The budget guitar multi effects market has come a long way in the last few years, and not everyone can afford a Helix. These are easy on the wallet and ears! Today we check out some pro-level pedals for the stage and studio.
Budget Guitar Multi Effects Pedals: Pro Sounds, Low Price Tag
Being a gigging guitarist has always been a blessing and a curse. Back in the day, you found a guitar you liked, and an amplifier. But then, you needed to build up your pedalboard as well if you wanted to have any effects. Some people still have the luxury of doing things this way, and more power to you.
I was even in that category for quite a while. I was lugging around an amp and a whole bunch of pedals for a while. For years I carried amplifiers to gigs and shows, and the half stack that I had was always too much. Too loud. I rarely got to really crank it, and I swear every venue started having at least one flight of stairs after I turned 30.
The BOSS Katana has solved most of my problems when it comes to live/gigs. With the GA-FC footswitch, I can do just about everything that I need for a gig. I also have a Wah pedal in my effects chain. But I have also been exploring my options for going even less, even smaller. Which brought me to a Helix.
I think the Line 6 Helix is just an absolute beast, and for most guitarists it will have everything you need to gig or record. But then again, it has a lot of features that I never even touch. Hooking it up to the Line 6 Editor can be downright daunting for someone like me that gets option paralysis. But there is another problem for most guitarists; it is expensive.
There was a time when Line 6 products were looked at as toys. The original POD series was a fun little gimmick. But Line 6 has done everything it can to shed that image over the last decade, starting with the POD HD500. Since then, Line 6 has become much more than just a gimmick, seen on stages everywhere.
Of course you also have the Helix LT, for a slightly reduced price. But it is still over $1000, so I wondered what budget guitar multi effects units might have to offer. Now when I say budget, I mean definitely under $500. In fact, I made a whole list of parameters that these budget options had to meet.
Budget Guitar Multi Effects Units: Must Haves
- Lots of input/output options for gigs and the studio.
- We personally tried each one.
- Brand name, pro quality: No Far East clones.
- Enough options to ditch the pedalboard (Tuner, Looper, etc.)
- Some kind of editing software/USB capability.
- Versatile enough for any genre of music.
- Expression/Wah pedal.
- Works well with any sound board/interface or an FRFR Cab.
- Easy to use, and program patches.
- Professional quality sound
- Under $500.
Finding budget guitar multi effects units that hit all of those needs, was not easy. There are some great products that could act as a supplement to your existing rig, like the HX Stomp by Line 6. But I wanted these to be an “all in one” solution that you could carry from the stage to studio.
This means they have to have balanced output to work with a gig venue’s soundboard, or a studio interface. But they also need to work with an FRFR for situations where you need the unit to work like an amp and cab. If you plan on going digital, an FRFR is a great backup to have. Headrush makes a super-affordable one that works great.
The whole idea of going digital is about minimizing your gear, but still having loads of tonal options. This is a tough balance, and some effects pedals are so unique, it can be hard to replace them. So going to completely digital is not going to be for everyone.
But if you do want to get your feet wet, and try out “going digital”, then these are the best budget guitar multi effects units that we could find. So let’s take a look at what each one offers, in no particular order.
It would be nearly impossible to mention budget guitar multi effects units without including ZOOM. This is a brand that has been making cheap guitar gear for a while, and most of it is pretty decent stuff. ZOOM really outdid itself with the G6, and it is packed with some great sounds. Let’s talk about the good first:
- Touch Screen Interface
- Tons Of Amps And Effects
- Easy To Program
- Intuitive Switching
- 2 Hour Looper (With An SD Card)
The touch screen interface is really cool, and makes designing your signal chain like using your phone or tablet. The screen is very responsive, and its big enough to see clearly on stage. Every input and output you could ever want is built in to the back of the unit, including a spot for an SD card.
There are tons of amplifiers to select from that range from Fender cleans, all the way to the most insane high gain monsters. There are 70+ impulse responses built in, and you can even load up to 100 of your own IRs. There is a little bit of everything when it comes to the effects, including a whammy/drop tune option.
Having your signal chain right on the screen makes it easy to drag and drop amps and effects. The lighted display over the switches is very intuitive, and controlled by the master switch at the top left of the unit. You always know what setting you are on, so you’re not tap dancing on stage with this thing.
The amps all sound great, and respond very much their tube amp counterparts. This means your pick attack and volume has a huge effect on the overall sound, just like a real amp. None of the effects sound cheap or silly like some of the other ZOOM units in the past, everything here is usable and musical.
Being able to have pre-programmed loops via the SD card is not something you usually see on a budget guitar multi effects processor. This allows you to store up to two full hours of loops, perfect for anyone that likes to record riff ideas. The built-in drum machine is cool too, and makes the ZOOM G6 a great songwriting tool.
- It is made out of plastic
- DSP Limitations
Yeah, the first one definitely reminds you that this is a budget guitar multi effects pedal. In defense of ZOOM, the plastic doesn’t seem flimsy or easy to break. The unit is lightweight, and feels pretty solid. You would need to put some serious mass on this thing to get it to break. But I can see why this may be a deal breaker for some guitarists.
