As you become a more proficient guitarist, chances are you'll want to expand your sonic palette with pedals and effects that'll help you refine your sound signature. However, while the differences between a delay and, let's say, a reverb might be clear to you from day one, there are certain effects that have many things in common in the way they work and manipulate sound but can bring to life completely different sonic textures.
This is the case of the flanger vs. phaser debate, two crucial effects among guitarists (and not only) across all genres, who are often still confused as to what these two have in common and what their similarities are. Both modulation effects can help you craft a beautiful sound, but first, you'll need to understand their properties and how to make the most out of them.
So today's article will be focused on the "flanger vs phaser" topic: how these two effects work and sound when connected to a guitar, and how to choose the one that best suits your needs. At the end of the piece, I'll also recommend a few pedals and plugins that will satisfy your creative needs.
Flanger vs. Phaser: in a nutshell
Confusion between these two modulation effects arises because, with certain settings, they can sound extremely similar or wildly different. The way they both manipulate the original signal is by delaying the signal and mixing it back in with the dry signal, often creating evocative, psychedelic sound textures.
Simply put, a flanger pedal duplicates the original signal, slightly delaying the new copy by max 15ms and then modulating the delay time. The resulting "jet plane" effects come from mixing the delayed track with the original signal, with the delay time modulated through a low-frequency oscillator (LFO) that creates a sweeping effect.
A phaser effect uses all-pass filters to create numerous notch filters in the frequency spectrum of the audio signal, phase-shifting it in a non-linear way. The result is a "swishing" sound that's more subtle and gentler than the flanger, with certain frequencies emphasized or mitigated, giving a sense of constantly-evolving sound.
Both flanger pedals and phaser pedals clone the original signal, apply time delay and use the LFO to create a modulated effect. The resulting effect of both pedals is called a comb filter, which happens when two signals reach your ears at different moments. The comb filtering created by a phaser is more subtle, which is why the effect sounds less drastic than a flanger. The term "comb filter" comes from the way the waveforms look in a spectrum analyzer or DAW.
We could also add chorus pedals into the mix and discuss these three effects' key differences, but things might get too complicated, so we'll leave the chorus effect for another time. For now, let's just say these three effects share many similarities but can also sculpt completely different sound textures.
Flanger: an overview
A flanger pedal splits the input signal, and the interaction between the time-delayed signal and the original one causes a comb filtering across the frequency spectrum that generates that distinctive, swooshing flanger sound.
Although created by Les Paul while experimenting with tape recording, it's the Beatles who made flanger pedals and effect popular, thanks to their experimentation in the recording studio with producer Ken Townsend. Lennon, in particular, would record and play together two vocal tracks, with one slightly delayed to create a hypnotic and immersive effect. Beatles would make the flanger sound one of their (many) trademarks in music history.
Phaser: an overview
Signal duplication also happens with phaser pedals. However, through all-pass filters, this modulation effect identifies a certain frequency range and moves it out of phase, delaying certain frequencies in a different way than others. When combined with the dry signal, the carrier signal will bring to life a more intricate texture than the one created by a flanger.
This effect has been used by dozens of legendary guitarists and keyboardists over the years. Perhaps the most daring musicians have been Jimmy Paige and Eddie Van Halen, who used it to create a balanced and engaging guitar effect for their tracks. To hear the effect clearly, check out the beautiful No Quarter by Led Zeppelin.
Flanger vs. Phaser: Which one should you get
Choosing the right effect will depend exclusively on your needs and expectations. All in all, flanger pedals are more reliable, while phasers create a more enveloping sound. If you perform live, a flanger’s predictability might reassure artists and allow them to perform without issues.
On the other hand, the intricate soundscape of phaser pedals, with their all-pass filters, might be ideal in the recording studio, allowing you to unleash your creativity and experiment more with your instrument.
Below you’ll find a few examples of the most popular songs where you can clearly hear either a flanger or a phaser. This should help you clarify which effect will best satisfy your needs.
