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Why does the order in which I put my guitar/bass pedals matter?

For example, why does the compressor needs to be the first one in the order?

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Just to add to Wheat and Peter's good answers: Noise is another reason you'd want to order effects in a certain way. For example, a noise gate as the first effect probably wouldn't work too well. In general, [Some do this different] the groups are: (compression, overdrive, distortion), (wah), (modulation, pitchshift), (delays), (reverb), (noise gate). Some groups can be moved around but the above general rule helps with noise and negative effects interaction. An eq could be added anywhere in the chain though you'd probably want it after a compressor. –  JimR Nov 2 '13 at 23:11
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4 Answers 4

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This is a complicated subject. The answer depends on which effects pedals you are using. The best way to learn the results of putting your pedals in a different order is simply to plug them together in different configurations and listen to the results.

For example, a compressor works best if it is first, because a compressor works best if it receives a completely clean guitar signal that has not been changed by other effects. If you were to run your guitar into a digital delay first, making a large amount of echo sounds, the compressor would not be able to compress the echo-inflected signal effectively and the sound would be very unnatural.

You would also probably not want to use a modulation effect (reverb, echo, flanger, phase shifter) first and then send that signal to a distortion pedal. All of the crisp echoes and tonal changes in the sound (from a flanger or phase shifter, for example) would be smeared together by the distortion pedal, creating a muddy and indistinct sound. You would probably want the distortion pedal to be first, and then to send the distorted sound to the modulation effect.

Again, if you have several separate effects pedals, you should simply experiment with different orders of pedals and let your ear be the judge.

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And if you find that putting them in a non-standard order creates an effect that you like, then by all means, take advantage of it! –  Kevin Nov 3 '13 at 0:19
    
A gated reverb can be a wonderous thing :) –  Dan Gayle Dec 25 '13 at 0:03
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Pedals often have a different effect depending on the pitch and volume etc. of the sound going into them. If a pedal changes one of these attributes of the sound, it means the behaviour of every pedal after it could be changed.

Let's say you're only using an autowah pedal. It will respond to the volume of the signal, giving loud notes/chords quite a different shape and tone from quiet ones.

If you put a compressor on after it, the autowah pedal still affects the tone and shape of the sound in the same way. The only difference is that the dynamic range (i.e. volume differences) of the final output are reduced.

If you swap the pedals over so the compressor is first, you're altering the dynamic range going into the autowah. That means it won't vary the tone as much between the loud and quiet bits, so the overall effect is reduced. That may or may not be desirable, depending on what you want to achieve.

Volume is just one example, but it isn't the only consideration. It's often a question of just experimenting with effect orders to see what gives you the best overall sound.

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Adding a compressor right before a whammy/pitch shifting pedal considerably helps improve the pitch tracking. Also increases the digital noise, if you're going for that Radiohead pitch shifter noise. –  Dan Gayle Dec 25 '13 at 0:07
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The short answer is yes, it matters. How much it matters, and whether it matters to you, depends on your pedals, the combinations in which you use them, and your desired sound.

Here are some general rules that most people follow; nothing's hard and fast:

