Bring the Noise: Amp Overdrive or Effects Pedals

Rock music is one of those genres which benefits a lot from a good distorted tone, whether it’s rhythm guitar riffs or in-your-face all out soloing, cleans are just not strong enough for this style. That being said though, not just any distortion will do; it has to be appropriate to the overall sound of the music you want to play, and above all else compliment your playing rather than detract from it. Luckily, there are a lot of ways in which you can get distorted tones with the electric guitar, so practically any heavy sound you can imagine is available to you. There are literally tons of different and interesting distortion pedals on the market, and while it would be impossible to consider the relative pros and cons of each one in a simple blog, it is possible to compare them collectively with another common way of achieving a distorted tone: the tube amplifier.

Row of TubesWith tube amps, the distortion tone comes from pushing the tubes past a certain threshold, so that they break up naturally and distort the guitar signal; this is commonly referred to as overdrive, but when taken to an extreme it is possible to create a stronger effect more akin to distortion. Effects pedals tend to achieve distorted sounds in different ways. While an overdrive pedal will work with the amplifier itself to boost the signal and overdrive the tubes, many modern distortions work in a more independent way.

The difference between amplifier overdrive and effects pedal distortion is great, and to hear it in action, all you have to do is compare the sounds of a couple of different bands. Angus Young of ACDC is perhaps one of the most famous technophobes in the history of rock; with a pedal collection close to zero, he relies almost exclusively on overdriving his amplifier to get that famous edgy classic rock tone. On the other end of the scale would be something like the gear rig of a player like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, which consists of a number of different distortions and modulation which are carefuly balanced with the amplifier to produce a more sophisticated kind of distortion. The difference in tone between these two players is huge, as are their demands for amplifiers.

epiphone_distortion_002[1]Headroom again comes into play, as if you decide to go the effects pedal route, you need an amplifier capable of giving high volume crystal clear cleans, so that the tone from the distortion pedal is not mixed with overdrive from the amplifier. If you prefer overdriven amplifier distortion and want to keep your ears intact, then you will need less headroom, so that you can reach that broken down tone at more acceptable volumes. The main difference between amplifier and effects pedal distortion is that one of them sounds much warmer than the other. With a good tube amp head, the distortion can be very rich and, above all, natural sounding. A distortion pedal can sound a little more cold, metallic and dark unless it is made with good components and set up well in your rig.

The two kinds of distortion are very different, and it is often a matter of personal preference when it comes down to choosing which is more appropriate for a particular track. The two can even be mixed together to create even more interesting textures. As usual, experimentation is the key, although if you are the kind of person who wants a lot of variety in overdrive and distortion, then it is usually a lot cheaper to buy different effects pedals than to buy different amp heads!

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Amps and Effects: Putting It All Together

So, let’s say that you have a decent tube amp that’s the perfect size for your regular gig, and a great set of pedals to put into a board. What’s the next step? Unfortunately, there are many ‘wrong’ ways to set up a guitar rig and very few ‘right’ ways. By ‘wrong’ I mean not optimised for the best tone and sound quality; obviously anyone is free to place things how they want – within reason – as much of this is all subjective. Some ways do, nevertheless, work much better than others.

It is important to care about the way in which you place an effect pedal, both in relation to other effects pedals and to the amplifier, as the only pedal with a truly clean signal going in will be the first pedal in the chain. You will clearly get different results depending on whether you distort your modulation, or modulate your distortion.

There are two very common setups which many people follow in order to get a nice sound from their equipment. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but they are the surest ways to avoid problems in your rig which could damage your overall sound in the end.

One of the most common setups is to have everything in a line between guitar and pre amp

One of the most common setups is to have everything in a line between guitar and pre amp

The first way is by far the most common, and involves putting everything in line between the guitar and the pre amp. This way is the simplest way, as it is straight-forward and logical. First, you have the compressor to squash and focus your clean signal in order to drive the pedals after it, then you have the overdrive pedal which can be used to add to your amp’s own natural overdrive. After this, the distortion pedal for lower volume distorted tone, or just a different sound to solo with. Finally, we have the modulation effects which are kind of like the icing on the cake. modulated distortion sounds great, but distorted modulation can sometimes result in bad sounding harmonics, and overdriven compression results in a great, strong signal going through the rest of the rig, while compressed overdrive will likely weaken your sound considerably.

