Flangers: An Introduction
Widely considered to have been discovered by the one and only Les Paul way back in the 1940s, it’s been replicated countless times over the years by mix engineers, audio manufacturers and experimentalists. It’s even said that John Lennon made use of the effect to mimic double-tracking to save him the workload!
Despite the countless options of flanger effects available today, the principle largely remains the same. It’s instantly recognisable jet-engine quality can be heard across numerous genres, from early Beatles recordings to modern metal riffage.
In this guide, we’ll explore the flange effect’s unique qualities, the big names in the category, and how you can incorporate it into your sound, taking you one step closer to finding the pedal that’s right for you!
The Flanger Effect
Rather than try to explain in words, I thought it’d be best to let the effect itself do the talking first. Here’s ‘Barracuda’ by Heart:
Listen carefully for the shimmering oscillation of the galloping guitar riff that runs throughout the track. Although this iconic tone summarises the effect rather nicely, flange can be tweaked to attain many weird and wonderful sounds.
The (sort of) Scientific Bit
The flange sound is achieved by mixing two identical signals together, with one of the signals delayed by small and varying periods determined by an LFO (low frequency oscillator). This creates a swirling harmonic effect, like a moving comb filter.
The varying spaces between the two signals weave in and out of eachother causing these harmonics to sweep up and down the frequency spectrum. This is what creates the famed ‘jet engine’ sound associated with flangers.
In some cases, the output can also be partially fed back into the input, generating feedback that adds another dimension to the sound. Here's a nice diagram that'll do a way better job of explaining:
How do I use a flanger?
There are several things to consider when using a flanger. It isn't the most subtle effect; it'll alter your tone in a big, obvious, and actually rather fun way. But in order to make the most of its boldness, you'll need a little bit of extra knowhow!
There are three main controls that you’ll most often see on a flanger. Let’s take a closer look at what they do:
- Rate – also known as ‘speed’, you may have already guessed that this controls the speed of the variations in signal delay. A slow rate gives you that chunky jet-engine sound synonymous with flangers, but when you increase it, you'll be hearing communications from outer space.
- Depth – sometimes called ‘mix’ or ‘wet/dry’, this controls the amount of the effect applied vs. the dry input signal. With the depth set to minimum, you’ll only get a faint suggestion of modulation, but set it to full and your tone will sway and shimmer in gloriously drunk fashion.
- Feedback – this controls the amount of output signal that’s fed back into the input. It’s in the term ‘feedback’; similar to when you hold a microphone next to a speaker, the signal snowballs into a wash of noisy overtones. This can sometimes be used to dramatic effect, giving your sound an otherworldly distorted quality.
As with most modulation effects, flanger will sit most comfortably towards the back end of your pedal chain. You'll be best off putting it after everything except ambient effects like reverb and delay.
This means the effect will apply to everything in your chain so far, including distortion, EQ, filters and more. You can play around with this order to create more abstract sounds; if you're feeling adventurous, put a flanger before a distortion or fuzz pedal for a truly bonkers lead tone!
Flanger vs. Phaser vs. Chorus
These three modulation effects work in very similar ways. They all mix your dry signal with a filtered/detuned signal to create an abstract sound. Because of this, it can be easy to get them mixed up! Each one creates a modulated effect using an LFO, but tweaked slightly differently - so what is the difference between flanger, phaser and chorus? Here's a quick breakdown:
The dry signal is mixed with a delayed signal swaying between 5-25ms The delayed signal is then fed back into the chain creating harmonic feedback.
the phase of your signal's waveform is adjusted by an LFO, then mixed with the dry signal. The frequencies that are out of phase cancel eachother out, causing a warped, wavy sound.
Your dry signal is mixed with a slightly detuned and delayed signal. The LFO controls the pitch of the delayed signal, and the further you push the pitch, the more wobbly the effect.
IN SUMMARY: A flanger uses an LFO the adjust the delay of the signal, a phaser uses an LFO to adjust the phase of your waveform, and chorus uses an LFO to adjust the pitch!
Why would I want a flanger?
