What Are Multi-Effects Pedals?
Multi-effects pedals put all your favourite sounds in one unit, without the mess of patch cables and potential power issues you might find on a conventional pedalboard. These days, a lot of multi-effects units can match a pedalboard in terms of sound quality, plus you can set up shortcuts to your favourite patches. However, this is just scratching the surface
While multi-effects units all look quite similar what they can do on the inside actually changes drastically depending on what you want them to do.
Some units focus on effect modelling with a range of different overdrives, delays, reverbs and modulation effects. Others have built-in amplifier and cabinet modelling that can work on its own or with your clean amp.
Multi-Effects vs Pedalboard
When it comes to expanding your guitar rig, you have one big choice to make; compact pedals, multi-effects, or both?
With compact pedals, many guitarists love the experience of building a pedalboard from scratch, choosing specific pedals that match their style for a massively customisable setup. Yet as you're reading this guide, I’m sure you've realised there can be many benefits to a multi-effects system!
Multi-effects units are predominantly designed to work with your amplifier to create your sound. Most multi-effects pedals focus more on stompbox and effects emulation rather than amp and cabinet simulations.
The key to a good system like this is that it covers a wide range of effects and has enough footswitches for you to control everything on the fly. After all, these are designed to be complete pedalboard replacements so you want to make sure you can control everything you need whenever you need to.
Another thing you need to look at is connectivity. While a lot of multi-effects units work great just going in to the front end of your amp you might want to integrate it in to your effects loop as well. This is a real pain on more budget systems but when you get near the higher end, all of the connectivity options you need should be there.
By utilising the effects loop as part of the ‘four cable method’ way of wiring you can then move effects like reverb and delay to after the amps gain stage which really helps with keeping your amps sound especially if you love the amps natural overdrive.
Multi-Effects with Amp Modelling
So, this is a really interesting point in the multi-effects world. You still want to use your amplifier but you want most of the tone (including amp modelling) to come from the multi-effects unit. Generally, these units are entirely capable of being used on their own but you can run it through an amp if you prefer.
What makes multi-effects with amp modelling pedals so good is a massive library of tone and effects options that can be easily controlled. The other thing is that the amp models need to have cab emulation that can be disabled or no cab emulation at all. This is because if you run cab emulation through an amp the sound is normally terrible.
One of the big benefits of working like this is that it doesn’t matter what amp there is at your next gig. You can just rock up, plug in and away you go with just minimal tweaking to the EQ. Of course, you can still take your amp with you but if most of your sound is on your pedalboard it probably won’t make too much of a difference.
Can I Use a Multi-Effects Unit Instead of an Amp?
Multi-effects systems with amp and cab modelling can be used live, in the studio or for practice with no need for any other pedals or amplifier. You just plug in one end and your guitars final signal comes out of the other. This is something we have seen more and more in recent years as more musicians are performing fly dates across the world.
By removing the amplifier from the setup, you can just plug straight in to the PA or desk at any studio and get your tone no matter what. No longer do you have to worry about what gear the house band uses or what is available to loan as your entire rig may just fit in to your gig bag.
The downside though is that if you want to get pro grade sound you will need to look at systems in the upper price range. Pedals running through an amplifier have a bit of leeway as they are still running through a real guitar amp circuit. Digital rigs have little to no margin for error in tone, so you must get it right before you even step on the stage.
All multi-effects units will have your standard guitar in and amp out connections that are needed for it to run. Others however will have a bunch of different options like effects loops, amp control, line outs, simulated outputs, digital outs and much more. Generally, the higher the price the more in-depth the connectivity, as integrating them can be quite expensive.
If you’re looking for something that falls in to the ‘pedalboard replacement’ category you will need just the basic inputs and possibly amp channel control. Additional connectivity is mainly for those that want to use their system away from their amplifier and go directly into the PA or headphones.
If you’re looking for more expansive sound options then you may want to look at units with more options for connectivity. A common feature on multi-effects units is an effects loop that runs into your amp’s effects loop. This allows you to position effects (usually modulation and time-based) between the preamp and power amp stage of your amp.
If you want a complete amp replacement then you’ll instead be looking at something that has line outs that can run directly to the front of house or studio desk. These can come as either balanced ¼” outs or as XLR outputs, both of which carry the same high-grade audio.
Across the world of multi-effects pedals there are a bunch of different ways to digitally connect up your rigs. Some may offer extra control through external connections but others will work as audio interfaces so you can record in to your computer without any other hardware.
USB is generally used for updating patches on the pedal using editing software on your computer or recording using the ins and outs of the unit.
First, let’s talk about updating patches. While nearly all units will give you pretty much all of the control you need at your feet or using the on-board controls sometimes using software is just faster. It may not be as convenient for on-the-fly editing but when developing your sound, it can be a huge time saver.
Generally, systems that use this allow you to download presets from other artists and some even let you load your own impulse response cab responses to the unit. This is not true of all multi-effects pedals with USB ports however so it is worth checking the individual spec of the unit you are looking at.
The other big use of USB is that you can easily connect up to the computer using the effects system as an audio interface. As these systems have to have incredibly high-quality converters and processors anyway this actually makes them great options for interfaces if you are mainly recording guitar.
Some systems will just allow you to record the effected guitar signal and that’s it. Others on the other hand can be a lot smarter allowing you to record a DI with no effects and then feed it back through the device so you hear the effected tone but you record dry.
The big benefit of this is that you can get your playing perfect first and then worry about the tone at a later date so you spend less time recording just to find out the tone doesn’t work with the rest of the mix.
You will not see this lot on lower end systems but when you get nearer to the higher end you will find MIDI ports on a lot of these units. MIDI is extremely useful for controlling all of your effects and amp emulations either from a separate computer or a MIDI controller of some kind.
