Guitar Multi-Effects vs. Single Pedals (Pros & Cons)


As the modern digital age continues to make enormous strides within the guitar gear industry.

Players ponder whether multi-effects are better than a traditional pedalboard full of pretty analog pedals.

Has the versatility of digital gear finally matched up to analog pedals? Or are individual pedals the best option for creating your ultimate pedalboard setup?

What you will learn

In this post, I will outline the vital pros and cons of individual pedals vs. multi-effect pedals.

By the end, you will know the perks and downfalls of both types of pedalboard setups. So you can make the right decision based on your practice and gigging needs.

There’s a lot to get through in this informative post. So let’s start with the short answer.

What is the difference between multi-effects pedals and buying single-pedals?

Multi-effects pedals are more tonally diverse, compact, and cheaper, offering a full spectrum of guitar tones. In contrast, Individual analog pedals sound better, are simpler to use, allow for more flexibility in choosing individual sounds. However, it is more expensive to craft a pedalboard from single pedals.

Comparison Video (Watch Below)

Pros of Multi-Effects

Pro #1 – Tons of Sounds & Guitar Tones

Multi-effects offer a ton of tonal possibilities. Every effect, preset, and customizable tone is at your disposal. A guitar player’s dream, right? 

Allowing you total tonal freedom to craft and experiment with tons of sounds. Even better, all in one compact unit ready to go straight out the box. Ultimately giving you the benefit of a vast palette of tones and sounds. 

Now obviously, these products come in a spectrum of prices and levels of advancement. 

For example, let’s take a look at a classic middle-of-the-road multi-effects pedal…

The Boss ME 80 is priced at a reasonable $320 (Guitar Centre) 

For this price this multi-effect unit offers….

  • Effects: phaser, tremolo, boost, delay, chorus, EQ, 3 different reverb modes, overdrive/ distortion, compressor, octave, and more
  • Dials for total customization 
  • Looper function
  • 9 simulated amps
  • Banks and patches assignment 
  • 8 switches
  • USB Connection
  • Expression Pedal
  • Headphone connection
  • Boss Tonestudio software 

As you can see, you get a massive palette of sounds and possibilities, making it a ‘swiss army knife’ of potential guitar tones. 

Which for an effect junky and tone nerd, a guitar player’s dream. All of this in a portable unit to transfer to gigs, practice, and recording.

And because of its digital nature, it is a huge space saver with a small footprint.

For $320, you get everything for gigging, practicing, and rehearsing without buying an army of single stompboxes.

It’s difficult for single-stompboxes to compete with the tonal versatility of multi-effects pedals.  

Pro #2 – Effortlessly Switch to Different Tones (Presets)

Now here is where multi-effect pedals really shine!

Multi-effects have a sizable advantage of allowing you to create, edit, and most importantly, recall presets with one press of a footswitch.

Allowing you to organize banks and assign them to your footswitch for a gig-ready pedalboard right at your feet.  

This is useful for a bedroom guitarist. But even more so for a live-performing guitarist. Who needs to switch to different tones quickly with little hassle. 

The point is that a multi-effects unit can effortlessly switch to different tones you have created without doing a bunch of tap dancing, as is the case with individual stompboxes.

Promoting you to concentrate on what is important during a performance, which is your playing. 

For example, a typical live multi-effects footswitch arrangement could be…

  • Preset 1 ‘your clean channel’ – bright and shimmering clean tone with a hint of reverb
  • Preset 2 ‘your rhythm channel’ – slightly overdriven crunchy tone 
  • Preset 3 ‘your lead channel’ – warm overdriven tone with a touch of delay and wet reverb 
  • Preset 4 ‘your 2nd lead channel’ – Aggressive fuzzy tone with the wah pedal engaged for a piercing lead sound 

You get the picture!

Your tonal arrangement depends on what tones you need at your disposal for a live gig. Being the beauty of digital effects. They are highly versatile and functional in a live-performing environment. 

