Modulation Pedals Explained: A Guide to Finding the Perfect Effects Unit

Modulation Pedals Explained: A Guide to Finding the Perfect Effects Unit

Introduction

One of the most popular categories of guitar pedals, modulation effects can completely alter the sound of your guitar and take your playing to the next level. These effects can transform a simple chord into a dreamy soundscape or add more depth to your solos, making them an essential tool in any guitarist's pedalboard.

With many options available today, finding the perfect one for you can be challenging. From the subtle enhancement of your sound to dramatic transformations, every unit differs in the features and effects it offers. It is, however, an exciting journey to discover the sonic possibilities that a modulation pedal can have.

This guide will demystify modulation pedals and help you find the right match for your playing style. We discuss every effect type in detail and give our picks for the best in each category. Let's get started! 

What Are Modulation Pedals?

Mojo Hand FX Swim Team

In sound, modulation is the process by which a modulating wave manipulates specific sonic characteristics such as frequency, amplitude, and phase. While all this talk might sound boring, this process allows us to do some wild stuff with our guitars.

Modulation was practically born with the instrument and has been used extensively in music history: from the dream-like phaser textures found on psychedelic rock to the lush chorus guitar sound that defined the 1980s, this effect found its way into multiple music genres.

Interestingly, each effect type has its intricacies and ways of working, making modulation a vast, all-encompassing term. So, for example, a phaser, which makes those sweeping, whooshing sounds by shifting the audio signal's phase, fundamentally differs from a tremolo pedal, which modulates the amplitude to produce a rhythmic, pulsing effect.

The ways these different types of units alter the sound are so diverse that they are not even comparable. This variety makes modulation a creative tool for the guitar player, allowing endless experimentation.

Types of Modulation Pedals Explained

There are five basic types of modulation pedals:

  • Chorus
  • Phaser
  • Flanger
  • Tremolo
  • Vibrato

Below, we will cover each type of modulation pedal in detail and present some of the best effect units in each category.

Chorus

The Mojo Hand FX Dream Mender chorus pedal.

The chorus is one of the most popular and versatile effects. It alters the sound by making multiple copies of the signal, each with a slight pitch and time difference. This process makes it seem like various guitars are playing the same phrase.

When we talk about chorus pedals, it's impossible not to remember the 80's, with its larger-than-life, lush-sounding guitars. The effect is present on the guitars of most new wave hits from the decade.

As we said, the chorus effect is highly versatile. You can also dial it down to add just a hint of texture to spice up your clean tones. John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers used to do this throughout the 1990s.

Chorus pedals are also very popular nowadays in genres such as indie and bedroom pop. They usually accompany single-coil guitars and a clean tone. Artists such as Mac Demarco make the most creative use of this effect nowadays.

Here is an example of a popular chorus pedal, the Mojo Hand FX Dream Mender:

You can check tons of guitar chorus pedal options on our website.

Phaser

Death By Audio Disturbance. This multi-fx pedal is a phaser, a filter, and a flanger.

As the name implies, the phaser effect manipulates the guitar signal's phase. When you mix the same audio signal and apply a slight delay to one or more of them, it cancels some frequencies, generating a completely different tone.

While you may have heard that phase cancellation is undesirable when working with audio recordings, phaser pedals allow us to use this effect creatively.

As with chorus, phaser pedals are universally used across all music genres but have a special place in styles such as psychedelic rock and funk music. For example, the effect is noticeable in Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar," giving the guitar part a warbly characteristic.

Listen to “Endors Toi” by Tame Impala for a more modern example. The phaser provides the guitar chords with a distinctive texture in that particular song. 

Make sure to check out our selection of the best phaser pedals.

Flanger

The OBNE Flat Light is a flanger pedal that combines flanging, pitch-shifting, and echo.

The flanger is a unique effect and, perhaps, the most hate-it-or-love-it type of pedal there is. We believe that every guitarist should give it a try. The effect works similarly to the chorus: multiplying the signal and slightly delaying each copy.

While chorus pedals can create several copies of the signal and delay each one by a time greater than 5ms, phaser pedals are limited to a single copy, delayed from 1ms to 4ms.

The effect can be described as "jet-plane-like," sweeping through the sound to create a distinct texture. The flanger is heavily associated with the 80's sound, thanks to its use by Eddie Van Halen in songs such as "Unchained."

Listen to a demo of the OBNE Flat Light flanger pedal:

Check out our full selection of flanger pedals.

Tremolo

The Mojo Hand FX Bayou tremolo pedal.

