The humble delay plugin is one of the more basic effects that will be included in your DAW. Just repeating the sounds put into it, it’s rather less glamorous than some of these inspirational sound-manglers available now. But it’s also one of the most versatile for a whole range of uses, from sound design to mix engineering. So let’s have a look at how you can use this most common of tools to your advantage, whatever level you’re working at!
Despite their outward simplicity, delay effects have certainly come a long way from those old 1960′s tape-based machines which came in a small briefcase and had about three settings. Digital processing has given us the benefits of tempo sync, delay times customisable down to the millisecond, filtering and more. This gives considerable potential for using delay as a creative effect.
For instance, the old classic of dub delay, as seen on countless reggae and dubstep records. This has two essential parts – a high level of feedback, to create the distortion, and some kind of filter on the delay output. You’d be wanting to remove the extreme highs and lows anyway, but combine this with the feedback and you’ll soon have a screeching monster of a delay tail. That screeching monster would soon consume your whole mixdown (and hurt your ears too) so keep it under control with a limiter after the delay unit. Finally, use a healthy dose of automation to bring up and down the delay feedback, volume and so on. Or even automate the channel mute button, so you can let a delay feedback on itself and then suddenly chop it down to nothing – a technique which really catches the ear.
This is not all about dub though. Many synths benefit greatly from a spot of delay on the output. By adding a simple delay, carefully EQ’d, you can create a much fuller synth sound. Try using a ‘slapback’ delay for an alternative way of beefing up a synth too; set the delay time to be extremely short, with no feedback at all – so you just get one delayed hit. Now every synth note will appear to be ‘doubled’, and if you make the delay short enough, the effect will be of chunking up the initial sound, not of hearing the same thing twice. If you now turn up the feedback, you’ll get a load of really tight delays – and find that you’re creating an effect that emulates an old spring reverb.
Delay can also be a phenomenal tool for creating weird and interesting effects. Stuck for inspiration? Then try firing up a more complex delay plug like Logic’s Delay Designer or Waves Supertap, and getting busy with the settings. With their filtering, pitch-shifting and multi-tap capabilities, these things can turn a simple vocal line into an unusable mush. But wait! If you don’t want to turn the main feature of your tune into a horrible mess then try taking a much more simple sound – even something like a hi-hat, timestretched a little to make more of its metallic character – and set to with some of the more complicated settings. With filters and variably timed delay taps, you can create whooshes and swoops that rise and fall in intensity, pitch and volume – great for FX, ambient music, and risers to accent the peaks and troughs in your track.
Away from the arena of sonic creation, delay can be very handy for mix purposes. Stereo delays can be used to enhance the width and fullness of a sound – either by having delayed sound ping around the stereo spectrum, or simply by sending sound to a bus with a delay on it, and then using stereo widening techniques on the delay, rather than the main sound itself. Another tactic is to take two copies of your channel, one to the left and one to the right, and then delay one of the channels by a few miliseconds. This will give the feeling of stereo widening, but make sure to test the mix in mono, as phasing issues can occur.
To make a synth or vocal part more interesting, set up differing delays on two or three busses with contrasting delay times and textures. Then you can automate occasional sends the busses, creating a short accent that will grab the listener’s ear, without dominating the mix – and by using more than one delay, you can use the technique repeatedly without it becoming boring.
When mixing delay, you should usually roll off the highest and lowest frequencies, to avoid muddiness at the low end and the potential for excess detail at the top clashing with your hi-hats. You could also consider using side-chain compression on the delay tails, taking the clean signal as the trigger for the compressor. This will allow the original signal to come through loud and clear, whilst letting the effects shine when there is space for them. Depending on how crucial the delay is to your sound, you may also want to pan it off to one side, to leave more space in the centre of the spectrum for the essentials in your mix.
Delay can also be a useful alternative to reverb – whereas reverb can create a large sound that occupies a lot of space in the mix, delay by its nature tends to be short and percussive. As such, a spot of delay used instead of reverb can give a feeling of space whilst still leaving room for other sounds.
We’ve only really scratched the surface here – there are so many uses for delay that you can find yourself using loads of them in every tune, from making your synths richer in timbre to ambient sound design to advanced mixdown techniques. So if you’re not making the most of this essential effect, then get a decent delay plugin, and get familiar with the workings of it – it could really open up some new possibilities!