Pro #3 – Perfect for Beginners Starting Out

It’s fair to say beginners don’t have a large budget for gear when starting out.

Spending $100+ on a single stompbox pedal isn’t exactly value for money and unable to achieve a ton of tones. Especially when beginners want lots of effects and sounds to experiment with without spending a pretty penny.

Hence why budget multi-effects units are the perfect solution for beginners. The reason is these affordable units can cost as little as $100 or less.

Some examples of these pedals are…

Affordable Multi-Effects Ideal for Beginners

  • Behringer Digital Multi-FX FX600$58.50
  • Vox StompLab IIG Modeling Guitar Effect Processor$99.99
  • Digitech Element XP Multi-Effects Pedal$109
  • Zoom G1X FOUR Multi-effects Processor$119.99
  • Zoom MS-50G MultiStomp Guitar Effects$129.99

The beauty is that most affordable multi-effects contain every effect a beginner could want.

And because of this, beginners can have all the tones they need without shelling out lots of money. Which is an annoyance with a pedalboard containing all single stompbox pedals. 

Budget multi-effects allow beginners to delve into the world of different guitar sound. Allowing them to experiment, learn how to EQ, introduce them to lots of effects to practice with, and get lots of interesting guitar sounds.

This is the reason I am all for budget multi-effects for beginners.

It has to be said, budget multi-effects are not super ideal as a gigging companion. (you will want something more advanced in the future.)

With that said, budget multi-effect pedals are best utilized for casual bedroom practice sessions.    

Pro #4 – Connectivity For Live Performances

Due to the connection options, advanced multi-effects have the capabilities of hooking up your live rig in many different scenarios. 

For example, let’s say you only have the option of using the venue’s amplifier for a gig. However, the amp does not sound good to your ears. Multi-effects with the right connections can offer alternative selections…

For example…

(Scenario 1) You can bypass the amplifier’s preamp section by plugging it into the ‘effects return’ and only use the power section. Therefore you are only utilizing the power section and avoid the tone of the amp. 

(Scenario 2) You can bypass the amp completely and connect your signal into the venue’s front-of-house system. You do this by taking your multi-effects signal (with an amp cab simulator engaged) straight into a DI box. The DI box can take the signal to the venue’s mixing board to play your signal directly through the PA system. Meaning you can bypass the amp all together. 

Other Pros to Note

  • Only need to power one source instead of lots of individual pedals 
  • Some units are battery-powered 
  • Multi-effects pedals are very reliable, sturdy, and battle-ready.  
  • Some pedals come with recording functionality 
  • Headphone inputs allow for silent practice sessions 
  • Simply plug in, power up, and play 
  • Minimal guitar cables required 

Cons of Multi-Effects

Con #1 – Digital Sound

This point is the biggest drawback. It also goes back to the digital vs. analog gear debate.

As much as digital guitar gear has made strides in the past decade. Sounding more, well…. analog. 

Unfortunately, digital gear can fall short of the real thing, and multi-effects are no question. 

The biggest con players state with multi-effects (depending on the unit.) Is that digital effects can sound a little too ‘processed’ and ‘unnatural.‘ 

For example, digital distortions can sound ‘fizzy,’ ‘harsh,’ and ‘unnatural.’ Unable to replicate the smooth and authentic sound of analog gear such as a tube amp (although they do a great impersonation.) 

For some players, this is enough to shy away from multi-effects pedals altogether. Especially avoiding them for any live gig. Considering that the quality of the distortion is a make or break aspect as it is 70% of most guitar tones.

In contrast, some players like the ‘fizzy’ and ‘processed’ nature of the digital distortion. As it sounds more aggressive for their needs.

Combined with that, they have a vast palette of tones at their disposal in a compact pedalboard. 

With that said, It just depends if you like the digital sound to digital gear. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong answer. As it all depends on personal tastes, especially when it comes to analog vs. digital tones. 

