flavours of modulation, yet the basic principle is the same: the splitting of a signal, pushing one of signals out of phase, and incorporating a notch filter to sweep through the frequency spectrum.

They essentially alter the pitch of the incoming signal, creating swirling, disorienting sonic colours. Chorus pedals are a softer touch and a capable of a very smooth thickening of the sound. Phasers and flangers take things to more psychedelic territory. Vibratos ratchet up the speed of the modulation waves to emulate the vibrato circuits of classic amps of the 60’s.

analog man chorus

Ambience

This category of effects pedal adds space to the guitar tone; the two major subcategories being delay and reverb. Delays produce noticeable echoes and typically have a few key parameters – the amount of repeats (feedback), the speed of the echoes and the amount of echoes.

Reverb pedals create space, but adds a continuous tail on the notes rather than distinct and individual echoes. Reverbs often emulate plate and spring varieties, which offer a similar tone colour to vintage amplifiers, but some can also produce near endless ambience, like digital reverb engines that were popular in the 80’s.

There are no hard rules regarding the employment of stompboxes in your effects chain, but it may be worth categorising your stompboxes in order to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and get the most out of each one. The “set and forget” mentality won’t cut it in approaching other the sounds in the studio. Deconstruction, reconstruction and experimentation with effects chains can set you on the path to creating a signature guitar tone of your own.

pedal chain

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Dan Shaw is recording and mixing engineer at Enmore Audio. He also plays bass in Wells and Circle.

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