When building a pedal board, designing an effects setup, or even stringing together two pedals, there is one key factor that must be considered: signal chain. Signal chain is simply the order in which you put your pedals and effects. This simple consideration can be the difference between a great sounding effects rig and a substandard one. Even some multi-effects units give you the ability to change the order of your effects within its digital pathways. Although there are some consistent best practices that most will agree on, this is a fluid concept that truly is up to each individual's interpretation and preferences. That being said, the following reflects what the HornFX team sees as a great foundation for conceptualizing signal chain.
The simplest way to start thinking about your signal chain is by asking a simple question: How will one pedal affect the other? In most situations, your effects setup will be linear, with one pedal following another in a sequence. Because of that, each pedal will affect the sounds created by the pedal or pedals before it when they are activated. For example, if you are using an octave pedal and a reverb pedal, and the reverb pedal is placed first in the chain, then the octave pedal will not only change your instrument's sound, but the reverberations created by the reverb pedal. For this reason, that situation would most likely call for the octave pedal to be first in the chain.
When thinking about your signal chain, it is easiest to break up your pedals into categories. For the purposes of this article, we will use the following categories: pitch shifters (octave, harmonizers etc.), modulation (phasers, filters, wah, etc.), drive (overdrive, fuzz, distortion etc.), signal management (compression, eq, etc.), and reverb/delay.
For most situations, we find that putting the pitch shifters first in the chain is your best bet. Most people use pitch shifters to multiply their acoustic sound, to create a virtual horn section, or to mimic another horn. Because of this, we generally want the most unadulterated, pure sound from the horn to be pitch shifted. With no other pedals preceding, your pitch shifters will give you the most true and organic re-creation of your sound.
Best practices dictate that modulation should be the next step of the chain. While these effects would also sound great at the beginning of the chain, we tend to prioritize the quality of pitch shifted sounds, and therefore place the modulation effects second. This, of course, is up to personal taste and should be experimented with. Within our framework, we do have one exception to this order of operations. Most of the time, we prefer to place wah pedals first in the chain. This is mainly because the HornFX team finds that we get the best sound out of a wah when it is first. Additionally, when we build boards, positioning the wah first generally puts it farthest from the power supply. Some wah pedals are notorious for being susceptible to electromagnetic interference from power supplies.
Next in the chain, we like to place the signal management pedals. This is mainly based on the way we like to use compression. When using compression to manage the potentially huge changes you are making to your sound/signal with the previous two categories, it naturally follows that signal management should fall immediately after. We have constant arguments within the HornFX team about whether or not compression should come before eq. This is another situation where the only true answer comes from personal preference.
Another point of contention is where to put the drive pedals. We mostly agree that they sound best after Pitch Shifters and Modulation effects, but there are debates about where they should go in relation to Signal Management. Some prefer the drive pedals to precede the compressor, mainly so their often rowdy feedback issues can be more easily tamed. But others feel that the compressor, when placed after, takes away from the power and sonic integrity of the drive pedals. This is another scenario where you should experiment to see which order you like best.
The last category is one that most agree about. The reverb/delay pedals should go last. Since these pedals are essentially defining the environment in which you place your sound, it is logical to put them last. You will reverberate all the electronic changes you have made to your sound, and the echos of a delay pedal will reflect the final result of your effects. That being said, it is up to you how to order these two types of pedals. Do you want to reverberate the echoes of the delay or echo the reverberations of the reverb?
Even with all of our “best practices” and preferences, when it comes to signal chain, the most important thing is that you place your pedals consciously. Put your pedals in a certain order for a reason. Each pedal will interact with another differently, and the quality of your effects rig can be greatly enhanced simply by finding the right way to order your pedals. By thinking about and consciously coming to terms with your signal chain, you will be taking a foundational step towards finding and perfecting YOUR sound.
© Douglas Levin 2018