Con #2 – High-End Multi-Effects Are Expensive 

Let’s say you want a super high-end multi-effects pedal? For the best tone quality, effects, connections, and versatility possible.

Well, unfortunately, these units cost a hefty sum. Some examples include…

  • Line 6 Helix Multi-Effects Guitar Pedal$1500
  • HeadRush Pedalboard Multi-Effects Processor$1099
  • BOSS GT-1000 Multi-Effects Guitar Pedal$1060
  • BOSS GT-1000CORE Multi-Effects Processor$700
  • Line 6 POD HD Pro X Guitar Multi-Effects Processor $550 

You get the picture! 

For these prices, you can easily create your dream pedalboard with individual stompboxes. Which defeats the object of buying a multi-effects pedal. 

Even more, is that you get all the pros of stompbox pedals and just simply get the pedals that you actually need. Therefore not wasting money on things like phasers or unnecessary bells and whistles. 

Furthermore, you need to be pretty experienced to know how to operate a complex multi-effect pedal. This brings me to the next issue. 

Con #3 – Confusing to Operate 

There’s no doubt that with any multi-effects pedal. There’s some time needed to learn how to adjust presets, assign, and learn how the interface and software works.

Some products can be very confusing to operate (especially the advanced ones.) 

Also, if the multi-effects pedal comes with a tiny LED screen, life is even more difficult.

Effect companies dedicate themselves to make products as easy as possible to operate. But not this is not always the case. To a beginner, a large effect unit full of bells and whistles can be a bit overwhelming.

Even so, consulting the manual is hard work in itself. However, with stompboxes, things are much more straightforward. 

Let’s take an example. Need a touch more distortion from your distortion pedal?

Simply adjust the gain knob staring you in the face. It’s simple as all the controls are there right in front of you, instead of staring at a small screen, logging into the preset bank, and making the necessary adjustments. 

As you can see, multi-effects pedals can be a little cumbersome to operate, especially on the fly compared to stompboxes. This could definitely make a difference during a live performance.

Con #4 – Limited in Tonal Diversity

When purchasing a multi-effects pedalboard from any certain brands such as BOSS, Tonelab, Zoom, etc.

If you don’t like the tonal character produced. Unfortunately, you are stuck with that sound. 

Meaning that multi-effects pedals do not allow total flexibility over your core sound. Sure, you get a lot of tonal versatility with tons of effects and tonal possibilities. 

The problem is with a large multi-effect pedal. Your tone is cementedinto that brand’s tonal character. 

For example, let’s say you have a multi-effects unit. You like all the effects except the core sound of the chorus effect. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to change it. 

The solution would be to buy a supplementary chorus pedal. However, this defeats the objective of buying a mid to high spec multi-effects pedal in the first place.    

Whereas individual pedals allow you to ‘cherry-pick’ the tones and flavors you like from certain branded stompboxes. Giving you total control over the tonal flavors within your pedalboard setup.   

Other Cons of Multi-Effects Pedals 

  • Some advanced multi-effects pedals require software updates 
  • If your multi-effects pedal breaks during a gig your whole rig goes down
  • Large units are heavy and a niusance to transport

Pros of Single Stompbox Pedals 

Pro #1 – Analog = Better Sound

A pedalboard comprised of single pedals offers the advantage of a rig containing analog gear.

Analog pedals provide better tone quality, adding realism, depth, and authenticity to your sound than digital gear.

The reason is analog pedals do not contain chips and processors. Therefore, the signal is minimally processed and is not compressed to hell like certain digital effects.

It means that analog stompboxes preserve the core sound of your guitar and amp. Analog pedals only color the signal without oversaturating it with digital processing which hinders signal quality. 

Although analog gear may not offer as much versatility as digital effects. Analog gear will always outshine when it comes to tone quality and authenticity.

I will admit, digital effects are improving year after year. Sounding more and more realistic. However, the truth is, ‘digital effects will always sound digital.

With this in mind, it all depends on personal opinion. Some players like the digital element to tones from a digital effect.

