Chorus effect: a comprehensive guide on the popular 80s effect

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  August 31, 2022

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Seeing its heydays in the 70s and 80s and revived by Nirvana in the 90s, the chorus is one of the most iconic effects ever used in rock music history.

The shimmering sound imbued onto the guitar’s tone resulted in a refined, “wet” tone that refined and embellished almost every song that came out in those eras.

Whether we mention The Police’s “Walking On The Moon” from the 70s, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” from the 90s, or many other iconic records, none would be the same without the chorus effect.

Chorus effect- a comprehensive guide on the popular 80s effect

In music, a chorus effect occurs when two sounds with roughly the same timbre and nearly the same pitch converge and form a sound that is perceived as a single. While similar sounds coming from multiple sources can occur naturally, you can also simulate them using a chorus pedal.

In this article, I will give you a basic idea of the chorus effect, its history, uses, and all the iconic songs that were made using the specific effect.

What is the chorus effect?

In super-non technical words, the term “chorus” is used for a sound that is produced when two instruments play the same part simultaneously, with slight variations in timing and pitch.

To give you an example, let’s talk about a choir. In a choir, multiple voices are singing the same piece, but each voice’s pitch is slightly different than the other.

There is always a natural variation between the singers, even when they sing the same notes.

The resulting sound taken together is fuller, bigger, and more complex than if just a single voice was singing.

However, the example above is just to give you a basic understanding of the effect; it gets more complex when we move to the guitar.

The chorus effect in guitar playing can be achieved by two or more guitar player hitting the exact same notes at the same time.

For a solo guitar player, however, the chorus effect is achieved electronically.

This is done by duplicating a single signal and reproducing the sound simultanously while altering the pitch and timing of the copy by a fraction.

As the duplicating sound is arranged ever so slightly out of time as well as out of tune with the original, it gives the impression of two guitars playing together.

This effect is created with the help of the chorus pedal.

You can hear how it sounds in this video:

How does a chorus pedal work?

A chorus pedal works by receiving an audio signal from the guitar, altering the delay time, and mixing it with the original signal, as mentioned.

Usually, you will find the following controls on a chorus pedal:

Rate

This control on the LFO or chorus pedal decides how faster or slower the guitar’s chorus effect moves from one extreme to another.

In other words, rate makes the wavering sound of the guitar faster or slower as per your liking.

Depth

The depth control lets you decide how much of the chorus effect you get when you play the guitar.

By adjusting the depth, you are controlling the pitch-shifting and delay-time of the chorus effect.

Effect level

Effect level control lets you decide how much you hear the effect compared to the original guitar sound.

Though not one of the basic controls, it’s still useful when you are an advanced guitar player.

E.Q control

Many chorus pedals offer equalization controls to help cut out excess low frequencies.

In other words, it allows you to adjust the brightness of the guitar’s sound and enables you to get the most variety out of your pedal.

Other chorus parameters

Apart from the controls mentioned above, there are some other parameters you need to know, especially if you are a guitar newbie in your learning phase or are simply more into mixing:

Delay

Best strings for electric guitar
Best strings for electric guitar

The delay parameter decides how much of the delayed input is mixed with the original sound signal produced by the guitar. It is modulated by an LFO, and its value is in milliseconds. Just so you know, the longer the delay, the wider will be the sound produced.

Feedback

Feedback, well, controls the amount of feedback you get from the device. It decides how much of the modulated signal is mixed with the original one.

This parameter is also commonly used in flagging effects.

Width

It controls how the sound will interact with output devices like speakers and headphones. When the width is kept at 0, the output signal is known as mono.

However, as you increase the width, the sound widens, which is called stereo.

Dry and wet signal

This determines how much of the original sound is mixed with the affected sound.

A signal that is unprocessed and not affected by the chorus is called a dry signal. In this case, the sound is basically bypassing the chorus.

On the other hand, the signal affected by the chorus is called a wet signal. It lets us decide how much the chorus will affect the original sound.

For example, if a sound is 100% wet, the output signal is completely processed by the chorus, and the original sound has been stopped from continuing through.

If you are using a chorus plugin, there might as well be separate controls for both wet and dry. In that case, both dry and wet can be 100%.

History of chorus effect

Though the chorus effect got widely popular in the 70s and 80s, its history can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Hammond organ instruments were being detuned on purpose.

This “physical detuning,” combined with Leslie’s speaker cabinet in the 40s, created a warbling and expansive sound that would become one of the most iconic pitch modulation effects in the history of rock music.

However, there was still a gap of a few decades before the first chorus pedal would be invented, and until then this phase-shifting vibrato effect was only available to organ players.