The second one is a problem I rarely ran into, but it is very possible. DSP is like your computer’s RAM in a lot of ways. ZOOM even included a screen that shows you how much DSP is being used for each effect in your signal chain.
For the most part, I never had a problem dialing in any tone I wanted, and most effects only take up a tiny bit of DSP. However the octave effects, and de-tuner effects kill the processing power. Anything that had octave, or harmony effects just ate up the DSP of the unit. But that was layering those effects with amps, reverbs, and delays.
I can see the ZOOM G6 working for a lot of guitarists wanting to get into the budget guitar multi effects game. The DSP limitations are not going to affect you if you just want to dial in a “regular” tone. The only real concern is the construction of the unit being plastic. Even then, the ZOOM G6 seems like it can take a good amount of abuse.
The ZOOM G6 is the PERFECT budget guitar multi effects processor for the studio. Using it as a desktop unit would be paramount for guitarists that want to record at home, and it will even act as an interface via USB. All in all, this is a great unit for the price and it sounds spectacular.
Headrush MX5 Quad Core
Headrush might be one of the last companies you would think to find on a budget guitar multi effects list, but here we are! Headrush got its start from the Eleven Rack by the same company that makes Pro Tools. Eleven Rack was…not a big hit. Line 6 and AxeFX outsold Eleven by a huge margin.
So Headrush was kind of a “do over” for the people that designed Eleven Rack. The Headrush MX5 is one of the smallest budget guitar multi effects processors, but it has some serious power under the hood. Also, can I say that this is the only unit I tried that had good presets?
I know that’s a bad way to judge a multi effects unit, the presets are usually just showing off what the unit can do. But these were actually usable! The “Purple Rain” tones were dead on, and I would totally use some of these tones to record. The MX5 works like an interface via USB, if you want to record that way.
The Headrush MX5 has “Quad Core” technology, meaning that unlike the ZOOM, it won’t be running out of DSP anytime soon. It has the same type of touch screen layout, but this is much more intuitive to use, and build your effects chain. You have the usual amps and effects that you would expect, along with recording/gigging outputs and inputs.
- 46 amps, 15 cabs, and hundreds of IR choices.
- Tons of effects, easy drag and drop chain blocks
- Unlimited storage for IRs with 1024 and 2048 sample lengths.
- TRS outputs, dedicated FX Loop
- Expression Pedal Input
- Metal chassis
So pretty much all of the problems that I had with the ZOOM are fixed here. The Headrush MX5 is a total beast of a processor, although its so tiny and unassuming in appearance. The amp sounds are great, especially the high gain options. But even the stuff in the middle like Marshall and Orange, sounds very close to the real deal and responds well to playing dynamics.
Programming is so much easier with the Headrush, especially if you know what you’re looking for. Like I know exactly what I want in a lead tone, and I was able to dial in within 5 minutes. Something you can’t do with the ZOOM is combine 2 different amps. This leads to all kinds of possibilities for creating unique tones.
The Quad Core processing absolutely keeps up with everything you throw at it. You can easily stack just about anything together without running out of DSP, including the whammy-like effects. The three simple buttons and two knobs make this whole operation simple. However, it isn’t perfect…
- The looper sucks.
- Aliasing problem with medium gain applications.
Look, I don’t know what is going on with the looper, but there is definitely a delay when you click it to record. It may just be a few milliseconds, but it is definitely noticeable. I compared it to a BOSS loop pedal I had at the studio, and it is definitely off. For some guitarists, this may not be a big deal.
But a looper is a one of my favorite tools to use when I am working on a solo. Even the ZOOM had a decent looper, and that is one of the lower tier budget guitar multi effects pedals. The Headrush makes up with better sound quality, but the looper is deal breaker for me.
Aliasing occurs when a signal is sampled at an insufficient rate making the sound more “digital” with guitar effects. Now this is not something that happens on every amp sim on the Headrush, only a few of them are like this. You probably won’t notice it at all unless you are looking for it, and have a lot of digital recording hours under your belt.
The Aliasing I experienced came from some of the high/medium gain sounds. Like when I let a note ring out and die off, it sounded really unnatural. Almost like what you hear when trying to get feedback naturally with active pickups. It’s a weird, artificial kind of sound that is really hard to explain.
Overall, the Headrush is great budget guitar multi effects unit that would be great for the stage or the studio. This is much more rugged than the ZOOM, and it’s small footprint is perfect for most guitarists that want to downsize. But the Headrush could also be a great studio tool, since it is the perfect “desktop size.
If you can get past the looper problems, and the aliasing issues that I noticed, then the Headrush is a killer deal for under 500 bucks. To be fair with the aliasing issue, I doubt you would notice it unless you have been producing/recording for years. The Headrush is a solid budget guitar multi effects pedal.
