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Delay Effect Explained For Beginners

beginner delay effects Oct 20, 2021

The delay effect in music production is one of the main creative tools of the trade. In this introduction to delay video I explain the types and styles of the delay effect (analog vs digital etc) and explain the differences between slapback, short, medium and long and where you might use each one. 

Taken from my course produced exclusively for the Pro Mix Academy where I explore the principles explained in this video deeper, with detailed and step by step examples across most popular instruments. Release expected Spring 2022.

What is Delay?

What is delay? Well, in this video I hope to answer that question by going back to basics and explaining the origins of delay along with the delay types and the characteristics of each.

The problem with reverb is it can make a mix sound muddy very quickly, especially when used widely throughout a mix.

Delay is the secret weapon of the pro’s to keeping mix clarity but which delay effect should you use? 

In this video I explain what the differences are between tape delay, analog and digital delays, what is meant when a delay is described as short, medium or long and I explain what modulated delays are.

 Reverb will extend the soundstage and make the instrument it's applied to sound larger than life. With delay, we can expand on that even further so we can get that expansive soundscape we're looking for, but still retain the clarity and separation of instruments if reverb seems like it's getting in the way.

Let's start by getting the lay of the land when it comes to delay and understanding the principles and the parameters so we can see how the two effects, reverb and delay, can complement one another when we mix.

Delay is an Echo. It's a repeat of the original sound. Think of shouting into a cave or Canyon like we did with Reverb.

The original sound travels through air and the reflection bounces back with a time delay and we hear it as a fainter repeat of the direct sound later in time.

Delay first made its appearance in a musical setting by some clever person in the 50s discovering how an analogue tape machine could be set to play back a recorded sound a fraction of a second later to get a repeat that sounded like nothing heard in music before.

Through the 50s and 60s, this tape delay effect became the recognised sound of famous guitarists and singers and Echo would come to define the sound of rock and roll. This tape delay is known as slapback Echo, and we'll look at how to create this in a later video.

Today, Echo is used to refer to a tape based unit. While the more modern incarnation seen in pedals and plugins is called delay, analogue tape isn't the only way to create a delay, and likely more commonly, you'll be creating delay in the digital realm.

In your Daw, an audio waveform, when plotted on a graph, is shown as the path of loudness that a sound takes over time. In simple terms, that means how much signal and when it happened.

When we delay something, we are shifting it later in time, and when we set the parameters of a delay plugin, we set the amount of time we want the plugin to wait before it releases the sound that we hear as a distinct, separate Echo to the original. The released delayed signal also decays in amplitude across the repeats.

Why use delay in music production?

We use delay like Reverb to expand the stereo field, widening the sound stage, and to create a modified version of the original recorded sound for added depth and dimension.

Delay is one of those tools that we as mixers can use to get really creative in a mix and put our own spin on a sound and hopefully enhance it to add more excitement and energy to the track.

Delay can be used to add stereo width to a mono sound. It can add thickness to vocals and instil movement to any audio signal we apply it to. If we feel the Reverb is too wet sounding, we can use a short delay instead to lift a vocal just a little and prevent it sounding unnaturally dry in the mix.

Some engineers only ever use delay and never use reverbs.

If you feel like a Reverb is muddying up your mix, use a delay instead.

Main Delay Types

There are three categories of delay there's tape, analogue and digital, and within those are the applications we can use when mixing to get really creative and bring a track to life.

Analog Delay

Tape delay is generally a delay of one to three repeats that are spaced very close together, which we can use to fatten the sound. Sometimes referred to as Slapback Echo. The famous tape machines used to achieve this were the Echo Plex and the Binson Echo Rec.

Later came the Roland Space Echo, where the concept of tape delay was taken to its extreme and is a much loved device among musicians and engineers alike.

Whilst these physical devices can still be found, there are many emulations available for use in the daw, so the chance to get creative with this type of delay is easily attainable.

The signature sound of this delay is a lo fi, warm delay, where the feedback tails get more and more distorted as they dissipate. In a quest for a cheaper and more robust method for creating tape machine delays on the road, the analogue Bucket Brigade circuit was born to be used inside a guitar pedal.

These analogue delays are darker sounding than tape, and they're able to create more accurate, shorter echoes than physical tape.

The name "Bucket Brigade" refers to the capacitor arrangement inside the pedal that passes a sample of the signal and sends it to the next capacitor. And you can get an idea on how this works by thinking about the chain of people each passing buckets of water along to the next person in the chain in order to put out a fire at the end of the chain. And that's where the name Bucket Brigade comes from.

Digital Delay

Digital delay came about in the late 70s and early 80s and sound much cleaner than analogue or tape delays.

The input signal is converted from analogue to digital and stored in a buffer and then played back.

Depending on the parameters set on the device. Digital delays present us with an extensive array of options for getting creative, such as Ping Pong delay, multitap delays, and looping. To name a few. We can place delays into three types based on their duration. The duration of a delay massively affects the tonal result on the signal it's placed upon.

So when deciding which type of delay to add, it's good to set up a session with a delay from each length. The three classes of length are short, medium, and long doubling. Echo is a medium delay that's added to the original recorded sound. A maximum setting of 50 milliseconds is common for this technique, and it creates a similar effect to double tracking. This can be used to thicken up a sound and is used to great effect on vocals.

Slapback Echo is classed as a long delay and uses a slightly longer delay than doubling Echo, generally set with a delay time between 82 hundred milliseconds slap. Back Echo is produced by sending a signal from the playback head on a tape recorder to its recording head. The duration of the delay is set by the speed of the tape, the volume of the signal, and the actual physical distance between the playback and the record heads on the machine. Analogue and digital delays can easily replicate this effect. Although if you can get hold of a physical tape machine, the quality of the delays changes as the tape degrades over time, making each machine quite unique.

The effect puts the source signal in a live-sounding space because we hear it as a separate repeat. To modulate something is simply to change it in some way. Common forms of modulated delay are flanging and chorus. Flanging is regarded as a short delay and was created by sound engineers physically touching one of the reels on a reel to reel recorder. This creates a phenomenon called comb filtering and by modulating the comb filter using delay, we get a sweeping swooshing sound.

Chorusing is a medium delay comprising of several modulated delays in the 20 to 50 milliseconds range. The modulation introduces pitch shifting and that simulates the natural pitch shifting that occurs when there are several performers singing or playing the same part. Chorusing can be used as a special effect on any instrument to thicken up the sound, making it sound richer and more full.

As of publishing this video in October 2021, this course hasn't been released quite yet. So to keep in the loop, add yourself to the waiting list and I'll personally email you when it's released, you'll find the relevant links in the description and I'll see you in the next video.


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