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How to use Modulation Effects Part 3: The Chorus

After the Phaser and the Flanger, part 3 of this series of posts dedicated to modulation effects will focus on the Chorus. Used and abused with clean tones in the eighties, it seemed to have lost its popularity in the early nineties but it remains a classic. I have prepared a few videos to show you how useful a Chorus is for clean and distorted tones. I have used for this purpose my “modern” Boss CH-1 as well as my vintage Boss CE-2. You will find at the end of this post a short selection of chorus pedals.

The Boss CE-2 (discontinued) and the Boss CH-1 (still in Production) - Photo by Pia Jane Bijkerk

The Chorus effect occurs in the real world when two musicians (or singers) play the same piece in unison. Because the two don’t have exactly the same pitch and timbre, it creates a “choir” effect. Electronically, the effect is produced by mixing the incoming signal with a slightly delayed and detuned copy of itself. The pitch difference is modulated to create oscillations.

What is the difference with a Flanger then? One of the chief differences (but not the only one) is that the delay time on Flangers is shorter than it is on Choruses. Flangers have a “jet plane” type of sound but Chorus pedals don’t. Nevertheless, Flangers and Choruses can sound similar depending on how they are set.

Back to the Eighties

The first acknowledged chorus pedal is the Boss CE-1, released in 1976. It actually started the Boss brand, a subdivision of Roland. Somehow, it sounded so cool that everybody started using it. When the eighties arrived, every guitarist in almost any genre had to have a chorus pedal in their arsenal. It was a must for clean tones as it made them sound fatter, akin to a twelve string guitar. Andy Summers of The Police is a known user of the Boss CE-1 and you can hear its chime in a lot of  The Police records. But the use of Chorus was not limited to pop, it was also used in rock, funk and jazz.

Actually, the Boss CE-1 is based on the integrated Chorus circuit of a Roland amplifier which is still a reference amongst transistor based guitar amplifiers: the JC-120 aka Jazz Chorus 120. It is fitted with an integrated stereo chorus effect. This amp was used by countless artists and not only in Jazz, Robert Smith of The Cure as well as Joe Satriani used it at some stage in their careers.

Setting Knobs and Placement in the Effect Chain

Most Chorus pedals have at least two settings: Depth and Rate. The Depth setting controls the intensity whereas the Rate setting controls the speed of the oscillation (the amount of swirling). The Boss CH-1 that I feature in the videos below has another two settings which are quite rare on most chorus pedals: MIX to control the amount of direct sound and chorused sound and EQ which controls the brightness of the effect.

When it comes to placing your chorus in your effect chain, it is usually recommended to place it after your distortion or overdrive (or in the effect loop of your amp). Nevertheless, it is also usable before a distortion/overdrive, the effect will be less “precise”.

Using a Chorus with Clean Tones

It is quite important to realize that some chorus pedals are really warm sounding whereas others are more transparent. If you are looking to emulate the sound of Kurt Cobain in the intro of “come as you are”, forget about using a pretty transparent chorus pedal, you need the dirty analog type (for the record, he used an Electro Harmonix Small Clone). Some guitarists hate that type of very fat chorus and prefer the transparent type.

In that respect, the two pedals I am using in the videos below represent quite well these two types of tones: the CE-2 is warm and fat while the CH-1 is pretty and transparent unless you really push it. Also note that the CE-2 is mono whereas the CH-1 can be used in stereo.

I show here mild as well as extreme settings with both my BOSS CE-2 and BOSS CH-1. My basic tone features some compression courtesy of an MXR Dynacomp. Note how I have to put the level fairly high on the CH-1 to get a pronounced chorus effect.

Gear used for the demo besides chorus pedals: 1978 Fender Telecaster with stock pickups, MXR dynacomp (OUTPUT at 3 o’clock, SENSITIVITY at 9 o’clock), 1974 Fender Champ. Some compression and reverb were added in Cubase.

Using a Chorus with a Distorted/Overdrive tone

Putting a chorus after a rather distorted tone will transport you back to the shredders of the eighties. Not all of them used a chorus for their lead tone but some definitely did.

I personally prefer to use a transparent Boss CH-1 with distorted tones rather than a CE-2 but it really is a matter of preference. What I like is that the CH-1 has a Depth as well as a Level control. I like to back down the Level on distorted tones. I show in this video how the Level knob affect your tone:

Gear used for this demo besides chorus pedals: Custom Made guitar by Robin Bully, bolt on neck equipped with Schaller Pickups (Golden 50 in the bridge position), Analogman TS-9, Analogman DS-1 and Fender Champ. Some eq, compression and reverb were added in Cubase. I used a graphic equalizer to scoop the midrange and get a more “metal” tone out of my Fender amp (more on this in another post).

