After you’ve settled on your overdrive and gain tone, picked out your favorite delay, and bathed it all in a glorious reverb, you might start to long for something a little more interesting. Something that provides texture and interest to your notes. For that, we call on modulation effects, the most common being chorus, flangers, and phasers. Tremolo falls into this category, too, and we’ve dedicated a whole post to that effect.
These sounds appear on many famous recordings, and are often responsible for the “size” of a recording or track. When someone says it sounds “big,” it’s usually thanks to a combination of reverb and the doubling effect of a chorus. Dramatic use of the flanger was popular in the 80s, lending the jet-like sound to many a solo. The searing out-of-phase noise of the flanger is great for cutting through the mix of a band. Phaser is familiar to any Van Halen fans, but also appears notably on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, among many others.
Modulation is a type of effect that either subtly or wildly alters the original signal to introduce interesting textures to a guitar sound. In essence, most of what we think of as ‘effects’ is modulation of some kind, be it tremolo, flanger, or chorus. Modulation effects are excellent creative tools, allowing you to either subtly or radically alter the sound of your guitar. If you’re stuck in a rut, or trying to solve a particular songwriting dilemma, using one of these types of modulation can provide inspiration. Chorus, flanger, and phaser all provide a sense of movement as part of your playing, which can liven up even the simplest lick.
If all of these are a little too expensive for your tastes, check out our list of the top 15 best cheap effects pedals for something a little more wallet-friendly. For even cheaper effects, try our top ten best cheap multi-effects pedals.
Here’s our list of the top 15 best chorus, flanger, and phaser pedals to add intrigue to your guitar tone:
As with reverb, and to a lesser extent, delay, chorus can be found in some form on virtually all professionally recorded albums. The effect creates a thick sound that gives any track a sense of lushness. Chorus effects seek to emulate that certain thickening of sound that happens when multiple singers, with their imperfect pitch and timing, all perform together. It’s particularly effective for creating a big, slightly moving guitar tone. Chorus works by splitting the dry signal and sending one half through a short delay, generally between 20 and 50 milliseconds, which is modulated by a low-frequency oscillator. The LFO smoothly changes the delay time from shortest to longest, which in turn shifts the pitch. When the two are recombined in the output, you get the distinct doubled sound with a sense of movement and organic variation.
1. MXR M134 Stereo Chorus
To get the most dramatic effect out of your chorus pedal, you’ll want to run a stereo rig, which is usually accomplished with two amplifiers or with a direct out to the house mixer. In stereo configurations, the two channels are modulated opposite one another — when the right channel is on the longest delay, the left channel is on the shortest. They share one LFO, set backwards from one another, which means they move simultaneously. This creates a wider field for the chorusing effect.
Probably the most popular version of the stereo chorus is the MXR M134. For controls, you get Intensity, which controls the amount of the effect, Rate, which controls the speed, and Width, which controls the amount of delay. You also get knobs for Bass and Treble so you can dial in the exact right tone. I find chorus to be pretty bass-heavy, so this is a handy option. There’s a Bass Filter button, too, which means the tone knobs only effect the higher frequencies of the pedal.
If you want essentially the same controls, but can’t make use of the stereo outputs, you can opt for the cheaper M234 Analog Chorus, of which there is a Zakk Wylde version voiced for heavier tones. If you want something simpler (and even cheaper), there’s the one-knob M148 Micro Chorus, which retains the voicing but ditches the extra knobs.
2. Electro-Harmonix Stereo Electric Mistress
Since chorus and flanger are more or less related (more on that later), it makes a certain amount of sense to combine them into one pedal. This is an iconic pedal that many claim has a certain magic that other choruses and flangers can’t quite replicate. This is the pedal you want for Hendrix-style modulation.
