I must have been 11 years old when I talked my mom into picking up a little Danelectro Milk Shake Chorus at a music shop in the mall. Yet, there was no compelling reason for me to pick that particular effect.
I just wanted a pedal.
Later on I learned that chorus pedal settings can be difficult to use and place properly. I also learned that Kurt Cobain was sort of famous for using the sound and to be honest, I never was a big Nirvana fan. There was a learning curve and perhaps I would have been happier with a delay or overdrive pedal, both of which I added later. Though fast forward to today and I’m much more fond of the chorus effect then I was during those early years.
I’m more fond of it because I got over the hurdles and figured out how to use the effect properly, with the right settings.
It took awhile though, because in a lot of cases, spanning several chorus pedals, the effect would just sound off. Here’s why I think it happens with chorus pedal settings and how to fix them so they sound great. As a follow up, you can also checkout our article on amp settings to make sure the chorus pedal has a good base tone to start with.
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What causes a chorus pedal to sound bad?
We’ll use the Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble for our example.
The two most impactful variables for any modulation effect are two knobs, usually labeled as follows:
Those knobs control the speed and intensity of your chorus or whatever modulation pedal you might be using. On almost every chorus pedal, you'll have a "speed" and "depth" knob to work with, like on this DOD Ice Box pictured here:
Since these two controls have the most say in terms of what your chorus sounds like, they are usually the culprit when your pedal sounds off or out of place. In my experience, cutting these knobs either too high or too low can do damage.
And conventional wisdom seems to agree. Take a look at the recommended settings for the MXR chorus. Two of the three have the rate and depth knob set near 12 o'clock.
Now, I should also mention:
A dramatic increase in rate or depth can be helpful for those ethereal, space-like sounds, as we see in the "Space Tweeter" setting, which calls for a modulation that's heavier, with a lot of depth to it.
However, that is the exception and not the rule with chorus pedals.
When it comes to electric guitars and modulation effects, less is more.
Take a look at these settings on the CE-5.
We have a level, rate, depth and two filter knobs, all set close to 12 o'clock. As much as I tinkered with the knobs on the CE-5, I'd always come back to this simple configuration.
This gave me a thin, shimmering layer or modulation, which I found worked great for any situation where my tone just needed a little "flavor."
If the clean tone was too "clean," this did a good job of adding some intrigue that wasn't too distracting.
Now, the controls on your pedal, will certainly vary.
Here's a quick rundown of the controls available on most chorus pedals, courtesy of MXR:
It's a lot to think about - speed, intensity, frequency and more.
Getting it to sound right, after means starting like I did, with everything at 12 o'clock and then making adjustments as needed.
Regardless of the chorus pedal you're using, start there and tweak depending on what your hear and how it sounds to you. My guess is that you won't stray far from the 12 o'clock template.
Now, let's talk about the physical placement and musical application of your chorus pedal.
Where to Place a Chorus Pedal in Your Effects Chain & Musical Application
In a lot of musical situations, a chorus effect just won’t sound right no matter what you do with the settings. It’s somewhat picky, in that it doesn’t always fit in with the music around it.
As the guitarist you’ve got to employ a lot of experimentation and figure out where your chorus pedal will make sense in a given song.
In addition to that, there are some generalizations that you can start with.
- Chorus works best within a slow tempo, whether you’re working with arpeggios or chords.
- When a song is already full or heavy with sound, adding chorus is often a bad idea because of the thickness of the effect.
- By the same token, if a part of a song needs filled out, a chorus effect can provide that extra substance.
Read more: Best pedalboards
In terms of where you would place a chorus pedal in your effects chain, Strymon's writeup is one of the best and simplest to follow. They recommend placing it near the end of the signal, before ambient effects like delay and reverb.
And for those using a send/return effects loop:
Broadly, a chorus pedal should sit after wah, volume, distortion and compression but before delay and reverb. In terms of how you arrange it among other modulation effects (phaser, tremolo, etc.), the jury is still out.
None of this is etched in stone, but it can give you a place to start instead of just guessing.
Like I said, you’ll need to tweak and tinker, but in a lot of situations, that’s the best way to approach placing your chorus in a given song.
Chorus Pedal Settings: Rate and Timing
Now we can get into something a little more concrete.
Most chorus pedals have a speed or rate knob that together create a kind of warbling or vibrato effect. While it’s not as pronounced as a delay or tremolo pulse, it does present a bit of a timing issue.
Basically, if the rate of your chorus is timed differently than the beat of the song, that discrepancy in tempo will be noticeable. The intensity and volume of the effect will determine how much of a problem it causes, but it could definitely sound off to a guitar player’s ear.
The simple solution is to either match the tempo of the chorus up with the song, or turn things like the depth and filter down to the point where it’s not pronounced enough to effect timing.
Give these settings at try.
The depth setting on your chorus is determining how pronounced of a cut the effect takes into your original sound.
As you increase the depth, that vibrato sound you hear will become more pronounced and you’re also likely to hear the off-pitch sounds more prominently.
Personally, I never liked a chorus effect with a lot of depth. It can sound good in the right place, but I’ve found that keeping the depth knob low frees up the effect to fit in better in more situations.
It adds more of a thin layer and less of a distinct rut into your tone.
The definition of a chorus effect is bringing several different slightly off pitches and resonating over the original note.
So if you get a chorus pedal that’s particularly pitch-heavy, like the CE-5, things will almost sound out of tune on certain settings.
Again, a lot of that can be solved by tinkering with the depth knob, but if you want to avoid too much pitch fluctuation, try a few different chorus pedals and go with one that doesn’t embellish that part of the effect as much.
Getting Chorus Pedal Settings Right
It doesn’t take a lot of work to get it right, but chorus just isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it kind of effect. You’ll need to do some tweaking and adjustments on the fly, but a well placed chorus is worth the effort.
It may just be that you have a bad chorus pedal for what you’re trying to do.
Then just keep in mind that the game plan is to keep it simple.