Making the Most of...
The omnipresent Steve Howell passes on a few tricks of the trade. This month he examines ways in which you can transform a dry, lifeless synth sound into something soft and manageable.
This month, from the immortal pen of Steve Howell, a selection of processing tricks to liven up your synth.
I remember reading an article a short while back in which a keyboard player who shall remain nameless (because I can't remember his name) who was using a few small Casio keyboards said 'I like the sound of the Casios. By the time you put them through a harmoniser, a 31-band graphic, stick some digital delay and some AMS on them they sound really good and quite expensive'. So they should. Add up the cost of those pieces of outboard equipment and you could buy yourself a decent 8-track recording system, a good polysynth and still have enough change for a dirty weekend in New York with your bank manager's secretary.
However, a cheap polysynth and a few effects are all you really need to produce a thoroughly professional sound, that's always assuming you can play them of course.
I'll examine each effect and device I've bought over the years in the order I got them. This will hopefully give you an idea of the order in which you might wish to acquire them yourself.
The first effect that I bought was a cheap little tape echo unit which proved to be so unreliable that I exchanged it for an analogue echo pedal. Any of you who have not tried out an echo unit with your synthesiser will, I can guarantee, be pleasantly surprised when you do because it creates a great sense of depth. It can sound as though you're playing anywhere from in a small bathroom to on top of a large mountain range. (The imagination of this Welshman - Ed.) Luckily, nowadays echo units can be bought for very reasonable prices in the form of pedals - £60 or so. Digital delays start at around £180 or thereabouts.
Having unpacked your newly acquired delay from its box, there are a few ways in which you can set it up. You can either connect your synth directly into the unit or, if you have a mixer (as I would imagine many of you have), then you'd be well advised to use the mixer's effects sends. This arrangement is preferable as it allows you to set up pseudo-stereo effects with the 'straight' signal on one side of the stereo image and the echoed version on the other. This is best done by returning the echo output through an input channel on the mixer as opposed to the return input specifically provided for this purpose but more of that later. Using this method, you can position your echo effects anywhere in the stereo image to create an even greater sense of depth.
Not only can echo be used as an ambient effect, but also by setting the echo speed to match the tempo of your piece you can create some very interesting rhythmic effects, especially in stereo. If set correctly, the effect can give the impression of two or more sequencer parts and can also, if the notes in your sequence are chosen carefully, create an illusion of a polyphonic sequencer. By setting your echo to give multiple repeats, when the sequencer runs through its notes, the echo will be playing two or three notes behind. For instance, if you program an arpeggiating series of notes using C, E flat, G, C an octave up, G below and finally E flat again you will hear the C first. Then, when the sequencer move to the E flat, the echo will 'play' the first C. Next, when the sequencer moves up to the G, the sequencer will 'play' the E flat and so on so that a chordal effect is created.
The setting of the output level of the echo unit is very important. Setting the level fairly high will create a sequencer-type effect whilst keeping it low will produce an accenting feel. Naturally, varying the speed of the echo will have a drastic effect on the sound. Quarter-note sequences can be sped up to make interesting eight-note stereo sequences whilst slower echo speeds can create some amazing stereo rhythms. The new breed of digital delays can now be synced to a pulse from a drum machine for rapid matching of echo speeds but if your machine doesn't have this feature, don't despair as it's not essential.
With the cheaper analogue delay units, you have to trade off frequency response on the delayed signals whereas, with more expensive digital units, the delayed sound can be much the same as the signal going in. Bandwidth on pedal units is somewhere in the region of 4kHz compared with the 10kHz (or more) response of DDLs of this world but, in fairness, this needn't be the disadvantage it seems to be. In fact, it can often be useful to have restricted bandwidth as these will give a smoother ambient effect than crystal clear repeats. Such is the clarity of a DDL's echo that unless the echo is synced to the tempo of the music, the echo effects can often cut across the rhythm and just sound like out of time playing and sound quite messy. Very often, I require a simple echo effect and so I sometimes roll off a bit of the top end on the echo return so that the effect is not to obtrusive.
