The Art of Toys
A few words from the editor on how he uses, misuses and abuses effects.
Studio effects units, generically referred to as toys, can be used in a variety of ways. Paul White presents his personal views (and prejudices) on the subject.
You don't really need special effects to produce good music, though in the right hands, the magic they create is well worth the effort and expense involved. This, coupled with the fact that most studio clients actually know what effects they want and expect them to be available means that you ideally need to own a few signal processors and have the ability to get the best out of them in order to attract custom. What I'm going to attempt in this article is to examine most of the more popular effects units and discuss their usage while including any useful tricks that I've stumbled across over the years.
Most of you probably realise that reverb, unlike echo, is the product of multiple sound reflections and its diffusion and density makes it impossible to pick out any specific delay time. The only simply definable parameters are the time delay between the original sound and the onset of the reverberation and the time taken for the reverberation to decay.
There are, of course, subtle differences in the spectral content of the reverb which correspond to the way in which the reflecting surfaces absorb various frequencies, but these are difficult to analyse and can be simulated only by a comprehensive digital reverb system.
Even with a fairly basic spring reverb, the first two parameters can be modified. The easiest of these is the addition of pre-delay to simulate the time delay before the initial reflection. This may be a digital, analogue or tape delay set to give between 10 and 40mS of delay.
Decay time is a bit more complicated, but by using a noise gate keyed from the original sound source, the reverb may be shortened by using the release setting on the gate to determine the decay time. In fact, if the basic reverb sound is fairly long, a slow attack setting on the gate can simulate pre-delay or even create a reverse envelope effect where the reverb builds up slowly and decays quickly. If your gate has a 'hold' time control, this may be used in conjunction with a fast release time to give the popular gated ambience sound which is very effective on drums.
Reverb is a stereo effect and arrives from all sides, even if the original sound source is panned to one side, and if you have only a mono reverb unit, this should be panned to the centre, regardless of the position of the sound being treated if you want a natural effect.
For a special effect, you can pan an instrument hard over to one side and the reverb to the other which results in an unnatural but dramatic effect much used by modern producers.
Stereo reverb always sounds more natural than mono, but some budget reverbs including the otherwise excellent Yamaha R1000 are mono only devices. A stereo simulation can be achieved by splitting the output from the reverb and feeding one part to one side of the image and the other part to the opposite side via a delay unit set to a few tens of milliseconds (with no feedback). This technique gives an artificial impression of depth which is really very convincing. Some commercial devices try to simulate stereo by inverting the phase of one output and panning this to the opposite side, but this will cause problems if the tape is ever played back over a mono system as the two outputs then cancel each other out, leaving you with little or no effect.
Other tricks include using a compressor keyed off the original sound to treat the reverb signal. This is set to keep the reverb at a constant low level except for gaps in the music, so that the sound is not made unduly muddy by the application of excess reverb when it's not required. A good application of this technique would be the treatment of a drum track where the reverb level would increase during breaks in the sound, giving the effect of more reverb than is actually being used.
As bass sounds tend to generate a muddy reverb sound, it may be as well to EQ the reverb send line to remove any low frequency content and that will have the effect of improving the headroom (and hence the noise performance) of the reverb system and will give a clearer sound with better separation.
A strong reverb sound can be further enhanced by adding chorus or flange to the reverb signal or even by splitting the signal and using either or both panned to the extreme left and right.
Dramatic improvements can be had by using a harmonic enhancer such as an Aural Exciter to brighten up the output from the reverb unit and you can even apply large amounts of digital delay to further extend the reverb decay time.
Last month we mentioned that reversed reverb can be created by playing a tape backwards and recording the reverberated signal onto a spare track. When the tape is played the correct way, the reverb will appear before the sound itself, creating a rather surreal effect.
A further refinement may be to pan this reversed signal to one side, the original sound to the centre and then add conventional reverb on the other side, which gives an odd sense of movement to the reverb as it crosses over from pre to post.