Whereas tone purists will always prefer the more authentic and smoother sound of analog over digital effects. 

Keep in mind, guitar tone is incredibly subjective. It all depends on personal taste as there is no right or wrong answer. 

Keep in mind that some pedals are designed to be the ‘icing on the cake’ subtly coloring the signal. Whereas some pedals are designed to heavily modify your signal depending on the effect.  

Pro #2 – Craft a Unique Guitar Tone 

Individual pedals from different brands carry their own individual quirks and uniqueness.

This is the fun part of building a custom pedalboard from scratch. Single pedals allow you to ‘cherry-pick’ the exact tonal elements you want in your rig. 

For example, various distortion pedals are designed to sound either

  • Aggressive
  • Subtle
  • Smooth
  • Piercing
  • Or mimic the tone of certain amps

Therefore, this provides you with infinite selections of the precise tones you want in your rig. As single embrace their own unique tone, parameters, and quirks. 

Individual guitar pedals also allow you to bring all these unique tones and blend them together. This is to create something new and unique. Giving your sound its own personality and style. 

This is arguably a massive pro about building a pedalboard from scratch. It gives you total control over what type of sounds you want to include within your pedalboard setup. It also means you can exclude all the things that you don’t need within your rig.   

Multi-effects are rigid in this aspect. For example, purchasing a BOSS multi-effect pedalboard will only provide BOSS effects and sounds. Therefore, if you don’t like the tone of certain effects. Well, unfortunately, you are stuck with them.

Pro #3 – Customize Pedal Chain Order 

Single-pedals are more flexible when it comes to ordering your pedal chain. They allow you to arrange your pedals exactly the way you like them.

For example, if you want your compression before or after your dirt section (distortion and overdrives.) Simple swap the pedal order to your tastes. 

So individual pedals offer an extra element of versatility and personalization. Adding your own stamp and personality to your live rig. 

Ordering pedals in different combinations will change the overall sound allowing you to experiment and get creative. Which, after all, is the fun part of crafting your own sound with individual pedals.

Keep in mind, there are general recommendations to pedal order. Such as dynamic pedals first and delay and reverbs last. But keep in mind, there are no hard rules when it comes to pedal order. 

Pro #4 – Easy to Dial-in Tones 

Another pro of the individual pedal route is simplicity. This is due to minimal dials on individual pedals.

It’s effortless to quickly adjust the dials and personalize the tone from each individual stompbox, even on the fly. The dials are there right in front of you! What you see is what you can adjust.   

In comparison, multi-effects units require you to scroll to the effect then make the adjustments. Plus, navigating all of this on a small annoying LED screen is cumbersome.

Let’s not forget, each multi-effect pedal is different when it comes to navigation.

With any multi-effects pedal, time is needed to become familiar with the interface, dials, buttons, and software. This can be very confusing at first, especially for a beginner. 

In contrast, it is effortless to execute tone modifications to each individual pedal. As stompbox pedals are very minimal in nature.

Other Pros of Single Stompbox Pedals

  • Simple to mount pedals on a pedalboard
  • Single-pedals tend to hold their price value
  • Avoid the pedals you don’t need keeping it simple and minimal
  • Budget stompboxes can serve as great backups

Cons of Single Stompbox Pedals 

Con #1 – Individual Pedals are More Expensive 

The biggest drawback with single-pedals is the expense.

Even building a small stompbox pedalboard can get very expensive. The typical price ranges for a single-pedal can range from…

  • Budget Stompboxes – $25 – $50
  • Mini Pedals – $50 – $90
  • Mid-Tier Stompboxes – $80 – $120
  • High-end brands –$100 – $200
  • Boutique stomboxes – $200+

So using a simple example. Let’s say you want a small pedalboard with 5 Boss stompboxes costing $80 – $100 each (the usual price range.) 

