Tech Tips: Where in the Chain

May 17th, 2024 |  John Dines

 

With the recent release of our new Cali76 FET Compressor, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of pedalboard signal chains. A great compressor is a worthwhile addition to any pedalboard, but understanding its role and place in your signal chain is crucial to getting the most out of your compressor. If you’re completely new to compression, we recommend that you take a look at our Understanding Compressors video [link], which will help you get to grips with the basics of compression.  

The issue of compressor placement in a pedalboard signal chain is not a new topic. It’s been the subject of many an argument on guitar forums, which largely boil down to “should it always be first in the chain?”. 

Just to make things clearer, people really mean “first effect in the chain”, so the tuner will always come first. And the usual disclaimer applies: any pedals that don’t work with buffers – certain vintage fuzz and wah pedals – should go before buffered tuners and before the compressor. Now we’ve addressed these caveats, let’s look at why we place the compressor first: 

A compressor deals with dynamics, the difference in volume between the loudest and quietest parts of your signal. Usually, when we use a compressor pedal on a guitar signal, we’re doing more than just making our picking volume more consistent. We’re trying to exaggerate the characteristics of the instrument by changing the dynamics of each note. We can emphasise pick attack, add sustain, and generally make the guitar sound better than how it sounds naturally. 

To do this most effectively, we want to deal with the raw guitar tone, before it’s been processed by any other pedals. This way, the compressor has the biggest dynamic range to work with, and we can then pass our “exaggerated” guitar tone on to any subsequent pedals. All our other pedals can then do their jobs as usual, working with the improved dynamics that our compressor gives us. 

This “first in the chain” placement is by far the most common method for guitar compression, and gives us the familiar snappy, punchy tones that we usually imagine when thinking about compressor pedals. This emphasised pick attack is typical of a funk or country guitar tone, exaggerating the transient portion of the note to add liveliness and presence to a clean tone. 

 

This signal chain placement is also very useful for adding sustain to overdriven lead tones. It can be tempting to reach for the gain control on our overdrive pedals when searching for more sustain but adding compression can be a better option for two reasons. Firstly, when we add sustain with a compressor, before our overdrive pedal or driven amp, we can use a cleaner tone which has more clarity and articulation – we don’t get lost in a mush of distortion. Secondly, because we’re essentially giving more sustain to our guitar’s natural tone, we’re keeping our signal more consistent. We can stay in the sweet spot of our overdrive tone for longer, as notes decay more slowly.  

 

There is another school of thought, though. For guitarists who like to use playing dynamics and volume knob tweaks to move between cleaner and more overdriven tones, having the compressor first in the chain can be a hindrance. Because a compressor evens out the difference between loud and soft, it can prevent that crucial interaction between the guitar and either a drive pedal or a driven amp. For players using an amp-like overdrive pedal, it can be very useful to place the compressor after the overdrive. Firstly, this preserves the ability to very your level of overdrive using your guitar volume. Secondly, the compressor helps maintain a consistent level, so the volume doesn’t drop as you clean up. 

 

Players with studio experience may also prefer the compressor after overdrive. In a studio setting, it’s normal to plug straight into a great amp, mic it up, then apply compression afterwards. Using a compressor after a good, amp-like overdrive or amp simulator can produce a very similar effect. Again, this keeps the interaction between guitar and overdrive tone, then uses a subtle compression setting to add that “finishing touch” that studio-style compressors do so well – just making everything sound better.

 

So, if you’re struggling to get the sound in your head from your compressor, or you just fancy experimenting a little, try playing with the signal chain order on your pedalboard. It’s what we like to spend our Sundays doing anyway, and you might just find the tone you’re looking for. Go and break some rules!