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Know Your Knobs Part 2: Effects 101

By Jon Loudon • Posted on 10/18/2017

Welcome!

We’re here to help clarify the rights, wrongs, myths, grey areas, dos, don’ts, and give you a grounded understanding on how to utilize your beloved gear in the best way. We’ll cover different amplifier types, tubes, tones, effects, signal flow, and everything in between. Russo Music is has your back when it comes to knowing your knobs.

Section Two: Effects

[ih-fekts]
noun
1. an electronic device that modifies the sound created by a musical instrument or other audio source

Basic Effects Overview

OVERDRIVE/DISTORTION/FUZZ

These are the tone tools to add a gain stage to your signal. There are slews of various pedals in this category, from having a single knob to virtually replicating a complex amplifier channel, and they range from a slight clean boost to the gnarliest of gnarly.

Reverb

Natural reverb is emulated in a number of ways for guitar. Analog reverb is generally achieved with a spring-loaded tank, whereby the signal is sent to one end of the spring, and at the other side a transducer converts the sound wave into an electrical signal. Reverb pedals digitally model different types of reverb - such as hall, room, and plate reverb - and are generally easier to transport. 

Modulation

Vibrato, phase, flange, chorus, and tremolo are all examples of modulation effects. They are most commonly found towards the end of your signal chain, and add motion and depth to your sound. By adjusting the intensity of these types of effects, you can can go from tasteful sound altering nuances to extreme noisemaker deluxe mode.



Delay

A delay pedal creates a copy of the signal you send in to it, and then plays it back. This can be as simple and stripped down as a single note repeated, or taken to great lengths with massive amounts of spill over and feedback, creating luscious soundscapes with just a single effect pedal.

Compression

Compression is a volume reduction of the input signal of your guitar. It can be used to soften attack, or increase attack by reducing the input and boosting the output level of the pedal. Typically, compression is commonly heard in country guitar, where percussiveness - or “twang” - is stylistically emphasized. Another example could be heard in the guitar solo of the Beatles song “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”.

Looper

Looper pedals have the ability to record the signal you are playing through it, save it, and then play it back while allowing you to play something different over the top of it. Imagine playing those first 4 chords in “Crazy Train” and recording them, then allowing you to play that infamous lead over the chords at the same time. 

Signal Management

Making sure you have the proper tools so all of the fun stuff functions correctly is important. Here’s a few things you may want to look into:

Buffer - helps maintain the integrity of your guitar’s signal when a long effects chain

AB/ABY - designate two or more signal flows to run out to different locations

Looper/Switcher - assign multiple pedals connect to each other through a single effects loop to access and activate them simultaneously 

Overdrive vs. Distortion vs. Fuzz

Overdrive is the term for a “soft” clipping gain stage. They can be used as a volume boost or set as a small gain stage into a clean or already overdriven amp, or stacked into another od/dist/fuzz. Popular overdrive pedals—of which there are many—include the Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Klon Centaur.

Distortion, such as the Boss DS1 and the ProCo Rat, have a “hard” clipping gain stage. They are better used into a clean amplifier as the main source of distortion.

Fuzz produces a nearly unrestricted gain stage through either Germanium or Silicon transistors, and responds heavily to the volume knob on your guitar. Think fuzz for Hendrix-inspired psychedelia or mid-scooped heaviness as heard on recordings from Smashing Pumpkins or the White Stripes. 

Order of operations: Signal Flow

How order affects your sound

Your signal flow is your choice, and yours alone, but there’s definitely some “suggested” ways that remain tried and true throughout the industry. Remember that as the signal flows from your guitar through the chain, each effect is applied to the signal it receives. If you have a delay after a fuzz, the delay will be applied to a fuzzy signal. If the fuzz is after the delay, you will be fuzzing up the delayed signal. See the flowchart above. 

Re-ordering to achieve desired sounds

If you’re not happy with your results once you’ve set up the order of your pedals, make a move. You might not get things just right the first time around. Start small and swap two, and if you have to, swap more.

Effects Loops vs. the front end

Some amps have effects loops, and some do not. If you’re presented with the opportunity to choose, see what works best for you. The effects loop is AFTER the preamp section of your amplifier. Pedals run through the front end go through the ENTIRE front end of your amp including the preamp, while pedals run through the effects loop come after the preamp.

Running your entire setup through the front end of an amp can sometimes get a little messy, especially with amps that do not have a lot of clean headroom and if you’re using a lot of modulation. Sending the modulation section, or select pedals through the effects loop or “back end” of your preamp may reduce the mess or “muddy” sound, and allow you to separate your fuzz/drive/distortion pedals from the chain and run them through the front end to push your amp to it’s fullest potential.

Powering Pedals

No More Batteries

If you’re using batteries to power your pedals, it’s probably time to stop. Constant power from power supplies will guarantee your pedal sounds consistent and does not fail on you. While that “dying battery” sound has been replicated on many a fuzz pedal, it’s not fun to replicate it in the middle of a set when you’re not expecting it. 
On pedals that are not true bypass, if your battery dies, you will lose your whole signal.

Voltage

The voltage that a pedal requires to function is generally labeled on the pedal or in its instruction manual. Unless otherwise noted, most pedals are powered off 9V center negative power. Some pedals require higher voltages, including the MXR Flanger (18V) and the Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man (24V).

Amperage

The Ampere, or “amp” is the SI base unit for electrical current. Amperage is the measurement of the strength of that electrical current. Standard 9V pedals receive 150mA, or milliamperes, of current. Higher current draw pedals, such as those from Strymon, rate between a required 250-300mA of power.

Center positive vs. Center negative

A pedal will also illustrate whether is is Center Positive or Center Negative polarity. A power source has a “tip” and a “barrel”. Center Positive means the tip of the output plug is positive (+) and the ring is negative (-), whereas Center Negative (most common on pedals) means the tip of the output plug is negative and the barrel is positive.

Daisy Chains

Daisy chains are a shared 9 volt power source across a line of pedals.

*Tip: Use a daisy chain from the buffered power out from a tuner for an easy way to achieve buffered, hum-free power for a simple pedal setup.

Larger pedal power supplies

If you’re powering multiple pedals, or If you’re powering multiple pedals, or have pedals that range in required input voltage, absolutely look into using a larger standalone power supply. The Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2+ is one of the most popular choices and perfect here for example. It features eight isolated 9V power outputs, and can be set or combined to accommodate pedals that require high current draw, or 12 or even 24V of power.

Board Essentials

Soldered vs. Solder Free

Soldered patch cables provide the most stable connection between the cable itself and the 1/4” jack. They can range from just a few dollars each up through $30 depending on the type, quality, and warranty offered. You can make them on your own, too, but they’re not as easy to put together as solder free cables. This type of cable offers very low profile 1/4” and cable thickness, and can usually be put together just by using cable cutters and a screwdriver.

Pedalboard Options

There’s hundreds of great pedalboard makers out there in the world. Maybe one day you’ll even be one of them. You can cover your basic needs with a plank of wood and some velcro, or custom order the exact size, wood stain, and layout to your liking from a builder. Here at Russo Music, we offer all of the options from Pedaltrain. We’ve found they offer a size and type for everyone, and work very well with adding on power supplies and accessories made by other manufacturers.

Add-ons

There’s quite a few things out there to make your tap dancing routine a bit easier. Pedal risers, setting savers, wah-pedal mounts, and cable ties are all available to you right here, and we’re happy to help you set it all up.