Another popular way takes advantage of the amplifier send and return loop

Another popular way takes advantage of the amplifier send and return loop

The second way is a little more complex, but the one that I personally prefer to use when performing. The order of the pedals is pretty much the same, and the only real difference is the positioning of the pre amp in the chain. As stated in a previous article on the subject, many good guitar tube amps have a built-in effects loop which allows a player to place effects between the pre amp and power amp stages of the amplifier.

This is a little better in my opinion, because of the fact that the pre amp itself adds gain to the signal and produces natural distortion at certain volume levels. By placeing modulation and delay effects in the effects loop after the pre amp, you improve your tone in two ways. One way is that now all gain and tube overdrive occurs before the distortion pedal and modulation, which makes for a smoother overall sound, and the other is that the overdrive is placed right before the pre amp, which means that it is much more efficient at driving the tubes in the amplifier into distortion.

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Amplification Part 5: Sound Reinforcement For Guitar Amps

As has been touched upon in my previous articles on guitar amplification, different powered amps will naturally break up and clip into overdrive at different volumes, and each overdrive will sound different as a result. Personally, I am a fan of natural tube overdrive; I believe that raw tube distorted tone goes a long way to defining some of the greatest moments in rock history, and when playing a lot of clssic rock songs from these eras, it is the most important sound to have at your disposal. I therefore sometimes favour the simplicity of haing just enough power output to get to this desired effect at a performance in a medium-sized venue, and use my volume pot to control the tone between lead guitar and rhythm guitar parts.

While this setup is fine for many gigs, when I play in a significantly bigger venue this just won’t work out too well for me. My guitar, while sounding fine, will be far too low a volume for the place I’m playing, and so my sound will get lost in the generally louder mix of the band. There are two things I could do. Thing number one is to use an amp with more headroom and a higher output, then rely on effects pedals for my distortion tone, and thing number two is to make use of the ancient art of sound reinforcement.

As most amplifiers do not get produced with sets of speakers designed to give off thousands of watts of sonic power, sound reinforcement is one of the most useful things in the world of musical performance, and something which it is worth knowing a little about, even if you are not planning on taking a Sound Engineering degree at the local university any time soon. Basically, what guitar amps do for an individual instrument, sound reinforcement will do for the band as a whole. Every member will be mic’d up, with the signals all going through a mixer, then out through an amplifier to a bigger dsound system, which includes speakers for both audience and band (monitors).

A well set up sound reinforcement system means that the onstage volume only has to be right for the band and well balanced. As long as every instrument can be heard comfortably, nothing has to be too loud. The overall volume of the mix at the front of house – for the audience – is then controlled at the mixer, rather than at individual guitar amps. As good amplifiers used for sound reinforcement are designed to take any signal and make it louder, without creating any extra distortion or feedback, this means that the tube drive tone of an amp, no matter how big or small the power output is, can be amplified while keeping the original tone completely intact.

As far as the guitar player is concerned, there are two main ways in which you can connect your amplifier to a larger sound reinforcement system, one is through a line out (supplied on most good amplifiers) and the other is through microphones. While a line out can be useful, quick and easy, bear in mind that this signal is taken after the pre amp, and before the power amp and speaker stages of your amplifier. This means that the sound put out through the larger sound system might not be exactly how you want it to be.

For this reason, the microphone method tends to be better, and as the resulting signal going to the PA is truer to the player’s intended tone, this is the preferred method for more professional players. Almost any microphone can be used, but some are better than others. As the different kinds of microphones used in sound reinforcement is a huge topic, I’ll leave that for another day. For now, I’ll finish with the main point: a good instrument mic and a well balanced, long, high quality XLR cable are a great addition to anybody’s gig bag, and a guitarist thus armed will be able to ride proudly into any battle before him.

