Pedalboard Signal Chain 101: First Things First
In this multi-part installment we will go over some guidelines for pedalboard signal chain and how to get the best sounds out of your pedals. One of the most common questions we get at the Pedalboard Shop is ‘where should I put this pedal?’ Usually that is a loaded question as there is no definitive pedal placement solution and can vary depending on the rest of your gear. With that said, there are definitely some tried and tested pedal placements that can yield the most favorable guitar tones and are good for everyone setting up their first board to familiarize themselves with. Remember these are just guidelines and NOT rules. Some of the most iconic guitar sounds have come from experimenting with pedal placement and thinking outside the box. These articles should only be used as a starting point so feel free to break the rules if it’s not working for your setup. This first entry will cover what pedals sound best upfront on your board. These pedals are not found on every pedalboard, but if you do have a buffer, wah pedal or compressor, you should hopefully learn a bit about why they like to be first in line.
Do you notice some signal loss when you plug into your pedalboard compared to plugging straight into your amp? For larger boards (10+ pedals) or using long cable runs from your guitar, a buffer sitting first in your chain can make a huge improvement in your tone. Unbalanced instrument cables add capacitance and an inductance to your signal that can reduce your higher frequencies. A quality buffer first in your chain can make you sound like your plugging straight into your amp and improve the tonal response from the rest of the pedals in your chain. The only exception to having a buffer first would be for pedals who don’t like buffers before them ie vintage fuzzes. Also if your first pedal is buffered (boss, EHX etc) then that should be enough to restore some clarity to your board. Notable buffers: Emerson Concord Buffer, JHS Little Black Buffer, or if space and money are tight the T1M Mini Buffer is hard to beat.
A wah is a staple on many boards and usually likes sitting up front. The main reason the wah comes first is for the pedals that come after it. A wah has a smoother transition between frequencies when placed before any clipping and a more abrupt shift between heel up and down when placed after ie distorting a filtered signal vs filtering a distorted signal. Although some guitarists like the cut of a distorted wah signal, the smoother tone is usually more favorable. Notable Wahs: Still hard to beat the original Cry baby and Vox V847, Or for more bells and whistles check out the Mission Engineering Rewah ST
A compressor can be a very useful pedal in your chain. It can be used as a boost, to give your playing more attack, or even to get more sustain out of your other overdrive pedals. For some guitarists their compressors never turn off and where you put your compressor on your board can greatly change how it affects your other pedals. Placing your compressor up front gives you the most control of how you can use it and keep the subsequent noise floor as low as possible. A compressor can sometimes be seen placed at the end of your chain to help push the front of your amp but the resulting elevated noise from the pedals before it can really add more harm than good to your sound. Notable Compressors: There are a ton of compressors on the market but the most popular styles are VCA and Parallel compression. VCA: MXR Dyna Comp Parallel: Barber Tone Press.
Stay tuned for our next entry as we tackle the nuances of your dirt section and introduce the idea of stacking in part two of our Pedalboard Signal Chain 101 series.