Line 6 POD GO
I can keep this one short, since when it comes to budget guitar multi effects processors, Line 6 invented it. Not only that, but we have already done a deep dive into the POD GO and Helix Series. We have already said just about everything possible in praise of Line 6.
The POD GO takes all of the essential parts of the more powerful Helix, and gives you those sounds for a third of the price. The PROS are too many to count, and there is not a whole lot that the POD GO can’t do. Sure, there are limitations to how much you can stack in the effects chain, but it does more than enough for most guitarists.
The CONS? I only have a few when it comes to Line 6 products, and that is the amount of choices you have when it comes to creating patches. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all of the options you have for cabinets and mics. It seems weird to ding a product for having tons of options, but it can intimidate some players!
But what I found, since I am one of those people that gets “option paralysis” rather quickly: Find a preset that you “almost” like, and then change a few things around to dial in the tone the way you like it. I do this often with artist presets that you can download. Take a “Van Halen” patch for example, I download it and then tweak the effects and EQ until it sits right for me.
But if you want a taste of the Helix and all of the professional sounds it’s capable of, the POD GO might be one of the best budget guitar multi effects processors you can buy. In fact, it is the one that I always recommend to people that are naysayers when it comes to digital gear. The POD GO is an amazing tool.
No budget guitar multi effects list would be complete without BOSS! The GT-1 is crazy cheap for all that it does, and I think it might be the least expensive full-featured board on this list by a mile. I tried really hard to find out why this thing is so amazing, and then it hit me.
This is basically the BOSS Katana in a pedal form, and it even uses some of the same tones that you see in the Katana Sneaky Amps. It uses the same BOSS Tone Studio software as the Katana. It has essentially the same sounds and effects that you hear from the Katana. I know we talk a lot about the Katana here, but the amp is just amazing on every level.
- All of the great COSM BOSS sounds.
- Great digital recreations of BOSS pedals.
- Sounds AMAZING.
When you show me a $200 budget guitar multi effects pedal, it is usually something from Amazon. A no-name brand that may or may not even work out of the box. This is an actual BOSS product, and while it may be an older unit, all of these sounds hold up.
The unit is very simple, and I think that’s why it get overlooked as a professional device. I mean, you look at this device and you think that it doesn’t have much to offer. It has a bunch of physical buttons that turn everything on and off, no fancy touch screen, and it takes some tweaking to make it work.
Just like the Katana, the BOSS GT-1 benefits from learning how to use it. Once you get the hang of how it works, though…the GT-1 is just as good as the bigger flagship BOSS products. The tones that you get are immense, and undeniable BOSS COSM quality. The effects are all amazing, and this little unit can be great in the studio, as well as the stage.
- It’s old.
That’s about the only con I can come up with. This budget guitar multi effects processor is the same technology that BOSS was using in the mid-2000s. It might seem a little strange to look at a piece of older technology like this, and say that it is still relevant.
But we do the same thing with tube amps, and vintage guitars all the time! We romanticize these older pieces of gear because they have a certain mojo. I think the BOSS GT-1 might be the first piece of digital gear that still works great, and since it has been “put out to pasture” the price is super low! It has the mojo!
Overall, the BOSS GT-1 is the best choice on this list if you are looking for a budget guitar multi effects processor. If you are looking to get started with digital options, then this is one of the best. Its easy to learn, the tones are amazing, and it works great for recording guitar tracks.
Where it lacks in sophistication, the GT-1 is cheap and easy to use. BOSS is legendary for having some of the best effects on the market, and there is nothing lacking in the GT-1. You get way more than your 200 bucks with this unit. Watch any demo on the internet, and you’ll see plenty of guitarists going nuts over the tones. Get one while they are still out there!
The Katana in pedal form? Ultraportable and easy to use, the GT-1 delivers pro-level tones everywhere you play. Driven by the powerful BOSS GT-series engine, it gives you access to a huge selection of world-class amps and effects for all types of music.
Best Budget Guitar Multi Effects Units: Wrapping Up…
Some guitarists have a problem “cutting the cord” when it comes to big amps and pedalboards. I still think that a cranked Marshall amp sounds like nothing else on this planet. A cranked tube amp sounds amazing on recordings and on stage. But times are changing, and live shows are doing more “silent stages” these days.
I was pretty apprehensive about using digital modelers for quite a while, but over the years it has been a huge help in the studio, as well as the stage. I still use real amps to record, but I also use stuff like STL Tones, and various other amp sim technology.
There will always be a part of me that loves the nostalgia of the big arena rock show, with loud amps and tons of pedals. But these days, you can have everything right at your feet. Modelers and multi effects are amazing tools, especially in the studio.
You have to move with the times, and if you have never delved into digital gear, any of these budget guitar multi effects units can get your foot in the door without breaking the bank. These are easy to learn how to use, and may be the stepping stone to the bigger, flashier units. But maybe any one of these will fit your needs perfectly.
Whatever you need to keep rocking, do it! Inspiration can come from anywhere. Whatever makes you want to pick up the guitar and play, is what’s right for you.
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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