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Amplification Part 4: Choosing the Right Tubes

The 12AX7: A Hero of High Gain Rock

The 12AX7: A Hero for High Gain Rock

If you have read any of the previous articles from my amplifier series you will have noticed that I am particularly fond of the vintage tone which can be attained from a real valve amplifier. For me, they are the personification of everything rock; the attitude, the raw power, the overdriven grit and the image all rolled into one box. The most important component which goes into the construction of a good tube amplifier is pretty obviously given away in the name; it’s in the vacuum tubes that most of the magic happens.

As mentioned in my previous blog post about the different stages of amplification, a tube amp works with two main stages, the pre amp and the power amp. The pre amp is responsible for the gain and EQ among other things, while the power amp stage adds the power to the sound to prepare it for the loudspeaker. Each has different kinds of vacuum tube which work well for the specific purpose, and the key to a great sounding amp is largely in the choice of tubes.

For the voltage amplification stage of the amplifier (the pre amp), most amplifiers rely on a number of smaller tubes. Some popular tubes are 12AT7, 12AU7 and 12AX7. Depending on which ones are being used, the overall tone of the guitar distortion, voltage headroom and tonal harmonics will all be different.

6L6: United Tones of America

6L6: United Tones of America

Larger tubes are used in the output stage (power amp), typically 6L6 or EL34. While the sounds from these two popular types of big tube are different, much of the tone and gain characteristics are more dependent on the pre amp stage than anything else. They do however have different tonal characteristics. 6L6 tubes are traditionally for the ‘American’ sound. They offer a broad, well balanced range of frequencies from low bass all of the way up to the highs, and companies like Fender and Mesa Boogie use them almost exclusively because of the fact that they deliver bright cleans and lend themselves well to distortion when supplied with enough gain from the pre amp.

The EL34: Classic British Crunch

The EL34: Classic British Crunch

The EL34 on the other hand is the typical English Gentleman. First introduced in Great Britain by the Mullard company, this tube is the sound of British rock, favoured by companies like Marshall, Orange and Hi Watt. Tonally, the EL34 is a little less balanced than the 6L6, which means it is sharper sounding – particularly in the high-mid frequencies – than it’s American cousin. An EL34 will have that bite and crunchiness that takes you all of the way back to the days of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Cream and The Yardbirds.

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Amplification Part 3: Power and Headroom

Hello and welcome to part four of my guide about all things amp! So far we have looked at the main differences between valve and solid state amps, as well as the different stages of guitar amplification. This post will be concerned with amplifier power, wattage and that all important concept of headroom.

Amps come in a number of different sizes, but the most popular tend to be 5w, 10w, 15w, 20w, 50w, 60w and 100w. This denotes the output power of an amp and generally speaking, the higher the wattage of an amplifier, the louder it is. For a practice amplifier at home, you wouldn’t need anything more than 5 or 10 watts. Smaller intimate gigs might require 15 to 20 watts, a theatre-style performance might require 50 or 60 watts, and performances in any larger venues would need the bigger guns, 100 watts with extra sound reinforcement from a PA.

Of course, this is just a general guide. Depending on the genre of music that you play, personal preferences and whether or not you are using effects pedals, you may want an amplifier with a specific wattage. Jazz and country players tend to want an amplifier which can be loud and clean, whereas the guitarist for an ACDC tribute band would most likely welcome natural overdrive and amp breakup.

Mind Your Head

This brings me onto the subject of headroom, which is a term that is often heard, but hardly ever really understood. In fact, this term has been thrown around so much – like ‘true bypass’ – that many players just consider an amp that has it as being good, and don’t really think about it further. The term is very easy to understand in a basic way, and you don’t need to be a professional acoustician, sound engineer or physicist to grasp the concept. Basically, if an amplifier has a lot of headroom, it just means that it has the potential to be turned up to quite a loud volume, without breaking up and distorting the sound. Conversely, amps with less headroom will break up and go into natural overdrive at lower volumes. Clearly, headroom is a very important thing to consider when buying an amplifier, or even setting up your sound for a gig.