Controls include Rate, Chorus Depth, and Flanger Depth. Simple controls, but a lot of versatility. With either the Chorus Depth or the Flanger Depth at zero, the pedal functions as an independent effect. This gives you good flexibility by allowing you to call up a chorus or a flange whenever you need it. There’s also a Filter Matrix mode that lets you manually move the flanger. For maximum effect, combine them. I recommend choosing one to dominate and one to subtly color, but let your ears decide what’s best. It’s also stereo, again giving you the option to widen the sonic field.
Naturally, EHX also makes the Small Clone, which is widely used and widely loved. It’s a little more limited option-wise and isn’t stereo, but this is the chorus sound. This also comes in the nano form factor as the Neo Clone. The cheapest and simplest option is the Nano Clone, which gives you only a Rate knob. Best for choosing one chorus tone and kicking on when you need it.
For yet another EHX choice, you could also try the Clone Theory, which combines two choruses with vibrato.
3. Boss CH-1 Stereo Super Chorus
Much like with the Electro-Harmonix options, you might struggle a bit to differentiate between the Boss chorus pedal offerings. You have to decide between this, the Super Chorus, and the CE-5 Chorus Ensemble. If you were to acquire both and a/b them with similar settings, especially subtle ones, you might not detect much of a difference. The circuits are very similar and they use the same delay chip. The primary difference seems to be the LFO. In the Super Chorus, the effect is deeper, which perhaps makes it better suited to being a guitar modulation effect. The goal here is to add texture and excitement, so it makes sense to go with the pedal that has more effect in it. Conversely, you might choose the CE-5 if you’ll also use it for bass or just want a very clean, studio-like doubling effect.
Controls on the Super Chorus include Effect Level, EQ, Rate, and Depth. It’s stereo, of course, so you won’t be left wanting there. Some folks note a little more fuzziness or noise in the extended circuit of the CH-1, so you may want to try some solos at deeper settings to see if you like the sound. It’s also a fair amount cheaper than the EHX or MXR options, but no less popular. It’s more common to see the Super Chorus on a pedalboard than a lot of pedals, thanks to this low price. Start here to get your first taste of chorus.
4. Red Witch Analog Empress Chorus
For robustness, it would be tough to beat this Red Witch offering. While the other choruses on this list are their own tone and flavor unto themselves, this unit goes for the gold and encapsulates virtually every conceivable chorus sound via its unique control structure. It certainly shows in the price, being well into boutique pedal pricing territory. Still, if you’ve tried the others on this list and wanted more, you’re sure to find it in this one.
Controls on this machine include four knobs: Mix, Depth, Velocity, and Voice. It’s this last one that is remarkable. Most chorus pedals have a pre-defined range for the delay that the LFO cycles. On this one, you use Voice to change the delay time, which then cycles through a shorter or longer range depending on what you choose. There are two switches, as well: Bright and and Vibe/Chorus. This is primarily a chorus pedal, but you can switch it to vibrato mode with this switch. The bright mode gives you chimier highs on Voice settings between seven and 11 o’clock, but will also introduce noise at higher settings. The internal slide switch changes the boost level and tonal response. Finally, the stereo is split between wet and dry, so your dry signal will play through one side and the effected through the other, creating the chorus effect between them rather than in the pedal itself.
This is a lot of pedal, but should easily conjure up any imaginable sound with some amount of fiddling. You could spend years getting new tones out of this offering.
5. TC Electronic Corona Mini
If you want access to that huge array of sounds, but don’t want to spend the money or sacrifice the pedalboard space, you’ll have to go digital. This TC Electronic pedal is based on its big brother, though in a tiny package and at a lower price. If you can imagine it or create it on something like the Red Witch, you can certainly have access to it in this configuration. Sure, it isn’t analog like some of the others, so that might give up a little mojo, but the emulation in TC Electronic pedals is excellent, so you may not notice.
