Go With the Flow: Using Proper Signal Flow to Minimize Noise and Maximize Tone

We take it for granted. Plug the guitar in, the signal goes into the pedals, then into an amp. We rock out, the audience screams, and we realize how happy playing music makes us. We make it seem easy to the audience (hey, that’s our job), but in reality it’s a lot more complex than that. This article will focus on what happens to our signal as it leaves our hands, and how we can analyze our own signal path – that is, the flow of tone from our hands to their ears.

I plan on keeping this discussion pretty light, although any points I make could warrant their own article. There is a lot of information out there, and sometimes it is difficult to separate the ‘forum guitarists’ opinion from the actual scientific truth out there. In reality, there are some aspects of our signal path that really is up to our own opinion, and some ‘rules’ that are based in scientific fact.

Signals start with the fingers or the pick. The strings, when not picked or plucked, shouldn’t make any noise through the amp. There might be some hum if you have single coils, but if you have a lot of hum, radio interference, or sounds like Morse Code blasting through the amp, there might be a problem. Does your guitar need to be shielded? Are all of your grounding points secure and well soldered?

Now, after you pluck the string, the signal is sensed by the pickup. From Seymour Duncan:

“Almost all electric guitar and bass pickups rely on magnetism. The active ingredients are one or more magnets and a wire coil. The magnets create a magnetic “flux field” around the pickups. When you strike a string, the field moves in response to the vibration, and the pickup translates these changes into small but meaningful electric signals. Before you can hear these signals as music, you must amplify them and pump them through speakers.”

The ‘flux field’ of a single coil.

The pickup used is very important, as its function is the first stage of amplification. The pickup can tame a bright-sounding guitar, or send a more powerful signal to the next gain stage. Be careful, as the more powerful the pickup, the less highs and dynamics (touch-sensitivity) you have. So it’s always a balance. This is also why pickup makers like Seymour Duncan make so many pickups. The pickup can ‘shape’ the magnetic field disturbance of the string in many ways. It’s sent downstream to the cable and other amplification stages, so if there’s hum or other noise, then guess what is also amplified? Yup, that same hum and noise.

The Cable

Next in line is the cable. This is a good time to describe the difference between cables. Guitars use 1/4″ instrument cables. Problem is, there is another type of cable called a speaker cable. You do not want to confuse them, or substitute one for the other. Ever.

Instrument cable construction, courtesy of Fender.

The cable used from the guitar to the effects, those patch cables used to connect effects, and the one from the last pedal to the amp, are all instrument cables. Instrument cables consist of a center conductor and a shield. The shield keeps out stray electrical signals. This kind of cable is used with very low-powered signals and has a high impedance. That is, it matches the signal your guitar amp wants to ‘see.’

Speaker cables, on the other hand, are the opposite. They have two conductors, and no shield at all. These are used for connecting the head to the speaker cabinet, or the power amps to the PA speakers. These are designed for high power with low impedance, and you should never use an instrument cable for this job. This is the ‘fact’ part of the article. Science, baby!

Speaker cable construction, courtesy of Fender.

The problem here is that they both have 1/4″ connectors on the end. A speaker cable used as an instrument cable will hum, since there is no shield. An instrument cable used as a speaker cable will try to use the shield as another conductor, resulting in an overheated amp. If you’re lucky, the amp will shut down. If you aren’t, you might blow a few tubes or worse. Usually cables are labeled (or label them yourself when you buy them), but if there’s any doubt, you can always unscrew one end and look at the connections. Speaker cable will have two shielded wires and no braided shield. Instrument cables will have one shielded connector and a bare shield soldered to the connector.

OK then, what kind of cable?

One of these cables I would trust at a show.

You don’t have to spend that much money. Many cables these days come with lifetime warranties, and since cables are constantly being stepped on, wound up, plugged and unplugged, I always look for a warranty. I also look for a connector I can open up to fix if something goes wrong (it will). Cheap instrument cables (like the thin ones with the molded ends that come with some guitars) will almost always break, and there’s no way to fix them. Even patch cables between effects should have ends you can get at if you need to resolder. Be sure to bring a spare for each cable you need to a gig.

Effects

We all know that true-bypass effects are the best, right? Wrong! Well, at least, not always. Effects that don’t have true bypass will have a ‘buffer’ which is like a small amplifier to boost that low-level signal and send it on to the next thing in the signal chain. Some effects benefit from this buffer and the non-true-bypass: for instance, it allows echoes from a delay pedal to continue when it’s shut off. The bypass nature of an effect is really something you just have to try out. Plug your guitar into an amp. Then, plug the guitar into the pedal into an amp. Do you hear a difference? Some can, and to them it is unacceptable. Some can, and to them it’s better with the pedal. Some can’t hear it, and some still don’t care. This is quite a grey area, and really is up to the individual player.

Take the time to hear how your effects affect (see what I did there?) the signal. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Only you know your own setup, so just because someone says ‘it doesn’t sound as good’ the other way. This goes for effects order as well.

