Tips for Integrating Multi-Effects with a Pedalboard

There was once a vigorous, ongoing debate between users of multi-effects and proponents of individual effects pedals. Sometimes one still hears echoes of it ringing through the rifts and valleys of guitar-oriented online forums, but to a large extent, the mighty roar of this once contentious argument has died out to not much more than a dull mutter. In days past, the main point of contention was tonal quality versus tonal quantity; most agreed that individual pedals often sounded noticeably better than the multi-effects units available at the time, but if one needed a wide, varying range of effects, the cost and complication of assembling the necessary pedalboard made a good multi-effects unit a much more affordable and practical way to go. Multi-effects were also much more compact and easy to power, making them especially convenient for effects-heavy players that frequently traveled to gigs.

The reason that the multi-effects-versus-stompbox argument has largely died out is due mainly to the improved sound quality and flexibility of the new breed of multi-effects units. Digital processing power has increased substantially over the years, while the advent of digital modeling, and other new technologies, has improved the quality and variety of tones available in these units. The companies that design and build them have also become much more attuned to what players want, and how they tend to use their products in real world rehearsing, recording, and gigging situations. Thus, in recent times, many guitarists have adopted a hybrid approach to multi-effects and stompbox usage, perhaps using a favorite pedal or pedals for overdrive, distortion, and fuzz tones, and using a multi-effects processor for modulation, delay, reverb, and amp or cabinet modeling duties.

If you've been thinking about pursuing a best-of-both-worlds hybrid approach, there are a handful of variables to take into consideration before any new gear is purchased. The point of assembling such a rig is to maximize tonal flexibility and portability, while minimizing the cost and complication, but without forethought and planning, the end result could easily be the inverse. Here are a few tips to get you started off on the right foot.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The first thing to consider is whether the wide range of effects that a multi-effects unit provides is even something you need. A hybrid stompbox/multi-effects setup is probably most beneficial to the player that has a handful of core stompboxes (usually dirt boxes) that form the foundation of their tone, but has the occasional need for a wider variety of sounds, such as reverbs, delays, and several varying colors of modulation. This player often does not use these secondary sounds all of the time, and thus can't justify spending the necessary money on individual pedals to cover these tones. In this case, buying a multi-effects unit can be a huge money-saver. If you have an overdrive or two, and maybe just need a chorus and a delay from time-to-time, individual pedals are probably still the best investment.

The other benefits of using multi-effects in place of a passel of pedals include the potential to save quite a bit of space on a pedalboard, as well as simplifying the power situation, and decreasing the number of patch cables (always the weak link) necessary to get the guitar signal from its origin to its final destination. Of course the space saving and simplification benefits gained depend heavily on what multi-effects device you choose, how you intend to hook it up, and how many individual pedals can be replaced with it.

Effects Order

The first topic pondered by most players considering a hybrid rig for the first time is how to hook it all up. Do the stompboxes come first, or the multi-effects unit? Should they go straight into the front of the amplifier, or should some of these magic sound boxes go in the effects loop? Here at Tone Report Weekly/Pro Guitar Shop, effects order is a frequent topic of reader and customer inquiries, so we're quite well versed in all of the possibilities and potential pitfalls, and based on this experience, we always encourage people to not be afraid to experiment. There really is no right or wrong in the effects order game, so don't be afraid to move stuff around and use your ears to suss out what sounds best.

This being said, though, I do have a few recommendations as to where to begin when setting things up for the first time. Typically, most players will find that compression, boost, and dirt pedals are best suited to being first in the signal chain, or perhaps second, right after a wah or tuner (both pedals that may be easily replaced by a multi-effect, by the way). This is a good place to start, as it produces very dependable results. If you're using the multi-effect for all the rest of your modulation, delay, and reverb needs, then simply place it after your comp and dirt pedals and, more than likely, the results will be pleasing and you can consider your rig complete. If your rig is more complex, however, and you intend to use an individual pedal for reverb or delay, these kind of effects are often happier at the end of the signal chain. I would be inclined to begin by putting them after the multi-effects processor. If you are also using an individual modulation pedal of some kind, the best placement option is less clear, and personal preference will obviously be the deciding factor, but I would probably start by putting it somewhere after the dirt, and before the delay and reverb.

In front, or in the effects loop?

When deciding on the preferred effect order, one must also be thinking about what effects will be going directly into the front of the amp, and which ones will be inserted into the amp's effects loop. Obviously, if your amp is old-school and doesn't have an effects loop, everything will run straight in. If it does have a loop, then the best bet might be to run boost, dirt, and comp pedals into the front of the amp, and your multi-effects unit (along with any modulation or ambient stompboxes) in the effects loop for modulation, delay, and reverb. The down side of this method is the extra cabling involved, but if you prefer the sound, it may be worth the trouble. Again, this is just a suggested place to begin experimenting, and there are many different ways one can make these hybrid rigs work. In fact, many of the more complex modern multi-effect processors have onboard loops specifically for inserting a favorite drive or fuzz pedal into the signal chain. For players that will primarily use a multi-effect unit for most tones, with just one or two outboard stompboxes, this does simplify the setup quite a bit.

Power

One final consideration when integrating a pedalboard and a multi-effect into one Voltron-like juggernaut of tone, is power. Digital multi-effects are notoriously power-hungry beasts, and they all have different power requirements, so they generally come with their own dedicated, wall-wart style power supply. If this is the case, then you simply need an extra outlet to plug it in. Many players have a basic power strip Velcroed or mounted to their boards, and this is a perfectly reliable method. Some larger stompbox power supplies have an auxiliary, three-prong AC connection on board that is perfect for this application, and others, like Voodoo Lab's Mondo, can even power certain multi-effects from their higher-current DC outputs. Make sure to consult the owner's manual or contact the manufacturer before attempting a powering scheme that you are not 100 percent certain about. This will keep you from accidentally frying pedals and/or voiding a warranty.

Living together in sweet harmony

Now that multi-effects can compete with stompboxes on reliability and sound quality, there's no reason that these once-quarrelsome enemies should not share space and live harmoniously together on your pedalboard. Exploring the many advantages that such a flexible, compact, and cost-effective rig can offer is sure to confer many blessings upon all of your musical exploits.

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