5 pedals at $100 each = $500

As you can see, buying single-pedals can get very expensive. Not to mention your need to acquire the…

  • Pedalboard itselfto mount the individual pedals
  • Additional cablesto chain all the pedals together
  • power sourcesto power each pedal

This is the obvious drawback of buying individual pedals despite their tonal uniqueness. To even make a small pedalboard with a few stompboxes is an expensive investment. 

Furthermore, if you are a guitar player who needs a lot of effects and sounds. Then you will need to cough up a tidy sum to achieve the tonal diversity you need.

With that said, there is the option of buying pedals second hand but even so. Arranging a pedalboard with only secondhand pedals is still an expensive purchase.

Con #2 – Switching Guitar Tones Requires Tap Dancing 

Executing intricate tonal changes with single pedals requires a lot of tap dancing. Unfortunately, with single pedals you can only engage/disengage one pedal at a time. 

That, unfortunately, distracts from your playing. Which is not ideal when playing during a live performance.

For example…

Let’s say you are running your pedalboard through the clean channel of your amp. And want to switch from a distorted rhythm tone to a bright, clean tone. 

With a pedalboard consisting of individual stompboxes, it would go something like this…

  1. Disengage distortion pedal
  2. Engange compressor pedal 
  3. Engage reverb pedal 

Three separate pedal changes are a lot of work and very cumbersome.

Obviously, single pedals do not allow you to effortlessly switch to vastly different guitar tones without tap dancing.

This is something to keep in mind if you are a live-gigging guitarist who requires changing to many contrasting guitar tones. 

With this in mind, there is a solution. There are devices known as ‘pedal switchers.’ These devices can create programmed digital banks and maps of your stompboxes. 

Allowing you to create ‘programmed banks’ from your stompbox pedals. Giving you the freedom to change to vastly different guitar tones. Essentially condensing lots of foot pedal presses to just one press of a footswitch. 

However, these devices are expensive and start at around $350. Not exactly a cheap solution to the problem. 

As a side note, I have an awesome article explaining more about pedal switchers. You can view this informative article right here! 

Con #3 – Limited Space on a Pedalboard 

Another issue with single-pedals is the annoying aspect of space.

When planning a pedalboard setup, You have to carefully plan whether your individual stompboxes can fit snugly on your pedalboard. 

A small pedalboard is rather restricted in space. It requires you to prioritize what stompboxes take priority on your board. 

And only allows for a handful of options. Unfortunately, the size of the pedalboard dictates how many pedals you can mount to your board. This limits the number of tones, effects, and sounds available. 

Therefore, a guitar player requiring a lot of pedals. such as wah, volume pedal, reverbs, delays, effects, etc. It means you have to purchase a reasonably large pedalboard mount straight out the gate (which isn’t cheap.)  

Standard-sized pedals typically take up a lot of room. With that said, mini pedals are becoming ever more popular.

Cramming the same circuitry and tones into a smaller chassis. Allowing more pedals for additional sounds and guitar tones.

But even so, it’s annoying to be limited by pedalboard size when arranging your dream pedalboard with single pedals.

Con #4 – Reliability 

Now typically, stompboxes are made from sturdy stuff and are very reliable. However, sometimes they can fail at the worst time.

Typically during a live performance (obviously.) When this happens, it’s difficult to known which pedal is the culprit.

Even worse, If a patch cable fails on you that links all your pedals together. Then it would silence your entire rig.

The worst part is that it would take some time to discover the cable died on you to quickly replace it. 

If you have a large pedalboard setup containing say 10 pedals. Then the problem is magnified even more. 

Therefore, This is another aspect to keep in mind with a stompbox pedal setup. When a pedal or cable dies on you. It’s a nuisance to find the culprit who downed your pedalboard.

More Cons to Note 

  • Wanting more pedals for tonal experimentation means added expense. 
  • Each pedal requires its own power source. 
  • Patch cables and the pedalboard mount adds more expense. 

Before you go

Speaking of pedals, I created a sweet article comparing amp distortion vs. pedal distortion. Want to know the tonal differences? You can read this awesome post here!

Adam

Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

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