What Is A Multi-Effects Pedal?
A multi-effects pedal is pretty much what the name implies. It is a single accessory where multiple effects are all contained in one convenient unit that is hooked up between the guitar and the amp (just as a single effect pedal would be).
Individual Pedals VS. Multi-Effects Pedals
That’s a tough question to answer. Single effect pedals offer a more “unprocessed” sound that a lot of rock purists appreciate. They also offer more control, especially for some of those functions like the wah, whammy, and delay, where playing the pedal with judicious skill can often offer as much to your sound as your musical skills.
However, multi-effects pedals offer a wide array of sounds for an affordable price. For a few hundred dollars, a garage band can create sound effects that, two decades ago, they would have been playing all year to save up for.
The board makes it a lot easier to switch between selections, and offers an insane amount of variety that you can mix and match and create presets for.
In addition, you can get looping and drum functions that single pedals may not offer.
And that’s why you see a lot of people use a board in conjunction with a wah-wah pedal and distortion pedal or delay pedal. This makes it easy to get all of the effects you need at your fingertips (or toetips, if you rather).
Finally, a multi-effects processor can be better for live performances. With all of those presets and options you can create a lot larger feel out of your small band. And, the audience isn’t likely to know or care about the difference.
As time goes on, we will start to see where these boards become modular and are sold in sets so you can mix and match them. This will offer such an incredibly mind-blowing array of control and new sounds, and will be incredibly expensive.
But I can’t wait for the next evolution of music technology!
Pedalboards made up of individual effects pedals can be great tools, but they do come with some drawbacks:
Individual effects pedals can get pretty expensive. Some higher-end analog units can run several hundred dollars each, and that can add up real fast.
Let’s say that your tastes are relatively simple, and you just want to use only a few basic effects:
While it’s true that you don’t have to go high-end, you do want good quality pedals that won’t break down on you when you least expect it. With an estimate of around $75 per effect, just these five alone will take $375 out of your wallet!
That doesn’t include the short patch cords that have to daisy-chain the effects to each other. Or the pedal board itself. Or some sort of method to bring power to all of them (could you imagine using batteries all the time?). Some bare pedal boards are “powered” where there are adapters that feed each effect, but the just raises the cost of the pedalboard.
Add it all up and you may find that, depending on the multi-effects unit you are considering, going the individual route will cost you much more in the long run. Some multi-effects pedals can have close to 100 effects!
With a multi-effects unit, you won’t have a lot of the reliability issues that an individual pedal board may have. The patch cords chaining the effects are notorious for shorting out, and if you have a lot of effects it can take a lot of time to figure out exactly what the problem is.
The same can be said for the power method you choose. Small power cables tend to not be the most robust things on the planet, and they can be very prone to short or broken circuits as well.
Either of these will put you in a position that you certainly do NOT want to be in right in the middle of a gig!
Multi-effects pedals completely eliminate any problems with connections between pedals because all of the effects are loaded into the electronics package. There simply are no connections to go bad!
Power connections are usually more durable as well.
That being said, a downside of multi-effects processors is that if the unit gets defective, ALL of your effects typically can’t be used. It does happen – I can say that from personal experience – but it is pretty unlikely if you choose a quality unit. It also helps if don’t jump up and down on the thing where the switches can go bad from hitting them too hard.
What is amp modeling?
Amp modeling is a relatively new technology that has been around and evolved greatly since the introduction of the Line 6 POD back at the end of the ’90s.
To create an amp model a manufacturer will analyze the sonic footprint of a popular amp (such as a Fender Twin, a Marshall JCM800, or a Peavey 5150). From there they use software and digital technology to closely mimic those characteristics and create a digital “model”.
Many multi-effects pedals have amp modeling built in. They are great tools for recording, and they can also do an impressive job in a live setting as well.
There is an ongoing debate over whether amp modeling really is any good. Some purists swear they will never give up their tube amps, and others at the opposite end of the spectrum won’t ever buy or use a guitar amp again.That being said, you can’t deny the fact that many touring acts are currently using high-end amp modeling exclusively. There has to be something to it, right?
