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What the Effects?
By Alex Jasperse - 10/23/2007 - 06:26 PM EDT

Learning how to choose and create the right effects for your guitar is difficult; it’s a workout trying to find the right combination of single effects pedal units, or trying to decode and adjust each parameter of your multi-effects pedal, or trying to figure out what to do with a VST/AU plug-in on your computer. And on top of this, because each guitarist is looking for something different, it isn’t easy to point them all in one direction, or make one recommendation… there's simply a lot of options to choose from.

Each of the lists below are meant to take a quick and dirty looks at the pros and cons of the types of guitar effects that currently exist. Coming from part personal experience, as well as comments that have been made by fellow guitarists, while the commentary isn’t a comprehensive overview, it’s meant to offer some help to first time guitarists when it comes to their purchasing decisions.  

(a) Single Effects Pedals (a.k.a. Stompboxes):

This is where most guitarist start, and it’s pretty simple in concept: one effect in one box.     

  • Ibanez Tube Screamer
  • Boss Over Drive OD-1
  • MXR Phaser
  • Dunlop Cry Baby Wah-Wah
The Good:
  • Rich and powerful tones that are unique to the individual pedal
  • Perfect for guitarists who like to keep their gear relatively simple, and their sound as ‘pure’ as possible
  • Able to get more detailed tonal variations on a single pedal than a multi-effects pedal
The Bad:
  • Ranging from $50-$250 each, they are not always wallet friendly if you want multiple effects
  • It’ll take a bit of homework and testing before you’ll find the ‘perfect’ combination
  • Limited flexibility: consider that you can only play with the parameters of a single pedal so much – a distortion pedal will still sound like distortion pedal at the end of the day
  • Transporting a larger pedal setup to gigs and rehearsals can become frustrating

(b) Multi-Effects Pedals:

Just as the title suggests, multi-effects pedals give you a variety of tones for your electric guitar that are based upon single effects units.

  • Line 6 POD
  • Korg Toneworks Series
  • Digitech GNX Series
The Good:
  • Suited for guitarists who want a collection of multiple effects in one single package, which sound as close as possible to their single effects pedal cousins
  • Able to convincingly model various guitar amps and stompboxes, as well as other instruments such as an acoustic guitar, sitar, banjo, bass guitar, keyboard, etc.
  • The versatility of multi-effects pedal means that it can offer a near unlimited amount of sonic possibilities for guitarists who want to explore as many different tonal qualities as they can
  • Offers MIDI, USB and FireWire outputs that makes home recording with their computer, relatively easy  
The Bad:
  • There is a learning curve: adjusting the parameters of multiple sounds that make up a single patch, can be a major turn off
  • While it can simulate a number of effects and instrument models, the sound may not be as ‘pure’ as one would like
  • If you’re expecting an amazing sound, you’ll want to start looking at the $300 mark
  • Some pedals/units are meant to be computer specific Direct Input units (i.e. ¼ lines into a sound card, rather than a guitar amp)
  • While the distortion modeling can be very good, more often than not, it’s not as close to a dedicated pedal

(c) Virtual Studio Technology (VST) and Audio Unit (AU) Plug-ins:

For those who are familiar with recording and editing sounds on their computer with the help of such DAW’s as Logic Pro, Cakewalk Sonar, Pro Tools, Cubase, GarageBand, Audacity and Kristal Audio Engine, there are a number of plug-ins that have been designed to emulate almost any guitar set-up imaginable.

  • Native Instruments: Guitar Rig
  • IK Multimedia: Amplitube
The Good:  
  • Various digital preamps, amps (with different heads and cabinets to choose from), stompboxes, rack effects and a tuner
  • Designed to be visually accessible, which is done so by providing the look of a real life pedal on a virtual floor
  • Microphone emulations: this offers the ability to choose from a list of microphones, and determine their virtual placement in front of your selected amp (exactly as if you had a real mic and amp)
  • Ability to emulate various instruments and the sound of famous artists, as well as the option to create sounds that are typically not possible on the guitar (i.e. making your guitar sound like a synthesizer)
  • Ability to download patches from the internet that are made by others users
  • These plug-ins are primarily designed to be used in a recording program, which makes getting your ideas down much easier
  • Unlike recording with single and multi-effects pedals, you can record a clean sound in, and add any effect you want, afterwards.
    • Additionally, if you’re unhappy with the plug-in sound, you can go back and change it anytime
The Bad:
  • Some plug-ins may require a costly external foot controller to trigger certain parameters of an effect, such as a wah-wah
  • Plug-ins are not cheap: some of the good ones start in the +$300 range
  • It is still relatively new, and although you have access to effects set-ups that are out of almost every guitarist’s lifetime budget, most effects sound too processed and dull
  • Digital distortion effects cannot match the power of traditional single effects and multi-effects pedals
  • Noise reducers, compressors and other EQ devices can significantly reduce the natural sustain and tone of your guitar
  • There may be an overwhelming amount of options, which can be an immediate turn off for some

All of this being said, at the end of the day, your music will determine which set-up is right for you. If you’re only going to use a few effects, such as distortion, flange, chorus and a wah, then sticking to a few dedicated stompboxes would work just fine. And the same thing goes for both the multi-effects and plug-in units. As for a dollar-per-dollar ratio for the budget conscious, if you want to have access to as many tones as possible, then a multi-effects unit would make the most sense. 

Each choice has it’s own ups and downs, so it will all come down to your own personal taste. The best advice would be to listen to the effects being used by the artists that influence you, think about what effects you’re looking for, think about whether or not you’re planning on doing some home recording, and think about what sounds you’d like to explore/have further down the road.

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