Chorus pedal selection
  • Boss CE-5, CH-1 and CE-20: with these three models, Boss covers the whole spectrum of chorus sounds. The CE-5 is the last in the CE line, the CH-1 is probably more transparent. As to the CE-20, it is a sophisticated digital modeling pedal that can emulate the sound of different models including the CE-1. All these pedals are stereo.
  • Electro Harmonix Small Clone: the sound of Kurt Cobain on “Come as you are”, analog and fat.
  • Line 6 Space Chorus: a digital pedal that I had the chance to try. Very versatile, I especially like the “Tri Chorus” emulation which is based on a rare 80s unit.
  • Ibanez CS-9: a stereo analog pedal, it is a reissue of an 80s classic.
  • MXR Micro Chorus: recently re-issued, it is a simple and small one button pedal which offers a lot more different sounds than you would think.
  • Retro Sonic chorus: Retro Sonic has made a specialty of recreating classic models. Their chorus is a faithful recreation on the Roland/Boss CE-1 in a more compact form.
  • Analogman Chorus: the father of all boutique manufacturers offers some popular and tasty analog chorus pedals.

A note about stereo chorus pedals: In order to use this capability efficiently with the guitar, you need two amplifiers, a stereo amp (quite rare) or a stereo rack system.

How to use Modulation Effects Part 2: the Flanger

In Part 1 of this series of posts dedicated to modulation effects, I presented the Phaser. In Part 2, I will focus on an effect that has been around since the 60s: the Flanger also known as Flanging. We will see how it can be useful to us guitarists and in what style it is more prominently used. As always, I have prepared a few videos to demonstrate the Flanging effect, for which I have concocted some cool settings on my trusty Boss BF-2.

Now discontinued, the Boss BF-2 is a classic Flanger pedal - Photo by Pia Jane Bijkerk

How Flanger pedals came to be

The Flanging effect originated in studios in the sixties. It was generated by recording then playing back one piece simultaneously on two tape recorders. The result of the two tape recorder playback was recorded on a third tape recorder. Because the two tape recorders reading the piece were slightly out of sync, it created a phasing like sound. This could be emphasized by pressing on the “flange” or rim of one of the tape reel to slow down the playback. The delay between the two tape recorders would then be more pronounced and create a “jet plane” effect that came to be known as “flanging”. It was used at first to enhance whole mixes, the end of “Bold as Love” by Jimi Hendrix is the first example of stereo flanging in history.

Progress in electronics allowed engineers to recreate this effect without having to use bulky tape recorders and make units that could fit in a pedal. The trick used by Flanger pedals is to use a very short delay and some oscillator to slightly vary the delay time. Analog models use bucket brigade components, see my posts about delays for more information. Actually, if you set a delay pedal with a very short delay time, say 1 ms, you will start to get a hint of flanger effect but not as pronounced since there is no oscillation.


Most Flanging pedals have at least a Depth and a Rate or Speed knob. Depth sets the intensity of the effect whereas Rate sets the speed of the oscillation. The Boss BF-2 that I use in the videos below is more complex and has no less than four controls: Depth, Rate, Manual and Res. Res is a resonance setting which can be labeled as “regen” or “feedback” on other models. It controls how much of the processed signal is re-injected into the effect to get a more intense result. The Manual setting is specific to the BF-2 and apparently affects the amount of delay but I have no proof of that.

A generic word of advice for pedals which offer 4 or more settings since it can be overwhelming at first : try putting everything half way first, then adjust from there.

Clean tone and Flanger

Flanger pedals really became mainstream in the late 70s and were primarily used by rock guitarists. Before I show you how it sounds with a distortion, let’s see how it sounds with a clean tone.

If you are as old as I am, it should propell you right back to the early 80s and “new wave” bands such as The Cure or pop bands such as The Police. Flanging (and also Chorus) gave an ethereal quality to arpeggios and chords which suited their music perfectly. Both slow and fast rates are interesting in that respect as I demonstrate here . Note that it also suits funk rhythm licks:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 2, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5).

A while back, I wrote a piece describing the tone of Robert Smith, The Cure’s guitarist and created this little rendition of “A Forest”, using a Boss BF-2 Flanger and a Boss DD-3 Digital delay:

Audio MP3

Distortion and Flanger: Before or After the Distortion?

