Some handy tips for getting the most out of your effects pedals
By Phil O’Keefe
In a previous article, we covered how to make a studio-friendly pedal board. But now that you have all your pedals patched in, what are you gonna do with them? Well . . .
Set a good tube amp’s gain to where it’s just starting to break up, then slam the front of it with a boost pedal. It’s instant crunch, and a whole new world of overdrive tones from your amp. I particularly like the HBE Germania for this as it can be set as either a treble booster or as a more full range boost, giving extra tonal options. EQ and overdrive pedals with the gain turned down and the volume knob turned up can also provide a suitable boost.
Run multiple gain stages. If one dirt box is good, why not two — or even three? You can achieve a lot of unusual colors by running multiple overdrive and distortion pedals simultaneously, and experimenting with different settings.
Use a wah as a EQ filter. You might be surprised by how many guitar tracks have been recorded with a wah pedal “parked” in one position for the entire track. Engage the wah and slowly sweep the pedal until you find a setting you like, then leave it.
Bypass noise and “tone sucking” issues. Got a pedal that you love but it’s noisy or “sucks tone” when it’s bypassed? Use a true bypass looper pedal to take it out of the signal path completely when not in use.
Run the outputs of a stereo chorus or delay pedal to two different amps. Stereo tremolo (amplitude modulation) pedals give you a cool sounding auto-panning effect, and rotary speaker simulators especially benefit from being run in stereo – the increase in realism when doing so can be dramatic. But be warned: Once you go stereo, you may never go back.
If your effects have expression pedal jacks, use them. On my Diamond Memory Lane analog delay pedal, the expression pedal allows adjusting the delay feedback amount on the fly, while playing. On the Line 6 M9, it allows switching between a slow and fast rotary speaker setting, or adding a little vibrato on key notes in a phrase. Why take a static, “set and forget” approach when you can have far more expressive effects?
Look for less obvious features, and exploit them to get your own tones. For example, another Memory Lane feature that I really like is the ability to plug a 1/4" TRS to dual 1/4" TS “insert cable” into the expression pedal jack and use it as an effects loop to process the delayed signals with other effects. The effects loop on the Skreddy Echo allows you to do the same thing. Flanged echoes anyone? Or maybe you’d prefer clean original notes, with distorted and bandpass filtered echoes? No problem.
Two delays are better than one. Run one delay for short slapback echoes and a second one for longer delays, either to separate amps or in series. If your delays offer tap tempo controls, you can quickly set different rhythmic values for each delay, resulting in some exciting polyrhythmic echo effects.
Don’t go overboard. Use your effects musically, and not just as “gimmicks.” Sure, sometimes a part calls for something over the top and crazy, but many times the music is better served with something more tasteful and subtle. And sometimes the best “effect” is just a guitar plugged straight into an amp.
If your pedals support different voltages, try them all. Many “dirt pedals” (overdrives, distortions and fuzz pedals) can accept a range of power voltages. For example, the Fulltone OCD and the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret can both run at the standard 9V, but are also capable of running off of a 12V or even an 18V DC power supply. The sound and character of the pedals can change at different power voltages, so it makes sense to try each one your pedal supports – but make sure you check your pedal's manual or the manufacturer's website before experimenting; you don't want to fry a pedal by applying a voltage beyond what it is designed to safely handle.
Dying batteries can sound cool. With some dirt pedals, the coolest sounds they make is when the battery starts to die. The problem with that is that the cool sound usually only lasts a short while before the battery is completely toast. You can get the same effect, but without the time limitations and environmental concerns of using batteries by making a simple voltage sag/”dying battery” simulator. You can find instructions available online from Beavis Audio. While a "voltage sag" box will probably not work with your digital pedals, you won't hurt anything on an analog fuzz or distortion pedal by using a lower voltage, so experiment freely!
Get online and get help. I get a lot of ideas and suggestions from my friends on the Harmony Central Effects Forum. Everything from tips on effects order, mounting and board building ideas, the cool pedal of the month . . . my wallet may be thinner as a result, but I’ve learned a lot -- and so can you!