Controls include Depth, Speed, and FX Level. The controls can be simple because all the magic of this little wonder happens with TC’s TonePrint. Plug this thing into your computer and download or create your own chorus effect using their free software. Once you dial in the effect you want, you’re good to go. The flexibility of this pedal is a bit slower than some of the others, in that you’ll have to spend some time on a computer to generate new tones. Nevertheless, at this price, you could buy two, set each to wildly different chorus sounds, and still not spend as much as the Red Witch. Unfortunately, though, you also give up stereo outputs with this option.
Flanging differs from chorus in two crucial ways: 1. the delay time is shorter, usually less than 20 milliseconds. 2. Part of the effected tone is fed back into the original signal, which dramatically increases the sound of the effect. Flanging was created by Les Paul in the 50s and originally required a two-tape set up that was labor and cost-intensive. That work gave rise to this intense, distinctive effect that has been used in many applications since. The effect can be described as jet-like, zipper, or barber-pole, depending on the unit and settings. Flanger may be the least subtle of the effects on this list, depending on how its deployed.
6. A/DA Reissue Flanger
Counted among the first, if not the definitive first, flanger pedal that actually worked to any impressive degree, the A/DA flanger immediately set the bar pretty high for flanger pedals for years to come. The original design called for a SAD1024 chip, which was a Reticon BBD delay chip. The 1980 version uses a Panasonic BBD, and it’s this version they chose to reissue. Between the controls and the extremes, nothing has quite matched it since.
The controls on this unit are especially interesting. There is, of course a Speed knob that is fairly straightforward, as well as the Range, which is roughly the depth. Manual sets the center point of the sweep, which in some ways is like the Red Witch chorus function. You also get Threshold, which is essentially a gate, and Enhance, which also affects the depth and intensity. A switch controls the harmonics between evens and odds. Bucket-brigade designs like this tend toward the dark and warm, and with this all-analog unit, you’ll be capturing some of that vintage tone that is in some ways irreplaceable. At the same time, the unique controls will give you access to some outrageous sounds.
7. MXR M117R
For considerably less than the A/DA, MXR will fix you up with a similarly-sized flanger pedal and a reissue of its own. This is a workhorse, general purpose flanger that can deliver all the wildness you need while also channeling more subtle, classic rock tones. And because it’s MXR, you get a few versions to choose from.
Controls include Manual (controls degree of shifting), Width (controls intensity), Speed (time delay), and Regen. (controls the overall intensity). MXR claim that this single pedal will emulate chorus tones, too, so this may be a replacement for two pedals if you dig the sound. It can also be run off of two nine-volt batteries, if you’re into that sort of thing.
If you like, you can opt for the Eddie Van Halen EVH117 version, which has slightly different voicing and a paint job to match. If you’re into the nano form factor as I am, you should go for the M152 Micro Flanger instead. Sure, you give up some control, but in most cases, this is all you need and is significantly less costly.
8. Moog MF Flange
Moog is a company that has dedicated its existence to analog chaos, creating the first voltage-controlled synths in the 60s. They know all about modulating tones with chips of various stripes. It only makes sense that they would offer guitar pedals, as the kings of signal processing. Their Minifooger line is full of excellent effects, all in what seem to me to be comically large enclosures.
The controls on their MF Flange include the standard Rate, Depth, and Time, as well as Feedback, which controls the shape of the frequency sweeps. There is also a switch that gives you access to two flanger modes. The first is the standard flanger, with the feedback included in the output, and the second removes the standard flanger feedback from the output signal. At maximum settings, this pedal is a fair amount more dramatic and crazy than some of the others, especially when you factor in that it has stereo outs. Additionally, you can control the Time knob via Moog’s expression pedal for more dynamic playing.
9. Catalinbread Zero Point
For something completely different, take a look at this Catalinbread option. The genesis of this pedal comes from the genesis of the flanger effect itself. In the studios of the 50s and 60s when the effect was catching on, it was achieved by putting a finger directly on one of the two playback tapes. As a result, that meant two things in particular: 1. It wasn’t on all the time, but used as an accent to a particular passage. 2. You had finite control over when it appeared and when it didn’t.
