Guitar pedals have exploded in popularity among musicians of all kinds over the past two decades. But stompbox effects have also become a creative secret weapon for engineers and producers.

Today’s high-end pedals push the envelope when it comes to signal processing. They also offer a distinctive way to work with hardware gear in your setup. Despite the potential, using guitar pedals in a DAW setup comes with some challenges. 

In this article, we’ll explain the basic workflow for using guitar effects in the studio and suggest five creative ideas to work with pedals in your mix.

Why use guitar pedals in the studio?

With all the plug-ins and hardware available to modern producers, it might not seem obvious why you should try guitar effects in the studio. After all, some additional equipment and setup is required to make it work properly.

However, guitar pedals are unique in the effects world for several reasons. If you’re mostly focused on collecting traditional mixing gear, you may have overlooked some of the benefits to be had from using pedals. Here are just a few:

1. Endless flavors of distortion

Guitarists will never have enough ways to create distortion. Of the hundreds of pedals that are released every year, a significant portion are dedicated to overdrive, distortion and fuzz. 

That means guitar pedals give you access to any type of clipping you could ever need in the studio. From gentle tube drive to bruising high gain, each device brings its own character to the table.

2. Unique creative tools

Guitar pedal companies are known for pushing the limits when it comes to new and unique effects. From chaotic pitch shifting to recombinant loopers, the experimental side of guitar pedals can provide a spark of creativity in the studio. 

3. Modern digital hardware

Where did all the digital studio effects racks go? Outside of a few well-known staples, the rack multi-FX units of yesteryear aren’t as common as they once were. 

Plug-ins have taken over much of this niche, but digital guitar pedals are beginning to rival even the most powerful rack hardware from the classic era and modern day.

4. Hands-on feedback

There’s nothing more immediate than adjusting a physical control and hearing the result in real-time.

It’s the reason why modular synths, analog consoles, and guitar effects pedals will always have staunch proponents.

You may even find you make different creative decisions using a hardware effect than you might with a plug-in.

How to use guitar effects in a DAW setup

To get access to these benefits, you’ll need the correct equipment and setup to work with guitar effects. For example, unless the pedal you’re using has inputs for line-level sources, you’ll need a reamping device to manage the signal from your interface.

If you’re unfamiliar with reamping, head over to our reamping guide to understand how it works. But if you just need the basics, here’s how it works.

Guitar pedals are instrument-level devices. That means they’re meant to interact with the unbalanced signal generated by a guitar’s passive pickup.

Conversely, your audio interface outputs a balanced, line-level signal that’s meant to drive active monitor speakers or other pro audio gear. 

A reamper converts the interface output so that it matches the instrument signal your pedal needs to work properly.

But that’s not all. After the pedal’s output, you’ll need a DI box to convert the instrument signal into a suitable input for your mic preamps.

Here’s the step-by-step break of the process:

Hardware setup:

  1. Connect an output from your audio interface to the reamp box’s input
  2. Connect the reamp’s output to the guitar pedal’s input
  3. Add pedals one after the other to build your signal chain
  4. Connect the final pedal’s output to the DI box’s input
  5. Connect the DI output to a mic preamp on your audio interface

Software setup:

  1. Create an aux send channel on the track you want to send to the guitar pedal
  2. Route the output of its aux return channel to the interface channel you connected to the reamp box
  3. Create a new track to record the incoming audio from the pedal
  4. Set its input to the channel connected to the DI box’s output.
  5. Routing for a reamping setup naturally creates a looped signal path, so be sure not to enable input monitoring on the send and return channels at the same time.

5 ideas for working with guitar effects in the studio

With the background info out of the way, here are five suggestions to get you started using guitar pedals in your workflow.

1. Distortion on vocals

Sometimes even the most aggressive saturation plug-ins won’t deliver the sonic destruction you need for an intense special effect.

When it comes to vocals, there’s something about the jagged clipping of guitar distortion that’s especially arresting in a mix.

Here are a few effective choices for distortion pedals to try on vocals and beyond:

2. Oscillation from analog delay 

Analog delay devices can push themselves into self-oscillation at extreme settings. With the feedback control set high enough, bucket brigade delay pedals produce a runaway wail of feedback that obscures the source sound entirely.

Adjusting the delay time turns the feedback into a squall of pitched noise that can be played like an instrument. The result is usable, musical noise that’s perfect to experiment with in the controlled environment of the studio.

Here are a few analog-style delays capable of intense self-oscillation:

3. Lush ambient effects

Ambient sound took the guitar world by storm with the introduction of celestial reverb pedals like Strymon’s BigSky. While the classic pedal is nearing its 10-year anniversary, it’s still one of the best hardware devices for luscious ambient reverb.

Strymon’s latest release is a compact edition of the celebrated Cloud algorithm from the original BigSky. Called the Cloudburst, it features a new ensemble mode that creates a resonant halo around the sound.

But Strymon isn’t the only contender for advanced ambience.  If you’re looking to add high quality hardware reverb and delay to your studio arsenal, there are plenty of excellent options.

Eventide’s H90 pedal gives you two independent effects engines capable of running any of their acclaimed algorithms in series or parallel.

Meris’s LVX workstation may be the most customizable delay available today, with the ability

4. Amp simulation

Mic’ing up an amp can be time-consuming and finicky, especially when you’re busy working on a mix. While there’s plenty of great amp simulation software available, some of the best vintage recreations are showing up in pedals.

Universal Audio’s UAFX series of amp-in-a-box pedals has gained a reputation for vintage accuracy and lifelike feel. If you’ve ever wished you had a perfect classic amp from the essential era of guitar gear, UAFX is the next best thing.

5. EQ and Compression

Finally, guitar pedals are starting to move in on tasks that used to be reserved only for studio rack gear. High-performance EQ and dynamics processors from companies like Empress and Origin Effects can rival 500-series units.

Best of all, you won’t need the expensive enclosures or power supplies required to get started with 500 Series modules to use them.

Pedal power

There’s no reason guitarists should have all the fun when it comes to effects pedals. Producers and engineers should be equally excited about this booming segment of the gear industry. 

If you haven’t taken the time to try guitar effects in a studio setting, you’re missing out on an exciting way to work with the sounds in your mix.

Kevin SchuckIf you're interested in ordering any of the guitar pedals mentioned in this blog, we're here to help! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.