Sequence Selector: Why the order of your pedals matters

If you run a pedal board with more than a few pedals, you may have noticed that the order of those devices can have a huge influence on your tone. Place a wah pedal in front of a distortion, for example, and you may find the sweep of the wah somewhat subtle. Reverse that sequence, and now the effect of the wah may seem exaggerated compared to the previous set up. There’s no right answer when it comes to creativity, but you might find that certain setups work better for your taste and style of playing.

Sometimes though, how you sequence your pedals may have unintended consequences, and that brings us to a question that we’ve heard a few times here at Keeley Electronics: “When I run the Keeley Compressor after my distortion/overdrive pedal it sounds great, but I get a jump in level when I bypass the compressor. Why is that?”

The key to this lies in better understanding what your compressor is doing. You may have heard someone say that a compressor makes the “loud parts” quieter and the “quiet parts” louder. While that’s a bit simplistic, it’s certainly one way to describe how you might experience playing through a compressor pedal. A more refined way to state this is that the compressor is compressing (or reducing) the peaks in the signal, that is, turning down the loudest passages of your playing automatically. The quiet passages don’t actually get any louder until you increase the output level, but the net result is that there’s less difference between strumming soft and strumming hard. It’s not an entirely artifact free process, but the sonic fingerprints left behind by compression are actually what we think of as the effect. In particular, the Keeley 4 Knob Compressor allows you to tailor the sound of compression artifacts, tweaking the response of the compressor to dial in your sound.

keeley guitar pedal sequence

Keeley Compressor, Luna Overdrive and Java Boost.

 

Now add a distortion pedal before the compressor— let’s assume for this example that you’re using a Keeley Red Dirt Overdrive. As you crank up the level and/or drive knobs on the Red Dirt, you’re effectively driving the compression circuit on your Keeley Compressor harder and harder. As you compress the signal you’ll get more sustain and unleash a palette of sounds that might just provide the tone you’ve been searching for.But, because you’re pushing the compression circuit hard, you’re likely compressing the output (reducing the peak level) of the Red Dirt quite a bit. That means that, the more you turn the Red Dirt up, the more the compressor will intervene and turn it back down. As many customers have noted, you will then experience a big jump in level when you bypass the compressor, as the now cranked output of the Overdrive pummels the front end of your amp without the attenuation provided by the compressor. This could be unnerving in a live setting, but it may just be worth dealing with if you’re getting the perfect sound by pushing the overdrive into the compressor.

We also recommend that you try reversing the order, because while the tone may not be quite the same with the new sequence, you’ll find the differences in level more manageable when switching the compressor in and out of your chain. With the compressor placed before the overdrive pedal, the compressor will give you a relatively even output level, causing the overdrive pedal to produce a very consistent distortion or drive amount. For instance, if you run a compressor before an extremely dynamic pedal like the Keeley Modified Blues Driver, it will be less dynamic in its output distortion levels and produce a more consistent and even response.

Steve Morse, speaking about the new Deep Purple Album

“The only effect I ever put between the guitar and the dry amp is a Keeley Compressor for some of the rhythm stuff. It does a great job of compacting that single coil pickup. You can hear it on, ‘All The Time in The World‘.”

For us at Keeley Electronics, the only right way is what sounds best to the player, but doesn’t cause any undue aggravation. Try out both and let us know what you prefer in our comments below. We plan to have an ongoing conversation here around pedal sequencing and many other topics.

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4 Responses to “Sequence Selector: Why the order of your pedals matters”

  1. So here is a continuation question on this topic. What is the relationship between a Buffer (Empress Buffer+)and the Compressor. Should the Buffer come in before the Compressor? What are your thoughts?

    • Roger Charles Brewin July 4, 2013 at 8:38 am

      I would love to hear the response to this. I have the same question having just added a buffer in front of my signal chain.

      • KeeleyElectronics July 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

        Hi Guys,

        If you’re talking about running a Keeley Compressor with no other pedals, then there’s probably no need for a buffer.

        On the other hand, even with true bypass pedals, once you string enough of them together (maybe 5+?) you may notice some amount of high frequency roll off, just as you would with an exceptionally long cable run (50+ feet?)

        The Empress+ is designed for all your pedals to hang off the loop section of the device, so that’s what I would try first. I doubt putting the compressor before the buffer would make a huge difference either way, as long as it’s the only pedal in that spot.

        But to really hear what the buffer is doing, try comparing the buffer with no other pedals, versus plugging your guitar directly into the amp. I suspect you’ll notice a difference, but what you prefer will be a matter of taste.

  2. Really great 411 for this pedal newbie (compared to others) and I LOVE your products!! I am primarily a rhythm player (progressive/contemporary rock mostly)and have a somewhat basic pedal set up and am totally confused to order (even though I know it is highly subjective). I am taking the philosophy of playing around with sequence more so to learn but would love some help on any rules of thumb if they exist. I currently have and run these pedals(in this order): Tuner; Clean boost, OD/Distortion; Compressor; Octave/Synth; Chorus; Flanger; Delay.

    Does anything about my chain stand out as flagrantly “no don’t do that”?

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