How to Guide: Signal Chain for Your Pedalboard - Roland Resource Centre

How to Guide: Signal Chain for Your Pedalboard

signal chain

So you’ve amassed a collection of cool effects pedals, and now you want to assemble them onto a pedalboard, but you’re stuck on what order to arrange your signal chain. Do you put the reverb pedal before or after the delay? Does the chorus pedal go before or after your drive pedals? Don’t worry, we’re here to help!

Understanding the fundamentals of how to arrange your signal chain is a key part of getting the best out of your pedalboard, which in turn affects how well it works with your amp, and how your overall tone comes out.

People like to say “there are no rules”, and to a certain extent that’s true. Experimentation and out of the box choices can certainly lead you to stumble on unique combinations that might yield your desert island tone.

But also… there are rules.

Similar to learning music theory, it’s useful to know all of the basic rules, and once you’ve mastered those, you can learn how to break them!

Contributed by Ed Lim for the Roland Australia Blog

THE FIVE FAMILIES

Effects pedals can be separated into groups based on their functions and their, well, effect on your tone.

To get our heads around the fundamental concepts, we’re going to divide these into five broad families or classifications:

  1. Pedals that affect dynamics/pitch
  2. Pedals that produce tone
  3. Pedals that modify tone
  4. Pedals that repeat/replicate sound
  5. Pedals that create ambience
effects chain
Before we dive into the five families, you might have noticed that there’s one pedal that sits before EVERYTHING in your signal chain – the tuner! This makes reasonable sense if you think about it, because your tuner will be able to “hear” your guitar best if it gets the cleanest unadulterated signal directly from your guitar. If you put a wild, fuzzed out sound with multiple delay repeats into the tuner, you can’t blame it for getting confused! Having a TU-3 at the front of your chain can also help to prevent tonal degradation. If you have a big pedalboard and you’re using true-bypass pedals, basically everything in your chain from your guitar leads to your patch cables results in a small, but cumulative amount of signal loss. All of this adds up, resulting in loss of tone, especially in the high end.

All BOSS pedals use buffered-bypass. A well designed buffer maintains both signal quality and level but with the added benefit of having a low output impedance capable of driving long cables or feeding true bypass pedals with much less quality loss.

PEDALS THAT AFFECT DYNAMICS/PITCH

Pitch shifters like the PS-6 and octave pedals like the OC-3 take the guitar signal and transpose them up or down, allowing you to boldly go where no standard tuned instrument can go. The cleaner the signal that’s fed to them, the better their tracking will be, which is why we’re putting them in the first family “block”, straight after the tuner. If you put them after another effect like distortion or delay, it’s likely that they’ll end up sounding glitchy and will track notes poorly (but hey, that could be the esoteric effect that you’re after!).
Additionally, feeding these pedals a more even-volumed signal helps with note tracking and consistency – which is why you might position compressors like the CP-1X or CS-3 in front of them to help smooth things out.

And the wah pedal? That goes first and foremost, because… that’s just rock n roll.

PEDALS THAT PRODUCE TONE

Pedals that produce tone go before things that modify tone. This is logical, because you want to create your basic sound first, then tweak it with some kind of modifying effect. We’re talking about overdrive and distortion here – everything from the classics like the SD-1, DS-1, BD-2 to the modern favourites like the MT-2W and JB-2.

These pedals take your clean guitar signal and produce a gain tone ranging from light, edge of breakup tones to crunchy classic rock all the way up to molten high gain madness.

If you’ve used overdrive or distortion before, you’ll know that turning up the gain also turns up the noise floor of your signal fairly significantly. This is why we position drive pedals early in the chain – if they’re later in the signal path, they’ll amplify the noise of everything before them.

If you’re using more than one dirt pedal to create your sound, that’s called stacking. As a general rule, you should stack them in order from lightest drive to heaviest distortion.

Honourable mention here goes to the NS-2 Noise Suppressor. Place it straight after your dirt pedals to cut down on the high gain noise, or try more complex routing arrangements if you need to completely clamp down on extraneous noise.