Advanced units can take amp modeling even further with the addition of speaker models and microphone models. It’s not uncommon for some players to swap out stock speakers of an amp to get different sonic characteristics, Having the ability to simulate different microphones can give you the ability to mimic a wide range of “mic’d guitar cabinet” tones as well.
Are multi-effects pedals worth it?
From a cost, reliability, and flexibility standpoint it’s hard to argue against using a multi-effects processor over an individual pedalboard.
There are some factors that do weigh in, though, and many times it boils down to the quality of the effects themselves and how they sound. Some players are of the opinion that traditional analog circuits are the only way to go. This is particularly true when the conversation turns to distortion, overdrive, and fuzz effects. Generating a true sonic representation of a cranked tube amp with tons of gain isn’t an exact science.
I’ve found that the features and benefits of a multi-effects pedal make them my tool of choice. Sure, there can be some sonic or operational things (especially programming them) but, for the most part, those issues are relatively small in comparison to when you get in return.
As far as I’m concerned – absolutely – multi-effects pedals are definitely worth it.
What to look for in a multi-effects pedal
There are a ton of multi-effects pedals on the market, and each one has its own set of features and benefits. You can definitely get into sensory overload trying to figure it out so you can make the best decision.
Next, we’ll discuss a few points that are really important to keep in mind when you’re doing your research.
What effects are included?
Many multi-effects units were meant for general use across all genres of music. a large majority of what you’ll come across will have so many different effects that there will be no way that you’ll use them all. But that’s the beauty of a multi-effects unit, right?
Most times the multitude of effects is because of different variants of the tried and true basics. Your best choices will have most (if not all) of the list below. We’ll briefly describe each one so you get the gist of things.
Before we do, there are some models that have multiple effects but they are all variations of the same effect. Make sure you realize that before you buy a unit that won’t give you all of the options that you may need.
Having a good chromatic tuner is a must. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone with an individual pedal board where a pedal-based tuner isn’t the very first thing in the signal chain. It’s a safe bet to say that if your guitar isn’t in tune then you really aren’t going to get very far!
Compressors help to level out a signal so that it’s evener. It makes softer sounds louder and louder sounds softer (the technical term for this is “dynamic range”). If you’re a player that likes to add dynamics to your playing by how hard or soft you hit the notes then too much compression might not be your thing.
One thing’s for sure – you can’t get that snappy country twang without it!
Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz are technically different. That’s a topic bigger than this review though, so let’s just say that you use these to get the sound of a cranked tube amp. Or, you maybe want just enough “dirt” to where it sounds like your amp in on the verge of what they call “breaking up”.
Distortion effects are the way to do it. Most tube amps have to be LOUD in order to get those kinds of tones, so having a little help by way of an effect really helps to keep your eardrums from getting torn to shreds.
Think The Edge from U2 in the ’80s. Enough said. Delay is where the original signal gets repeated at a certain time interval. It can be used subtly to thicken up a tone or, as in the case of The Edge, it can be the main calling card for your style.
Modulation effects change characteristics of a signal at the waveform level. Tremolo, phasers, chorus, flanger…these are all modulation effects. They definitely add color and style to your sound and can keep it from sounding boring.
Is amp modeling included?
Not always – don’t assume that it does.
It’s becoming more and more common nowadays for it to be included, but some units are intended to be “effects only”. Many of the less expensive units have amp modeling to varying degrees of sound quality though. Some players have the ability in their multi-effects unit but they simply don’t use it. I’ve done that before with several units over the years. The big thing here is to make sure that amp modeling isn’t the main feature where that’s what you’re truly paying for (especially true for high end, professional level units).
If you’re happy with the tone of your amp and don’t need or want the flexibility to change things up, then you don’t need amp modeling.
Part of the equation also depends on how you plan to use it. Many players are moving towards using modeling exclusively so they don’t have to haul around all of that heavy equipment. Some modelers have the right connections so they can plug directly into a PA, bypassing the need for an amp altogether.
In this case, then obviously amp modeling capability should be at the top of your checklist.
Do you need a looper?
