Manipulating sound with audio effects is one of the funnest parts of being a producer. There are infinite ways to combine plugins or stompboxes to create a unique sound.

The signal chain you choose is one way to shape your music in exciting ways. But how do you know which order to put your effects in? And how will each one affect the next?

In this article I’ll break down what you need to know about signal chains to build your perfect sound. From what signal chains are to the best ways to use them, here’s everything you need to know:

What does signal chain mean?

Signal chain refers to the pathway your audio signal takes from its source to its destination. A typical signal chain includes a variety of audio processors arranged in a specific order to create the desired results.

Signal chains apply to any sound you record live, such as guitars, vocals, drums, and synths played through amplifiers. When your sound passes through hardware like effects pedals, a preamp, or mixing board, that’s your signal chain.

This also applies to the order of plugins within your DAW.

Signal chain matters because the order of effects shapes the sound in unique and noticeable ways. Each new processor in the chain changes the outcome of the next.

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Signal chain refers to the pathway your audio signal takes from its source to its destination

How to set up your guitar signal chain

Signal chain issues frequently come up for guitarists who use effects pedals. Each category of audio effect plays a role in a guitarist’s rig, and using them together in different combinations is how many players find their sound.

But deciding on effects pedals order is a bit like the process of writing music. Whatever sounds the best to you is what you should go with, so get in there and experiment.

But there are some general rules you can look to to create specific outcomes.

  • Compressors, buffers and tone shaping pedals are often placed first in the chain
  • Overdrives and distortions often come next, except for vintage style fuzz, which should go in front
  • Modulation pedals like chorus, phaser and flanger often go next
  • Finally, time-based pedals like delay and reverb go last so they won’t be colored by the other effects

Once again, there are no rules when it comes to effects so feel free to try orders that might seem incompatible at first.

That said, one serious signal chain issue is unwanted noise. If a certain effects order is producing excessive noise, it’s a good sign that something needs to change.

For example, distortions, EQs, and compressors placed after something that causes unwanted noise will only make it worse.

It’s a good idea to order pedals that add or distort noise early in the chain. This is because placing them later will affect and enhance everything before them, and you’ll have a loud mess on your hands.

Signal chains for mixing

There’s plenty of creative tone shaping work in mixing, but most of the time you’ll be blending tracks together using compression, EQ and reverb.

Even so, the same ideas apply to signal chains for mixing.

Setting the compressor first in the chain will provide a predictable, level sound that for the rest of your effects. When EQ is ahead of every other effect, it distinctly shapes and colors every effect that follows.

Hot tip: It’s sometimes difficult to set a compressor’s threshold for sounds with lots of low end. If excessive bass triggers your compressors too early, use an EQ in front to reduce it or filter it out.

If you’re looking to combine the distinct qualities of two compressions, use serial compression in your chain. It means placing two compressions in a row in your signal path.

No matter what chain you decide on, you can easily stack, combine and re-order plugins by changing the order of inserts in your DAW mixer channel.

Aux sends and returns

But there’s more than just inserts when it comes to signal chains in your DAW.

Insert chains are serial signal paths. They give you plenty of sound combinations when two of the same effects are placed next to each other.

But parallel chains allow you to split a single sound into two distinct paths. Each path can be used to with a different effect chain provide a full, unique sound.

Parallel chains allow you to split a single sound into two distinct paths. Each path can be used to with a different effect chain provide a full, unique sound.

This commonly used in mixing for ambience effects like delay and reverb so you can use your DAW’s mixer channels to carefully blend them in while leaving the original sound intact.

It’s also more efficient. If you want to add processing to multiple tracks and reduce the load on your computer, sends and returns are a good solution.

You can easily dial in how much the chain effects impact each track through this method. If you’re producing all of the background vocals on a song for example, sends and returns are a great way to go.

Experimenting with signal chains

The great thing about signal chains is that there’s technically no right or wrong way to go about it.

If you want pristine, perfect sounds, you can arrange the chain to do that. But if you want gritty and noisey effects, you can customize yours to do that as well.

We often forget that music creation isn’t just about chord progressions and melodies. Most listeners don’t know what signal chains are, but they have a huge impact on the way songs sound.

Experiment and perfect your signal chains, and your music will be better off for it.