Examples of Flanger and Phaser in music
Walking On The Moon (The Police)
Here's the flanger effect in all its beauty: Summers' shimmering guitar texture show how the perfect effect can create an immersive soundscape even when playing just a few notes.
Cowboys From Hell (Pantera)
The title track of Pantera's iconic album starts with an engine-like sound that anticipates the Dimebag's unmistakable Randall RG-100ES. This sound is the result of a combination of effects revolving around an MXR Flanger Doubler.
Head Over Heels (Tears for Fears)
To hear how far flanger pedals can enhance the beauty and depth of a track, look no further than Head Over Heels, an exceptional pop song that exudes impressive sonic craftsmanship.
Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Pink Floyd)
For this iconic track, David Gilmour used the MXR Phase 90, a must-have pedal if you're looking to recreate the unique 70s spacey vibe.
Mayonnaise (Smashing Pumpkins)
The nostalgic yet galvanizing atmospheres created by James Iha and Billy Corgan are the result of a carefully-crafted sound signature enriched by a plethora of excellent phasers, including the Mu-Tron Bi-phase, the Small Stone, Bad Stone, and more.
Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love (Van Halen)
Eddie Van Halen’s iconic sound relies on the power and versatility of his Phase 90. Together with his MXR Flanger, these two effects created a distinctive sound that defined hard rock in the 80s and early 90s.
Best Flangers – pedals and plugins
Boss Bf-3 Flanger
Known for their professional modulation pedals, Boss has helped refine the rock sound of the last few decades. With the Bf-3, you can create an enriching flanging effect and add more depth to your sound signature.
Perhaps my favorite flanger pedal, the Strymon Deco will help you create a distinctive tape-flanging sound that'll add warmth and dimensionality to your guitar or synth.
JOYO Classic Flanger
Affordable yet extremely versatile, the JOYO Classic Flanger allows you to create the legendary flanger sweep that has defined the career of many guitar players. By adjusting the width and delay time, you can create a powerful jet engine sound that'll enrich the sonic palette of your music production.
Valhalla Space Modulator
There's no doubt in my mind Valhalla is creating some of the most interesting guitar plugins in the market these days, and the Space Modulator is the embodiment of their commitment to sonic authenticity. The best thing of all? It's free.
A personal favorite of mine and a flanger plugin I've been using for years, Kiloheart's Flanger can perfectly recreate the versatility and depth of a high-quality phaser pedal.
Best Phasers - pedals and plugins
Walrus Audio Lillian
Here's a fully-analog phaser effect that enables guitarists across all genres to recreate a 70s vintage sound. This multi-stage Phaser offers plenty of versatility and an authentic sound: everything you need to upgrade your guitar's sound.
MXR Phase 95
The popular MXR Phase 95 allows you to switch between vintage and modern styles, and although it might not be the most versatile phaser out there, it's still one of those phaser effects that defined the history of music.
JHS 3 Series Phaser
This six-stage phaser pedal will please those who love the 70s sound and are looking for the perfect gear to recreate it. The JHS 3 has a minimal design, but the controls allow for endless sound personalization, with a blending effect that can help you mix classic phaser circuits together.
An all-in-one solution for musicians who want to upgrade their tracks with authentic phase sweeps and a silky analog sound. With 69 style presets and up to 24 stages, with PhaseMistress, you'll be able to fully unleash your creative side.
Softube Fix Phaser
Another excellent plugin is the Softube Fix Phaser: thanks to its wide array of effects and controls, creating a spacey, swirling sound effect will take seconds. The plugin comes with an intuitive interface, a virtual Eurorack platform, and Amp Room for endless sound customization.
Flanger vs. Phaser: Final thoughts
I hope this guide will help you identify which effect best suits your needs! As always, my recommendation is to experiment with both and find out which one inspires you more and fits better with your existing equipment.
It’s no surprise that it’s often hard to discern whether an artist is using a flanger or phaser, given they can sound very much alike with the right settings. If you’re still not sure as to which effect is right for you, check out your favorite artist’s musical equipment and find out how they created their unique sound signature. That’ll give you a head start.
Good luck, and stay creative!