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Toys in the Attic… and Underfoot II

Hello Troubadourians! While this column will appear in December, I’m writing it in early November. So what with Thanksgiving coming up soon, before I continue with our discussion of effects pedals, I think it appropriate for me to take some time to give some thanks. First, I want to thank my excellent boss, Liz Abbott, for the opportunity to write for you every month. And I think it is equally important that I thank all of you, the readers of this column and this excellent magazine. Whenever one of you comes up to me at a gig or contacts me via the email at the end of this column to tell me how much you enjoy reading the column or that you learned something new, well, that makes me feel like I’m serving you as I’d hoped. I also want to thank all my friends and colleagues in the San Diego music scene; that many of you are regular readers and tell me how much you like what I write is the highest of compliments. I thank you all.

Now, back to pedals… Let’s back up a little and see where our interest and need for effects came from. Generally the natural order of sound is as found in the simplest of signal chains; guitar—amp—room – listener. For a long time that was the way things were done. But as technology and techniques in the studio became more advanced and adventurous, the “order of things” could be manipulated quite freely to create interesting tones and sounds. Not content to leave those tones and sounds in the studio, guitarists began looking for a way to bring them to the stage. This search begat distortion, fuzz, and overdrive pedals to recreate the sound of loud amps at lower volumes; phasers and flangers to recreate the tape effects created by recording engineers manipulating the speed of the tape reels; and echo/reverb devices to recreate the echo chambers and reverb tanks found in professional studios.

The question guitar players ask most often is, “In what order should I put my pedals?” While there isn’t one absolute preferred order for pedals, there is a usual “rule of thumb” that most players follow. First in line are gain pedals such as preamps, compressors, distortion or fuzz pedals, or other boost-type pedals. Next are modulation devices such as phasers, flangers, chorus, and other devices that can be used to manipulate the ‘phase-angle’ of the effected signal respective to the original signal. (Leslie speaker simulators are also included in this category). Third are time-based effects such as delays and echoes. There is some crossover in the later two categories in that all modulation devices involve some manipulation of the time delay of the signal and almost all time-based effects now have some method of adding modulation to the signal. The distinction between the two is usually made by the length of delay time available in the device. Modulation devices have very short delay times while delays and echoes have much longer delay time available as well as the number of repeats that can be used and blended with the original signal. The last category includes tremolo, vibrato and reverb type effects. These effects are often included in amplifiers, which is why they end up at the end of the effects chain. But why this order and not another? This order is a reasonable recreation of the signal chain as it would be in the studio but that can be an over simplification. For instance; distortion preceding modulation usually sounds better for pedals since the distortion generates lots of harmonics and overtones that modulation devices accentuate in highly pleasing ways. If you were recording a distorting amp and adding a modulation effect afterwards by doing the old school tape manipulation trick, this would be the order in which the “effects” would occur. Then along comes Eddie Van Halen who recorded the first two Van Halen records running an MXR phase 90 and MXR flanger into a distorting Marshall amp – turning the proper signal chain on it’s head – and the “Brown Sound” was born. They didn’t have the budget to do a lot of extra sound processing for the early records so the band just set up in the studio like they were onstage and let it rip. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Another studio invention is running a guitar into a Leslie speaker cabinet (rotating speaker). Early phasers were an attempt to recreate this ethereal sound. Unlike most other effects, this one has proven to be very difficult to accurately recreate in a pedal format. Why? The answer is that some effects are easier to recreate in real time than others. Reverb and tremolo/vibrato are easy to produce in small, inexpensive formats which is why they became standard equipment in many amps. Echo is also relatively easy to recreate, just not as simply or inexpensively. Original echo effects used smaller and specialized tape machines to reproduce the effects that had been created using studio tape machines. While not exactly like studio echo, many players preferred the sound of portable echoes, especially when they developed into the more reliable and pedal- friendly analog and digital delay units. Distortion and modulation effects have obviously also been pedalized. I can hear you saying, “But I still don’t know ‘why’ I should put my effects in a particular order?” Originally, with the exception of loud amps, all effects were naturally created after the fact using real echo chambers, plate reverbs, and manual tape effects. Evolving electronics have made it is possible to reduce the size and complexity, and recreate the sound of most effects through electronically manipulating the physics of the auditory phenomenon we know as reverb, distortion, echo, etc. Essentially, those are all factors of circuit clipping and saturation and signal timing and phase. The behavior of these pedals suggests the order described above. In the case of the Leslie speaker, there is the added factor of Doppler positioning that makes it very difficult to electronically simulate the true sound of a Leslie. Putting this effect near or at the end of the signal chain is preferred, but you may only get close to recreating the sound of a moving speaker using a stationary one.

While this column barely scratches the surface of what is possible with effect pedals, it does give you some idea of where to start and how to create a particular signal chain to give you the sounds you seek and why.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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