Effects pedal order, the FX loop explained, and the four cable method


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Almost every guitarist we know – and we know a few! – loves playing with FX pedals. And most of us love buying up as many as we can, with the goal of building the pedal board of dreams. Hey, it’ll make us sound better, right? But when it comes to ordering these precious stompboxes, and choosing whether to put them in the front of the amp, or in the FX loop, we’re no longer all in such a state of agreement…

Diligent scholars who study this sort of thing say that the first standalone FX pedal was an Inspector Gadget-type motorized contraption that creates an aqueous tremolo effect by waggling a vial of Windex-like ‘hydro-fluid’.

This ingenious little mechanical maraca put the shimmy in Bo Diddley’s trademark sound, and helped begin the glorious era of stompboxes.

Not long after, guitarists were hooked, and these days we have so many means, motives and opportunities to commit crimes against sonic purity that we must ask ourselves this: where should they all go? Is it best to keep it simple by lining them all up like musical minions and plugging the whole daisy-chain of fuzz, wah-wah, echo and chorus boxes into the amp’s front end?

Or is it better to insert all or at least some of these effects into the pair of jacks on the back of the amp revealingly labeled FX Loop?

Fun, but not fast

Before we start on the dark art that is FX routing though, let’s clear one thing up first.

There are no rules.

That’s right, we said it. It is 100% your choice what order you line your pedals up in front of your amp.

You're the boss! Guitar tone is totally and utterly personal, and so is the way you set up your beloved pedal collection. There are definitely things you can do to, say, minimize unwanted noise from certain pedals by the way you plug them in and/or order them, but you're the boss. So get stomping, and have it your way!

You’re the boss! Guitar tone is totally and utterly personal, and so is the way you set up your beloved pedal collection. There are definitely things you can do to, say, minimize unwanted noise from certain pedals by the way you plug them in and/or order them, but you’re the boss. So get stomping, and have it your way!

Sure, there might be accepted ways of doing certain things. Principles of good FX routing, let’s call them.

But we always recommend you to try things out for yourself. Audition different FX in different places to hear how changing the sequence colors your tone in different ways.

Sometimes weird is wonderful – perhaps you will discover something so refreshingly different that it will become your trademark tone!

Know this though: this trial-and-error method is neither fast nor efficient.

Overdrive, distortion, boost, fuzz, compressor, wah…

Why’s that, you ask?

To answer this, we must first distinguish between a few fundamentally different types of guitar effects.

For one, we have FX that mess with the signal’s dynamics or amplitude, if you will.

This includes all things that make your get guitar louder, softer, more distorted, or make it quack like an angry duck.

We are, of course, talking about boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz boxes, compressors, outboard preamps, equalizers, wah-wah pedals, and the like.

A few racket-making classics on this board: the Rat and the Big Muff, to name but two... (Photo by Michael Morel, used according to the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Original image here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedalboard_(995939579).jpg)

A few racket-making classics on this board: the Rat and the Big Muff, to name but two… (Photo by Michael Morel, used according to the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Original image here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedalboard_(995939579).jpg)

Most do more than merely affect the signal’s dynamics. They also reshape the tone; some transfigure it.

Conventional wisdom says these effects go BETWEEN the guitar and amplifier.

Of course, each works in its own special way in an amp’s FX Loop, and there are plenty of guitarists who experiment with such sounds.

But for practical purposes, the gigging guitarist is better off making a habit of plugging these effects into the amp’s front end for the simple reason that that’s exactly what where they were designed to go.

Reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, tremolo

For the sake of this blog, let’s oversimplify a bit: we’ll say the second FX category includes everything that affects the signal’s phase and/or pitch.

A combination of shifts in pitch and time is responsible for the magic of FX such as chorus, flanger and tremolo.

The source signal is delayed by just a few milliseconds and modulated with a very slight change in pitch to create chorus and flanger effects, so time is not instantly recognizable as a sound-shaping factor. And it is not a factor at all in phase-shifting.

It is, however, immediately apparent in time-altering effects such as reverb, delays and echo.

The ‘best’ place for these stompboxes is in the amp’s FX loop. They often produce interesting results when sandwiched between the guitar and amp, but tone-wise, the FX loop is more likely to hit the sweet spot – or, for flangers and phasers, the sweep spot.