Before we answer that, we need to define what a “looper” is. Many multi-effects units have looper capability built in. What a looper does is take a short recording of your playing and can be set up to “loop” over and over.
Depending on the multi-effects model, you can then record more parts over top of it and make yourself sound like a one-man band.
Loopers have their purpose in the right situations. Many solo performers use them to great effect. I haven’t seen much use for them in a full band situation though.
So do you need one? It all depends on your playing style and what you plan to do with the unit.
Are effects pedals with drum kits worth it?
Depending on the feature level of the unit, some of them can come with fairly advanced drum sound features. They are great for setting yourself up to practice your timing and tempo (like practicing to a metronome), and simple beats can be recorded for demo use.
Don Felder from the Eagles wrote Hotel California to a cha-cha beat from a rudimentary rhythm machine, so there certainly can be functional uses, right?
From what I’ve seen the models that are geared towards the mid-to-low ranges have drum capability built in. Models at the higher end of the spectrum tend to not have that functionality.
So, it’s worth it under the right circumstances. As with a looper, I wouldn’t see much use with them with a band.
How many effects can I use together?
That is completely dependent on the design of the particular multi-effects pedal.
Some units such as the Line 6 M5 (included in our review) can have only one effect on at a time. Most of the others are designed to run several at once. It’s not uncommon to have compression, distortion, delay, and other effects all on.
If you get into advanced units where amp models can be considered “effects”, some of them such as the Line 6 Helix can run up to 32 at a time. This is an important point to not overlook. Are you looking for a unit just to solve some basic needs, or are you looking for everything plus the kitchen sink?
Does the pedal give me the control I want?
The level of control that you can get from any multi-effects pedal really depends on the physical design. Some have a relatively large amount of footswitches so you can call up a program (or “patch”) with one simple click. This type of setup is best for laying live where you may have to make multiple changes to effects within a single song, and you have to pretty much do it instantaneously.
Others, particularly at the lower end of the price range, do not have that level of flexibility. I have played some older, budget-minded multi-effects pedals that only had two pedals – up and down. By using these you could scroll through your presets but that isn’t always the most convenient way to do things.
In the end, it really depends on your application. If you plan on doing a lot of recording then only getting a few sounds without having to spend time scrolling through a list of patches may not be a big deal. Where I have found this to be a detriment is in a live setting.
Programming multi-effects pedals
The user interface for programming a multi-effects pedal should be a huge factor in your buying decision.
All manufacturers design their user interfaces (UI) differently. Some are simple and easy enough to understand where a few clicks of a switch or twists of a few knobs can get you where you need to be. This type of UI lends itself to the “average” user that typically doesn’t have the patience (or the desire) to wade through a 100-page manual trying to figure out how to get the sounds that they want.
Other units – particularly those in the higher end of the range – have more features, and therefore the UI’s can be much more difficult to understand. Don’t overlook this as a major decision point. If you admittedly aren’t a tech-savvy person then take the time to make sure that the unit you are looking at isn’t so complex to program that you get overwhelmed. And trust me…that’s very easy to do given the advanced features that many models have nowadays.
Buying program patches and loops
All is not lost though!
Some models give you the capability to purchase pre-programmed patches and loops. If you are looking to save yourself some time and headache this may be a route you may choose to take.
Many times these patches are designed to mimic the sounds of certain artists, so they may be a great way to get the exact sounds you need to play a particular song.
A multi-effects pedal will give any player – from the basement dweller to the professional artist – a level of flexibility that individual pedals may not be able to give.
The most important step to buying the right unit is to take a hard look at how you plan to use it. Sure, some of the higher end units may have very impressive features and benefits (such as our top choice – the Line 6 Helix – the top choice of our review list), but you may find that you really don’t need all of them to reach your musical goals. Why spend a bunch of money for features that you’ll never use?
At the same time, you have to look at things from the other end of the equation. Even if your budget is tight, make sure to get a lower end unit that still has everything you need.
We certainly understand that shopping for the best multi-effects pedal can be overwhelming. Hopefully, our reviews and buying guide have given you some insight on what to look for.
Now, go out there and make the best music possible!