Each of us is on our own personal musical journey, but most of us will come to a point where we decide we want to put together the ideal group of analog pedals for our playing. There is really a lot more to it than you would think at first glance.
I recently began putting together my own collection of analog pedals, while for a long time I depended on a digital multi-effects unit and a few odd analog pedals on the side. I thought it would be as easy as making a list of the pedals I wanted and buying them and then I'm done with it. As I went along I learned that there are a lot of things to consider along the way that aren't always immediately obvious, especially if you don't have a lot of experience with analog pedals. In this article I will try to address some of the major issues to be addressed if you are going through this process for yourself.
Keep in mind that while I will try to cover all of the major concerns and issues you should be aware of, this article is not completely exhaustive. While I hope to cover all the major issues, I will undoubtedly leave something out, but please feel free in the comments below to add to, correct, or just interject your personal opinion or experience. While I am saying "analog" pedals, there are also some good digital circuitry pedals out nowadays but be sure to soundcheck before you buy.
Why Go Analog?
I'm not gonna preach about how analog pedals are more "organic" or talk about "dedicated circuitry" it comes down to as an individual musician you've decided you like analog pedals better, and it could be for a lot of different reasons. Maybe you like the sound better, or maybe you're tired of trying to memorize what you have saved in what memory bank of a multi-effects unit, or because you like to manually adjust your effects and try new things on the fly. Maybe it is for completely aesthetic reasons it doesn't matter, it is your choice. If you switch to analog pedals it is going to take a little bit of a financial commitment, even if you choose only cheaper pedals, buy used and are very frugal in general. The degree of the financial commitment is going to come down to your personal tastes and the amount you are willing to compromise with yourself.
Personally, dealing with the memory banks in multi-effects units is what really got to me. My memory is shot, and I would have to grope around presets to find what I was looking for. Then because I had got each setting "perfect" I didn't look beyond my settings anymore for new sounds. Then I switched amps, and suddenly my presets were less than useless on a different amp the gain structures and base EQ were just too different and I had to go in and start over, and in that process I decided I couldn't do multi-effects units anymore. There is nothing wrong with them, but at that point I was done. With individual analog effects I can adjust things pretty easily on the fly without worrying about navigating a menu or hooking up to my computer with a USB cable. That is why I personally decided to go to individual analog pedals, but everyone's journey is different.
Not all effects sound good with every amp. Before you get started you want to be happy with your amplifier. You need to have in your mind that you plan to keep and use the same amplifier or if you switch it will be to a very similar model. From there I suggest watching some YouTube demo videos of pedals, but make sure you are doing this with a grain of salt most of the demos recorded on YouTube are using built in mics on their camcorders instead of mic'ing their amp or using a cab emulated out (if their amp has one). YouTube is just giving you a general idea of what you are looking at and what you are interested in. You also want to pay attention to the type of amplifier they are running through, as well as the type of guitar they are playing a pedal is gonna sound different with vintage single coils pushing it than it will with active humbuckers. There are usually enough demo videos for different pedals to find someone using a similar set up to what you will be using, so make sure you look. Moral of the story, YouTube is a good starting place, but keep in mind the limitations that go along with it.
Afterwards, you are going to have an idea of the pedals you are interested in and you'll want to go to a nearby guitar store if possible and try them out. Most guitar stores, especially larger chains, have effects pedals set up for you to try out or will let you try out a model if you ask. Try to try out the pedal on the same or similar model to the amp you use, or you can ask if you can bring your own amp in to try out the pedal. You will probably run into a pedal or two that you can't find in a nearby store, or some that you can get only by ordering online you can see if anybody you know has one to try, or otherwise it is time to focus back on watching YouTube videos and reading reviews. When reading reviews remember that it doesn't take any kind of degree, experience or training to write product reviews, so don't take a single opinion as fact read as many reviews as possible. Read reviews on reputable sites when possible, such as www.ultimate-guitar.com. Pay attention if the review is rated by users on the site which will sometimes give you a loose idea of how reliable the reviewer is. I also try to find out what effects bands used on songs where I admire the tone.