As I wrote in my Phaser post, Eddie Van Halen used a phaser a lot but little is known that he also used a flanger to create some of his best tones. “Unchained” is probably his most recognizable Flanger tone. Queen’s Guitarist Brian May is also a big flanger fan, listen to “Keep Yourself Alive” for a fine example of tape flanging.

The Flanger effect is usually placed after overdrives and distortions in the chain but it can also be interesting to place it before, which is something that Prince does for instance. I will show you in coming videos the difference between the two placements.

First, here is how it sounds placed after the distortion. I show another three example settings using my BF-2. A bit of warning here, the BF-2 is a quite strong effect which also tends to boost the volume especially when the Depth knob is set past 12. Flangers, much like phasers, tend to create “volume” spikes by nature. The first setting is an example of how a low “Rate” (or speed of modulation) fattens the tone. Using higher speeds tend to create a wobblier effect that I think is not as fattening but almost resembles the sound of an organ:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 2, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5), Analogman modded Boss DS1 Distortion (Dist at Max, Tone at 8 o’clock and Level at 10 o’clock).

And here is how it sounds placed before the distortion, the effect is less pronounced but a bit crazier at the same time. I think it is interesting to get an “out of control” tone:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 2, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5), Analogman modded Boss DS1 Distortion (Dist at Max, Tone at 8 o’clock and Level at 10 o’clock).

Which model to choose?

There are a lot of Flanger pedals to choose from on the market, here is a short selection:

  • The MXR Flanger is one of the oldest flanger pedal designs around and has been reissued recently. Since Van Halen used it quite a bit, MXR has released an EVH model.
  • The MXR Micro Flanger was recently re-issued and packs a lot of good flanged tones in a tiny package.
  • The Electro Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress has been used by David Gilmour but also by Andy Summers. Rumour has it that what everyone thinks is a chorus in some of The Police’s clean tones is actually an Electric Mistress flanger.
  • The Boss BF-2 which I have demonstrated in this post is sadly discontinued but it is relatively easy to find on the second hand market as it was in production for 20 years (between 1980 and 2001). It is quite versatile and is especially great for early 80s new wave clean tones à la The Cure.
  • The Boss BF-3 has replaced the BF-2 in the Boss range. Although it is not clearly stated on the Boss website, I am pretty sure it is a digital pedal which gives it two rare particularities: it is stereo and there is a “tap tempo” feature to set the speed of the oscillation just by tapping a footswitch.
  • The Ibanez FL-9 is another classic 80s design which has been reissued. It gives a warm but high quality flanging tone and has its own personality. I personally own one and I will probably do a BF-2 versus FL-9 post. You can also spot it at around 4:35 in this video presenting the gear Joe Satriani has used on the Chicken Foot tour. Maxon, the manufacturer which used to make the Ibanez pedals in the 80s, has also an FL-9 reissue in its range. I could not tell you which one is better and/or more authentic.
  • Flanger is not huge on the “boutique” market but there are a few models, check out the Strymon Orbit or the T Rex Twister and Tonebug Chorus Flanger.

How to use Modulation Effects Part 1: the Phaser

There is a lot of effects that fall under the “modulation” category on the ground that they send your tone swirling or oscillating. In this series of posts, I will try to unravel the mysteries of  effects such as phaser, flanger, chorus, leslie/univibe, vibrato or tremolo. These effects, if used well, can spice up your rythm work or make your lead tone fatter to name only two of their magical powers. I will not go into too much details about the electronics behind these effects but will focus on their characters and uses for us, guitarists. Videos are included to stir up your inspiration.

In this first part, I will present one of the oldest modulation effects: the Phaser also known as Phasing or Phase-Shifting.

The MXR Phase 90, one of the most famous phaser pedals - Photo by Pia Jane Bijkerk
Phaser or Flanger?

The first thing I should clear up is the difference between phaser and flanger as I often see in forums that people get confused. Phasing is created by using a series of filters (all pass filters) associated with an oscillator whereas flanger is created by using a very short delay. I am over simplifying here but know that they do sound different. Phasing tends to sound a little “crazier” and has no real equivalent in the real world. Flanging, on the other hand, sounds like a jet plane taking off and is akin to a real world sound effect known as “Doppler”.  I will write about flanging in part 2 and focus on phasing in this post. For those of you wanting to know more about the science and the electronics behind our beloved phaser pedals, have a look at this wikipedia page.

Who uses a phaser?

The phaser effect is used in almost every genre but some are more phaser friendly than others.  Used with a non distorted clean tone, it is for instance very popular in reggae: listen to the solo of “No Woman No Cry” on the live at the Lyceum by Bob Marley for a prime example of phased guitar.

