The time we live in right now is a great one for guitar players. Not so long ago, most we had was a couple of overdrives, maybe a distortion or two and a reverb. These days, things are very much different. One of the more interesting types of guitar effects pedals are modulation effects. By modulation effects, we are mainly talking about flangers, phasers and chorus pedals. These three are similar in some regards, which has lead many to confuse them for one another. Today we are going to try and explain what makes each of these effects unique, and why you shouldn’t mix them up. Let’s get started.
Flangers are one of the weirdest but ultimately addictive effects out there. A flanger takes the source signal, duplicates it, then adds a small amounts of delay to one copy, all while altering delay time as you play. The result is something that sounds like a jet engine flying overhead. Here’s the thing, though. Flangers are capable of sounding extremely close to phasers as well as choruses. This is partially why so many people confuse flangers for the other two. Compared to a phaser, flangers are far more aggressive and overt. Their effect alters a much larger portion of your tone. The comparison with chorus pedals is a more distinctive one as the two effects are not that close. If you’d like to learn more about flangers, check out our dedicated guide to this effect.
Similar to flangers, phasers also duplicate the signal, alter it by phase shifting one copy, and then fuse both signals back together. The main difference here is that phasers create a Doppler effect, which is the full extent of their capabilities. The reason why so many people confuse phasers with flangers is because a phaser also has a sweeping function at its core. However, the sweeping of phasers and that of a flanger is not the same. Where flangers achieve their sweeps by altering the timing of delay, phaser pedals use filters that block out varying portions of the frequency range. If we had to put it in simple terms, we’d say that phasers are much more orderly and predictable while flangers are not. Have a look at some of the best phaser pedals in our in-depth guide.
Chorus is a whole different ball game. The idea behind this effect is to give you an impression that several guitars are playing at the same time, when in fact only one instrument is used. Main reason why some guitar players have trouble discerning choruses from flangers is because both effects multiply the source signal. Here’s the thing, though. Chorus alters the copies of the source signal differently from a flanger. Both add some delay, but chorus does it consistently. On top of that, a chorus detunes that copy ever so slightly as well. The main difference, however is that chorus doesn’t add that sweeping effect. In essence, you could say that flangers are three dimensional in nature, while choruses are two dimensional. Here are some of the most capable chorus pedals available today.
Well, aside from the obvious fact that modulation plays a formidable role in modern guitar tone, knowing the difference between these three effects can benefit you as a guitar player. Guitar effects are tools first and foremost. They are designed to add flavor to music and to help the author express themselves with more detail. You can use all three of these effects in the same song, and have each one add more value to that song.
For example, a chorus is a perfect tool to use for certain parts of a solo, while flangers are awesome for rhythm guitars. Knowing how to utilize each of these three effects can help you immensely down the road. On the other hand, being able to differentiate flangers, phasers and chorus pedals completely changes the way you will apply these effects. Flangers are notorious for being extremely volatile but also addictive. For most players new to this effect, playing with a flanger is a rabbit hole with no end in sight. Going overboard with the amount of flange you add to the track can result in that flanging effect going from being a flavor to being the focus of a song. That’s something no one wants no matter how cool it may sound. Choruses and phasers are much more compatible even in higher values.
Using modulation effects brings another layer of complexity other than what we have just talked about. Just adding them to the signal chain can be tricky if you don’t know the basics. For starters, it is an unwritten rule that you place modulation pedals near the end of the signal chain. That is something not many beginners, or even intermediate users know about.
Due to the nature of modulation effects and how they copy the source signal, you want to have all of your other effects already applied. If you were to do the opposite, things would get really messy real fast. Imagine applying high gain distortion on a signal that is no longer singular in nature, but no features three different ones with various amounts of delay between them. Maintaining a gain-rich distortion with one signal is hard enough. Three already sounds impossible.
With all that said, experimentation is the ultimate key to figuring out how and where modulation effects work for you. Additionally, you will want to apply each in moderation. It is extremely easy to go overboard with modulation, which can really put a dent in your tone’s clarity as well as definition.
Flangers, phasers and choruses the holy trinity of modulation. These three effects alone have more power to transform a tone than most other effects combined. Learning the what each of them does, and knowing the difference between them is the first step to understanding how to properly use modulation. If you were to ask us, we would strongly suggest that you go with a decent phaser at first. Phasers are generally pretty straight forward and fairly forgiving. On top of that, there are some very impressive models that won’t leave your bank account in ruins. Once you do that, the rest will be much more familiar.