In certain circumstances, the higher the headroom the better. This includes most obviously styles of music which require you to be loud enough to be heard over a drummer, while maintaining as clean a sound as possible. Another set of circumstances in which more headroom is important is when you want your tone to come solely from your effects pedals. If you have a certain tone set up and balanced with a number of different overdrive and distortion effects in use, you might not want it to mix with amplifier overdrive and so again, you need an amp which can be pushed louder while maintaining a clean tone.

Circumstances where you want to keep things simple, like a lot of classic rock tunes, you might want less headroom in an amplifier in order to be able to get that vintage tube distorted tone at a reasonable volume. Amps with higher headroom are not very practical for this, as at the level needed to break up the signal, your onstage volume would be far too loud for yourself and the rest of the band. When buying an amplifier, think about the style of music thatyou want to use it for, as well as the kind of place you will be playing with it. A 5 watt amp might be best for recording a rock track at home, while a 10 watt or 15 watt would be better for recording a jazz line. A country, pop or funk gig in a medium-sized pub might call for a 40 watt amp, while a rock act in the same place could get away with a 20 watt amp for the best results. Pedal heads will inevitably need a 40, 50 or 100 watt amp in order to get the best sound out of their gear.

It’s all subjective, but if you follow these general guidelines when considering a new amplifier, you can’t go too far wrong!

Thanks for reading, and see you next time. Feel free to leave any thoughts, feelings, criticism or questions in the comments.

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Amplification Part 2: Pre Amp and Power Amp

As touched upon in part one of my guitar amplification guide, one important thing to understand about guitar amps is the difference between the pre amp and power amp stages. A good understanding of the stages of an amp will allow you, as a player, to really experiment with the placement of effects and try different setups in order to get the best possible sound from your gear.

The smaller tubes make up the pre amp, while the two bigger ones at the back are part of the power amp

The smaller tubes make up the pre amp, while the two bigger ones at the back are part of the power amp

Basically, most amplifiers consist of two main stages, the pre amp stage and the power amp stage. When you plug your guitar into the main input (located on the front of the amplifier head), your signal goes through the pre amp, where the EQ and gain controls can alter the tone, then moves on to the power amp stage which provides the raw power used to make the signal stronger before going to the loudspeaker. Bass, middle, trebble and gain are usually part of the pre amp, while master volume is part of the power amp stage. This idea becomes really useful to musicians when we consider one other thing that good amplifiers tend to have: an effects loop. Effects loops are a send and a return jack usually found on the back of the amp. The send jack takes the signal straight from the pre amp, and the return jack goes straight into the power amp, which basically means that by taking advantage of the effects loop you are able to place effects both before and after the pre amp. By plugging directly into the return jack you can even bypass the pre amp completely, and just use the power amp stage to amplify your sound.

Baring in mind that compressors should always be placed first in an effects chain (see my guide on compressors here), and that overdrive pedals are designed to naturally boost the signal going into the pre amp to force it into overdrive, it makes sense that these pedals should be placed between the guitar and the pre amp, and not in the effects loop after the pre amp.

Effects that can be placed in an effects loop to great results are distortions, modulation pedals like flangers or choruses and delay pedals. The setup might look something like this:

Guitar > Compressor > Overdrive > Pre amp > (Distortion > Chorus > Delay) > Power Amp > Loudspeaker.

Alternatively, distortions could also be placed before the pre amp for different tones, but modulations are best after, as it is usually better to modulate a distorted signal rather than distort a modulated signal.

As for bypassing the pre amp stage altogether and going straight into the power amp, remember that you will need a good powerful overdrive to provide the necessary gain and act as a kind of pre amp in its stead. Also, preferably one which allows for control over bass, middle and treble levels so that you don’t lose the option of EQ. A setup going straight into the power amp might look like this:

Guitar > Compressor > Pre amp substitute > Distortion > Chorus > Delay > Power amp > Loudspeaker.

All of the above methods will yield completely different results, and so being aware of the different stages of the amplifier and exactly what each stage is responsible for can really open up your playing. There are many different ways to connect the same gear to get different tones, and the best way is to just sit down with your guitar and spend some quality time getting to know your amp!