Octave, pitch shifter, harmonizer

Pitch-altering and augmenting effects like pitch shifters, octavers and harmonizers are an interesting tonal subfamily.

It doesn't get much better than a tidy pedal board setup like this one... except maybe if you're plugging it all into a TubeMeister!

It doesn’t get much better than a tidy pedal board setup like this one… except maybe if you’re plugging it all into a TubeMeister!

Very generally speaking, we’d say they respond better to a drier or cleaner signal.

Then again, wet-and-messy can be a lot more memorable. Only Odin and Jimmy Page know how he got that splatty octave effect on his Fool In The Rain solo to ooze with such attitude.

Filthy fuzz, dodgy tracking and cheesy envelope shifting all come together to create a sound best described as flatulent dinosaurs on a chili-eating binge. Forty years later, guitarists the world over are still trying to emulate that stink. In a good way.

The four cable method and multi FX units

Anyway, back to FX routing.

Some players like to work with multi FX units that shoehorn all the aforementioned sounds into one box.

If you’re interested in exploring that kind of thing, you’ll find that many of these Swiss-army-knife signal processors let you combine the different effect types into blocks and access those blocks separately.

This is where the four-cable method can be your friend. It’s an effective and practical way of integrating these effects into your setup.

Here’s how it’s done:

This goes here, that goes there

  1. Cable 1 runs from the guitar to the multi FX device’s input.
  2. Cable 2 connects its FX Out to the amp’s FX Return.
  3. Cable 3 connects the amp’s FX Send to the multi-FX device’s Loop Return.
  4. Cable 4 routes the signal back from the processor’s Loop Send to the amp’s Input jack.

To help you visualize it, it all looks a bit like this:

Here you go: a handy visual way of showing you how to get that four-cable method down pat. That's the Multi-FX unit in the top right corner, by the way!

Here you go: a handy visual way of showing you how to get that four-cable method down pat. That’s the Multi-FX unit in the top right corner, by the way!

Or have a watch of this explanation using the TriAmp Mark 3:

 

Then you can assign and manage dynamic effects in the first section of the multi-effects unit, which now sits between the guitar and amp.

Phase-shifting effects are assigned to the device’s internal loop, which serves as your FX loop in this setup.

And this is where the fun starts. Most modern multi FX boxes let you change the order of effects in the respective blocks at the touch of a button.

How many possibilities and options does that leave you with? Too many to count, is the answer.

Useful or just interesting?

If it can be done, you can bet that someone somewhere will try to find some way of doing something interesting with it.

In the gigging guitarist’s world, though, there just aren’t that many applications where doing things like running a distortion effect in a parallel loop is worth the effort.

Most of us can live without the clean dry signal when we’re going for an overdriven sound.

But the opposite is true for delay and reverb effects. The usefulness of an echo or reflection without an audible source signal is limited to interesting violin, reverse and ambient effects.

It’s all about the blend, baby

To dial in a powerful, assertive sound, you have to get the blend between the dry source signal and the wet effects signal just right. What, exactly, right or wrong means to you will depend on your style of music, the sound of your electric guitar and your sensibilities, but for most players, these effects are icing on the cake.

If the mix is right, it’s tasty!

Yep, spicy! Imagine plucking the finest of these spices together to make the tastiest dish possible... the same principle is true for FX pedals and guitar sounds. Find the best ingredients that work for you, add to taste, and enjoy!   (Photo by Nasalune, used according to the CC0 Creative Commons license. Original image here: https://pixabay.com/en/spice-morocco-market-oriental-pots-1641131/)

Yep, spicy! Imagine plucking the finest of these spices together to make the tastiest dish possible… the same principle is true for FX pedals and guitar sounds. Find the best ingredients that work for you, add to taste, and enjoy! (Photo by Nasalune, used according to the CC0 Creative Commons license. Original image here: https://pixabay.com/en/spice-morocco-market-oriental-pots-1641131/)

Adjusting the levels

There are various ways to adjust the relative levels. If the amp has a Dry/Wet Mix knob for the FX loop, you can control the balance for all effects in the loop collectively.

If you want fine-tune a composite of several effects, you’ll have to adjust the level of each individually.

Convenient yet evocative of the classics

The GrandMeister Deluxe 40 is a good example of an amp with built-in effects and boosters designed with these principles in mind.