Funk is also a genre where phasing is king. It enhances rhythm licks and can be an alternative to a Wah (although they are two different things).

When it comes to big rock tones, Brian May of Queen and of course Eddie Van Halen are big phaser users. The first Van Halen album is almost a demo of  the MXR Phase 90, listen to the Intro of “Atomic Punk” or “Ain’t Talking about Love” and you’ll know what I mean.

Timeless Classics: the MXR Phase 90

You will find information about other models after the videos below but I have decided to present and demonstrate the MXR Phase 90 first. This little orange pedal is to phasers what the Tube Screamer is to overdrives: the standard. I have recently acquired a vintage phase 90 and I must say the hype is not unfounded. It is really warm and although it has only one setting (“speed”), you can get a lot of different sounds out of it. With the speed setting between 10 o’clock to 12, it goes straight into Van Halen territory whereas at higher speeds, around 2 o’clock, it is reminiscent of some tones Hendrix got with his univibe pedal.

If you are in the market for a Phase 90, it can get confusing as there are several models to choose from. The very first 1970s unit had no LED and “Phase 90” was written using a type of “handwriting” imitation. Thus, these pedals are nicknamed “Script”. Around the end of the 70s, the lettering changed to capital letters and these models are nicknamed “Block”. The sound did not change much between these two early versions though.

MXR went bust in the 80s and the brand was resuscitated by Dunlop. No less than three versions of the Phase 90 are currently manufactured by MXR. The entry model, orange with a LED and “Block Lettering” is the most affordable. The thing is it does not sound quite like the old stuff and tends to provide a more “pronounced”, less subtle phasing effect. In order to address these issues, MXR also sells a reissue model which sports a “Script” logo and has no LED or external power plug. It does sound more subtle and is closer to the old 70s models.

The third model in the range, the Eddie Van Halen or EVH Phase 90 has a little switch to go from a modern “Block” tone to a more subtle vintage “Script” sound. A fourth custom shop model was sold until recently, it was orange, with Script lettering and a led and its model number is CSP-101. People who have opened it apparently found out that it was an EVH model without the block/script switch which seems quite redundant to me and might explain why it seems difficult to find it anywhere. For a sound comparison between the entry level “Block” Phase 90 and the Custom Shop “Script” model, have a look at this video by gearmanndude.

Phase 90 Video Demos

Here are three videos showing my Vintage MXR Phase 90 in action: first clean then placed before the distortion and finally after the distortion. I show different settings in each video and at the end, I add a little delay using my Boss DD-3 to show how it plays with a phaser for an ultra spacious tone.

Phase 90 with fairly clean amp first:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 3, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5).

And now placed before a distortion. Note how the 10 o’clock speed setting is very Van Halen-esque whereas the 2 o’clock setting goes into Hendrix territory:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 3, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5), Analogman modded Boss DS1 Distortion (Dist at Max, Tone at 8 o’clock and Level at 10 o’clock).

Finally, here is how it sounds placed after the distortion. Note how more pronounced the effect is. I personally prefer to place it before the distortion:

Gear used for the video: Fender American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues pickups, 1974 Fender Champ Amplifier (Volume at 3, Bass at 10, Treble at 2.5), Analogman modded Boss DS1 Distortion (Dist at Max, Tone at 8 o’clock and Level at 10 o’clock).

Alternatives to a Phase 90

There are other models than the MXR Phase 90 but before you choose a phaser pedal, you have to know that phasers have a certain number of “filter stages” (remember, phasers are built using a series of filters). The number of stages has a great influence on the tone. In some ways, the more stages, the more pronounced the effect. Basic phasers such as the recently reissued MXR Phase 45 have only two stages and they are quite gentle. 4 stage phasers are the most commonly heard on records, uber famous examples are the MXR Phase 90 or the Electro Harmonix Small stone, both used by David Gilmour in the 70s. If you want that classic 70s phaser tone, chances are you will want a 4 stage phaser.

Companies like Boss went further with their phasers and the now discontinued PH-2 had 10 or 12 stages depending on the position of its mode button.  I own a PH-2 and although it is not a bad phaser, it tends to sound quite out-worldly and I find difficult to use it to reproduce the Van Halen rock tone or the cleaner reggae/ 70s funk tone. The replacement of the PH-2 in the Boss line, named PH-3, is a digital pedal and can emulate the tone of 4, 8, 10 and 12 stage phasers. I haven’t tried it but I gather from various sources that it is versatile if not very warm sounding.

