Effects made simple: a users' guide to mushing and wanging.
Programming effects is a piece of cake, provided you remember a simple rule: 'Mush, then Wang'.
I'm sorry, but guitarists got there first. Guitarists were the first to discover a couple of essentials which are only now beginning to appear in synthesizers. Pause here and have a think about it.
Intrigued? Confused? The answer is effects. These days any synthesizer needs decent built-in effects just to match the competition and, in order to be ahead of the pack, you need super-sophisticated effects. We all know that electric guitars have been around for longer than synthesizers, which almost answers the question, but the story does not end there.
Consider for a moment how guitarists use effects pedals or boxes. The basic essential is a decent basic guitar sound — no amount of post-processing is going to turn a cheap nondescript guitar into a wicked axe-man's dream. Once you have the sound, you can then pick out some acoustic feature within it with an effect or two. Chorus is probably the first port of call for rhythm guitar, with fuzz of some description to thicken out three-finger barred chords, and finally fuzz followed by flanging for an over the top thrashy sound. For solos, some sort of reverb or echo is almost a pre-requisite, since the emphasis on single melody notes calls for something else just to fill out the background.
Contrast this with the modern synthesizer. The chorus effect is used to hide a lack of detuning capability in a sample + synthesis (S+S) instrument, whilst fuzz is employed to disguise a poor guitar sample. Strings are usually swimming in reverb, with flanging to follow just to give a bit more movement in the sound, whilst pan and echo can make rather static, boring, evolving sounds appear much more complex and interesting. If this sounds more like an obsession with the final sound than a process of enhancement, perhaps it is; but then synthesizers are different to guitars.
There's more. It doesn't take long for even the most adventurous synthesizer effect programmer to notice that there are some configurations of effects that work better than others. First off, putting effects in parallel ought to produce some interesting new sounds, but it doesn't seem to do anything particularly sparkling, whilst putting effects in series seems to work best with specific combinations. Almost all the best pairings use a static effect like fuzz or reverb, coupled with something more dynamic like chorus or flanging. The order of effects matters: reverb followed by fuzz is completely unusable, whilst flanging followed by reverb sounds thin and distant. In complete contrast, fuzz then flange sounds big and powerful, whilst reverb with a following chorus sounds rich and full of movement.
Of course, the guitarists have been here before as well. Guitar pedal boards have long been designed around a principle which can be summarised as 'mush, then wang'. The mush is the fuzz or reverb part, and it is used to fill out the gaps between notes and the holes in the spectrum where there aren't any harmonics. Once mushed up, the sound can then be wanged. Wanging usually involves removing or moving some parts of the mushed spectrum: phasing removes regular little notches; flanging removes big brutal notches; chorus removes some bits and moves other bits around; and panning just moves things around in the stereo image. If you wang first and then mush, you succeed only in removing some parts of the original sound, so the wanging only serves to confuse things by splattering more mush everywhere. Here's a quick reference chart of the two categories:
Opinion by Martin Russ
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