Delay will 'thicken' vocals and lead lines and beef up your overall mix, but it can do more, says Chris Lyth
Delay is one of the most powerful tools in a producer's toolbox. It makes a mix move, and breathes life into parts that would sound utterly pedestrian and flat without it. Whether you love them or loathe them, imagine what U2’s guitars would sound like without it.
So how does it work? Delay is created by storing the sound that passes through it in a memory buffer, and then recalling it some time later. How much later is what we refer to as delay time. The buffer, in the old days, would take the form of an analogue tape, but in the bright shiny future world we inhabit is now almost always digital. More complicated delays are created by feeding a certain amount of the delayed signal back into the delay input. This is unsurprisingly referred to as feedback.
Analogue vs digital
The main problem that arises from using analogue tape delays is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to make them run at a steady speed. The pitch wavers and warbles, the delays aren't as bright and clean as the original, and the repeats get duller and more distorted the longer the delay goes on. When digital delays came on the scene, they delivered solid, clean repeats with no deviation from the set BPM - the only issue was that they now sounded very sterile and unmusical. It therefore wasn’t long before designers started to find ways to make the digital units sound more musical by building in artefacts like distortion and pitch wobble, allowing the feedback to be filtered and so on. So you could say that we're now living in an age where we can have the best of both worlds.
Here are a few tips and tricks to help you get the best from your delays...
• To use delay to thicken and add body to a sound, it’s useful to use a dark-sounding delay. Use your delay's LPF filter to roll off the top end and soften the attack of the repeats. Used in this way, a warm-sounding delay can reinforce the sound subtly without sounding like an obvious echo effect. If the sound is too warm, use your filter or EQ to clean up the low end. This can work well on vocals, strings, keys and pads.
• When you have a busy mix, adding another reverb to proceedings is unlikely to further your cause. So instead, try using a simple quarter-note delay. This will allow you to create depth around your part without suffocating your soundstage.
* On vocals that have a tight and percussive delivery, reverb can be the kiss of death, so take a leaf from many a rap producer's book and try experimenting with slap delay. Slap delay creates a thickening of the sound and will bring it to life with a sense of dimensional space. Slap or slapback delays are very short delays, and were originally made using tape machines. The most famous examples can be found on the vocals of Elvis and John Lennon. Use a single repeat between 60-180 ms and roll off a little top end.
* If you want to preserve clarity in your mix, it’s a good idea to side-chain your delay by placing a compressor after it and using the main feature of your track - for example the lead line or vocal - to duck the delay. This means that every time your vocal plays, the compressor will automatically turn down the delay. It’s probably something that you want to go easy with if just keeping the mix clear and defined is your main objective. Conversely, if you want to make a statement then savagely overdoing it could be just the trick.
• Automation is where you can really bring your delay A-game to the production table. Rather than thinking of your delay as an inert effect just stuck on the end of a send channel, think of it as a living, breathing instrument in its own right. Drawing in fiddly FX automation with a mouse in your DAW can be frustrating, though, so it’s an idea to map your delay's controls to the knobs of a controller and play with the functions. It quickly becomes a tactile instrument, so you can record all your movements and easily automate sharp, rhythmic flashes of feedback, filters and LFO parameters. Handcrafting your own effects automation can take a track to the next level.
• Equalising your delay return is a great way of blending it into your soundstage. Obvious uses are getting rid of muddy low ends and harsh tops, but using the EQ to sweep through your mids to find the sweet spot will benefit your overall mix in the long run.
• Bouncing the stem of your delay can be useful in a number of ways, both practically and creatively. Practically, you can adjust levels, EQ, compress and feed it into other effects such as reverbs or other delays. Creatively, you could split up sections and treat them differently, reverse sections, timestretch or pitch-shift. Essentially you can treat the delay as any other instrument or sound source.
• Compressing a delay and adding a touch of reverb can thicken the sound and make the repeats less distinct, giving a warm, hazy sound which works great on vintage Moog- and Rhodes-type sounds, as well as on vocals if sun-kissed bliss is the name of your game. It will also keep it from getting too wild if you are going for really long feedback settings.
• If you're looking for a more louche sound, ditch the 'sync to tempo' option in your DAW and time up the tempo by hand. For example, play a rimshot in a 4/4 pattern then play around with the delay time and get it grooving along with the track tempo. This approach gives a looser, more relaxed sound than the DAW sync version, which lends itself to more funky styles. For added groove, try it with a ping-pong delay and hand-time both sides
• Finally, remember that when you're judging the level of effects, it’s easy to get carried away and lose perspective if you have been tweaking away for hours. More often than not, effects are tools to reinforce the message, not the message itself, so maybe bring it down a touch, or come back to it another day with objectivity renewed.
Top delay tools
There are hundreds of delay plug-ins available, and many offer a free trial download, so have a look around and see what works for you. That said, though, here are three that, in my experience, really stand out...
For my money, this is probably the best delay plug-in of all time. It covers a vast amount of ground, emulating the sound of classics like Space Echo, Tel-Ray, DM2, Echoplex and Memory Man, but with all the comforts of modernity. It sounds lush and is great for warm, rounded analogue tones, but will also allow you to add distortion and go down the nasty, grungy route.
Lexicon PSP 42
This is a digital recreation of Lexicon's classic hardware delay of the same name, and has all the warmth and colour you would expect. Great for traditional-sounding delays, but also wins the day with twisted sound design capabilities.
This deliberately simple delay plug-in has a relatively pared-back feature set, but no corners have been cut in terms of sound quality. There’s more than enough versatility to cover all but the most complex of tasks. The LoFi button is a particular favourite, and its real hardware-style pitch behaviour really rounds off the edges.
Words: Chris Lyth