  • Gain before synth. Effects come in two basic families. Gain effects alter the amplitude of portions of the incoming signal, and include EQ, compression, gating, wah, overdrive, distortion and most amp modeling. Synth effects take the incoming signal and generate a new signal based on it which then supplements or replaces the original, and these include chorus, flanging, phasing, octaves, delay/looping, and reverb.
    • There are obvious exceptions to this rule. Full-on "synth" effects, which replace your signal with another one outright (basically turning your instrument into a MIDi controller), generally come first; otherwise everything you're doing to your tone is lost when the signal is replaced. Also, amp modeling circuits typically go last in your chain, because hey, the amp comes last.
  • Wahs go first. Again, gain before synth, but more importantly, a lot of the most popular wah pedals, like the Cry Baby, are seen as "tone suckers", and this reputation is not undeserved; they're a "notch" equalizer, basically emphasizing one narrow frequency band while discarding all others. If a wah is a part of your chain, you want to do as little damage as possible, and then try to repair said damage downstream. It doesn't always work, and FWIW I say if this is a problem, you should spend good dough on a more transparent wah.
  • EQ next. This one's negotiable, but an EQ stage typically gives you the best results when you give it as clean a tone as possible. Most other effects, like reverb and overdrive, were originally done inside the amp circuitry, post-EQ. Following this rule is the biggest single reason to run your pedal board through the effects loop; that way, your signal hits the preamp of your amp head first and you don't have to spend a hundred bux or more on an actual EQ pedal.
  • Gating before compression. If you have an expander or "noise gate" in your signal chain, it should typically go before any compressor you have. This is so the compressor never sees your axe's noise, and so doesn't try to boost it above a downstream gate's ability to suppress it.
  • Compression before overdrive. Again, negotiable, but the objective is usually to maintain the distortion the way the natural "feedback" of a 100W full-stack into your guitar's strings would do. So, you use the compressor to keep the input into the overdrive "hot", so as the strings naturally decay the sound evolves into the classic single-toned "feedback" sound.
  • Distortion and Synth inline, "clean" effects in the loop. The main difference between an inline effect and an effect in the effects loop is pre-EQ versus post-EQ, and therefore between your axe's raw signal and the shaped and gain-boosted signal coming out of the preamp stage. In reality, how much and exactly what parts of your pedal board go inline versus in the loop is probably one of the biggest variables in pedal board design, even when following all other rules. Some players run everything inline, others loop their reverb and chorus type effects, others loop their looper, still others loop everything. This rule basically says to let the preamp do its job when and where it matters; if the effect produces an output within which it's easy to pick out your "native" tone, then put it in the loop, allowing you to shape the tone the effects will get.
  • Reverb last. Again, gain before synth, but this one stems more from what a reverb unit is supposed to emulate; a big, spacious, lively room that echoes what's finally coming out of the speakers of your amp. While actual reverb units in guitar amps were placed before the power amp stage by necessity (and thus you always got your reverb before the overdrivey goodness of the 6L6 or EL84 tubes), the point was to produce this kind of sound.
    • Again, there are exceptions; sometimes you'll want a looper last, or even a flanger or phaser, to take the "wet" reverbed signal and record it or further mess with it.

Now, given all that, you are free to follow absolutely none of it. The number one rule is "experiment"; you will get different sounds by putting different pedals in different places, and what you want may not be what the next guy wants. If you want your sound to decay from a mild break-up back to clean, but a relatively constant volume level throughout instead of a volume dropoff, then by all means put your compressor after your overdrive pedal. If you want to emulate an overdriven Fender Twin Reverb, then you should definitely put your reverb before your overdrive pedal. If you want angry, sharp, dirty nu-metal grind, then put the EQ last so you can further scoop your distortion pedal's output. A looper can go almost anywhere; it depends on whether you want the looped signal to always have the effects that were on when you recorded the loop track, or if you want to be able to switch the looped sound from clean to dirty. Anything goes; you won't kill any pedal by putting anything else before or after it. What matters is your sound and how you want to get it.

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Some pedals such a fuzz pedals or wahs are very temperamental about the order in which they're placed. Typically, these two types of pedals like to see the signal straight from the guitar, before other pedals and especially before any buffered pedals. It's an impedance thing, although you'll have to Google the specifics about that.

Long story short, a fuzz after another pedal usually sounds like crap when compared to when it's first in the chain.

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So, should the fuzz go before the compressor? –  Shevliaskovic Dec 25 '13 at 0:10
    
A fuzz doesn't really need a compressor, since that's what the effect is basically doing. It's compressing the hell out of your signal, then chopping off the top half. That's why guys like David Gilmour and Carlos Santana never used compressors back in the day, because their fuzz pedals provided all the sustain they needed. –  Dan Gayle Dec 25 '13 at 0:18
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