These treatments are very unsettling on vocals and can create an interesting atmosphere, but they are equally applicable to percussion or other conventional instruments. The only real rule is to experiment.
Chorus, particularly stereo chorus is one of my favourite treatments for guitar, bass or keyboards. It need not be obtrusive, and so it can be used liberally without sounding too obviously like an effect.
A reasonable analogue chorus (even a pedal) is usually good enough for home recording use, and is likely to be better value for money than using a DDL to produce the same result.
If you're lucky enough to have a good stereo chorus such as the excellent Boss CE-300 (which I am), then you can reduce the chorus depth to virtually nothing and use the two outputs panned hard left and right to give a stereo simulated effect. This treatment lends a sense of space to otherwise dry mono signals and functions by generating complementary comb filter effects in each channel which correspond to those created in live situations when a point source of sound is located near to reflecting boundary surfaces.
Fretless bass guitar sounds great through a chorus unit, but the sound is becoming somewhat cliched so be careful not to overdo it.
Sax sounds good through chorus as do other brass instruments, whilst cheap keyboards can be coaxed into producing convincing string sounds. If you've only got a mono chorus, pan the dry sound to one side and the chorus to the other. My verdict? Chorus units are absolutely indispensable.
I have tried several flangers, both digital and analogue and have come to the conclusion that unless you are going to spend a fortune on a professional studio flanger, it might be as well to buy one of the excellent pedal units available such as the model produced by Boss.
Digital flanging just doesn't seem to have any real depth to it, at least not using the budget DDLs that I've tried, and an analogue rack mounting model is really just a pedal housed in a rack case with its own power supply that costs three times the price. Naturally this is a generalisation, but it does hold true for many of these units.
So, having got your flanger, what can you do with it?
You could, of course simply flange things, but unless you use the effect sparingly, it's going to get well up everyone's olfactory orifices. It's one of the effects that has been so misused that it has become a cliche, but it can still be used tastefully with a little thought.
The obvious trick is to split the signal and feed a straight version to one side of the mix and a flanged version to the other. This dilutes the effect and creates a sense of space. If you can scrounge another flanger, it is interesting to split the sound three ways with a different flanger at each side and the straight sound near the centre. By experimenting with the depth and rate controls on each flanger, some interesting dynamic effects can be created and it is a simple matter to adjust the severity of the effect by altering the proportions of the flanged and straight signals in the mix.
For a more subtle approach, you could try using the flanger on the output of an echo or reverb device and leaving the original sound unprocessed again. The splitting technique can give you three different sounds from one source - straight, delayed and flanged/delayed, all of which may be balanced and panned as required.
Because flangers tend to whine a little when a lot of feedback is used (sometimes called colour or resonance), a noise gate can be put to good use here where it will shut off the flanger's output during silent passages.
Providing that you don't overdo it, a flanger can sound good on virtually anything, but beware of cliches such as the flanged drum solo or the distorted 'Masters of the Universe' guitar sound - fuzz guitar played through a flanger sounds like a tortoise being modified by a circular saw and is usually best avoided.
No, not the British Rail or the M1 near Watford Gap Services type, we're talking about what used to be called echo.
This can be produced by means of tape loops, analogue circuitry or digital circuitry, but analogue circuitry is unsuitable for serious work due to its limited bandwidth and inherently poor noise performance, with the exception of very short delays.
Most budget digital delays can produce a good chorus sound and some sort of flanging effect, but as these have already been covered, I'll move on and concentrate on the pure delay or echo effects.
At one time, echoed vocals were the order of the day, but now reverb seems to have taken over as the preferred vocal treatment, though the DDL can still be used to provide a few milliseconds of pre-delay before the reverb device.
Using a single repeat with a delay time of a few tens of milliseconds, a reasonable ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) effect can be achieved, but it is always more satisfactory for the performer to sing or play a real double track provided that you can afford the tape tracks and of course, assuming that the artist is capable of performing in exactly the same fashion twice over.
