The answer is: It depends… 🙂
More likely than not, when I want dirt, I just crank my amp or at the very least get it to the edge of breakup, then use input volume and attack to get it. For some people, a cranked amp is all they need. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. And for a few years, I didn’t use any dirt pedals for overdrive; just my amp. But overdrive slut that I am, I eventually returned to using them. But unlike many players who use overdrive and distortion through a clean headroom amp, relying entirely on their dirt pedal(s) to give them their distorted tone, I use my overdrives, distortion and booster to enhance the overdrive tone of my amp. Here’s how I set my drive pedals up…
In front of my amp
I’ll usually have three drive pedals that I place in front of my amp. First in the chain is always a transparent overdrive. I use a Timmy for that. Next in line is an overdrive that adds color and that I can stack on top of my transparent overdrive. The longest in that position has been my Tone Freak Abunai 2, which has a great compressed tone in its asymmetrical mode, plus a nice bottom-mid. But I will also switch it out with either a GeekMacDaddy Geek Driver (based on the original ColorSound Overdriver circuit – originals sell for about $1200), a Doodad Check-A-Board Red (kind of a brighter TS-808), or when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll put my TS-808 re-issue in that position. Last in that chain would be a distortion pedal. I only have one and that is the incredible EWS Little Brute Drive.
At the end of my effects loop
I place my booster (Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Transparent Boost) at the end of my effects loop, which means it’s the last pedal before my power tubes. This gives a modest volume boost, but if my power tubes are already overdriving, it’ll knock them into full saturation, and I can get some nice power tube compression. This is great when I want to add some drama to a lead.
Some people prefer the “amp in a box” type of overdrives, letting overdrive pedals produce their distortion. I rarely use the overdrive pedals with a clean amp as I love the interplay between the natural distortion of an amp and the distortion of the pedals. What this also means is that because I use these pedals with an already breaking up amp, I rarely crank up the gain on these devices. I think that this where the true power of the overdrive pedal resides, as it is half booster, half soft-clipping device. The boost part can push an amp into breakup, then the clipping section will add another dimension to the distortion. Using an overdrive like this, it can be difficult dialing in a good balance between amp and pedal overdrive, but once I’ve found the sweet spot, it’s total ear candy.
I’ve talked previously about how I use my booster in my effects loop, so I won’t go into detail here, but with a booster, it gives me a secondary area to push my amp: after the preamp and before the power section. I like having two independent ways to introduce more gain into my amp. It’s a little finer control.
This is what works for me right now. A few years ago, that arrangement changed practically weekly as I was experimenting with different things. But I’ve pretty much established how I like to use my pedals, and haven’t changed much other than swapping out in specific positions.