Thanks for reading, please feel free to share this article if you found it interesting!

See you next time.

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Amplification Part 1: Different Kinds of Amplifiers

Hello and welcome to the first post in a series of articles tackling the most important thing in the history of guitar music since the invention of the guitar itself: the amplifier. In the following posts I will consider the most important, practical and useful things that a guitar player should know about amplification. Over the course of this series of articles I will consider everything from setup, equalization and tone to maintainance and care. First up though is a look at the amplifier itself, with an introduction to the different kinds which are available for musicians and the differences between them.

As you are sitting reading this article, you are surrounded, bombarded and even penetrated by waves of all different varieties. We owe so much of our current state of technological advancement to this simple physical attribute of our universe. We have waves which help us transfer information from one point to another, waves which allow us to see and differentiate colours and – my personal favourite – the audio waves which make music possible in the first place. The idea that sound travels in waves of around three hundred and thirty meters per second is very important for the musician, and remembering this simple fact will help a lot in anybody’s search for a good tone.

Valve amps pass signals through vacuum tubes to create that well known tone

Valve amps pass signals through vacuum tubes to create that well known tone

The amplifier is, basically, a machine with the sole purpose of taking one thing and making it more present. In the world of audio and guitar playing, an amplifier is something which takes the electrical signal from your pickups and increases it significantly, making your guitar louder. The process is a balanced one. Getting your guitar to make even a single note sound involves a complicated, intricate collaboration between a number of different agents. The note is born in your own mind, and then travels through the fingers and strings into a pickup which converts it to an electrical signal, which then navigates a maze of cables and components of effects pedals and amplifiers, before being converted back to a sound wave by a loudspeaker and traveling through the air to end its journey at the ear. The amp is just as important in this process as any other part, so its worth taking the time to get to know it properly!

Guitar amps have a long and interesting history, but the most important part for the purposes of this post is the development of the transistor in the late 40s and 50s. Before Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain changed the world of electronics for good, vacuum tubes were the go to technology used for every guitar amp. Afterwards, we now have transistor based solid state amps too.

Generally speaking, amps which are popular today fall into three different categories: tube amps, solid state amps and hybrid amps (which are a mix of the two). Tube amps never became obsolete because of the distinct tonal characteristics they produce. A good tube amp is for many players the only way to go, and there is a long long list of famous bands and players who wouldn’t play through anything else. Natural tube overdrive is a great thing, and only really attainable through a real valve amplifier.

Valve amps do have a tendency to be thought of as less reliable and more easily broken than their solid state cousins, although I personally think that for the sounds they are capable of, its worth it. And with a little care a good one will last just as long as a transistor amp anyway.

Assorted TransistorsThe second kind of amp is the solid state, which – owing to the fact that transistors are so much smaller than valves – can be made much smaller and cheaper than tube amps ever could be. This means that these amps are generally considered to be the high power, smaller, robust, convenient and cheap alternative by many people, and even though they might pale in comparison to valve amps tone-wise, some may prefer the convenient, cheap option. Transistor amps also lend themselves well to chips and computing technology, meaning that they often have onboard digital effects such as delay, chorus, tremolo and distortion.

The third and final amp to be considered is the hybrid, which is part tube and part transistor. These amps have the advantage that they can come in the dimensions of a solid state amp, but still maintain some of the tonal characteristics of all-tube amps. They do sound better than transistor-only amps, but still do not reach the quality of a good tube amplifier. Hybrid amps may have a transistor pre amp stage and a valve end stage, or a valve pre amp and a transistor end stage, and both ways have a different effect on the tone overall.

That’s all I have for the general introduction into the wonderful world of guitar amps! Thanks for reading, and the next post will expand on pre amp and power amp stages. Check it out if you have time, and as always, sharing is caring!

