We've already seen a bunch of things that can affect our tone outside our pedal board, now it's time to see which is the recommended order for pedals and how to plan and troubleshoot your pedal board.
I am assuming that you took already care about cables, power supplies, etc. and you are ready to arrange a bunch of pedals in a pedal board. After a few tests, you can go frutrated, not being able to guess the right order to make it sound as expected. Then, the question comes up: Which is the right order for a pedal chain? and, what follows is my answer, based on my own experience dealing with bunch of pedals of different category, family and maker.
Please, to better understand some terms, see the set of articles named: "Pedal Effects: What they do?", where you will find a description for each category and family of pedals.
Take a look to this chart:
The arrows in red are alternative paths. Its quite usual to chain Modulation and Time effects inside the amp's FX Loop, in the case, the input of the amp's front end is the output of the Gain Pedals.
But, this is a very generic rule and, as like any good rule, it has exceptions.
These are my own rules:
- If your pedal board has a Wah, place that Wah on the very first place, your guitar should be directly linked to the Wah. There is people that likes Wah after gain pedals and, there is people that uses a pair of Wahs, one at the beginning of the chain and one more after gain pedals to use one or the other depending on the wanted sound. Wah before gain is smoother and your are distorting a filtered signal, while after gain is harder and you are filtering a distorted signal. To my taste, a wah after gain sounds synthetic, thick and exagerated.
- If your pedal board has a vintage Fuzz (and very specially, a Germanium one) place the Fuzz the first in the chain. Only exception is if you also have a Wah and that your Wah is designed "fuzz friendly" (like all Real McCoy stuff). In that case, the Fuzz must inmediately follow the Wah.
- If your pedal board had one or both of the pedals mentioned in points 1 and 2, your tone has been altered for the rest of the chain. Place a clean Buffer after the Wah, Fuzz or Wah-Fuzz combo. You can also use whichever other pedal (that suits your needs) having a quality buffer active. This will help to re-balance Impedances and restore some tone loss.
- If your chain has a mix of true bypass and buffered pedals, tyr to use- a single buffer in your chain or maximun two buffers, one at the beginning and one at the end or, just after the return from FX loop. Remember that most of Boss' pedals are Buffered, same happens with Maxon's, Ibanez', Visual Sound, etc.
- Usually, the Tuner can be placed in the very first place of your pedal board, before the Wah or Fuzz but, be sure your Tuner is true bypass and check that isn't affecting the tone of your wah or fuzz. This will serve also as a pedal board general switch, to mute everything together.
- After that Tuner-Wah-Fuzz.-Buffer combo, you can start chaining rest of pedals following the schema pictured above. You are interested on having Signal followers as close to the original signal as possible (after the buffer and before gain pedals).
- Rest of Signal Recovery effects can be placed where they will help the best on the chain. So, it all depends on your particular chain and which pedals are having some lost of signal properties.
- If you have modulation effects, be sure to check them in both positions, before and after gain effects. In my experience Phasers and Vibes work better before gain pedals, while chorus, flanger, tremolo and vibrato work better after gain pedals but, you must test every pedal after and before, since your personal taste has a lot to see with all this.
- When stacking gain pedals, I usually prefer to stack from the cleanest one to the dirtiest one so, a light overdrive goes before a medium overdrive and this one before a hard overdrive, etc. They are being usually arrange in two ways: from lighter to harder or, from harder to lighter. From lighter to harder, you are more smoothly pushing the following pedal and, the last one is the one that gives the final color to the tone, there is an increase on gain (drive, distortiion) but not so much bump in volume. In the oposite way, from harder to ligher, there is a bump in volume after every stacked pedal, what can be not so useful.
- If you have an EQ pedal, try it after the tuner-wah-fuzz-buffer combo, to sculpt the source sound before it reaches the rest of pedals. Try it after gain pedals if you wanted to change the voice of the already processed signal, instead.
- If you have a Volume pedal, place it just before Time Effects, after gain pedals, to avoid to cut echo and reverberation tails. In that way, you can push hard your pedals and maintain control over volume with that pedal. Think on this as if that volume pedal was the Master volume on an amp.
- Place Delay before Reverberation, always. Some people likes to have a delay pedal before gain pedals and, one more at the end of the chain. Maybe you are interested into distort echoes, who knows it.
Analyzing my own pedal board
This schema shows my recently rebuilt pedal board:
The first pedal is the Tuner. This tuner is a signal follower and should be as early in the chain as possible. Since it is True Bypass, isn't affecting the tone of the rest of pedals when switched off.
When switched on, it mutes the pedalboard, allowing you just to tune your guitar in silence.
It serves as a global switch to mute everything together. Since it's place way before time effects, the tails of those effects aren't affected so, the sound mutes in a very natural way.
Second pedal is the Wah, a signal follower also. This wah is based in a vintage design and, it's of type "fuzz-friendly". What it realy means is that the impedance at output is that worst impedance level that a vintage fuzz of germanium expects. I have no fuzz chained after the Wah so, what at the end is doing is to unbalance impedances, what delivers a bad signal to the rest of pedals in the chain. Therefore, I've placed a clean buffer just before the wah.
Third pedal is a clean Buffer, a signal recovery pedal. The Buffer helps to restore some of the lost high-end and to re-balance the impedance levels that are being affected by the Wah. It enhances the quality of signal, passing it to the rest of pedals. There is no gain or volume increase, just a clearer and definer signal.
