Phaser Pedal Conventions and Best Practices

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Where does a phaser pedal fit in our music? What’s the best way to use it?

The phaser went from being a vintage Eddie Van Halen trademark to a staple of short, modern rock verse fills and melodies at the hands of guys like Mike Einziger and Brian Welch.

That’s where today’s phaser pedal leaves us, with subtle melodies and warm overtones.

I want to talk about the conventions of the modern phaser effect and set up some best practices about the usage and settings of your average phaser pedal.

First, let’s look at the techie side of what a phaser pedal actually is and what it does.

WHAT IS A PHASER EFFECT?

The phaser sound comes from a signal processor that receives input from your guitar and breaks it down into two parts:

The first part of the signal passes through a series of all-pass filters—typically called stages—while the second part is kept dry.

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ABOVE: A basic diagram of the phasing signal processor.

At the end of the signal the two parts are then rejoined creating an output with an in-phase signal and an out-of-phase signal.

The combination of these two parts gives us the peaks and troughs imagery that you’ll see in a signal processing textbook or, the phaser effect Wikipedia page.

If you change the ratio of dry to filtered signal you can alter the speed of the phase, which is often the only control available on a phaser pedal, like the MXR Phase 90.

Thus the phaser is, in its simplest form, a type of modulation effect, in the same group as chorus and flanger pedals.

HOW MANY STAGES?

The all-pass filters or “stages” will vary depending on what type of phaser pedal you have. Digital phasers can often simulate different numbers of stages, like the right-most knob on the Boss PH-3:

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You can see the STAGE knob on the PH-3 has a 4, 8, 10 and 12 setting, along with a few others. Those numbers are simulated numbers of all-pass filters.

In an analog pedal, those would have to be physically built into the stompbox, which is why the number of stages in analog pedals don’t often hit double digits.

Thus the number of stages will depend on whether you have an analog or digital phaser pedal. Though for the most part, the number of stages is something that happens underneath the hood that you don’t need to worry about.

If you don’t have a knob to adjust the number ofs tages (which many phaser pedals don’t) it matters even less.

WHERE TO USE THE PHASER EFFECT

Let’s talk about the practical implications and best practices of phaser use. Understand first, there’s always what I’ll call the “creativity trump card.”

This means your own creative inertia can trump any conventional wisdom. That’s the nature of music and the arts in general. But, I still think conventional wisdom, especially as it relates to guitar gear, is helpful. So let’s first talk about where the phaser effect fits.

In modern music there are a few distinct places.

#1: For melodic verse fills

Remember P.O.D. back in the Nineties and early 2000s?

Marcos Curiel (their guitar player) did this really well. He would use short melodies with a heavy phaser effect to lightly decorate verses, making room for Sonny Sandoval’s lofty vocal performances.

As I mentioned earlier, Einziger and Welch did this on a lot of Incubus and Korn albums, using the phaser effect to flavor verse melodies before going into much heavier choruses.

In fact, you can see on Einziger’s pedalboard that he ran two of the old Boss PH-2 Super Phasers:

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ABOVE: Mike Einziger’s pedalboard with two Boss PH-2 Super Phasers. Image via Effectsbay.

If you look to the last couple decades of music, you can see the trend of phasers showing up in songs with this role.

They’re essentially being used as a thickening agent to make fewer notes count for more.

#2: For a soloing additive

While Van Halen made it popular, phasers are still a typical additive for solos.

In some cases it’ll be used to thicken up a lead guitar’s signal, kind of like you would a boost, yet without the extra gain.

Nu-metal and modern hard rock has seen more modulation used in solos, especially after the era of Kurt Cobain which featured a heavy dose of the EHX Small Clone chorus.

Other guitar players from the early and mid-Nineties, coming out of the grunge era, used a lot of modulation in their solos as well. Among them were Billy Corgan, David Evans (the Edge), John Frusciante and Kim Thayil, just to name a few. This marked the beginning of a de-emphasis of distortion during solos and a focus on fewer notes with more emotion.

The phaser, chorus and flanger all fit right in to that mold and continue to be crucial soloing tools.

#3: For chord swells

The swirling sound you get from a phaser’s peaks and troughs can also be employed during sustained, ringing chords or what some call “chord swells.”

In the intro to “Warning” by Incubus, you can hear Einziger using a phaser effect at a slower speed for the chord progressions before adding a delay and leading into the chorus.

It works better for slow chord swells like these as opposed to fast-paced strumming, since the swirl of a phaser will clash with a faster tempo. If you have a spot in a song that uses chords with a  “haunting” or slow, anticipatory manner, the phaser effect can be a great fit.

IDEAL PHASER PEDAL SETTINGS

What about the dials? As always, we can establish some helpful suggestions, with an emphasis on the suggestion part. Because, while Don Knotts would disagree, the first rule is not to “obey all rules.” Rather, it’s that there are no rules, whatsoever.

The Speed Knob

You’ll always have at least a speed knob to work with. As one would expect, it simply controls the speed of the peaks and troughs or the swirling sound you hear. In most cases, phasers get particularly difficult to use when the speed is turned up too high or “maxed,” sounding overly chaotic and making it difficult to discern melody.

A lot of phaser pedals come with a tap tempo, like a delay, allowing you to click in the exact speed. If at all possible, it’s best to get your phaser’s speed to match the timing of whatever song you’re playing. It’s not always possible but, if you have the choice, opt for a phaser pedal with a tap tempo that allows you to do this on the fly.

Other Controls

The other common controls you’ll see are depth and resolution (which is sometimes called “feedback”). This gives us the common three-band EQ for phaser pedals:

1. Speed or Rate
2. Depth
3. Resolution or Feedback

More advanced controls can include waveform selection and a wet/dry mix knob.

Vintage Phaser Settings

To get a vintage or classic phaser tone, you’ll generally want a lower speed and stage count (if you can select stages).

Rate: 3
Depth: 8
Feedback: 0
Stages: 4

Some pedals will have a vintage mode, sometimes called “boutique.” The Helix phaser from TC Electronic has this mode, though it’s essentially a stage selector.

Modern Verse Filler

Use of the phaser effect in modern rock tends to focus on less depth and a bit more speed. If we’re to generalize the approach, the following dials give us a good starting spot:

Rate: 7
Depth: 4
Feedback: 4
Stages: 8-10

Of course, this all depends on the controls available to you and your own personal preference. I prefer to use a slower phase effect that adds just a little bit of thickness to a clean melody line.

These are just ideas to get you started and to help you get to know your phaser pedal.

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have ideas about these settings or some of your own to share? Drop it in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.

Flickr Commons Image via Roadside Guitars.

Robert Kittleberger is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk.