All musicians know that effects have always been an important part of each one’s sound and style.
To many players, finding the exact set of pedals that helps them achieve the tone they want is a lifelong quest.
For others, their amp’s built-in effects are just enough.
Of course, there’s nothing to debate about taste, but if you are just starting out, you might be wondering:
Are pedals actually better than amp effects?
Individual pedals usually sound better and are more versatile than amp built-in effects since the latter are probably an afterthought for the manufacturer. However, they are great for beginners to get familiarized with what kinds of sound they like and better inform their future specific pedal purchases.
It is important, however, to know every aspect of this matter to make a decision so I will guide you through this article to understand better how every piece of gear works.
Are you ready to get started?
Why use pedals if your amp has built-in effects?
As beginners, when getting our equipment we try to cover the majority of our needs. That’s why some players prefer an amp with effects on it.
This kind of gear is interesting and useful for those who are starting out. Through it, you can immerse yourself into the world of effects and have a general idea of how each one sounds.
However, amp’s effects are very limited in terms of settings. By having pedals you can explore a wider range of textures within each one of them.
I’m not saying that all pedal effects are strictly better but it is true that they are made to do specifically one thing and, as a consequence, the work hours put in that gear’s construction are reflected in its performance.
Another remarkable aspect is that using pedals, hands down provides a better user experience, as you can switch them on and off instantly or change their parameters easily instead of running to your amp to tweak the effect.
Vintage amps that have reverb and/or tremolo units
Before discussing this topic we need to clarify what tremolo and reverb are. At first sight, you could feel confused but let me explain to you the main differences.
Reverb is an effect that replicates an ambient, it is the time that the sound takes to bounce off the walls and come back again. Tremolo is the effect that modifies the volume of the sound, it also intervenes in the speed and the intensity.
Now we know the differences between both, we can focus on individual cases. The interesting thing is that they could be analog or digital, so there are gears for everyone’s taste.
When we talk about analog reverb we obviously refer to vintage valve/tube amps. The Fender Twin Reverb and Fender Vibroverb are milestones in this field.
The vintage aspect of these pieces of gear is the important thing here. Back in the day, particularly for reverb, the most popular way of achieving this effect was an analog contraption that sent the sound through a spring and picked up the output.
Yes, an actual real physical spring. That’s what a spring reverb unit is.
Contrarily, more modern solid-state amps, as they are usually more affordable, have digital reverb units built-in.
Although they can include different types of reverb, spring reverb is really tough to emulate digitally.
This difficulty doesn’t mean that digital reverbs suck, it means that they are just a different flavor of the effect, with their unique personality and voice.
As regards pedals, although you can probably achieve a wider range of setups through their different configurations, you are unlikely to achieve something that sounds 100% like these vintage reverb units mentioned earlier.
However, between a digital reverb built-in in an affordable amp, and a standalone effect pedal, probably the sound quality and versatility prize will go in favor of the latter since all of the design efforts were focused on that single function.
But when the discussion stands between an analog vintage unit and a digital one things get more complicated:
Some players will go for the analog alternative without even flinching, while many others will likely prefer the reliability and flexibility of a high-quality digital option.
Is amp distortion better?
To answer this question let’s analyze the different amps’ characteristics. We know that valve amps are high-quality equipment so it is not surprising to say they offer an organic distortion tone, richer than solid-state amps or pedals.
A remarkable feature of tube amps is that they achieve their best distortion by pushing them to gigging levels (not weak levels, like, for example, playing in your bedroom).
As regards solid-state amps, they can also produce natural distortion but, although they improved their sound through the years, they still sound slightly digital.
In contraposition to its counterpart, solid-state distortion sounds a bit better at lower levels but still has that fuzzy digital aftertaste.
In the case of pedals, distortion is hard to emulate for them. This effect tends to be fuzzier on pedals and as they try to copy valve distortion, they don’t offer the full experience, though.
Of course, there are even pedals that have tubes in their circuits and sound pretty decent, but I’m talking about the vast majority here. Forget about outliers.
Another important issue to bear in mind is that pedal distortion saturates at low levels which is great for playing at home.
So, in most cases, amp distortion is the best option but some players choose to add an overdrive pedal to shape their sound before hitting the amp, especially when looking for more focused high gain tones.
It is all about the kind of sound you are looking for and, of course, about your taste.
And what about amp overdrive?
The time of the overdrive has come! Is this effect better on amps? Well, that’s more debatable. You see, overdrive from amps is usually good.
As it is produced by cranking the amp, natural overdrive does not present a sharp compression, and it shows a wide dynamic range instead.
However, the drawback is always having to play loud to achieve the full richness of the power stage saturation.
Pedals, on the other side, are also typically used by pros and amateurs alike, and opposing to amps, they don’t require you to play at neighbor-infuriating volumes to achieve usable tones.
Nevertheless, we cannot say which is better or worst. The sound is in the ear of the player and every opinion related to tone is completely subjective.
Every amp reacts differently, so by combining an overdrive pedal with the tone of the amp you can get an amazing sound (specifically if we talk about organic overdrives).
You can also mix your pedal overdrive with the amp’s clean channel or even boost the overdriven amp tone.
Amp distortion and effects vs multi-fx unit with amp simulation
We have strolled a tough path where everybody has different opinions, tastes and preferences.
Analog gear is the first option for many players because of its performance and simplicity.
As it’s built focused on a single job, they usually provide better quality and user experience.
Contrarily, multi-effects provide a wide range of options and modern digital units have great effects simulations. They are more flexible than pedals because they have a higher number of effects available just in one single device.
And if we take into account the value of the number of effects you get against the price you pay, they turn even more interesting.
The downside here is that you might spend 2 hours tweaking knobs and looking up settings online to achieve a sound closer to the tone you could get almost as a plug-and-play feature with a tube amp and just a few pedals.
Finally, for many players, the convenience of amp sims in terms of playing with headphones or just recording straight into the pc is unbeatable, and a work tool completely different from analog gear.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.