For guitarists, it was impossible to perform it properly in live performances; hence, they sought the help of studio equipment to double their tracks to achieve chorus effects.

Although musicians like Les Paul and Dick Dale continuously experimented with vibrato and tremolo in the 50s to achieve something similar, it was still nowhere close to what we can achieve today.

It all changed with the introduction of the Roland Jazz Chorus Amplifier in 1975. It was an invention that changed the rock music world forever, for good.

The invention leaped forward pretty quickly when just one year later, when Boss, the first ever commercially sold chorus pedal, was wholly inspired by the design of Rolan Jazz Chorus Amplifier.

Though it didn’t have the vibrato and stereo effect as the amplifier, there was nothing like it for its size and worth.

In other words, If the amplifier changed the rock music, the pedal revolutionalized it!

In the years to follow, the effect was used in every single record released by every major and minor band.

In fact, It got so popular that people had to request studios not to add a chorus effect to their music.

With the 80s seeing its end, the craze of chorus effect sound vanished with it, and very few renowned musicians used it afterward.

Among them, the most influential musician that kept the chorus effect alive was Curt Kobain, who used it in songs like “Come as You Are” in 1991 and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1992:

Fast forward to today, we have myriad varieties of chorus pedals, each more advanced than the other, with the use of chorus effect also quite common; however, not as popular as it used to be back in the day.

The effect is only used when needed and not just “fitted” in every music piece produced like in the 80s.

Where to place the chorus pedal in your affect chain?

According to expert guitarists, the best position to place a chorus pedal comes after the wah pedal, compression pedal, overdrive pedal, and distortion pedal.

Or before the delay, reverb and tremolo pedal… or simply next to your vibrato pedals.

Since vibrato and chorus effects are similar for the most part, it doesn’t matter if the pedals are placed interchangeably.

If you are using numerous pedals, you might as well like to use a chorus pedal with a buffer.

A buffer gives the output signal a boost that ensures that there isn’t any audio drop when the signal reaches the amp.

Most chorus pedals come without a mild buffer and are known commonly as “truly bypass pedals.”

These don’t give the much-needed sound boost and are only suited for smaller setups.

Learn more about how to set up guitar effects pedals and make a pedalboard here

How chorus effect helps in mixing

Using just the right amount of chorus effect in mixing or audio production can dramatically improve the quality of your music.

Following are some ways it can help you refine your music through the plugin:

It helps add width

With a chorus plugin, you can widen the mix just enough to make your music from good to great.

You can achieve this by altering the right and left channels independently and choosing different settings at each.

To create an impression of width, it’s also important to keep the strength and depth slightly lower than usual.

It helps polish plain sounds

A subtle hint of chorusing effect can really polish and brighten up a dull sound of any instrument, whether it’s acoustic instruments, organs, or even synth strings.

All the good things considered, I would still only recommend using it when producing a really busy mix as it won’t be much noticeable.

If the mix is sparse, you should use it very carefully! Anything sounding “over” can ruin your whole music.

It helps with improving vocals

In most cases, it’s great to keep the vocals in the center of the mix, as it’s the main focus of every audio piece.

However, sometimes, it’s good to add some stereo to the voice and make it a little wider than usual.

If you decide to do so, adding 10-20% of chorus to the mix with a 1Hz rate can significantly improve the overall mix quality.

Best songs with chorus effect

As mentioned, the chorus effect has been a part of some of the most remarkable musical pieces produced from the mid-70s to mid-90s.

Following are some of them:

  • The police’s “Walking on the moon”
  • Nirvana’s “Come as you are”
  • Draft Punk’s “Get Lucky”
  • U2’S “I Will Follow”
  • Jaco Pastorius’s “Continuum”
  • Rush’s “Spirit Of Radio”
  • The La’s “There She Goes”
  • The Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s “Mellowship Slinky in B Major”
  • Metallica’s “Welcome Home”
  • Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”

FAQs

What does a chorus effect do?

A chorus effect thickens the guitar tone. It sounds like many guitars or a “chorus” playing simultaneously.

How does chorus affect the sound?

The chorus pedal will take a single audio signal and split it into two, or multiple signals, with one having the original pitch and the rest with a subtly lower pitch than the original.

It is used mainly for electric guitars and pianos.

What is chorus effect on the keyboard?

It does the same to the keyboard as to the guitar, thickening the sound and adding a swirling property to it.

Conclusion

Though not as in trend as it used to be in the past, the chorus effect is still very well in use among mixers and musicians alike.

The unique quality it adds to the sound brings the best out of the instrument, making it sound more refined and polished.

In this article, I covered all the basics you need to know about the chorus effect in the most straightforward words possible.

Next, check out my review of the top 12 best guitar multi-effect pedals

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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