The settings on a phaser can go from only one speed button (MXR Phase 90 or 45) which decides how fast the tone “swirls” to three knobs called Depth, Rate an Resonance (Boss models). Depth is the ratio between processed and unprocessed sound, Rate is the speed of the oscillations and Resonance is a setting that allows to take some of the processed signal and send it back to be phased again which creates super crazy effects.

There is a bit of a debate as to where to place a phaser in the effect chain. In most multi-effect units, it is placed after the overdrive/distortion stage but I must say that I got very good results by placing my Phase 90 before a distortion as seen in the videos above. As always, experiment!

Let’s also not forget that phasing sounds great with keyboards, especially with Fender Rhodes electric piano sounds as well as pads. It even sounds good with bass! If you lend your phaser to your keyboardist or bassist, he/she might not want to give it back, you are warned!

Other noteworthy phaser models

On the second hand market, another great model is the Maestro PS-1, good luck to find one. As far as I know there is no clone on the market.

Boutique manufacturers have also come up wit great models such as the Retro-sonic Phaser which is an MXR Phase 90 clone with more settings. Let’s also mention the Pigtronix EP1 which is as whacky as it gets.

Finally, for those on a budget, the Ibanez PH7 is a good alternative with 4 and 8 stage modes.

Tube Screamer Alternative: The BOSS SD-1

A good overdrive pedal is a must have for nearly every guitarist. You can use it against a clean amp to obtain blues and classic rock tones, or you can use it to push an already overdriven amp or distortion pedal to reach for higher gain tones.

After introducing the Xotic BB Preamp as a possible alternative to the ubiquitous Ibanez Tube Screamer, I will now leave the expansive boutique route and go for a cheaper model: the BOSS SD-1. As with my previous post, I have made a video to illustrate my point (see the end of this post).

The BOSS SD-1 - Photo by Pia Jane Bijkerk

I know that it is trendy to bash BOSS pedals and that some guitarists only use expansive boutique pedals nowadays but I find this is a bit of an extreme position. There are very good models in the BOSS line and the SD-1, which has been in production for 29 years (!), is surely one of them.

The SD-1 is quite close in conception to a Tube Screamer and not so far tone-wise. It also sports the same three knobs: Drive (amount of overdrive), Level (output Volume) and Tone (Equalization). But I find it to have a bit more grit, it has a more “rock” tone whereas Tube Screamers lean more on the “blues” side (I am over simplifying here).  Also, The BOSS SD-1 is a favorite among metal players to be used as a booster, not a main distortion. You won’t get a better and cheaper option to push an already overdriven Marshall amp over the edge.

This is exactly how Zakk Wylde used it for years before getting his own signature overdrive model with MXR. Even the almighty Eddie Van Halen had a BOSS SD-1 in his pedal board in the 90s, presumably used as a boost to give his Peavey amps a kick. In that respect, the level control is very useful on both the Tube Screamer or the SD-1. By cranking it while keeping the gain quite low, you can push any tube amp into natural overdrive.

And did I mention the BOSS SD-1 was cheap? I think I did but check out your favorite shop, you’ll know what I mean. Here in Europe, they go for for about 50€. And 29 years of production means there is plenty of them on the second hand market.

Is this the perfect overdrive? Of course not, otherwise there would be no other on the market. The SD-1 is quite noisy compared to boutique alternatives. The noise level is actually often in favor of boutique pedals when compared to mass produced models. Also, it suffers from the same “bass sucking” problem as Tube Screamers do when used against a clean amp (not so much when used against an already overdriven amp). In band situations, it is usually not a big problem as the bass frequencies are already occupied by other instruments though I can understand why some guitarists have a problem with it. Finally, when I mentioned earlier that it has more grit than a Tube Screamer, it can be a plus or not, depending on your style and preferences.

Video Demos

In this first video, I am comparing my Analogman modded TS9 Tube Screamer with the SD-1 using a Fender Stratocaster. I use various amount of gain and show at the end how it can be used to boost an amp, and a distortion pedal (a Proco RAT 2):

Gear used for the video: American Classics Stratocaster fitted with Kinman AVn blues pickups and 1974 Fender Champ. The amp was miked with a RODE NT-4. The recording was transferred into Cubase 5 to optimize the volume (compression) and add a hint of reverb.

In this second video, I show how The SD1 and the TS9 sound with a Gibson SG 61 reissue equipped with Humbuckers:

Gear used for the video: Gibson SG 61 Reissue with stock pickups and 1974 Fender Champ. The amp was miked with a RODE NT-4. The recording was transferred into Cubase 5 to optimize the volume (compression) and add a hint of reverb.

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