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Analogue Vs Digital

As time goes on, one thing is certain; it is an undeniable fact that technology grows and develops alongside humanity. From horse power came steam power. From steam power came oil-based fuel and from that came electricity. We now live in a world practically dominated by microchip and computing technology. Amplification and effects pedal technology is no exception, constantly growing and changing at a dramatic rate.

ClocksThis is completely evident when one looks at a tube amp from the 50s, and compares it to the latest digital, tube simulator packed models, complete with headphone jacks, USB inputs, internal memory and onboard microchip processors. One difference with technological advancement in general and technological advancement in guitar effects and amplification is that, while nobody would want to use a Nokia 3310 anymore (although Snake still is in my opinion one of the greatest ever ways to kill time), plenty of people would still choose a vintage tube amp over the latest digital alternative. Amplification technology does not move ever forward in quality and desirability, but rather adds more alternatives and gives more options to the player as time goes on. If digital modeling and effects is your thing, there is plenty to whet your appetite. If you prefer traditional vintage tone, then the technology is still there, available to buy, and is still as big as it ever was. This is the beautiful thing about guitar amps and stomp boxes: they’ll never die.

That being said, there is a divide between the traditionalists and those players of a more modern ilk. And effects and amplification manufacturers are constantly bringing out kit to tempt both camps. But what is the difference? Which is ‘better’ for guitar tone? How does a modeled EL34 sound when compared to the real deal? These questions are best answered through personal experience, although as far as amplifiers and effects are concerned, I do hold my own opinion, as humble and honest as it might be.

Basically, I’m a fan of tradition when it comes to musical technology. If it doesn’t heat up and give a warm glow when you plug it in, and the bypass switch doesn’t click a little greeting when you switch on a distortion, then it just doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree that digital simulation technology has came a long, long way since the days of midi patches, there is still a little something that is missing when you plug a guitar into a computer instead of an amplifier. Why play through a digital model of a tube amp which is 50% of the original sound at best, when you could play through the real deal, which sits at 100%? Limited funds might be a valid response, but some of these computer amps cost just as much as a vintage model right now.

Digital products just feel a little too digital. There is often so much compression, coupled with an absence of real dynamics and harmonics, that the sounds they produce can turn an exciting lead guitar solo into a polyphonic ringtone.

There is, however a notable exception to my opinion here. This is concerning modulation effects. In some ways, certain effects do lend themselves well to digital technology. Take delay as a fine example. A basic repeating pedal where you can play a note and hear it played back to you, where you control the strength and number of the repetitions, as well as the amount of space between them. While analogue delays sound great, and were more than enough for the giants of the guitar world over the years, it is clear to see how such an effect could be very well simulated in a digital way. Digital delays can also ass modulation to the delay, with a few quick keypad presses from the player. Which means that they can effectively be three or more effects pedals in one case.

Saying this, though, there are many other ways in which digital just doesn’t cut it for me, and one of the biggest is distortion. Whether it is natural amplifier distortion or effects pedal induced fuzz, it always sounds better going through those old, tried and tested electrical components known as caps, resistors and vacuum tubes.

I am not alone in this view; all you need to do is check out the specs of an effects processor from one of the leading companies in the business, TC Electronics. They offer a huge range of digital effects, including delay and modulation, but when it comes to distortion, even for them, nothing less than analogue will do.

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Pedals Guide Part 5: Noise Gates and Extras

Part 1: Overdrive and Distortion
Part 2: Compressors
Part 3: Delay, Chorus and Flange
Part 4: Phase and Wah

Welcome to part five of my beginners’ guitar effects pedal guide! Its been fun, and I’ve considered a lot over the last week. From history and the workings of different kinds of effects, to some tips on how to use them in your own playing. While the world of effects pedals is a maze of equipment and techniques, with enough practice and a little basic knowledge, you can get them to work for you and have a huge amount of control over your sound. There is a lot that I still have to cover, but my purpose for this series was just to cover some of the basics and introduce the most used gear by the majority of guitar players.

Part five is dedicated to a few of the lesser used – but equally cool – effects that are out there. Starting with noise gates, here we go!

