Guitar pedals vs multi-effects processor

If we look back in guitar processing history, we will see it all began with guitar pedals also known as the stomp box. As time and technology forged, a hybrid guitar effects processor came onto the scene offering multiple effects all in the same unit. When it came to the processing power and quality of sound of these units, the early days brought solid-state brittle and buzzing effects to our guitars with very little processing power. Distortion and overdrive was thin sounding while reverb, choruses, and delay sounded like they stepped off the set of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Through years of analog innovation there were many iconic breakthroughs like the invention of spring reverb, tape delay, the Rocktron distortion featured on Boston’s first album, Ibanez tube screamer, Boss DS1, psychedelic sounds from Electro Harmonics that set the stage for digital simulations. Times have changed.

If we leap forward to 2019 we are surrounded as guitar players by tons of options to bring sweet tone to our instruments in the way of processing. Modeling technology for amplification, micing, cabinet simulation not including reverb, chorus, delay and the kitchen sink is off the charts. You can find apps for your phone, tablet, laptop that can do more processing than pedals five years ago. Today, the floor based multi-effects processors for guitar are amazing and versatile.

The purpose of this article is to ask the question what is better for me, guitar pedals or a multi-effects processor of some kind. We need to ask three questions. How much are you willing to spend? What kind of versatility do you need when playing? What kind of tone are you looking for? Let’s start with cost. Even though many guitar pedals have been around unchanged for ages, there is still a significant investment when putting together a pedal board for your rig. Pedals can run from $50 to hundreds of dollars. A multi-effects processor combines technologies into one that allows for a significant decrease in cost. Multi-effects processors can sound incredible with what seems to be unlimited versatility combining every pedal known to man in a box that costs $300. Not so fast, don’t go running out and buying a multi-effects guitar pedal just yet. We didn’t ask the other two questions. To be honest, the last two questions are the most important.

Let’s take a look at question two. What kind of versatility do you need while playing? Some people might ask, what kind of question is that? Just hit the patch and go. Maybe in a perfect world. There are intuitive floor based multi-effects processors on the market that simulate a pedal board. Multi-effects processor strengths, such as being all in one, are also its weakness. If you need to change things quickly and on-the-fly, floor based multi-effects processors can be a challenge. Many times you’re forced to dig into menus and submenus to edit a patch. When you’re playing live and in a pinch, you don’t have time to edit or adjust your sound this way. In contrast, a guitar pedal board is completely laid out in front of you, usually equipped to adjust your tone quickly with a physical knobs or buttons. In a studio or recording setting, this might or might not be a big deal depending on how fast you need to make adjustments. As a musician, always know, we will always be making adjustments. Time is money. Quickly dialing in a tone is also money. Pedal Boards are usually more intuitive and faster to adjust live or in the studio. The multi-effects processor can seem to be the holy Grail answer for many people. Once you’ve invested in a unit you’re comfortable with, adding a new innovative pedal that comes on the market is not as easy as it sounds. Multi-effects processors are usually closed systems. You’re either going to add the new pedal pre-multi-effects processor or post multi-effects processor. Either of these positions might not be optimal for the new pedal in the signal chain. On a pedal board you can drop a new pedal anywhere in the signal chain to maximize its sound. Pedal boards seem to win when it comes to versatility and build ability. Pedal investments also seem to hold their utility value longer. They have proven themselves to perform and therefore are still in demand even after the invention of incredible floor based multi-effects processors.

Our last question we will unpack is the most important question. What kind of tone are you looking for. This is where the rubber meets the road for musicians. If it doesn’t sound right, we don’t connect with our instruments or rig and therefore we don’t play right. Tone is subjective and people will pay a lot to get it. From the guitar, pickups, cable quality, preamps, amplifiers, speaker combinations, all of these variables play a role in the tone of the final outcome. Notice we didn’t say anything yet about pedal boards or floor based multi-effects processors. In today’s world of amp modeling, distortion and overdrive are modeled after classic and contemporary amplifiers. There are many purists who believe that if you A/B the sound, there is no comparison to the real thing compared to a model. If you take the foundation of your tone from a great physical amplifier and then add pedals, you will find yourself among a group of contemporaries who live, eat and breathe off of this equation of tone. It’s the oldest equation. Can you get great sound from a multi-effects processor? Absolutely! It’s just a different sound. There are boutique pedal manufacturers now that are maximizing digital processing power in a stomp box that offer incredible audio resolution for a single effect like reverb. It’s like going from VHS to 4K in resolution of sound. What we are experiencing is that the sky is the limit when it comes to pedals and pedal combinations. This is how great guitar players create signature tones.

In conclusion, there’s a place for both types of approaches when it comes to guitar effects. In our experience, this is what we conclude. Floor based multi-effects processors are a force to be reckoned with. They seem to be less expensive and give more bang for the buck. They sound fantastic yet can be a challenge when it comes to versatility and adjusting your sound. Pedal boards have been around forever, and are here to stay. They are more expensive to procure. You can quickly dial in or adjust your sound. Teamed with a great amp, pedal boards can sound amazing. Pedal boards seem to hold onto their utility value longer. Innovative boutique offerings of pedals are ongoing which mean unlimited sound combinations to create your unique tone. Our recommendation is get out there and experience live music with your favorite guitarists and observe what they’re using. Next, come on down to the music store and get your hands on those devices, experience the sound and choose for yourself what would be best for you.