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Sound Advice

Doing it for effect

FX tutorial

Article from The Mix, March 1995

More top effects tips from Mr D

Effects devices are really the tools of the sound engineering trade, with the mixing console as the bench where it all comes together. With any craft, there are bound to be certain tools that you like to use more than others. Sound recording has a vast collection for the task, but assembling a complete toolkit can be an expensive exercise. Bob Dormon offers some tips for those on a budget.

Portastudios may vary in sophistication, 
but four tracks is still only four tracks...

To capture performances creatively, skilfully and effectively, you need to plan how to use the equipment at your disposal. Because the majority of home recording set-ups are modest in comparison to commercial studios, compromises have to be made. This means that things can sometimes take longer to achieve, as you are having to work around the limitations of your equipment.

For example, changing the exhaust on a car 
can be done in minutes at a garage equipped 
with a hydraulic ramp and a quality socket set,
 but try it at home and you'll end up scrabbling 
around on the floor with a mole wrench and an
 adjustable spanner. The end result may well be 
a good job, but getting there can be tough.

Similarly, organising the effects you want to
 enhance your recordings with, means that
 compromises are inevitable. You simply won't 
have the choice of equipment to suit all your 
needs, and so you may have to commit yourself to recording the effects. Once those tracks have been recorded, you can then free up the equipment for use on other sounds. This is the point when you're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Basically, you have to decide what instruments receive treatment now (that can't be changed later), and what instruments will receive effects later on, or in the mix.

Four play

Well it was good enough for the Beatles way back when... But if you're less than thrilled by the limitations of a four-track recorder, there's still a great deal you can squeeze out of them. These days, manufacturers have developed the features of the portastudio mixer, so that you can do a lot more preparatory work before committing the sounds to tape. Having more inputs means that you can separate out sounds that require more individual treatment. You may want to add reverb to a snare drum, or isolate a synth bass sound so that it doesn't receive the effects from an on-board synth effects section. However, you're still going to need to record some of the effects, if you're bunching together a lot of different sounds.

Home set-ups vary in sophistication. If your system is based around a MIDI sequencer, then the chances are your backing track is already happening, before you need to utilise the tape deck. If you've got a synchroniser, then you can use one of the tape tracks for timecode, and the rest for vocals and other 'played' instruments. Assuming you're blessed with at least one versatile effects device, then you'd be better off recording delay and chorus sounds with it, and then using it as an 'overall' reverb during the mix. This approach will allow you to give your sounds tailored treatments as you record them. The mix reverb will help those tracks to blend in with each other, and give some much needed space to mono sources.

Individual outputs on the Korg M1 help overcome the limitations of its internal effects routing

Built-in synth effects

If you're only going to use one sound from your synth, then it doesn't matter what effect you use. The problems only begin to arise when you're using the synth in Multi or Combination modes. These enable you to use more than one sound, and typically feed those sounds in to the same on-board DSP (digital signal processor). Hence, all your sounds are bathed in the same effect. Reverbs that sound great on strings will make for a mushy bass and hissing hi-hats. Whereas a delightful dab of chorus on a bass will produce a honky-tonk piano and warbling percussion, newer synths allow you to be more selective, enabling you to choose which sounds get what treatments.

Korg's old M1 didn't offer such a useful feature, but did at least have more than just a stereo output. Sounds could be routed to these extra outputs without effects. So if you're worried about that mushy bass, then your synth may have similar specifications that will allow you to remove sounds from the effects signal path, and deal with them independently. You could even send these individual sounds to a dodgy guitar effects pedal, before bringing them up on the desk. There'll be ample signal, so you can feed your favourite flanger and get the minimum of fizz. The only thing to watch out for is mains hum. If you're using a pedal with a DC power supply, then try and keep it away from your computer gear and extension lead spaghetti.

If you don't have enough inputs on your mixer for individual outputs, or your synth doesn't feature them (and your sounds all get the same treatments), then you'll have to compromise. In such circumstances, using an early reflection effect can work very well. This type of reverb can breathe life into a drums and percussion, without interfering with their definition. Bass too, will sound live but not soupy. In general, the effect adds just enough space without any instruments suffering undesirable side-effects.