If you have a rig made up of a number of pedals from the previous categories I discussed, then no doubt you will have a fair bit of background noise in some situations. Especially if you are using primarily analogue effects (which I personally think are much better sounding than their modern digital counterparts anyway). Actually, even just a good analogue compressor into a classic distortion pedal is quite often enough to produce unfavourable background noise from your speakers. While this isn’t a problem when you are playing, you probably want to be as controlled and quiet as you can be when not playing, to allow for your band mates to be uninterupted and get creative themselves.

Noise GateIt is in a situation like this that noise gate pedals can come in extremely handy. Basically, a noise gate works in a way similar to a compressor/limitor effect. There is a threshold, set by the player, which determines which sounds are audible from your rig, and which ones are blocked. However, where a limitor works to prevent louder signals from coming through, a noise gate will do the opposite, with any audio below the user-set threshold being suppressed. As the hiss and humms which are produced by an analogue guitar effects chain tend to be much quieter than the notes played on the guitar (if this is not the case then you seriously need to rethink your rig setup!) noise gates can be very useful for removing this unwanted background noise.

Noise gates do however require some thought when being set up and calibrated; its not as easy as ‘plug and play’ and if your rig is not set up to be as even in volumes as possible, then a noise gate can cause some extra problems while playing. For example, if you have a great sound for lead guitar set up, but it is significantly higher than your clean sound you will use for a later song, then your noise gate will work perfectly for the high-energy parts of your set, but might even cut out your sound completely when the compressor and distortion pedals are put into bypass. Noise gates do not distinguish between wanted and unwanted notes, they just work on the strength of the signal being sent to them. To avoid this problem, it is clear that the best thing (and the most professional) is to take the time to set up your rig in full before playing a show or recording a guitar track.

Start with a clean sound, with every pedal in bypass, and work with your amplifier EQ to get the best clean sound you can, at the volume you will want to use while playing. Then, to properly set up your effects rig, work through each pedal one at a time, tweaking to your liking. Remember, good quality distortion effects do not have to make your guitar signal louder in order for it to sound good, although overdrive pedals can be set up with lower gain and used as a boost for solos and such when needed. After this, with your perfectly balanced rig all set up, introduce the noise gate and set the threshold carefully, so that it eliminates unwanted noise without cutting down on your guitar sustain for longer notes. Taking the time to perform such a setup before a gig is the difference between a professional player and a poorer one; it is integral to your guitar having a good sound onstage and leaving you free to focus on your playing, without having to worry about the controls of your effects. The rig should work with you and support you, not limit your playing potential and get in your way.

Van Halen was famous for his divebombs

Van Halen was famous for his divebombs

Finally, there are plenty of effects out there which can help you to create very unique and interesting sounds, but which are not very necessary to a day to day effects rig. In closing, I’d like to mention just one – fans of artists like Steve Vai and Tom Morello will know where I am going with this – the pitch shifter. This kind of effect usually comes in the form of an expression pedal, and takes advantage of digital technology to alter the sound of the guitar. What a pitch shifter will do is take the original note played by the guitar, then artificially (and incrimentally) raise or lower the note by a set amount. A good pitch shifter will allow the player to raise or lower the note by around two whole octaves, while a great one will even work well with whole chords, changing pitch while retaining the sounds of the notes in relation to each other. Effects like this can be heard on famous recordings like Rage Against the Machine’s iconic solo on Killing in the Name, and Radiohead’s ascending octave riff on Just.

Pitch shifters can be a great, fun way of playing the guitar, and can even emulate the divebomb sounds of players like Eddie Van Halen, without the need of a floating trem system or a new set of strings after every show!

So, thanks again for reading, and as always I hope you can get some use out of it! This is the last of my series of beginner pedal guides for now, I want to keep things fresh and I could spend my whole life going into further details in this way! In the next series of articles, I’m going to be looking into amplifiers, see you there!

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Pedals Guide Part 4: Phase and Wah

Part 1: Overdrive and Distortion
Part 2: Compressors
Part 3: Delay, Chorus and Flange

Hello all and welcome to part 4 of my beginners introduction to guitar effects pedals. In this post I will look into two more well known modulation/filter effects; phase and wah.

