The Flanger: Your Most Versatile Modulator

Flanging as an effect that originates not from guitar pedals or rack processors, as many players might assume, but from the days when reel-to-reel tape was the dominant medium of capturing audio in professional recording studios. I've written before in the pages of this magazine about the birth of tape effects in the fifties and sixties, and flanging was one of the most famous products of this era of analog audio experimentation. It was typically created in the studio by mixing the outputs of a pair of synchronized tape machines set up to play back the same source audio, while the speed of playback on one machine was altered manually by the studio engineer, who lightly placed his or her finger on the "flange" of the tape reel. This resulted in the signature comb-filtered jet plane sweep we now associate with flangers. By the seventies, companies like Electro-Harmonix had figured out how to recreate the effect with solid-state circuitry, using bucket-brigade chips and LFOs, leading to the advent of the stompboxes we know today. Subsequently, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, Andy Summers, and Alex Lifeson, among others, secured the legacy of the flanger as an iconic guitar effect.

Boss BF-3 Flanger

The flanger today has become a polarizing effect. Many guitarists have an active disdain for it, while others can't seem to get enough of it, slathering everything with a liberal dash of swooshing, jet plane swirl. Both of these perspectives on flanging do the true nature of the effect a serious disservice, however. The fact is that flanger pedals are a vastly underrated and versatile lot that can easily cover much of the same territory as other modulation pedals, including choruses, phasers, and vibratos, while also generating a multiplicity of their own distinctive tones. Those who think of flangers as one-trick ponies for jet-plane sounds and laser gun blasts are missing out on their many subtle shades of modulation.

One problem with the flanger is that, perhaps due to its wide variety of sounds, it can be somewhat more difficult to gain mastery of than related effects like phasers and choruses. For a person unfamiliar with the functions and parameters of the flanger, it can initially be challenging to get the sound one is looking for. Also, when the controls are set to extremes, flangers can make a pretty outrageous racket, from ray gun blasts and robot farts, to sickly pitch bending madness. This can be a turn-off for some people, forever coloring their perception of the flanger.

With this article I hope to burnish the tarnished reputation flangers have in the minds of many guitarists by supplying our readers with a few sample settings that display the wonderful, chameleon-like nature of these effects. Keep in mind as you read along, though, that all flangers are a little different, with more or fewer control knobs, and often different names for them. What I consider to be the de facto standard layout for flanger pedals is the four knob arrangement, like the classic MXR M117 and the beloved Boss BF-2, both of which feature controls for manual, width, speed, and regeneration. The manual control governs the delay time (flanging effects incorporate very short delays), usually with longer delay times to the left and shorter to the right. Width is often referred to as "depth," and sets how wide the sweep is, with the rightmost setting being the widest and most extreme sounding. Speed, sometimes labeled "rate" is self-explanatory, with slower speeds to the left, and faster warbly sounds to the right. The regeneration (also called "feedback") control feeds the delayed signal back to the input, which intensifies the flanging effect as it is turned up.

Now that we've got a handle on the history and fundamentals of the flanger, here are a few settings that demonstrate the range and power of this often overlooked effect.

The Eddie Van Halen sound

We might as well start here. Van Halen's use of the MXR Flanger on songs like "Unchained" catapulted the effect into the mainstream, and resulted in flangers literally flying off the shelves of guitar stores for years afterward. The EVH flanger sound is easy to mimic because he only ever used one setting: manual, width, and speed set to somewhere between 11 and noon, with regeneration cranked all the way up. Pow, instant Eddie!

Chorus Tones

Flangers make excellent choruses, just ask Andy Summers, who's flanger tones on early Police records are frequently mistaken for chorus. Again using the MXR M117 as reference, turn the manual knob to the extreme left for a longer delay, set width at around 7-8 o'clock, set speed to around 9 o'clock, and keep regeneration at its minimum setting. Experimentation with subtle movements of the first three knobs will yield many different chorus textures, so feel free to use this setting as a jumping-off point. Back off the speed and width if things get too obviously flangey.

Seasick Vibrato

Flangers can make a variety of vibrato-like tones as well, ranging from relatively mellow to totally nauseating, pitch-bent warbles. For a nice seasick kind of sound, start with the manual knob at around noon, width at 2 o'clock, speed at 3 o'clock, and regeneration at minimum. Back off the depth control, and you'll end up with a pretty happening Uni-Vibe impression.

Faux Phaser

Phasing is an effect closely related to flanging, and the two sounds are often mistaken for one another. The invention of the phaser, which mixes the original instrument signal with a filtered version of that signal to produce phase cancellation, was actually inspired by the sound of the flanger, so it's not surprising that they have some audible similarities. For getting phasey tones out of a flanger, set manual to around 2 o'clock, width to noon-ish, speed to around 11 o'clock, and keep regeneration at minimum, or perhaps just barely cracked.

Vocal Auto Wah

A properly tweaked flanger can generate some surprisingly vocal-like auto wah tones. A good starting point for this kind of sound with most four-knob flangers is manual and width both at around 10 o'clock, speed at around 3 o'clock, and regeneration at around 9 o'clock. This is truly just a starting point, though, as a broad spectrum of auto wah type tones can be extrapolated from these rough settings. You can dial in the frequency focus to taste by experimenting with the manual knob, while cranking up regeneration will add some of that signature flangey character and enhance the vocal overtones.

UFO Launch

As I mentioned before, flangers can make some pretty wild and wacky noises, many of which are reminiscent of old sci-fi movies. Not every guitar player is interested in making these kinds of noises, of course, but for those who want to get those laser cannon or UFO take-off kinds of sounds, start with manual, width, and regeneration fully clockwise, while speed is set fully counterclockwise. Experiment from that point for numerous variations on the theme.

Brian May Flanger Tone

Let's wrap this up with one more classic tone, Brian May's signature flanger sound from "Keep Yourself Alive." Most of the flanger sounds heard on Queen records were created by analog tape machine manipulation, but May's flanging guitar sound can still be convincingly mimicked using a standard 4-knob flanger pedal. Just turn manual, width, and regeneration knobs to about noon, and speed to about 10 or 11 o'clock. Voila, you're Brian May!

Regarding pedalboard placement, most players would be inclined to place a flanger or other modulation pedal after any dirt pedals, but I heartily recommend trying your flanger before your dirt. In my experience, putting the flanger first quells some of the glistening, overly affected sheen that many modulation pedals can create when placed later in the signal chain, mellowing and fattening the tone in a pleasing way.

These are just a few of the many tonal flavors that can be squeezed from a good flanger pedal. Experimentation will yield many more. I used the MXR M117 and Boss BF-2 flangers as references due to their classic status, similar topology, and prevalence on pedalboards, but most flangers will be able to get at least some of these same sounds. Have fun, and if you can only have one modulation pedal, let it be a flanger.

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