Performance premiums

If you have the dubious privilege of recording a band on a four track, then you'll no doubt get some help from the players themselves. Guitarists should be quite literally, left to their own devices. If they have effects devices that they use during the course of a song, then let them get on with it and save your gear for vocals or acoustic instruments. Indeed, the level of sophistication that bands have risen to is to be welcomed by the recording world, as it makes the task easier (as band members take control of how they sound), leaving you to watch the meters.

If you record on your own and use real instruments, then you'll no doubt have to bounce a number of tracks before you're finished. On a four-track, this limits your chances of preserving any stereo recording, as you'll need all the tracks you can muster. The plus side of recording one instrument at a time, is that you can record with all the effects you have available. The exception being if you use a drum machine, as you can add your bass or keyboards while beat goes on.

If you play your drums and percussion, then you lose the opportunity to add another instrument while they're being recorded. You also have to get the balance right, which can be tricky when recording a kit single-handed. The other problem is that regardless of whether it's a mono or stereo recording, you're not going to have the pleasure of adding reverb sounds to individual parts of the kit at the mixing stage. This all has to be done prior to recording, by allocating varying amounts of reverb to each microphone.

Guitar effects pedals can be used on keyboards, too. Anything goes on demos!

I became intimately acquainted with such a task, churning out pre-MIDI demos as a one-man-band armed with a Fostex 250 portastudio. The method I adopted was far from ideal, but worked well within the confines of a simple home set-up. Basically, all I did was add reverb to the snare microphone, which picked up enough spill from the rest of the kit to provide a good overall treatment. Other mics for bass drum and overheads helped to balance out the kit sound, and didn't need any additional effects apart from EQ and compression. I only had a digital delay and spring reverb, but used the delay as a pre-delay or slap-back echo, before feeding it into the reverb unit.

Noise reduction systems can diminish the impact of a reverb, as the fading sound is assumed to be noise and reduced in level. If you are recording reverb and echo effects, then you'll have to compensate for this, by increasing the level of the effect. It's worth experimenting to see what works best, as your mixing instincts may well conflict with your recordings needs. And when it comes to mixing, if you've got your dogsbody reverb to hand, then you can still add a touch more reverb if you like, just to stereo-ize the kit slightly, and to help it sit in the mix.

8-tracks and upwards

With a multi-track facility, you might want to consider recording a track that has effects only on it. This doesn't have to be just one effect going all the way through the song, but can be a compilation of special effects such as echoes on a particular vocal phrase, a beefy snare reverb for the middle-8, or a pitch change on a saxophone line. You can always add effects to these effects during the mix too. Alternatively, you can use an effects track to record reverb on a guide vocal and/or other instruments, while you use the effects devices on other instruments as you compile the recording.

Having an effects track of this nature means that you can have a listenable guide song up and running in minutes. It also makes good use of dodgy edge tracks and remember, you can always erase it as and when required.

In a session environment, recording the effects in stereo can assist in getting the rest of the track laying done quickly, and free up the select effects for future use. This is particularly helpful when the sessions are spread over a period of time, with other artist's sessions happening in between. All you have to do is put the tape on and roll, without worrying if Studio A has nicked the AMS, or whether the intermittent crackle on the DEP-5 is going to reappear.

If all you have is a digital delay, then you're probably in the process of exhausting all its possible uses. In last month's tutorial creating phasing, flanging and chorus effects were described. But if all you want is a reverb, then what can you do other than go out and buy one? Well, as reverb consists of irregular short echoes, you can produce a pseudo-reverb effect with your delay unit. Set the delay time to around 50mS, crank up the feedback/repeat control so that it's nearly repeating endlessly, and turn off the modulation. What you should get is a fairly short, reverberant sound. While it might not be ideal for intense vocals, solo instruments and sustained sounds fare quite well.