Let’s begin with phase, which is a great effect for spicing up your guitar sound. Phase is a kind of modulation which takes advantage of split signals being merged together in different ways to achieve a kind of spacey, almost supernatural tone. While the effect was made famous by psychadelic rock acts such as early Pink Floyd, one of the first commercially recorded songs to feature phase is the Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park. The band took advantage of the spaced out vibe created from the effect in order to musically simulate being on a drug induced high. It was very effective and, perhaps not surprisingly, very popular in many British songs of the 60s and early 70s.

Basically, this oscillating, pulsing kind of effect is created through signal splitting. As we all know, sound travels in waves. A simple representation of a sound wave may look like this:

Original Sound Wave

Original Sound Wave

When this wave goes into a phase effect pedal, the signal is split into two equal signals, one of the signals is the ‘dry’ signal which will be unchanged by the pedal, and the other is the ‘wet’ signal, which will be changed to produce the phase effect. Here are the two identical signals:

Dry Signal

Dry Signal

Wet Signal

Wet Signal

One very useful thing about sound waves is that if two of them are placed together, the parts of the waves which are equal and opposite will cancel each other out. This is the principle which is usually employed when an engineer wants to eliminate unwanted noise from a recording. This means that if the dry and wet signals are combined together in the following way, they will totally cancel each other, and there will be no sound.

The waves are completely out of phase, and there is no sound

The waves are completely out of phase, and there is no sound

Now, here is the magic of the phase effect pedal. It takes the dry and wet signals, and mixes them together slightly out of phase. This means that some parts will cancel each other out, creating the ‘notches’ which characterize the sound of this effect.

Wet and dry signals combined and slightly out of phase

Wet and dry signals combined and slightly out of phase

Now that we have the theory and diagrams all out of the way, how can we use phase in our own playing to make interesting sounds? For a start, like most modulation effects, phasers are usually place towards the end of an effects chain, after distortions and overdrives. Because of the ‘sweeping’ nature of the effect, powerful distorted chords with a lot of sustain sound great through a phaser. Van Halen’s Eruption is a classic example of how phase effects can make tapping and metal solos sound much more interesting, and check out Hendrix’s classic Little Wing for a more subtle way of using the effect to colour both your rhythms and lead lines. If you’re a bass player, why not try adding a phaser to your rig also? It definitely didn’t hurt Phil Lynott’s bass line on Thin Lizzy’s Dancing In The Moonlight. To get some really ‘out there’ effects, try using your guitar in stereo, with a phaser for each channel!

Next up, we have another of the more popular kinds of effect pedal. This effect is used extensively in funk, soul, rock and metal and and is immediately recognizable to most people: the wah pedal. Wah is a great effect, especially in its traditional expression pedal form. The expression pedal allows for a great degree of control over both tone and rhythm compared with more modern auto wahs. Expression pedal-based wahs come in two main types; some, like the Cry Baby models, are mechanical, with the expression pedal turning an internal potentiometer and altering the tone. Others, like the Morley wahs, use optical sensors to control the tone. The latter type has an advantage over the older mechanical wah pedal, in that they don’t need to be greased regularly and require a lot less maintainence in general. Wah is pretty much an extra kind of tone control, and it accentuates more bass frequencies at the heel position, moving towards treble frequencies at the toe position. Rocking between the two positions in rhythm creates that characteristic vocal sound which can be heard on countless major recordings.

Metallica’s solo guitar lines often relied heavily on the wah pedal, most notably on their famous Black Album. Pantera’s Dimebag Darrel also used them so extensively that Dunlop even made him a signature version of their Cry Baby! For a more bluesy rock solo, check out the iconic Slash noodling on Sweet Child Of Mine from Appetite For Destruction. While these songs will give you a good idea about how to use a wah for rhythm and soloing, more experimental players could look to Steve Vai’s The Audience is Listening from Passion and Warfare. Here, Vai uses a spring-loaded wah which enables him to ‘wah’ single notes very quickly to achieve a really cool sound for the track’s guitar melody.

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