The next effect I bought was a flanger. At the time, I was using an ARP Axxe mono-synth which only had the one VCO and I was very jealous of those people who had machines like ARP Odysseys or MiniMoogs and that had two VCOs and so I saw a flanger as a viable economic alternative.
By setting the flangers rate control fairly slow and the depth control quite low, I could effectively emulate the sound of two closely tuned VCOs whilst a faster rate of flanging gave me a thicker, more detuned chorus effect. Of course, I had all the over-the-top flanging effects at my disposal as well and also had the option of putting other instruments through it, so my £50 was well spent. Nowadays, flanger pedals abound and can be had for £40 upwards and so can be used to beef up any synth from a simple one VCO job to a more expensive polysynth, with or without two VCOs per voice.
As with the echo, you can simply plug your synth directly into the flanger but it is preferable to use the sends on your mixer. Connecting the flanger up this way allows you to have stereo flanging for greater effect of depth and space and also gives more precise control over the tone and balance of the effect.
My next purchase was not an effects pedal as such but was a stereo graphic equaliser. The unit was, in fact, a hi-fi graphic and not a studio item but its performance rivalled that of any rack mounted unit except for the fact that it only had eight bands instead of the usual ten or twelve but at the price (it was about £70) this was not too dreadful a drawback, especially as the frequencies had been well chosen. My mixer was a bit lacking in the EQ region and so this graphic more than made up for its deficiencies. It also helped in beefing up recordings because, being stereo, I could route the whole track through it so that I could brighten up a dull mix, remove a boomy bass end or go part of the way in removing some tape hiss. Graphic equalisers can be bought for £50 as pedals (although these will only be mono) or for £150 upwards for rack mounted versions. You could, of course, nip into your local hi-fi store and pick one up there for around £90 or so and this will be as good as any of the pricier units.
Phasing was the next on the list. Although not so much in vogue these days as it was then, there's no denying that it is a good effect and great for ethereal sounds. It's particularly effective with strings for a Jean-Michel Jarre sound, can be used to great effect on noise and wind effects, or on organ sounds as a rotary speaker effect and can create various 'watery' sounds as well. Phasing is an effect, however, and not an altogether good way of beefing up your synth but, at £40 or so, it's not too expensive and very useful. Who knows, you may even be responsible for reintroducing the effect to a world whose ears have tired of the sampling 'N-N-N-N-Nineteen' syndrome!
You will note that I have taken some time to get to reverb. This is because it has always been an expensive business and you will need quite a lot of those toy-town coins Mrs Thatcher has introduced in order to buy a decent unit. True, you can get a reverb unit and have change from £100 but, whereas a flanger pedal will give results not too far removed from that of a 19" rack mounted equivalent, cheap reverb, whilst being better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick, will undoubtably sound cheap.
As you probably know, there are three types of reverb available. The cheapest of these is spring reverb where a signal is passed into a transducer which sends vibrations down a spring which are then, in turn, picked up by another transducer and converted back into audio signal where it is mixed with the 'straight' signal. This somewhat Heath Robinson affair is actually quite effective at sounding like a reverberant room, but there are problems.
Small, inexpensive reverb units use short springs which will understandably only give short reverb decay times. Short springs also tend to give the reverb sound a clangy, metallic edge which doesn't sound natural. Apart from that, the cheaper circuitry used in less expensive units can often be a bit noisy and so heavy reverberant effects are impossible unless you're happy to have your tune covered in hiss. More expensive reverbs use a collection of springs of varying length or diameter, and these give a pretty good imitation of true reverb with its multiple sound reflections.
In fairness, spring reverbs can be very effective but the one problem that plagues all reverb units of this type, from the cheapest to the most expensive, is that without due care and attention it's easy to overdrive the input stage and make the spring 'bounce' giving an unpleasant 'boinging', especially on percussive sounds. There is not a lot one can do about this but as long as you accept the limitations of spring reverb, then there is no earthly reason why it can't be used as an effective way of adding depth to a sound. Spring reverb units vary in price considerably. There are units costing around £100 which only have short springs and there are ones that have longer, smoother springs for about £200 or so. On the pricier side, there are good units available for £500 upwards that feature multiple long springs and compressors and limiters in the input stage to reduce spring bounce. They also have a control which is a mechanical device that physically dampens the springs along their length and which gives you some degree of variability over the length of the reverb time, so there is plenty of choice depending on your budget. I would imagine, though, that if you are in a position to spend £500 or so on a reverb device you will probably opt for a digital unit.