The tremolo is quite a creative effect in terms of audio manipulation. It controls the volume of your guitar via an LFO. It is as if someone was constantly turning the volume knob up and down in a rhythmic way. You can, of course, alter how drastic the effect sounds by messing with the parameters present in most tremolo pedals.

Interestingly, the tremolo was the first audio effect designed for guitars and appeared in a few of the first amplifiers throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
One of the first music genres to pioneer this effect was the surf rock of the 1960s, paired with spring-reverb-drenched Fender guitars.

However, perhaps the most famous use of this effect was in the intro for the song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day. The choppy guitar part is instantly recognizable and a great example of the use of tremolo.

For example, here is a Mojo Hand FX Bayou pedal demo. It aims to emulate classic tremolo effects from the 1960s:

You can check out more options for tremolo pedals on our website.

Vibrato

Mid-Fi Electronics Standard Vibrato.

The vibrato manipulates the pitch of your audio signal to create a detuned-like warbly effect. It was one of the first effects explicitly designed for the guitar.

The vibrato effect is usually confused with the tremolo; sometimes, both names are used interchangeably. But instead of manipulating volume, like the tremolo, it manipulates pitch. Interestingly, some chorus pedals can also be used as a vibrato.

The vibrato can be found in many music genres, particularly psychedelic rock and dream pop. Mac Demarco is one of the artists making the most use of it in modern times. Demarco employs the vibrato on the guitar to create dreamy textures. Listen to the song "Freaking Out The Neighborhood" for a good example.

A creative use for vibrato pedals is to create a pitch drift effect reminiscent of old vinyl recordings, particularly useful for vintage and lo-fi music genres.

Below, you can hear the vibrato effect in action:

What About Multi-Modulation Pedals?

Nowadays, pedal options are virtually endless, so you may have noticed that certain units feature two or more built-in modulation effects. These pedals are convenient and could be a great option if you're short on pedalboard real estate or simply looking for versatility at a friendly price.



For example, the OBNE Visitor Parallel Multi-Modulator Pedal combines chorus and flanger in one pedal, allowing you to switch between each effect with a button push.

Some pedals combine modulation with other types of sound manipulation, such as pitch-shifting and reverb, to generate creative textures. It's hard to categorize these pedals because their effects on the guitar sound are unique.

 

Another great multi-modulation pedal is the Demedash Effects T-60. It is quite a unique pedal, hard to categorize in traditional terms as it combines several modulation effects and parameters to create its own unique thing. The T-60 is an excellent unit for those looking to give their sound a vintage or lo-fi characteristic.

Extra: Analog vs Digital Modulation Pedals

The discussion between analog and digital is recurrent in music and is no different with modulation pedals. These two pedal types differ in construction and offer different sonic qualities.

Analog Modulation Pedals

Analog modulation pedals are often celebrated for their warm, natural sound. These pedals use analog circuits, typically involving components like capacitors, resistors, and transistors, to manipulate the audio signal. Some of the advantages of using analog pedals include:

  • Warm and character
  • Simplicity
  • Reduced latency

While analog pedals can be pricey, they are incredibly reliable in the long term. Thanks to their simple construction, repairs are often cheap and easy.

Digital Modulation Pedals

Digital modulation pedals use digital signal processing (DSP) to manipulate the audio signal. These pedals convert the analog signal into a digital format, process it using algorithms, and then convert it back to an analog audio signal. Some advantages of using digital pedals include:

  • More versatility and sonic options if compared to its analog counterparts.
  • The effects produced by the unit are more consistent.
  • More features and possibilities.

Digital modulation pedals offer the perfect blend of cost and sound versatility, so they might be an exciting option.

Conclusion

Modulation pedals are essential to any guitarist's pedalboard, no matter what genre you play. If you're shopping for the perfect unit, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Look for videos demonstrating the pedal in action. Watching demos and reviews online can give you a good sense of how a pedal performs in real-world settings. 
  • Compare the controls, features, and parameters each pedal offers. Look for parameters such as depth, rate, mix, and additional functions to enhance your sound.
  • Compare different options to see which one aligns best with your playing style.
  • Think about how the pedal will interact with your existing setup/pedalboard.

With these tips, you'll make an informed decision and find the right modulation pedal for your setup.

Make sure to check out our selection of the best modulation pedals on our website. We also offer a wide range of effect units ranging from chorus to vibrato and everything in between.

If any pedals on our website caught your interest, use the code IASN10 at the checkout for a 10% discount!

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