As I started to sort out my review calendar for 2021 one thing became glaringly clear: people want pedal reviews and they want pedals that do more than one thing. As such, I began identifying a ton of pedals that could fit this mold, while still maintaining some level of affordability.
Of course I could have just said “oh try the Chase Bliss & Benson Pre-Amp”, which is super versatile, but it’s almost $800. While the pedal market is of course booming right now, it seems that a lot of people are gearing up to return to the stage with more lean, mean rigs thanks to the huge advances in amp modeling. And even if you aren’t budget limited, you’re probably wanting to limit the size of your pedalboard to make it ultra portable.
Likewise, people want pedals that can do more than one thing, and in that spirit I gathered up almost a whole pedalboard’s worth of versatile pedals to help figure out how to shop for them on a budget.
Let’s start with the front of a signal chain, which for me means boost or overdrive. Something I reviewed in late 2020 that really seemed to resonate with readers was the IK Multimedia Z-TONE Buffer Boost which is one of the most versatile boosts ever. Better yet, it’s only $150 for something that can serve multiple purposes. I know that a boost pedal isn’t the sexiest pedal to buy or use, but in a live setting it is far more necessary than in any studio or bedroom practice scenario. Especially in the full band mix, you need a way to take whatever signal you are playing, clean or distorted or atmospheric, and boost it when it is your time to solo or for a breakdown. But this is a place where you should also prioritize versatility, if a boost is going to be on your board, it better work hard for you. This Z-TONE is a buffer, which helps preserve your tone through long cables and busy pedalboards (perfect for a gig situation on a big stage), as well as a boost. Oh, and that boost can be switched between a pure clean boost or a warmer, slightly gain boosted JFET so you can always essentially have two types of boosts on your board.
The rest of your gain section will certainly be dependent on what kind of music you play, but for me it usually has a tube screamer-like drive and then a RAT-like drive. But this is another place where you should absolutely look to get a multi-function drive pedal, something like the recently reviewed Nux Fireman Distortion, which is two footswitchable “Brown Sound” channels in a box. Or something like the excellent Caline Brigade, which packs a Timmy-like overdrive and a Tube Screamer-like overdrive into one box where each can be used independently or together and in different orders. These big box pedals don’t necessarily take up any less space than say, two Boss drives, the SD-1 and DS-1, sitting next to each other, but they do put everything together into one nice package that requires less wiring and power consumption. Would you rather have two different 9v pedals to power or just one that can do two things at once?
Modulation & Delay Section
Modulation pedals have been multi-function for much longer than a lot of drives and distortions meaning you have a ton of options regardless of price. Chorus and Vibrato have been paired together in pedals forever, and a Vibrato/Uni-vibe pairing is hardly a struggle to find. Even delays and reverbs have crossed back and forth for decades with the Boss RV-6 packing a delay, modulation settings, shimmer settings, and multiple types of reverb in just one pedal. Purchasing something like this is a great way to make sure you never get bored, even if your tastes or styles change over time. Newer pedals like the Electro Harmonix Eddy give you the choice between ultra-tweakable chorus or vibrato, all for under $100. If you want the dual functionality, instead of choosing one or the other, the Joyo R-Series R-09 gives you incredible flexibility to dial in two individual modulation effects on your board.
When it comes to delay, there are plenty of “character” delays that have built in modulation effects to help color your tone. The Carbon Copy, while a bit more in the mid-level pricing for a standard single pedal, does have a modulation effect you can turn on or off, giving you two different delay styles in one essentially. Investing in my personal favorite pedal, the Electro Harmonix Memory Man which has the choice of vibrato or chorus on top of your delay. In terms of versatility for the price though, I recently got the Nux Duotime Delay which features a whopping 5 different delay voices including reverb, modulated, digital, tape echo, and analog delay sounds with dual delays, tweakable parameters, and even subdivision controls. It’s a massively flexible echo box that also loops, what more could you ask for?
Building A Board
Hopefully you’ll see that the prevalence of these 2 or 3 or more in one stompboxes is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the market. These style pedals are very friendly to those with 1) small pedalboards who want a lot of sonic variety and 2) players who often change their minds and playing styles. If you get sick of chorus, you can turn the Eddy into a vibrato pedal. If you get sick of doing math-y, subdivided delays, turn a knob on the Duotime and do your best The Edge-impersonation. Especially for live gigging, cramming as much tonal flexibility onto one board as possible can be incredibly useful and inspiring. You don’t need a huge world tour ready board with 25 pedals on it when 6 really great, affordable ones will do the trick. As we (hopefully) safely return to the stage this year, I expect these pedals to be popping up on a lot of boards and I hope they help inform you as you build your first, or next board.