Hello and welcome to the next installment in The Amazing World of Guitar Effects with Lee (tm). Today I’d like to discuss the question, “Which is better? Multi-fx pedals, or single pedals?”
Firstly, what is a multi-fx pedal, and then a small history lesson.
A multi-fx pedal is really a pedal that has a number, usually hundreds, of different effects in it, as opposed to a single fx pedal that is one specific effect only.
Multi-fx units really came to the fore in the 1980’s as the silicon chip and computing changed the world of electronics forever. Prior to this, guitarists had a limited palette of single effect stompboxes to create all the amazing sounds their songs required (not to mention some rather large boxes that needed extra roadies to carry: Fender ’63 Reverb, Echorec delay, Leslie rotating speaker I’m looking at you).
The silicon chip changed everything. All of a sudden musicians had the power of the computer to create, add and change the sound of their instrument in ways never imagined. Manufacturers began making rack mounted effects units that contained more than one type of effect, that could save different sounds for different songs, even for different sections within a song. With this amount of computing power at their fingertips, guitarists began creating elaborate gear setups that culminated in the “refrigerator” rack towers, most notably built by famous guitar rig builders Bob Bradshaw and Pete Cornish.
Remember this was the dawn of multi-fx, and while the new technology was amazing and allowed the engineers to bring studio effects and wizardry to your live shows, it was still expensive and the more elaborate and complex systems were larger than most guitarist’s amplifiers.
All the while, a few pedal companies stuck their head down and continued making single effect pedals, catering to the “everyman” guitarist that either couldn’t afford the digital rack effects processors, or were too daunted by their complexity. Boss, Electro Harmonix, MXR/Dunlop are some of the biggest names that were building pedals throughout the 1970’s to now.
Pedals like the Electro Harmonix Big Muff fuzz (as used by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and early Carlos Santana), the Boss DS-1 (made famous by Kurt Cobain but also used by Steve Vai and Joe Satriani), Fuzz Face (originally made by Dallas Arbiter, now made by Dunlop and made famous by Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Beatles), MXR Phase 90 (made famous by Eddie van Halen) and the classic “sound of the 1980’s” the Boss Chorus CE series which was essentially the chorus effect from the Roland JC-120 amplifier in pedal form (made famous by Andy Summers of The Police and Robert Smith from The Cure), became the go to sounds for guitarists. Oh, and of course that famous little green pedal, used by pretty much every guitarist ever (the Ibanez Tubescreamer).
These single pedals were, cheaper, smaller and easier to operate and get a great sound out of, and helped to spearhead the rebellion against the racks and racks of expensive gear, culminating in the grunge movement. This genre seemed to be a direct reaction to the complex, pristine effects and tones created by the digital effects, being a more raw, garage band sound with no digital racks anywhere to be seen. Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins to name but a few.
Since then, technology has accelerated and you can now have a multi-fx processor in your phone, and some single pedals are in such high demand that they can fetch in the tens of thousands of Rands on eBay for a second hand one! Oh how the wheel turns.
Truthfully we as guitarists are in a great time at the moment where the selection of pedals, multi-fx or single, is so fantastic that we are guaranteed to find a pedal to get us the sound we are looking for.
But which do we choose, multi-fx or single?
So we have established the fundamental difference between multi-fx pedals and single pedals: a multi-fx pedal is a single “box” that contains many (sometimes hundreds) of different effects, made possible through digital signal processing (DSP), whereas a single effects pedal is focused on a single specific effect.
The choice, I believe, really lies on what type of guitarist you are, and what the application is going to be. If you are the type of guitarist that prefers a simple setup with only a few different effects, maybe a blues guitarist in the style of Clapton, then it makes more sense to go for just a few single pedals, as a multi-fx pedal might be overkill for your style with too many effects that you will never use. If however, you like to be able to create massive soundscapes and crazy effects changes, think Matt Bellamy from Muse, then a multi-fx pedal makes more sense as you now have a multitude of effects to experiment with. In addition, if you are a guitarist in a cover band, or a tribute show, then a multi-fx pedal makes a lot of sense as you can be more accurate to the tones used in the original song. If you use single pedals it is a lot harder to be accurate to the original effects used for all the songs you might play.
Multi-fx pedals also allow you to create presets, which is a very powerful tool making life easier when playing live. A preset contains a number of different effects and amp model settings that are turned on with a single footswitch, then a totally different set can be switched with another single tap of a footswitch. Now you can have vastly different tones and effects for different parts in a song. These presets do require setting up before you get to your gig, so there is a learning curve involved in creating and saving these presets. However, once you have made them, changing tones in a gig and in a song becomes a breeze and you can focus on looking cool!
With single effects pedals, for every different effect you want, you usually have to buy another pedal. This means that often it is the more expensive path to tread. There are a few advantages that single pedals have however. Firstly, you can cherry pick exactly the effects you want, never bothering with that weird swirling blipping synth sound that you would never ever use but is factory preset number 97 in your multi-fx pedal. You can focus your pedalboard with only the effects and tones you need. Single pedals allow you to have full control over the effect instantly with a turn of the knob, no menus to wade through if you just want to increase the gain of the overdrive like with many multi-fx pedals. This instant, tactile control is very appealing and does not have a learning curve allowing you to get playing immediately.
Another advantage with single pedals is that when you look down at your board, you know exactly what the yellow pedal does, every time. With multi-fx pedals, footswitch 3 on one preset might have overdrive and delay, and in another preset be a clean tremolo. You need to know your presets for each song very well not to accidentally hit the wrong preset at the wrong time.
With all of this in mind, one thing I cannot stress enough is that there is no wrong answer. Multi-fx pedals are cool. Single effects pedals are cool too. If you are into pedals then you quite possibly research pro pedalboards and will have seen a growing trend to have a more hybrid setup: lots of single pedals along with a multi-fx pedal too.
The most important thing to remember is that whichever choice you make, make it the one you will have the most fun with, the most creatively inspiring, the one that makes you want to keep playing guitar, the one that puts the smile on your face.
Lee from TOMS Durban