Multi-Effect Pedals: All in One, or All for None?

A Multi-Effect In Use

The multi-effects pedal is one of the most impressive and creative inventions in artistic technology of the last century. The ability to distort, modulate, and delay an audio signal from an electric guitar in one standalone unit is nothing short of an incredible accomplishment, considering the electric guitar itself is less than 100 years old. 

Even still, multi-effects units have rapidly evolved alongside microchips and computer technology and today’s units are lightyears beyond their predecessors. Many contemporary multi-effects pedals blend seamlessly with computer interfaces via WiFi, Lightning, USB, or Bluetooth connections. This allows for in-depth editing and customization of tones and for uploading and downloading of custom presets to and from the Cloud. 

How did these modern wonders of audio technology come to be? How did the multi-effects pedal become so ubiquitous? What were the predecessors to today’s toys and how did their design inform contemporary models? Read on for more history of the multi-effects pedal!  

The Early Endeavours

The first glimmer of multi-effects technology appeared in 1982. At that time, the available effects on the market were primarily floor-based stompbox or expression pedals with a single dedicated sound such as the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, and Shin-ei UniVibe. These pedals are all great in their own right, but their requirements add up quickly. They each need power supplies and patch cables and the musician has to perform any switches between the different pedals while performing, which is a serious skill. 

Ensign, Report to the Bridge

The forward-looking engineers at BOSS had an idea: “what if you could take seven BOSS compact pedal effects, turn them on or off automatically, and have a programmable audio router place them in various effects combinations.” And so the BOSS SCC-700 Sound Control Center Pedalboard was born.

The BOSS SCC-700 looks like it came from the bridge of the original Starship Enterprise. Seven BOSS stompbox pedals are patched together on the pedalboard and all connected to a central computer system. The computer can store up to 32 different combinations of pedal on/off and sequence. These 32 patterns can then be recalled via a foot control board. Although it is not possible to save different tone presets on individual pedals, the SCC-700 clearly paved the way for the emergence of the first multi-effects units.

From the Floor to the Rack

The next major moment in multi-effect history occurred about 5 years later. The miracle workers at Roland, the parent company of BOSS, had been hard at work after the success of the SCC-700, and in 1987, they debuted the GP-8. The GP-8 was the first true multi-effects unit. As opposed to the SCC-700 and other floor-based pedals, the GP-8 was a rack-mounted unit, meaning it was designed to fit inside a standard audio recording rack. 

The GP-8 combined eight different effects including analog overdrive, analog distortion, analog compressor and phaser, and digital delay and chorus (2). These eight effects were stored in a fixed order, but different sequences and presets could be created and saved, and then accessed during performance or recording by a companion MIDI-based footswitch. The GP-8 could recall up to 128 presets, about 4 times as many as the SC-700. 

The GP-8 also represents an interesting crossroads in audio technology and circuit design. The GP-8 is a hybrid of analog and digital technology. About half of the circuitry in the GP-8 is analog, including the first 6 effects in the system. The last two effects, the delay, and chorus, are digital circuits. The unit then switches back to analog for the Wet/Dry mixing and feedback path.

How Small Can it Go?

Decades before anyone had the ability to jump on a Zoom call, there was another company called Zoom breaking through technological barriers in the audio effects world. Zoom Corporation is a Japanese audio technology company founded in 1983 that produces “a wide array of recording devices, multi-effects processors, effects pedals, digital mixers, and samplers”.

In 1989, Zoom debuted the 9002 Guitar FX Processor, an innovative multi-effects unit that was designed to attach to a guitar strap and provide the guitarist with the ability to edit effects on the fly like a keyboardist or synthesist can. This revolutionary step was intended to change the way that a guitarist approaches the use of effects, by having a collection of faders and knobs available at the fingertips instead of on the floor or in a rack on top of the amplifier.

The Zoom 9002 Guitar FX Processor included basic effects like compression, distortion EQ, chorus, flanger, and digital reverb and delay and captured all the timbral aesthetics that came to define the 80’s sound. 

However, it seemed that the 9002’s innovative design became its eventual downfall. By attaching an effects control unit to the guitar strap, no matter how small, the processor brought all the instrument cables along with it. Suddenly, a guitarist had two instrument cables attached to their strap. This limited the performer’s mobility and hampered sales of the product compared to the popular floor and rack-mounted units of the day.

Children of the 90s

The next big moves in the multi-effects world occurred in the mid-1990’s, in conjunction with the big moves being made in the computer technology world. The pace of innovation increased and several new lines of technology were being created and tested. Boss continued to lead the market in these directions with a number of interesting creations including the VG-8, GT-5, and later the ME-50.

Play the Amp of Your Dreams Without Spending Your Life’s Savings

In 1995, Roland Corporation debuted the VG-8, a breakthrough effects processor with the capability to “model” some of the most popular guitar and amplifier sounds in history. While previous multi-effects units focused primarily on producing effects on a static guitar sound, the VG-8 was the first unit with the power to literally recreate the sound of the guitar and amplifier. 

Today this technology is like anything else, it is so common it is almost banal. But, imagine in 1995 when this technology debuted and how insane it would be to suddenly have the sound of your favorite vintage tweed amplifier?