By eliminating all controls outside of a momentary switch, you can emulate this experience with the Zero Point. Press down on the switch whenever you want the flanger effect. That’s it. Just as they did it in the old days. Of course, there’s still a bypass switch if you don’t want it at the ready and in your signal path at all. Naturally, this is a fully modern machine, so you have more options than that. If you hold the button down when you power it up, the LED turns red and puts the pedal into inverse mode. This means that when the switch is held, it ramps the signal down through completely silent. When you lift off, it cycles back through the phase as though an LFO was controlling it. Additionally, there’s a trim pot underneath that controls the gain when the pedal is engaged. Turned all the way up, you can unleash a hidden fuzz effect for a savage sound. It’s certainly unique in the world of flangers, and makes up for its lack of controls with increased playing expression.
10. Strymon Orbit dBucket Flanger
Strymon effects are generally the top-of-the-line, everything-to-everybody machines that will do pretty much anything you ask of them. The Timeline (which we featured here) is the final word in studio-level delay in a to-go package. Their DSP technology is finely honed to emulate virtually every effect that’s ever existed. Their Orbit is no exception.
On this be-all beast, you get controls for Speed, Width, Mix, Regen, and Manual. What’s perhaps most compelling about this unit is that you can use an expression pedal to control any of them. If you want to set the effect and then control its presence in your signal, set your expression pedal to change the Mix. If you want to swap the frequencies, use Manual. It’s a high degree of control that isn’t available on other pedals at all. You also get a three-position switch for positive, negative, and +/- feedback. Positive produces the jet-like sounds, negative the watery sounds, and +/- combines the two in deference to the frequencies chosen on the rest of the pedal. The other switch controls which LFO the pedal is using between LOG (logarithmic, or even sweep), LIN (linear, changes speeds with higher and lower frequencies), and Thru0 (advances the wet signal ahead of the dry for the most dramatic effect). Even better, the Orbit has a Favorite switch which can be programmed with your favorite setting for easy switching between whatever the knobs are doing and a reliable standby.
If you want it all, go for this one.
Phaser is unlike chorus and flanger, in that it doesn’t rely on a delay chip at all. No part of the signal is delayed, as such, but instead passes through multiple filters which, when combined with the original signal, produce that distinctive swirling sound. The filters change the phase relationship between the frequencies, causing some to cancel out entirely and others to create notches. It’s those notches that produce the effect, and in turn are modulated by the LFO, which is moving up and down the frequency range. While the flanger creates a number of notches based on the length of the delay, phaser creates a number of notches according to the number of filters.
11. MXR CSP026 ’74 Vintage Phase 90
Bear with me here for a second. If you want an MXR phaser, you’re going to have to do a little homework. There are (at least) six different MXR phasers on the market right now, largely thanks to the vagaries of vintage pedal design. Among bankruptcies and loose production controls, things could change with a favorite effect from year-to-year, sometimes officially and sometimes randomly. That resulted in especially savvy (and picky) guitarists identifying the ones they liked best and buying them up, occasionally for exorbitant prices on the second-hand market. As component availability stabilized and manufacturing costs fell, pedal makers reissued original circuits using hand-chosen parts to recreate each specific model. In the specific case of MXR, it took Jim Dunlop buying them up to restart the production on this storied device.
The original MXR Phase 90 is the four-stage “script” version released in 1974, reissued here as the CSP026. This is meant to be the true reproduction, and is hand-wired using new old stock to the exact specifications of the original. There is only one knob which controls the Speed. Basically, if you don’t like the sound of the Phase 90, you should move on from here. For you purists chasing iconic tone, this is the machine for you.
Now for the variants. You can get the script Phase 90 with an LED for $30 less than the vintage reproduction. For $20 less than that, you can get the block logo version that is the modern standard, first issued in 1977. We previously featured the “block logo” Phase 90 on our cheap effects post. At the same price as the ’74 reissue, you can get the Eddie Van Halen EVH90 version, which includes a switch that toggles between the script logo and block logo phasers, in addition to the LED and signature design. There is also the reissue of the 1975 Phase 45, which is a two-stage phaser that generates a more subtle effect.