If you want to use the delay as an echo effect, it may help to set the delay time to a multiple of the tempo of the song so that you get an echo every beat or every two beats or whatever. This makes the piece sound less cluttered and the delays reinforce the beat of the song.
A triggerable delay such as the Boss DE-200 can be used in conjunction with a suitable drum machine to provide echoes that fall on specific pre-programmed beats and this makes for a very tight modern - almost sampled sound which, strictly speaking, it is. This trick is particularly effective on bass guitar and can also be used to create vocal 'scratching' effects if you're into that side of things.
Again, don't forget that you can make things more interesting by splitting the delayed and dry sounds; you could also try reverse echo by turning the tape over as detailed in the 'reverb' section of this article.
To echo only individual words or musical phrases, you should turn up the echo send control instead of the echo return and if you can arrange to route the echo send signal via a separate mixer channel, you could use the channel mute button for even faster control.
Finally, if you have two delay devices, it would be worth connecting them in series taking an output from each one panned to opposite sides of your mix. If feedback is needed for more repeats, route the last echo back into a spare channel rather than an echo return and use the echo send control on that channel rather than the feedback control on the delay unit to give the desired effect. With this method, the echoes can be made to bounce from side to side adding depth and interest. See figure 2.
I must confess to not finding many practical uses for harmonisers or pitch transposers, but they can be effective for subtly detuning sounds without having to resort to a chorus unit which introduces a noticeable pitch wavering due to its mode of operation. This technique works well with the human voice or solo instruments, but excessive pitch variation can drastically change the timbre of a sound and turn your voluptuous female vocalist into a singing duck.
Drum machine sounds may be altered by applying a degree of pitch shift, although the delay inherent in these machines means that you get a slightly ragged, double tracked sound which may not always be to your advantage.
As the pitch shift is further increased to encompass recognisable musical intervals, any glitching will become more noticeable; a real problem on some of the very cheap machines so the unprocessed sound may have to be made more prominent in the mix in order to disguise these side effects. Usually, pitch shifts of up to an octave either way are possible which can create interesting effects on solo instruments, but beware - some of the harmonies thus generated are likely to be musically unrelated to the key of the music unless you are shifting by whole octaves. An example of this is the musical fifth which can sound great in a suitably constructed piece of music, but is a disaster if used indiscriminately.
By now you'll know that splitting the sounds may be worthwhile, but you could also consider shifting the output of your DDL and feeding some of the output back to the input via a channel auxiliary control. This produces an echo which spirals upwards or downwards in pitch and can be used to create surreal effects. Why not go right over the top and combine the above technique with reverse reverb for a truly staggering over the top psychedelic nostalgia trip!
I've deliberately omitted gates and compressors as these are getting a fair amount of press already in one way or another. If we come up with any new ideas for their use however, we will of course find any excuse to write about them.
If you are a cassette multitrack user and you don't have enough mixer channels to try out all these tricks, you might like to consider buying an old MM mixer and perhaps do a few of the mods outlined in last month's HSR. On the other hand, if you can't justify the expense, HSR will shortly be publishing its stereo line mixer which has only level, auxiliary send and pan controls offering a useful bit of flexibility at a very low price and it is so easy to construct that even a cockroach with a lobotomy could have a fair crack at it.
But finally, remember that it takes more than a few clever effects to make good music. All too often we receive readers' tapes that are full of interesting sounds and special effects, but the music itself sounds as though it has been produced by clamping the family pet to a home keyboard with the auto-accompaniment section doing all the work.
Effects then, are just the icing on the cake and it's up to you to make sure that the music has substance before you start.
If, however, you are recording someone else's music which falls into this category, just do your best, smile and agree with them when they say that they can't understand why they haven't got a record deal yet - just count their money and accept a return booking for their next masterpiece.