If I had to pick a single desert island effect, it would be delay. Why? Well, delay isn’t only an effect in itself; it’s also one of the basic building blocks for many other effects, including reverb, chorus and flanging — and that makes it massively versatile.
Delay forms the basis for a wide range of effects that can transform your tracks from dull and pedestrian to polished and professional.
The aim of this article is to focus on the practical applications of delays, by looking at some ways they’re typically used on vocals, guitars and synths. I’ll be writing primarily about the sound of different delay configurations, and to make things easier to follow, I’ve created an illustrative series of audio examples (see ‘Audio Examples’ box for details). Note that I’ve used exaggerated effects levels in the examples, to highlight the sound of the delay.
First, let’s run through a quick overview to get any newbies up to speed. As the name suggests, the way in which delay processors work is quite simple: the programme material passes through a memory buffer and it is then recalled from the buffer a short time later. We refer to this time difference as the delay time. (In an analogue delay, you could think of the electronics or the tape loop performing the same function as the memory in a digital delay.) Multiple echoes or ‘repeats’ of the programme material are produced by feeding a percentage of the delayed material back from the output of the delay buffer into the input. We refer to this as feedback. You should be aware when adjusting the feedback parameter that high settings can result in the level of the processed signal increasing rapidly with each repeat, so if your monitoring levels are high, it pays to be careful!
As with reverb, delay is most often applied as a send effect, rather than as an insert. This approach not only conserves processing power when applying the same delay to multiple sources, but it allows you to treat the delayed part of the signal, separately from the original, with extra processing such as EQ or distortion and this allows you more creative freedom.
That’s it in a nutshell, but the combination of those few parameters and the flexibility afforded by using delays as send effects open up a world of production effects and tricks. With the basics explained, let’s work through some useful techniques.
During the mix process, vocals are often treated with either reverb or delay, or possibly a combination of both, so in the following section I’ll work through some typical vocal delay treatments. To get the most from these, call up a vocal part of your own in your DAW and use that as raw material. For my examples, I’ve taken a heavily ‘tuned’ vocal with a tempo of 130bpm (audio examples 1 and 1b).
1. Create a send from your vocal track and on the send, call up a delay plug-in. It doesn’t need to be a sophisticated one; in fact, the simpler the plug-in is, the easier this will be to follow. I’m working in Logic Pro here, and I’ve used Logic’s Tape Delay.
2. Set the delay time to a quarter note and the feedback to zero. If you’re using a delay that doesn’t have tempo-sync options, you can still get things in sync by remembering the following equation: ms = 60,000 ÷ bpm
Note that ‘ms’ is the quarter-note delay time in milliseconds, 60,000 is the number of milliseconds in a minute, and ‘bpm’ is the tempo in beats per minute. From there, you can divide the result as necessary to get eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and so on.
3. With the vocal playing, gradually raise the send amount and you’ll hear a single quarter-note echo that, when set quietly, can add a useful sense of ambience to a vocal.
4. Next, gradually raise the amount of feedback until the delay fills up the gaps between the vocal phrases, but doesn’t cloud over the original (audio example 2).
EQ’ed & Distorted Delay
With the quarter-note delay in place, it’s common to try to create a unique ‘space’ for the delay in the mix, and this can often be accomplished by applying EQ before or after the delay (it doesn’t normally matter which, though there will be subtle differences in, for example, the response of a tape delay to a signal with the low end present and the low end filtered away). As Robert Orton, discussing his mix of Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’ in SOS March 2009 explained, what EQ settings you require will vary from mix to mix: “Sometimes you want quite a dark delay that’s hidden behind the vocals just to give it more body; at other times [there’s] a word that clearly repeats, in which case the delay has to sound up-front and clear”.
Many plug-in delays have in-built high- and low-pass filters, but don’t worry if yours doesn’t, because you can use a separate EQ — as in this example:
1. Find an EQ plug-in that includes high- and low-pass filters and place an instance of it after your delay.
2. Start by rolling off the high frequencies of the delayed sound, using a low-pass filter. This will soften any transients, and help to push the delay back in the mix behind the main vocal sound. When used at low levels, this creates a really subtle sense of ambience.
3. Now bypass the low-pass filter and try high-pass filtering the delay, to remove some of its bottom end. This can help to stop the delay clouding up the low end of your mix.
4. Finally, combine the high-and low-pass filters to create a ‘telephone’ EQ. This effect (see image 2) is much less obvious when used on the delay signal than on the source vocal track, and it’s a tactic that can reduce the amount of space taken up by the delay, leaving space for other elements. It also helps to make the delay more distinct from the original vocal (audio example 3).