Effective Order of Effects

Wow, this could be several articles. There is no real consensus on this, so I can just describe what order I put my effects in. Remember, too many effects in a row can muddy up the signal, and make it difficult to change them all at once. Despite this, there are many guitarists who do just fine with many effects. The more effects, the more your signal can benefit from a non-true-bypass/buffered pedal or 2 in the mix. So don’t always assume that if a pedal has a buffer, it is inferior.

I use: guitar>wah>compressor>phaser>overdrive>delay>looper>amp.

My amp is run clean, and I use an overdrive for any distortion. If you use get your dirt from the amp, you would want the delay and looper in the effects loop. This will keep the echoes and loops themselves from distorting, which would happen if they were in front of the amp.

Again, this is what works for me. Some people like the wah after the overdrive, and some like the phaser before the delay. Sit there for a few hours and try lots of combinations. Have fun- you may stumble on something that no one else has tried but works for you. Multieffects sometimes come with a set order of effects, although some allow you to mix them all up, like individual pedals. Experiment with those too!

A note about patch cables: Bring a complete spare set of patch cables to a gig. When you are ready to start, and you have no signal, it could be any one of those cables. Starting with a fresh set will eliminate the trial and error right before a show. 

After the effects?

Use a quality cable to connect the last effect to the amp. Make sure it is long enough to reach the amp, but not so much that you spend time untangling your feet or wrapping it up after the gig. Have a clearly-marked speaker cable for the head to the speaker cabinet. Remember to never turn on the head if it isn’t connected properly to the speaker- bad things will happen. Store a spare speaker cable in the back of the amp if you can.

Always use the right cable for these jacks, and never turn your amp on without a speaker plugged in.

Signal flow isn’t hard to understand. If you are getting noise and don’t know where it is coming from, start with just guitar and amp, and plug in one effect at a time. Usually you can find the culprit (bad patch cable? wrong power supply? dead battery?).

What are your favorite cables? Do you use true-bypass pedals, buffered pedals or multieffects?

Dave Eichenberger

About Dave Eichenberger

Guitarist Dave Eichenberger composes ambient music using guitar technology and looping, yet still has time to record and perform with international jazzy soul artist Julie Black. Follow him @Zoobiedood on Twitter.
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  • David Geurtsen

    Great article! Thanks. Nice to see I had my pedals in the same order, it seems to work best.

    • http://www.daveeichenberger.com/ Dave Eichenberger

      There are always exceptions to the rule, too. The way we have ours is a good starting point, but it is fun to experiment with other orders as well.

      • mathius black

        yeah in my pedal chain i have my compressor 1st because if I have it after my wah pedal it is too bright

  • Jon Moody

    Nice article! As for cables, I recently got turned onto Armor Gold Cables a couple of weeks back. They’re very nice, have a lifetime warranty and most importantly, have a weave around the cable itself that ensures that it will not kink up or any of those issues you have when you pull a cable out of your gigbag. That alone sold it to me.

    • http://www.daveeichenberger.com/ Dave Eichenberger

      This is good news. I have a problem with cables ending up in a tangled ball when I play..maybe I spin? I wrap them the right way too. I will give the Armor Golds a try.

  • jwright2k2

    Wanna help me with my signal chain? I have EMG 81-85 active pups in my Ibanez. I plug my guitar into a TS-9 which is patched to a BD-2 and DD3 all running to a BOSS ME-25 that I run to the Input1 of a Peavey VK100 head and Marshall 4×12 slant. Is this the best signal chain or should I make some changes? I tend to play more heavy rock and metal so I really like that high gain overdriven sound…like Dimebag but I like to pull back as well and get into SRV, Hendrix, Dire Straits and Pink Floyd.

  • mathius black

    omg never knew about speaker cables being different ,ty ty ty for this info .If I see a hole i just stick it in ! lol that sounds wrong ^^

  • Brian Griffin

    Theoretically guitar cable is forbidden to be used on speakers but in reality it is no problem, at least from my experience.

    • Patrick Durham

      Glad you’ve had no problems so far. Almost cooked one once using a mistaken guit cable to run into a cab. Modded the speaker cables on a champ to run out to an ampeg bass cab. It always ran on the verge of blowing up but sounded amazing.

  • kenstee

    I use these handmade in the US cables made to order from http://www.rattlesnakecables.com/. Well-priced and of amazing quality!

  • Patrick Durham

    I would go back and forth with my overdrive and tremolo pedal order. Some days it sounded good with the od in front of the trem. Some days it sounded better the other way around. Mine was an old boss tremolo/pan (i think it was the PN-2) and it really cooked if you split between two amps with the od going only to one amp. To get even more psycho, I would set tremolo on the amps (both had trem) to different rates and levels and bounce back and forth between them with the pan. Unfortunately both pedals are now gone. Can Boss please please make a new trem/pan pedal or does anyone know of a good one on the market today?