Advances in digital technology have cured many of the problems associated with reverb and you can now purchase a neat, 19" rack mounted unit that gives digital reverb of exceptionally high quality for the same price as a decent spring reverb but which will alleviate the problems associated with spring units. Digital reverb is generally quiet, realistic and easily controllable and won't go 'boing' upon receipt of a massive snare drum beat. In the past, digital reverb has been in the region of £5,000 or so but, technological advances are bringing the price down considerably and now, £1,400 will buy you something that can produce really high quality reverb. In fairness, though, if your prepared to spend that much you are pretty serious about your reverb sound but you might be wise to get something a little cheaper and use the change to get yourself a decent polyphonic synth or a suntan in some exotic foreign clime. The Yamaha R1000, although somewhat inflexible, produces an excellent basic reverb, albeit in mono, for as little as £400.
The third type of reverb is plate reverb where, in true Heath Robinson tradition, transducers agitate a metal plate which emulates the sound of natural reverb. I can't see much of a future for these types of reverb as they cost the equivalent of a top-of-the range digital unit which all contain a plate reverb simulation program. Because of the price of plates (and some of the technical problems) I think it unlikely that many of you will opt for one.
In conclusion, quality reverb is something worth having and I would recommend one of the digital types, but if your budget is limited then a spring unit will do you proud as long as you don't expect too much from it.
Once you've bought your reverb unit you can set it up as with the echo and flanger. I would imagine that if you've decided to get a reverb unit then you will probably have a mixer and so you will no doubt connect it via the effect send on that. Bringing the reverb back through a channel will, as with the other effects, give you more flexibility and control over the sound. Once connected, I would imagine that it'll stay set up that way and so no more need be said, but we'll look at how to get stereo reverb out of a mono unit a bit later on.
Of course, you could buy one unit that would perform many of the functions we have looked at so far (with the exception ot 'true' reverb). Most DDL's allow you to echo, flange, chorus and add a hard reverb effect to any sound but, one limitation is that you can only have one effect at a time and so you might be better off buying a separate delay, flange, chorus and reverb units. That decision rests with you, of course, but in fairness to cheaper units, whilst echo pedals suffer from limited bandwidth (not necessarily a massive disadvantage as we have seen), cheap flangers can give a far thicker and meaner flange. As I say, it's up to you to decide and weigh up the pros and cons.
The only effect I've not looked at so far and which I am now in possession of is a harmoniser. Apart from special effects, the harmoniser is something of an ultimate chorus unit. It allows you to transpose a sound up or down by up to an octave either way. By tuning the harmoniser just off unison, you can create very thick and juicy chorus effects and so it's great for fattening up any synth. Having said all that, the £400 required to purchase a harmoniser could be used to buy a better synth. I would suspect, however, that we will see a harmoniser in a pedal quite soon so it might be worth hanging on if you want the effect but are financially restricted.
The synth is generally an easy instrument to record because it can be plugged directly into the mixing desk but there are a couple of things to watch. With sounds which involve high settings of the resonance control, unexpected peaks can cause overloading of either the tape recorder or some other part of the recording chain. The usual way around this problem is to patch a limiter or a compressor into the system which can control the sound level whilst producing the minimum of side effects.
There are many other effects around which many consider to be the sole territory the guitarist but there is no reason why you can't put your synth through a fuzz pedal or though an overdrive, compressor, octave splitter or whatever. These are usually cheap enough; they start at around £25 or so. There are no rules, so why not try them out and experiment.
Note: the following images were published in the article, but bear no relation to the text, so I assume they are the incorrect diagrams published. I've included them here for completeness.
Feature by Steve Howell
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