A Guide to Stacking Drive Pedals
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In the recording world, gain staging is very useful and important thing engineers know all about. As guitar players, we can take the idea of gain staging and apply it to our rigs. In fact, most of us already do this. Technically, pushing the front of your amp with any kind of gain is a form of gain staging. But today I want to look at how we can use our boards to get all the gain variety one could ever ask for.
Stacking overdrive pedals is not a new concept. For a long time, plenty of people have put multiple drives back to back and let them affect each other. However, there are lots of others who are not taking advantage of this concept and just sticking with the one drive at a time method. While I am not here to tell you this way is wrong, I do want to let people know what they might be missing. With a little know-how, stacking drives can open up a lot of sonic possibilities. So, if you are looking to get the most out of your pedals, stick around for a minute.
What are the Advantages of Stacking?
Running one drive into another makes room for a lot more sound design in your gain structure. Say you are using two drive pedals on your board. You obviously will dial these into your liking and then be left with two great sounds to choose from. But what if you added a third sound from having both on at the same time? What if instead of just two drives to start with you had 4? This is the foundation for why players everywhere are stacking. By opening up combinations of drives you result in having many more options than before.
What Types of Drives Stack Well?
In drive stacking, like with all things tone, it is very subjective as to what works best. But there are several general types that have become guidelines that I and many others tend to follow. The main idea that most seasoned drive stackers will agree on is, ideally, you have one drive to lift everything and the other to shape it. What I am referencing here is frequency. Some overdrives are very transparent and don’t do much to your guitars EQ, these drives typically will handle all frequencies the same. Other overdrives are not very clear or transparent, these will have something like a signature mid-hump that accentuates certain frequencies. Most folks agree that when you put two drives together like I just described, they sound fantastic together.
This, of course, is just one school of thought on the matter of stacking. Outside of this method, there is really not much that is a “standardized” way of thinking. When dealing with things like fuzzes and distortions, you typically won’t see people doing as much stacking, because so much gain is already present. However, use YOUR ears. Loads of people find untraditional combinations that work great for their guitar/amp/board setup.
How to Dial Them in
Just because two drive pedals stack well together does not mean that they will sound great at all settings. Unfortunately, due to the nature of pedal circuit design, there is not a surefire way to always have the perfect settings. Yet, there are a few things that you can keep in mind to help when getting your drives to play nicely with one another.
There are two ways that people like to start tweaking their stacked gain tones. The first approach is to start with whichever drive is your main sound and get it dialed into your favorite tone possible. Then follow up with your other drives you plan to stack and tweak them to compliment your main drive. This can be adding in some treble to your favorite warm drive or adding some volume (boost). Obviously, you are going to be limited to what controls each stacked pedal has, so keep that in mind when picking your main drive. I like to think of this first approach as a sort of getting a bunch of different presets for the gain pedal you use the most.
The other approach for dialing in knobs is for those who want everything on the board to sound great with everything else. Now, there are definitely going to be some compromises that must be made when going down this path. Still, a good number of players find this method to be very versatile and inspiring. The process of actually getting things set up is a bit of a random one, but it’s best to start by just picking a combination of drive pedals. Get this first combination sounding awesome then move on to all the other possible combinations. As you go through later stacking possibilities, you’ll likely find that some of the early ones won’t sound as good if you have moved knobs too much. This is without a doubt a balancing act. Just remember you don’t HAVE to stack everything, if something sounds heavenly together, work around that.
Luckily, for those looking to get into stacking, the market for pedals is better and larger than ever before. Unfortunately, this comes with the problem of having way too many options to choose from. That’s why I have decided to pick out a few of my favorite full frequency, tone shaping, and two-in-one drive pedals that will play nicely with each other.
Color Your Tone:
- Mad Professor Little Green Wonder – $169.00
- That classic mid hump we all love, done in a very classy way. With tone knobs for bass and mids, you have a little bit more control over your sound compared to other green boxes. Also, the way that this one compresses is very nice for stacking anywhere in your chain.
- An absolute classic. Voiced pretty close to what an amp would give you, this thing cleans up if you need it to. People have been stacking this with everything for years and it continues to sound great in nearly any environment.
- The Klone that many consider to be just about as close as one can get. This places your guitars mid hump in just the right spot. And any drive circuit in this family will play nice with any other gain that’s going on.
- Okay, EarthQuaker actually calls it translucent but it has the same end result. This has become a very beloved pedal in its short life span thanks to its lovely tone. If this thing can’t fit into your gain staging somewhere then I don’t know what will.
- Organic is right! This is a very natural and clear drive pedal. You will see these on plenty of boards built around stacking. It clips in a way that is both soft yet still responsive. Transparent seekers will want to check the lightspeed out.
- Perhaps the most classic transparent drive to date, the Timmy has quite the following. Like the two drives listed above, this guy is not here to play with your tone. Definitely another fantastic choice when looking to pair some drives together.
- This two-channel drive has a lot of functionality. It’s EQD’s vision of what a classic tube screamer sound can be. It has the classic not so classic control capability that EQD is known for. Also, thanks to the two gain channels you can stack the left lower gain side with the right to make for some massive tones.
- This is about as two-in-one as it gets. On the left you have the ever so popular Morning Glory circuit and on the right, there is the Moonshine circuit. The Morning Glory is great for that fuller range drive sound, while the Moonshine does the whole TS thing. These two JHS circuits combine to make one pedal that could very well cover all your gain stacking needs.
- Dan and Mick from TPS really know their pedals. Combine their ears with that of Robert Keeley and you get the D&M Drive. This 2-in-1 is set up exactly how most players are stacking their drives. On the right is Mick’s side which is a really nice boost that can be tweaked to going to TS territory. The left is Dan’s side where you get some more gain and really nice color. Together these sides combine to make a lush and massive gain box.
Now you should be off to a good start in your drive stacking journey. There is plenty I did not cover here, so don’t hesitate to dig deeper. There’s much more you can learn about putting your drive all over your signal path and how they interact with other types of effects. And the world of overdrive alone is enough to keep you busy for a few life times over. Yet always keep in mind, the more you research this stuff the more you start to rely on the way that others hear things and less on the way that you do.