The brilliant thing with this is that if you have decided to get a desktop or rackmount unit that can sit near your amp or at the back of the stage you can still control it remotely. No matter if that is programmed control set by your computer and the DAW or manual control on stage using a foot controller you can now use these systems live.
S/PDIF is a commonly seen but rarely used connection for a lot of multi-effects users. You will find it on the back of a lot of gear and it allows the audio to be sent digitally to your mixing desk or audio interface of choice.
The benefit out of connecting like this is that if you have a high-end premium interface with a stunning digital converter you can take full advantage of that in your sound. A lot of multi-effects systems do have great quality DACs (Digital Analogue Converters) but there is a fantastic extra level of quality available in audio interfaces designed for clean signal processing.
It also stops you from having to convert from analogue to digital again say if you were going in via line inputs. Every step converting from analogue to digital degrades the sound so if you can keep it cleaner by running S/PDIF in to your audio interface when recording you will end up with better sound.
What Are the Best Multi-Effects Pedals?
What are the biggest differences between the different price brackets? Well here is a very rough rundown of what you can expect at each price point to help you decide which is the best for you. The general idea is that quality and features get more advanced as price goes up.
- Less than £100: Minimal connections, best for beginners to learn about effects and start building their sound at home.
- £100-£250: Decent range of connections, live-ready floorboard systems and home practice systems start to come into their own here. A perfect step up for players who want to play start playing live or just want better quality at home.
- £250-£500: All of the connections you will ever need, pro grade sound that can work equally well live, in the studio or at home. Pro grade tone with 90% of the features of top-grade gear.
- > £500: These are generally the best multi-effects units you can buy; pro grade gear that is designed from scratch to suit all your possible needs and offer the best tones. Prices can reach over a thousand pounds.
Processors, Converters and Quality
You really do get what you pay for in the world of multi-effects as the software and hardware on more expensive units are generally higher quality. Inside you have two core components that really make or break how these things sound; the processor and the converters.
The processor is what makes all of the calculations and is what gives you the sound. At the lower-end this means that some of the effects will not have the same level of detail and in general it means you have fewer options as well. For example, you may only be able to have two or three effects on a preset and you may not be able to change the order. As the price increases you generally find more control and the ability to have more effects on at the same time and choose their order.
Whether or not this is right for you entirely depends on where you are with your playing and what your needs are. If you’re a beginner you’re not going to need the most powerful system and the systems around £100 will have all of what you really need right out of the box to build your sound.
If you’re a more advanced player you will probably want more options that let you build your signal chain and dive deeper into your effects.
Inside any and all multi-effects systems you will have two converters. One that will convert your guitar’s analogue tone into a digital signal it can process and one that converts it back out to analogue so you can hear it at the other end. This is again something that gets better as you go up in price but for the most part you can get great conversion out of most of these units.
They may not all be high enough quality for recording but for most day to day practising scenarios all of them will stand up pretty well in terms of conversion. Of course, like the processors, you do end up getting what you pay for and the best processors tend to come in the more expensive units. If you’re a more experienced player and you need to use a multi-effects for more advanced applications than just practising you may want to look at the higher end gear.
Which Brands Make Multi-Effects Pedals?
Line 6 - Helix
- Helix - The Helix is the flagship of the range, designed for the professional musician. Amp, cab, mic, and effects modelling with impressive connectivity make it a true all-in-one rig.
- Helix LT - The Helix LT strips the Helix back a little bit without sacrificing any of the sounds. The LT trades off a small amount of functionality and connectivity for a smaller and lighter profile.
- HX Stomp - The HX Stomp is the smallest of the range but still uses the same modelling technology as the Helix and Helix LT. You only get three footswitches and 6 processing blocks (the Helix has 12) but in exchange you get a truly portable version of the Helix.
- HX Effects - If you have an amp tone that you love but still want to take advantage of the impressive effects in the Helix you can save yourself some money and get the HX Effects. Over 100 effects with all the connections you need to integrate with or entirely replace your pedalboard.
The Headrush range of multi-effects processors offer pro-level effects, amps, and cab modelling to rival the Helix.
- Headrush Pedalboard - The Pedalboard is the top of the Headrush range with professional-quality amp, cab, mic and effects modelling and plenty of connectivity options to be an all-in-one rig. One of the coolest features is the 7" touchscreen that allows you to drag-and-drop to order your effects chain.
- Headrush Gigboard - The Gigboard provides the same effects and modelling in a lighter, more compact form. It has fewer footswitches, controls, and connections but retains the sounds and the intuitive touchscreen.
- Looperboard - The Looperboard is something a little bit different. It contains Headrush's excellent effects but is designed to be the ultimate loopstation for creating complex and intricate loops all by yourself - a dream for the solo musician on stage.
Boss are well-known for their iconic compact pedals but they have also been making multi-effects pedals for a while and cater to a range of needs. The GT range includes the GT-1 which is perfect for beginners with its affordability and compact size, the mid-range GT-100 which adds amp modelling and greater functionality, and finally the GT-1000, the high-end rival to the Helix and Headrush.
If you're a beginner and just want to start exploring the world of guitar effects without sinking a load of money into an expensive and complicated system, then the Zoom range is worth a look. From pedals you can fit in your pocket to larger floor units, Zoom has plenty to choose from at a low price point.
Which Multi-Effects Pedal Should I Buy?
A lot of what is right for you is dependent on your needs as a player. If you are just starting out and want a great value way to get in to effects then the more basic options are an amazing choice. As you start to advance as a player though those extra options and cleaner tones will start to appeal.
Want To Learn More?
Check out our blog for articles about multi-effects units, modelling amps, FRFR cabs and more!