For a modern take on the EVH version, consider the Phase 99, which also includes a vintage toggle, but is essentially two independent phasers in one with greater control. There’s also the Phase 100, with Intensity and Speed controls and a little something for people who like interpreting strange symbols. The most recent, and perhaps most useful, addition to the family is the Phase 95, which packs the 45, block 90 and script 90 all in a mini enclosure. It’s a pretty amazing piece, but many folks are looking for the real-deal vintage masterpiece, so the ’74 script is the way to go.
12. Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Nano
If you followed all of that with the Phase 90 and thought that was too much work to sort out, I’m with you. Fortunately, there is a simple solution for those who don’t want to spend much time digging through an extensive lineup. Based on the old big box version, the Small Stone is one of the original phasers or phase shifters. This is, of course, the nano version, for the sake of simplicity.
Controls include a Rate knob and a Color switch. The Color switch adds a bit of feedback swirl, something along the lines of the way a flanger works. I’ve had this pedal and liked it a great deal. I would caution you that on some setups, there’s a significant drop in volume when this is engaged, but pairing it with a booster should solve that problem. It sounds amazing with bass, which is what I mostly used it for.
13. EarthQuaker Devices Grand Orbiter V2 Phase Machine
Since the first two options didn’t offer much in the way of finite control, let’s turn to EarthQuaker Devices for their take on the phaser. This is the second version, which uses the smaller form factor, saving you space over their first release. Like the vintage Phase 90, this is a four-stage phaser, but they’ve paired it with modern controls.
Those controls include Depth, which is actually more of a mix knob here. In Vibrato mode, this is the volume. Rate controls the LFO speed, while Sweep sets the frequency peak. Resonance changes the regeneration of the signal. There’s a switch for Rate, which changes the range of that knob. Rate 1 is slow, Rate 2 cuts out the LFO so you can use it as a filter pedal, and Rate 3 is fast. There’s also a switch for Phase or Vibrato, depending on which mode you want to use. The smaller LED on the right displays the rate setting even when bypassed. Handy when you need to check before an upcoming change.
14. Red Witch Analog Deluxe Moon
If you’re not really feeling the vintage vibe, step into something distinctly different. Like the Red Witch chorus above, this seeks to give you more options than typically available on similar pedals, and achieves it all through analog means.
Compared to the EQD offering, you don’t get the same amount of control over the phasing. However, to make up for that, they’ve outfitted this with unique controls that cover a wide tonal palette. The Velocity knob controls the speed of the sweep, of course. Trajectory changes the shape of the output wave to help you dial in the exact sound you want from each of the six modes, which are selectable by the Cosmology knob. The first three settings on the Cosmology control are different phaser types. The second two settings are the very singular trem-o-phase stages that combine the phaser with tremolo. The first of these is something like a Univibe, while the second is more subtle. The last setting is a tremolo all by itself.
This pedal also has stereo outs if you want to spread the phase across two amps. The simple controls and unique combinations make this a thoroughly modern approach to phase pedals. There are lots of options in this box.
15. DOD Phasor 201
DOD, which is part of the Harman International conglomerate and has seen many of its pedals reissued as DigiTech devices, was a forerunner in pedal design in the 70s. They were always a bit quirky and found their cult following one way or another. The Phasor 201 was among the first phaser pedals ever released, and became heavily associated with the 80s. A Harmon employee by the name of Tom Cram took it upon himself to secretly recreate three vintage DOD effects, and this was one of them.
This reissue, true to the original, features but one control: Speed. The reissue adds true bypass, which is something the vintage version lacked. And so, we end up back where we started. Essentially, you can choose which you like between the Phase 90 and this one. I have to admit, I kind of like this box design better.
Once you’ve picked out all the pedals you need, head over here to read about how to configure your pedalboard.
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