The Event Horizon

The technology responsible for this breakthrough is called COSM or Composite Object Sound Modeling and has become the gold standard for Boss’s success in the effects pedal world. According to the Boss website, “COSM is actually an amalgamation of many different digital modeling technologies developed by BOSS and Roland. These were created to precisely model the electronic, mechanical, and magnetic characteristics inherent to an instrument, amplifier, or speaker, and also to create completely new sounds”.

This technology relies on the breakthroughs in digital processing power brought about by the expansion of computer technology in the early 1990s. The processing speed became so great that the computer could finally take the guitar’s audio signal and alter it in real-time while the musician played without any latency. This breakthrough was like the event horizon for multi-effects pedals. Nothing has been the same since.

To Infinity and Beyond

The COSM technology breakthrough powered Boss’s success in the effects pedal industry through the end of the ’90s and into the new millennium. In 1996, Boss came out with the GT-5 Guitar Effects Processor. The GT-5 was the first model to lay the foundation for what a multi-effects pedal looks like today. 

The GT-5 is a floor-based multi-effects pedal with a huge selection of traditional and innovative effects including classics like distortion, flanger, chorus, reverb, and new innovations like a harmonizer, acoustic simulator, and COSM powered amp-modeling feature that allows you to pick and choose a combination of modeled amp and speaker settings. 

As far as I can tell, it is the first multi-effects pedal built with the now-standard configuration of a series of footswitches laid out from left to right, ending with an expression pedal on the right side. Boss has used this pedal configuration in most multi-effects units since.

But What About ME?

The basic design of the GT-5 pedal has informed the structure of most Boss multi-effects pedals since 1996. The main differences became the number of features and the number of available presets. 

The Boss ME-50 Guitar Multiple Effects debuted in 2002 and was an accessible entry point for many amateur guitarists in the early 2000’s. The ME-50 featured four different effects sections: distortion/overdrive, modulation, and delay, plus an assignable expression pedal for wah, whammy, and other effects. The ME-50 could save up to 30 different presets and the unit was designed to work with your amplifier, not to replace it with a “modeled” amplifier like the GT-5. 

Cue the Competition

As with all cutting-edge technologies, Boss’s COSM modeling breakthrough would not remain the only game in town for very long. A company named DOD had been quietly constructing quality effects pedals in Utah since the late 70s. In the late 1980s, the company began producing a series of pro-sound products under the name Digitech, including a famous rack-mount guitar effects unit called the GSP-2100. By the early 2000s, Digitech was producing two different series of multi-effects units, the RP series, and the GNX series.  

The Digitech RP Series included a few models like the RP150, RP250, and RP350. The RP Series pedals all featured Digitech’s proprietary AudioDNA2 digital signal processor chip, which, according to Digitech’s David Rohrer, “provides even greater accuracy, authenticity, and dynamics … You’ll hear it in subtleties of dynamic response, in direct comparison of our amp models to their vintage counterparts, and in things like how an amp model cleans up when you drop your guitar’s volume.” The RP Series was also one of the first multi-effects units to include USB connections, which allowed users to edit tones on a computer using Digitech’s X-edit Librarian computer editing software. Talk about crazy, cutting-edge early 2000’s technology!

The Digitech GNX Series was a step above the RP Series in terms of functionality and size. The GNX Series followed the same layout as the Boss GT-5 pedal: a series of footswitches from left to right, culminating in an expression pedal on the right side. The flagship model of the GNX Series was the GNX4 Guitar Workstation.

The GNX4 provided models of a large number of effects including various classic distortions, wah, compression, pitch-shifting, noise gate, chorus and modulation effects, delay, reverb, and a selection of more synth-like processes such as Auto Ya, Ya Ya, and Synth Talk. In addition, pickup modeling allowed a single-coil guitar to emulate a humbucker and vice versa. On top of all that, the GNX4 also included a drum machine, an eight-track audio recorder, a mic preamp with phantom power, and a USB-based audio/MIDI interface with software supplied for both PC and Mac. Imagine going from the Boss SCC-700 to the Digitech GNX4 in about 15 years – what a crazy leap!

Into the Clouds

In modernity, we have seen a return to the entirety of a rig being focused into one multi-effect in the form of rack mount modelers. It might not be as obvious but the class of machines that the Fractal Axe-FX and Kemper Profiler Modelers fit into are effectively a whole collection of amplifiers and effects in one. A multi-multi-amp-multi-effect box? Now I see why we just call them modelers. The other modern analogue of this digital phenomenon can be found right where you’re reading this! The accessibility of DAWs or Digital Audio Workstations with built-in effects has provided new and exciting sounds to musicians and producers everywhere who don’t have the space, finances, or need for a whole collection of effects but already have a powerful enough computer or smart device to process audio.

All In All

The breakthroughs in processing power made possible by enhancements in computer chip design in the late 90s and early 2000s cracked the door for the crazy feats of the next two decades. The proliferation of wireless technology has turned guitar multi-effects units into one-station powerhouses of musical technology. 

Contemporary units like the Line 6 Helix and Boss GT-1000CORE and Pocket GT allow users to sync their phones and edit effects parameters from companion apps. Presets can be saved and uploaded to the Cloud and shared around the globe instantaneously. Most of these new units also function as recording interfaces, speaker systems, and drum machines as well. 

Where can we go from here? What will be the next big breakthrough in multi-effects technology? Will we retreat from the virtual, modeled reality of endless digital effects possibilities and seek refuge in the obscure, analog creations of the past? Or will we continue to seek out newer, faster, and more powerful digital behemoths? Only time will tell …