PEDALS THAT MODIFY TONE

Once you’ve settled on your core tone, it’s time to twist and turn that into interesting new sounds using modulation pedals. A chorus pedal like the CH-1, CE-5 or CE-2W can turn your guitar sound into a shimmery ensemble of “voices,” simulating the sound of multiple instruments playing the same part.
Phasers like the PH-3 and flangers like the BF-3 will give you the psychedelic swirl and jetplane swoosh of hit records from 1984 and onwards! Placing these effects AFTER your drive pedals will give a more pronounced effect, however, many great guitar players also use modulation pedals BEFORE their drives – so make sure you experiment and see which works best for your sound.
Or if you want to do both, modern multi-modulation units like the MD-200 and MD-500 have an “insert loop” function which means that when you place your drive pedals in the effects loop of the MD pedal, you can switch between running modulation effects before OR after your drives at any time!

PEDALS THAT REPEAT/REPLICATE SOUND

REPEAT

Delay pedals like the DD-3T or DD-8 take your guitar sound and bounce it back at you, like yelling “HELLO!!” (hello…. hello….) down into the Grand Canyon. So it stands to reason that when you’re using this delay effect, you want all of the chunky, chorusy, swirly guitar tones you’ve lovingly crafted through the three families of effects we’ve built up to be represented in what you’re putting into the delay pedal. This is why we put it near the end of the chain.
Putting delay pedals after distortion also means that the delay repeats will fade out more cleanly and evenly. If you put the delay before distortion, the compression effect of the distortion pedal will cause the delay repeats to smear together and repeats will be a lot louder before dying out more abruptly. But again – that could be the effect you’re looking for! Many famous guitarists have used delay pedals straight into the front of overdriven amps, like Eddie Van Halen and The Edge. If you want to try that, just keep the feedback (number of repeats) and effect level lower than you would normally. If you’re putting a delay in front of the amp, it’s often best to use an analog delay like the DM-2W, as the darker sounding repeats will “blend” better with the distorted sound.

REPLICATE

Loopers! Loopers aren’t effects—they’re recorders that you can use to build up a multi-layered sound out of, ala Ed Sheeran. Normally, you’ll want the looper to be able to record and playback the sounds you’ve created. So, like the delay pedal, you’ll want to put it near the end of the chain. Where exactly you place it will require some trial and error and an understanding of the way your personally looping philosophy/sound works.

You may want to have some overdubs in the loop that use short delays (like rockabilly slapback effects), so in this case, the looper should come after the delay. But on the other hand, it should almost certainly be placed before long reverbs or delays, as these will be very difficult to loop properly.

In many cases, pro musicians who use loopers on guitar just don’t use delay at the same time as their looper – it’s just easier to build up loops without worrying about the added dimension of delay repeats.

Similarly, do you want the reverb to be part of the effect that you can record onto your looper? Then put the looper after the reverb. Or if you just want the reverb to impart some general ambience and “room feel” to your overall playing? Then put the looper before the reverb.

PEDALS THAT CREATE AMBIENCE

Reverberation, or reverb, is what you hear in an enclosed physical when sound bounces back to your ears off surfaces like walls and the ceiling. The amount of reverb that you hear relays to your brain the physical size of the space that the sound is occurring in – think about the difference between clapping your hands in a small room, compared to a cave, or a cathedral.

This is the final component of sounds in the real world, and so if you apply this philosophy to your signal chain, your reverb will usually come right at the end. A reverb pedal can take your dry guitar sound and add the impression of three-dimensional space and ethereal ambience. You can choose from a fairly straightforward reverb like the RV-6, or create huge ambient soundscapes with the RV-500.

RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

Now that you know the basic concepts about why certain effects should go before or after others, use this as a starting point for experimenting with your own signal chain. You might find that some of these rules work well for you, while others can be modified or thrown out altogether for your style and sound.

Go make some noise and have fun!

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