Samplers offer a neat way of getting all the effects you need. If say, your drum samples need reverb, then why not resample them with some reverb on them? Put the dry sounds on tape — EQ them if you like — add the effects, and then sample it all. While purists might not approve of the possible loss of sound quality in the recording process, what you do get is the sounds that you want, and that's what counts. Coping with the limitations of your recording equipment is part of the creative process, and is all about how you improvise. Sounds are born this way, and very often, less can mean more.

Recording Effects

When it comes to experimenting with music, the golden rule is, 'there are no golden rules'. But for those with a more conventional approach to recording, below is a brief guide to using effects when recording with a limited number of tracks and effects devices. It's been compiled on the assumption that a reverb effect will be available for use when mixing.


So long as you're happy with the sound, then recording bass with something like chorus or the occasional use of an octaver is fine. In fact in many situations, having committed yourself to a particular sound can help finish a song, as you're unable to change things and the only way to go is forward. This can save a lot of time when you're dealing with a band that can't make up its mind about things. Telling them certain tracks can't be changed cuts down on the arguments, and gets the job done. Just make sure that they know they're committing themselves before you record that funky chorus with the bassline.


Choosing the right reverb effect for drums largely depends on the style and tempo of the music. The Performance section of this tutorial gives some ideas for the approach to real drums, but only you can decide if you need a small room or a large hall. If you want to beef up the sound of the kit, then gated reverb works very well. Record with this, and then add a further reverb during the mix and you'll be able to mask the abrupt ending of the gate reverb, by smoothing it off with the additional room or hall effect. The result is a fat-sounding kit, with tough toms and a solid snare.

Acoustic Guitar

If you want to make a 6-string sound like a 12-string, then use a pitch change patch, add a few milliseconds delay, and pitch around 10-15% of a semi-tone up, down or both. Chorus and flanging effects work too, but pitch change can sound that bit purer.

Electric Guitar

With guitar, anything goes. Recording with chorus, delay and pitch change effects is fine. You may have to add a few extra echo repeats, as fainter ones can get swallowed up by noise reduction systems.


Like electric guitars, keyboards are open to a wide range of effects. If they're built-in, then track the sound as it is. If you're layering sounds from other devices, and you've got the sound you want with the effects how you want them, then don't hang about, record it. Very often, being able to play up against an effect will determine your performance, so you're better off going with the flow. Pianos are a slightly different matter. If you can keep the track dedicated to this instrument only, then it's wiser to record it dry and add the effects later.

Vocals, Saxophone and other solo instruments

A slapback echo can be very effective on vocals, sax and flute, and helps to give a sense of movement to the sound. Adding reverb during the mix enhances the effect and can be quite classy. If you want to get serious, then you can use your delay for a Kylie or Madonna vocal echo that is in time with the beat. Over the page is a simple formula, to enable you accurately to calculate the delay time.

For backing vocals, you can use a similar pitch change effect, as suggested for acoustic guitars. Flanging and chorus work well too, helping to blend the vocals and disguise any wayward intonation.


When faced with a tight brass section or string ensemble in a small room, early reflections and even gate reverb can help the sounds breathe, without interfering with the following notes. Too large a reverb can swamp the playing if it's fairly fast. On a four or eight track pop tune, it's unlikely that these instruments will have a track to themselves, so you'll have to record an appropriate ambient effect. For slower riffs, you can consider trying some of the vocal treatments and getting your echoes in time.

BPM delay timing

If you know the tempo of a song, then the task is fairly straightforward maths. If it's a live recording, then you can derive the BPM by counting the beats over 15 seconds, and then multiply by four to get the beats per minute. Once you know that figure, then dust off your calculator and divide sixty by the BPM. e.g:

1 minute (60 secs) = 0.5 secs or 500mS
Beats per minute (BPM) = 120

The result can then be dialled into your delay unit for perfectly timed echoes. For shorter timings, you simply divide by two until you get what works for you. For backing vocals, you can use a similar pitch change effect, as suggested for acoustic guitars. Flanging and chorus work well too, helping to blend the vocals and disguise any wayward intonation.

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Dream sequences

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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The Mix - Mar 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Simon Dell

Sound Advice

Feature by Bob Dormon

Previous article in this issue:

> Dream sequences

Next article in this issue:

> Rough mix

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