The use of effects is entirely subjective. Although the controls on your average flanger unit are straightforward, they can be manipulated to create many distinct sounds. Here are a few notable examples of great flanger settings:
- Give spotlight moments some attitude - got room to introduce a gnarly riff? Why not apply a bit of flanger to give it a cool Van Halen-esque edge? Rate: 3.5, Depth: 3.5, Feedback: 3.5
- Psychedelic plucking - for a slow-burning trip to the next dimension, combine with a clean sound (or acoustic) and add a bit of spacey delay for added effect! Rate: 2, Depth: 3.5, Feedback: 5
- Extra wobbly cleans - give your grungy verse cleans a deranged character. This dazed but frantic clean sound is perfect for arpeggiated chord parts. Rate: 8, Depth: 6, Feedback: 3
- Molten-hot leads - add a subtle shimmer to your lead tone that'll set it apart from the mix in volcanic fashion - the secret ingredient is plenty of distortion! Rate: 3.5, Depth: 2, Feedback: 2
Next up, we're going to take a look at some of the big names in the flanger category. These pedals have helped define the effect itself, so chances are you may well recognise some of them.
- MXR Micro Flanger - based on the classic M-117, this straightforward analogue pedal has two controls: 'rate' and 'regen'. These control the speed and overall intensity respectively. The 'regen' control essentially controls depth and feedback at the same time, meaning you can go from killer sweeping sounds to intense wobbling with minimum effort! This pedal is also true bypass, so it won't affect your tone when switched off.
- Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress - again based on a classic design, EHX streamlined their enormous Electric Mistress unit into a die-cast stompbox enclosure. The Deluxe uses the same vintage circuity as the original, so you'll be able to attain the same iconic '70s sounds for maximum psychedelia. As well as the usual flanger controls, this pedal features a 'filter matrix' switch. It 'freezes' the flanger, taking the rate control out of the equation and creating unique filtered overtones.
- Boss BF-3 - this deceptively compact pedal is stuffed to the brim with features. This awesome unit has guitar and bass inputs, so will work perfectly with either instrument. With several modes to choose from, you can attain classic flanger sounds as well as futuristic choppy sounds, extra-chunky swirling and even a momentary effect. Plus it's built like a tank!
- TC-Electronic Vortex Flanger - stereo output and USB-connectivity allow you to download your favourite tones! This pedal is also true bypass so you get all of the tone without any side-effects. You can also finetune this effect with the 'delay time' control. This allows you to tweak the pitch of the harmonic sweep - lower settings mean a higher sweep for a breathier sound, but a higher setting will give you a super-wide sway!
Although most multi-fx units feature a wide range of sounds, there are some that specialise in modulation. Here are some key players:
- Strymon Mobius - 12 different modulation types including a classy flanger effect. The usual controls apply but you're able to store your own presets - 200 to be precise! Other neat features include manual tempo input, formidable processing power and full MIDI implementation.
- Boss MD-500 - similarly to the Mobius, the MD-500 features MIDI in/out and user preset banks that can be easily toggled to and fro. However, this incredible all-in-one features 28 modulation types across 12 modes and studio-level 32-bit sound with a 96 kHz sampling rate. Blissful.
- Line 6 MM4 Modulation Modeller - for a long time, the MM4 was the go-to multi-modulation pedal. The benefits include an intuitive and easy-on-the-eye interface, versatile selection of sounds and simple stomp-able presets. You'll have all of the killer modulation sounds you need but for a fraction of the price of some units!
You may have heard weird, modulated guitar sounds on your favourite albums and wondered 'what effect is that?' In theory, you'll now be able to tell the difference!
The idea of a flanger pedal in your setup should now seem like more of a reality - ask yourself: is it vintage psychedelia you're after, or warped abstract tones to hypnotise your audience? Each of the pedals we've discussed has its own character and special feature - which one would sit best in your sound? If you get a chance, spend some time trying some effects out, and experiment with some of the example settings above to find the right tone for you!
Happy flanging, folks!
P.S. Have you checked out our other buyer's guides? You might just find something you like!
- Modulation - the process of altering an input signal waveform resulting in...weird sounds!
- Oscillation - in the simplest terms, this is a movement back and forth in a regular rhythm. So in audio terms, for example, imagine a pitch shift that oscillates - it means the pitch is always moving back and forth! And a low frequency oscillator is one that moves slowly enough for us to hear.
- Comb filter - when two slightly delayed signals are played on top of eachother, the visual waveform created has several evenly spaced notches, giving the appearance of a comb.
- Harmonic - each note or musical tone that you hear is comprised of multiple, almost infinite notes. Some of these notes can be highlighted either by different playing techniques or using effects such as filters and EQ-ing. Modulation effects tend to cycle through highlighted harmonics...which is one of the reasons why they sound so cool.
- Phase - the position of a point on a waveform cycle. When two identical signals are combined but one is delayed slightly, they're called 'out of phase' - this, in part, is what you hear when you use modulation effects.