A Signal Path Guide for Effects


Hundreds of pedals and rack mount effects are available in today’s booming music market. The chain of sound effects is a part of the performers signature sound. We can easily identify a specific player just by hearing a few notes of their signature tone. Think about how fast we can identify the guitar tones of Steve Lukither, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Paired with their individual playing styles and amplification, they all use effects to create their signature guitar tones.

In the seventies and eighties I was the pedal board king. I used a minimum of 10 pedals at any given time. I learned the hard way about keeping the integrity of my guitars signal path through all those effects. Countless, repetitive articles have been written on the following question.

What is the best order to place sound effects in a signal path?

There is a standard placement of traditional effects that can allow a signal to weave smoothly. From the guitar to the amp, effects send to the effects return or a mix of both. Their placement can either add or detract from the performance and sound of a signal. Below I will offer suggestions for sound effects placement of the three above scenarios.

Effects Pedal Placement between Guitar and Amp

Clean channel only!

Before experimenting with the suggested pedal placement, adjust the channel controls of your amp to your usual positions. The clean channel should be pure not overdriven.

Signal Path:

Guitar > distortion/overdrive pedal > amp

To achieve the best performance from any overdrive pedal the output of a guitar signal must hit this effect first. All overdrive pedals perform best when the guitars volume is turned all the way up. This sends the maximum output voltage from your guitar pickups to the input of the overdrive pedal. If you need to vary the output volume of an overdrive pedal, incorporate a volume pedal after the effect. This will keep the tonal integrity of the overdrive’s output.

Tip: Single and double octave harmonics are more sensitive when using the rear/bridge pickup with an overdrive pedal. The guitar’s volume control must be turned all the way up to achieve this.

Signal Path:

Guitar > distortion/overdrive > phase shifter > chorus > flanger > wha > delays > reverb > volume pedal > amp

Try this order first before experimenting on your own. I always recommend the delay/reverb placement just before the amp or volume pedal. Think of reverb as a coating over the entire signal adding the final texture. Many combination floor pedal processors have a predetermined signal path order of effects. If the multi effect floor processor allows you to choose the order. Try the above pedal arraignment first.

1st Tip: The wha-wha placement can vary. Try placing it after the distortion pedal. Experiment, chorus or flange the wha effect.

2nd Tip: T-wah’s, Octave dividers, Ring Modulators and Synth Pedals all require maximum pickup out put from the instrument. Treat their input signal the same as you would an overdrive pedal.

Compressors: I have left compressors out of the chain because their placement in the signal path can vary. For example, if you want to compress the over all signal path. Place the pedal before the delays and reverbs. Using the compressor as an effect works well right before or after the overdrive.

Multiple channel amplifiers and foot pedals: Set up your amp as you normally would prior to plugging in any effects.

Signal Path:

Guitar > distortion/overdrive > phase shifter > chorus > flanger > wha > delays > reverb > volume pedal > amp

Follow the above order as a starting point when using multi channel amplifiers. Ease into using distortion pedals with over drive channels. However, if used carefully an over drive pedal can be used as a boost effect in any hi gain channel. Please note: Using time effects such as chorus, flanger, delay and reverb before an over drive channel creates a different effect than if used in an effects loop or a clean channel. You are actually over driving the time effects rather than using them to create textures after the hi-gain signal.

Effects loops

Signal path:

Guitar > Amplifier > processor or processors in an effects loop

Using rack multi effects signal processors in an effects loop has many advantages in creating sound textures. The only draw back is that your overdrive sounds from the processor are more compressed because a pre amp is driving them as opposed to a direct guitar signal. Combining a signal processor with multi channel amplifiers however is usually the best of both worlds. You can easily add your time effects as textures to all of your channels in any order. Even the overdrive patches from the processor can be used as a boost effect. The most important adjustment in the hook up is to get your input and output levels balanced on both sides of the loop. Read your manuals!

When combining multiple effects processors together star out by using the same pedal order listed above. Example: If you are using a rack compressor and a time processor (flange, chorus, delay and reverb) place it before the time processor to compress the original signal (recommended). Then try it after the time rack to harness harsh peaks.

If your amp has a mix control on its effects loop control panel. Turn it to the wet setting and use individual mix settings provided by the processor. The only time I would use an effects loop mix control, if provided would be if I were using an old fashion tape delay. The effects loop mix will contain a higher fidelity dry mix than the analog taped delay dry mix signal.

Effects loops and foot pedals

Signal Path:

Guitar > Foot Pedals > Amplifier > processor or processors in an effects loop

If you really want to create original vintage guitar sounds this is the way to go. Use your favorite over drive, wha, T-wha, phase shifter, flanger, and volume pedal etc., on the front end of the amp. Even a compressor in pedal form is cool for great slide effects and country riffs. Use your time processor in the effects loop for overall texturing. If the signal path of this style of rig is run correctly, you can create any sound out there.

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