Pedals in a signal chain are going to interact with each other in different ways depending on the order they are in the chain. This is something you have to think about to avoid unexpected and undesirable effects. If you have a delay pedal in the chain before say a distortion pedal, the distortion isn't just going to distort the original signal; it will also separately distort the echoes. If the pedals are the other way around then the distorted signal is echoed this may sound like the same thing, but these are different sounds. If you are distorting echoes from your delay after the fact your tone is gonna get really muddy really fast. There are some things that are going to be obvious if you think about them a minute and some interactions that will catch you by surprise. Some of the obvious things, especially if you are using any type of sweep or modulation pedals, is if you use a tuner pedal you are going to want it to be the first thing in the chain so that when you tune you are tuning the straight signal and not a heavily processed signal.
Sometimes you can discover interesting sounds by trying different orders of pedals, and that makes it worthwhile, but to get a basic set up just really think about what each pedal is doing to the signal and in what order. Use your critical thinking and logic skills to plan it out. If something sounds wrong, then look at your signal chain again and try to isolate the problem. If this doesn't help, there are millions of articles and threads online about signal chains and people's recommendations, suggestions and guides.
Effects Loop or Straight Input
Something to think about when running your pedals through your amp does your amp have an effects loop? Which pedals need to run through the effects loop for the best effect and which need to run directly in to the amp? If your amp doesn't have an effects loop you can always run all your pedals directly through the input, but if your amp does have an effects loop, not every pedal will operate correctly in the effects loop. The major difference is that running directly to your amp's input is before the preamp, and running through the effects loop is after the main preamp. Some pedals are designed to push your preamp such as distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals. These pedals you always want directly into the input and not in the effects loop. There are certain pedals that respond to your picking attack and other dynamics such as autowah and envelope filters to take advantage of your pick attack, etc., you need these directly going into the input. On the other hand, a lot of modulation effects and delays don't need to run through the preamp it doesn't serve any purpose and doesn't sound as good as the effect would be applied after the preamp EQ'ing and gain.
You want to have a basic understanding of what the preamp in your amplifier does. It, of course, applies the EQ'ing, the gain and drive, presence and oftentimes even through it doesn't say so on the panel it will apply some level of compression. The higher gain the amp then usually the higher the compression. This isn't necessarily a hard and fast rule, but it is a good general guide. You want to think if the pedal is doing something that needs to interact with your playing dynamics before the preamp or something that needs to happen after the fact in the effects loop.
The Power Conundrum
Some pedals are 9v DC, others could be 12v or 18v, and you want to power them in the simplest way possible. What are your options? There are a couple of things to keep in mind when working on powering your pedals. The two main factors are the voltage and milliamps. You can find this information in the owner manual for the pedal or on the manufacturer's website. What this information tells you is this: (1) the voltage tells you what type of power source is required, (2) the milliamps tells you how much power the pedal actually uses. Some people will say that a pedal powered by a 9 volt battery is going to sound better than one powered by any kind of power supply, but I personally haven't found this to be true and it oftentimes isn't practical. If you look at the milliamps (mA) that a pedal uses it is going to give you a general idea of battery life. Basically, any pedal that is much over 100 mA isn't going to last very long with a 9 volt battery. A lot of pedals that require higher mA don't even come with a battery compartment now your only option is to plug them in. So, the first thing to consider is the milliamps.
Next is the voltage the vast majority of pedals are going to be 9v DC and take a standard AC adapter. A lot of pedals will even come with their own AC adapters, but if you have more than a couple of pedals suddenly you're talking about a bunch of wires running everywhere. This is where you would get into daisy chain type power supplies and brick type power supplies. Daisy Chain style power supplies are like extension cords with 9v adapters along its length that your pedals can plug into. The thing with daisy chain type power supplies is they are usually only good with 9v DC type pedals, and the daisy chain will have a "total" mA rating which means the mA of each pedal combined needs to be lower than the mA rating of the daisy chain. The advantage of this type of power supply is that they are cheap, while the disadvantage is that they are not shielded / isolated meaning noisy pedals, sometimes. The reason for the noise is that non-isolated/shielded power supplies can cause "ground loops" but I don't know all the science behind it.