Its Boost circuit is tailored to each of the amp’s four fundamental sounds, ranging from a simple boost in the Clean Channel to some pretty ferocious distortion for the Ultra Channel.

The Boost circuit sits right behind the input jack and BEFORE the preamp, just like those workhorse stompboxes we have come to know and love.

Its location in the signal chain is important because this gives players that familiar touch and feel of an outboard pedal.

The GrandMeister Deluxe 40’s internal delay, reverb and modulation effects are also placed where they work best, in a serial circuit slotted in between the preamp and power amp sections.

These effects can be added to each sound using the programmable Intensity or Delay Level knobs.

Good advice, best ignored

And now that we’ve extolled the virtues of routing FX signals in conventional ways, bear in mind that many an unforgettable sound has been created by defying conventions.

Let the principles outlined here guide you when you’re in a hurry to hack your way through the thicket of the FX jungle.

But when you have time and the mood to experiment, forget everything we just told you and go wherever your muse takes you.

Happy trails!

 

First published: March 09 2018. Most recent update: March 09 2018.

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Leave a comment

* Die Checkbox für die Zustimmung zur Speicherung ist nach DSGVO zwingend.

Ich stimme zu.

yeah on May 18, 2018 Reply

Great

Howard on April 27, 2018 Reply

Hughes and Kettner Tube Rotosphere Tube Leslie Rotary Pedal. Did you discontinue?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 4, 2018 Reply

    Yes Howard, the Rotosphere is discontinued – the only way to get one now is used 🙂

Smokin’ Jose on April 2, 2018 Reply

‘What’s the deal is this a cookin’ Show? How do eye use the spices in my recipes for eggnog?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 3, 2018 Reply

    It depends how spicy you want your eggnog 😉 We just wanted to use a nice ‘tasty tone’ metaphor, that’s all! Hopefully it whet your appetite anyway…

Dave on March 12, 2018 Reply

Hello again. The site you inquired about is Hoffman amplifiers. It’s a source for tube amp building parts and information with a forum. It’s a really nice site with a lot of knowledgeable, great people. You should check it out. http://el34world.com/Forum/index.php?board=13.0

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 15, 2018 Reply

    Thanks for the link Dave, we’ll have to check that out! We do read a lot of amp forums for inspiration – problem is we get too many cool ideas from doing that, and the H&K future amp wishlist is already pretty big 😉

    Team H&K

Dave on March 10, 2018 Reply

I followed a link to here from an amplifier builder forum I belong to. Nice blog! If you haven’t tried it, put a pitch shifter or whammy after a delay pedal to pitch up and down your repeats. Endless fun.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 12, 2018 Reply

    Hi Dave, glad you liked the blog! Which forum was that, if you don’t mind us asking? Cool to know we got shared over there, wherever it was 😉 And yes, we have tried that! We love us a bit of whammy madness (big Tom Morello fans here). We also like to put delay before distortion sometimes, just to make the repeats extra messy. It’s a taste thing, of course, and only works when you’re in a certain mood, but can be lovely!

Brian Johansson on March 9, 2018 Reply

This is a really useful article, thanks H&K. I’ve always run all my FX (including delay) through the front of the amp, and I never really thought about the order too much, except having delay last. But everything else I just put where they suited my feet. Like I have a fuzz and an octave pedal for garage rock, and I put them together so I can stomp on them both at the same time with one foot! But now I’m going to go away and experiment with my setup! You guys make great amps too by the way, keep it up!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 9, 2018 Reply

    Glad you like the article and that we made you think a bit Brian! This is our goal with these blogs, and to help you all sound a little better, of course 😉

    But like we said, there are no rules to FX ordering – just more accepted and widely used methods. If your current setup sounds good and is practical to you, there’s no need to change it, although of course a bit of experimentation could improve things depending on your tonal tastes! If you’ve got multiple FX units you want to switch on and off simultaneously, the next thing to think about could be a switching device. Google them and you’ll see there’s a whole other world of pedal board geekery to delve into. We love it! 😉

    (There are plenty of third party devices that’ll help you switch your pedals on and off using independent loops that also help preserve your guitar-to-amp signal, because the FX are totally bypassed when they’re not activated with the switcher… Our FSM-432 MIDI controller also gives you loads of control over MIDI-enabled pedals, so that’s worth a look too!)

    Rock on,

    Team H&K in Germany