Forth pedal is a compressor, a gain pedal. Compressors work better at the beginning of the chain, as earlier as possile, since they raise both, the signal level and the noise level so, they are quietest before the rest of noisy pedals. A compressor can be a good weapon to reduce the high dynamic range of single coils, maintaining a more stable average level, taming the excesive peaks and prolonging the sustain of tails.
It works also awesome to give an extra push to whichever other gain pedal, making the signal more thick and defined, since the average level of signal is more stable. But remember, stacking gain pedals is equal to stack noise, also!.
Fith pedal is a phaser, a modulation pedal (out of standard place?). I find that a phaser works more subtle before gain pedals, otherwise, the effect is too much psychodelic to my taste. This phaser in particular works equaly well before or after gain pedals but, as I usually place phasers in that position, I leaved it there.
Sixth is my ligher overdrive pedal, a gain pedal. This is my transparent overdrive, used just to drive the tubes to the break up point, where when picking softly the sound is pristine clean but, breaks when picking harder. My rule is to go from the lightest gain to the hardest one.
Seventh is my medium overdrive pedal. This is my bluesy overdrive, over the break-up spot of my tubes but, before real distortion-like effect.
Eighth is my hard overdrive pedal. In fact, this is some kind of vintage-gain amp in a box. The sound is close to a cranked Marshall JMT45.
With the nineth, distortion units begin. This one is my hard british distortion, more in the league of hairy-distortions ('80s and '90s) and, one of my favourite distortion pedals of all the times.Is slightly less gainy that the next one.
The tenth is my high gain distortion. A Soldano SLO-100 emulation but, not so tight and powerfull sounding as the Triple Wreck (that I think I should choose, instead).
The eleventh is a chorus, a modulation effect. Contrary to phasers and vibes, I find that chorus usually work better after gain pedals. I didn't checked this chorus before gain pedals. I have to. In this position is delivering an outstanding sound so, I am not very worry about it.
The twelveth is an special booster, a signal recovery pedal. The design of this booster is based on the pre-amp section of an EchoPlex (a Tape Echo unit). I find that an slight touch of this pedal in your chain adds I-don't-know-what to the sound that makes it just better. I usually prefer this pedal after the rest of gain pedals, to give an slight bump of clean volume to the already processed signal but, since I had a Tape Delay emulation pedal at the end of the chain, I wanted to create a "virtual echoplex" by combining the pre-amp section (modeled by the EP Booster) together with the Tape Delay section (modeled by the Faux Tape Echo). I tried it and it worked really nice so, I am leaving it there.
Last pedal is a Tape Delay, a time effect. This is emulating an old Tape Echo unit and providing an outstanding delay sound that helps me to bring back some ambience to my sound.
Building your pedalboard
You can see that I've practically followed the rules mentioned above but, you realized that I've made exceptions, also. As mentioned, the right order is the one that best suits you.
My recomendation is to start building your pedal board pedal by pedal. Don't throw everything over and start linking everything without thinking a bit over what makes sense.
Focus first on the head of your pedal board, specially if you are including a Wah, a Fuzz or both.
Try first every pedal alone (guitar to pedal, pedal to amp, that's all) to be sure you get the signature sound of the pedal, noise level, etc. Then, you can try to insert it in your pedalboard and test if its sounds went to bad or if this insertions ruined the sound of the surrounding pedals.
With every new insertion, check again the rest of pedals. Sometimes you will be surprised.
If facing problems with pedals A into B, try B into A, instead. Sometimes, some issues related to impedances will be over if you just swap the position of the two pedals in conflict.
If after trying every place with a pedal, you find that there is no position where the pedal delivers its best without ruining the tone of the rest of the chain, seriously considere to kick off that pedal to Saturn.
Try to achieve Unitary Volume level (same volume on output than on input) for each pedal, this is the best way to avoid extra bumps in volume or gain when switching on two or more together.
Try to always stack pedals with input impedances greater than several KOhm (idealy, equal or more than 1 MOhm) and output impedances lower than 1KOhm. This will help you to avoid impedance issues and therefore, to maintain the wanted order in your pedalboard.
If one of your pedals is based in a vintage design (some reissue or original one), it's very possible that will have some issues if the preceding pedal (or some of the preceding pedals) is a buffer or has a buffer active.
If a buffered pedal affects this one, you should choose to move the vintage pedal before the buffer or, to move the buffer after the vintage pedal.
Log all the tests you are doing and their results. Conflicts between pedals, etc. This will help you the next time that you will need to rearrange your pedal board (because you are substituing some units, by example).
Sometimes, a couple of pedals are incompatible when placed in a certain order. It's good to log this situations to be recalled later. This will save you a lot of work, next time.
By example, I know by experience that Fulltone OCD V3 and Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808 have some impedance issues and that one must go before the other to fix the issue but, at this moment of writing this lines, I don't remember which one should go first in the chain. I have to take a look to my notes for this.
While building your pedal board, do it directly over the floor or a table, don't fix the pedals to the pedal board. You will surely need to swap pedals order more than once so, be sure you have freedom of movements there. Once your tests are finished and the order determined, firmly mount everything in your pedalboard (don't forget to write that order before dismounting anything).