What the Heck Are Modulation Effects Anyway?
By Ben BlakesleyGeorges MusicAs guitar players, were all familiar with the distortion effect, but what about this enigmatic term Modulation Effect? What does it mean, and more importantly, what does it mean for your tone?Modulation in the general sense of the word is simply a change in stress, pitch, loudness, or tone. In guitar-land what this means is were talking about Chorus, Tremolo, Delay, Phase Shifting, Flanging, and Wah. These are all effects that are based on continuously altering the pitch as opposed to increasing gain (like distortion).Heres a quick synopsis on what you can expect from each type of modulation and how you can use it:
A Chorus effect attempts to capture the sound of its name. That is, the sound of many voices (or guitars) playing at once. Whenever you have a group of people trying to play a note at exactly the same time, its inevitable that they are not going to be exactly in time with one another and they will likely also be slightly off in pitch as well.The Chorus effect creates that type of a sound by outputting your original note accompanied by tones pitched slightly off of your original tone and slightly out of time.Ta-da! A nice shimmering guitar sound known as Chorus.
I love the blues and this is great for those classic blues tones from Pop Staples of the Staple Singers.Tremolo is pretty simple in that its basically just changing the volume of the note(s) played in a rapid, cyclical manner. You can set the depth (how much swing in the volume) and rate (how fast the changes occur) to go from subtle to wildly affecting and choppy.A great way to add some automatic dynamics to your tone.
Fill up some space in your tone with this effect. It simply replicates the note(s) you play and plays them back at the specified time and volume.If you really want to set your tone apart from others who use delay, try a pedal that has a tap pattern feature instead of/or in addition to a time based delay. This gives you the ability to have heart beat and other syncopated delays to create interesting grooves.Grab a delay pedal and get that U2 The Edge sound.
Often referred to as a Phaser, Phase Shifting is a totally rad effect that, although not technically accurate, can be best described as a moving EQ. Its like using a notch EQ and sweeping the affected frequency to create a moving, space-age sound.I use this all the time in the studio for making breakdowns really stand out.
A Flanger is very similar to a Phaser (in fact, Flanging is really a specific type of Phase Shifting) in that you end up with a swirling type of sound.The benefit of using a Flanger is that the EQ notches occur in a harmonic series instead of at random intervals. In regular terms, it will sound more musical.Use this when youre in the part of your set where you need to emulate a 747 jet landing on stage.
Finally, the Wah Wah effect is something any fan of psychedelic music from the late 60s should be more than familiar with. Good examples are songs by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton, not to mention nearly every funk tune ever recorded!It works in a similar fashion as a Phaser, except that it uses a hi-Q low-pass filter to sweep around the frequency range and (heres the real benefit) you can control when and how it sweeps. So instead of the sweeps being random or mechanical, you can accent specific notes or vary the sweep over the course of the song. You can even do partial sweeps to really vary the sound.This effect will give your guitar an almost human voice!Although we just scratched the surface, that should be more than enough info to get you started on a path of modulation domination.Remember, in rock n roll there are no rules! Experiment, experiment, experiment!
Ben Blakesley is a modulation monger and in charge of Marketing and Technology for George's Music Inc.