Next to consider are the "brick" style power supplies. Once you get into the brick style power supplies, you have still to consider mA, and whether the inputs are shielded (isolated circuits) from each other. The advantage of this type of power supply is that while some are still exclusively 9v style inputs, you will have models with 12v or 18v inputs as well, or adapters for higher voltage. The ones that are not shielded will usually share a total mA rating the same as the daisy chain style power supplies. The ones that are shielded, however, have a specific mA rating for each plug and sometimes this is lower than some of your higher consumption pedals. You will occasionally see pedals with a 240 300 mA draw, while some of the brick style power supplies only have 100 200 mA per output. On the other hand there are some pedals with super low mA, such as most wah pedals which are usually under 50 mA. It is important to think about how you are going to power your pedals before you get too far into it do your research in the instruction manuals and manufacturers' websites.
The Pedal Board
The next thing to consider is if you have more than 2 or 3 pedals you are going to want some type of pedal board to put your pedals on in order to make your life simpler. There are hundreds of different products on the market for this. Some of them are powered, and some are non-powered. Some will come with a lid to store your pedals like in a box, while others don't or will instead come with a carrying bag. Some will be flat, while others are angled. There are a few out there that are tiered with multiple "levels" to put your pedals on. They come in a wide variety of sizes, the smallest really just being a few inches by a few inches, while others could be measured in feet. So, there are a few factors to consider before choosing which pedal board is right for you.
Powered or Non-Powered. Of course, the quickest conclusion to come to is that the powered board seems simpler; kills two birds with one stone and all that jazz. On the other hand, going to the above subject regarding powering your pedals, you want to make sure that power supply handles your pedals, has the right voltages and enough mA available. You want to be sure that the power supply has isolated/shielded outputs if noise is a concern. In my personal search I couldn't find a powered pedal board that met all my requirements, but everyone's needs are different.
Style of Pedal Board and Size. You want to make sure that the size is appropriate for what you need, so time to think in geometry and measure your pedals. If you are a straight forward blues guitarist you might just have a few pedals an overdrive, maybe a fuzz, a delay, reverb. But if you say play metal you may find yourself with multiple distortion pedals, phasers, flangers, delay, chorus, noise gate, EQ, and assorted other gadgets and toys on your board. You really need to think out what pedals you need and how much space you will need on your board. Don't forget the clearance you need between pedals to run your cables, etc. You want to consider if you want a flat or angled pedal board or if you even care. Are you going to store your pedals on your pedal board? Will a gig bag keep them safe enough for the investment you've made or do you need a sturdier enclosure? If it is a non-powered board, make sure you allow for room for your power supply if you are getting your power supply separately.
G.A.S. Overrides Rationality
When choosing pedals it is easy to get caught up in wanting the weirdest, most unique or most expensive pedals, even if they aren't exactly what you need or something you won't even use. I had my own experience with this so I learned my lesson pretty early. Luckily, my problem is I crave weird pedals and not super expensive pedals or this could have been a much more expensive lesson. I want to talk about two pedals the EHX Freeze and the Gig-FX Chopper. These pedals are a little strange and really cool. I also never really used either one for what I play, but when I was planning my pedal board and looking at pedals I started adding pedals that seemed like oddities that would be cool to mess with that is how these two made it on my list. What this plays out as down the road is that I had 2 pedals I never used taking up space on my pedal board. They cluttered it up, and I also bought them before some other pedals I really could have used which delayed my ability to purchase the ones I really needed.
Here is my advice, and you can take it or leave it. You need to make sure that the VAST majority of the pedals you choose for your pedal board are pedals essential to creating the tones you use on a regular basis. You need to decide how much you are willing to compromise and what is "good enough" or else you are going to spend well over a grand for the pedals on your board. You don't want to compromise so much that you find yourself replacing your pedals one by one down the road with higher priced pedals because you aren't happy with the sound you're getting. There is a balance you have to find here, because I personally like getting new equipment and new pieces of equipment but I hate finding myself shopping for something because the equipment I currently have just isn't cutting it this adds an urgency to the shopping around that makes me feel like I was a chump for buying whatever I am replacing in the first place.
I hope this short guide helps those who are switching or considering switching to analog pedals - or maybe just now getting into effects in the first place!