Just what makes a production a production? What is it that gives a professionally recorded and mixed song that special, elusive power and punch, depth and detail? You've got the killer beats and wicked loops. You've got all of the instruments: samplers, synths, drum machines abound. You've got the songwriting and performance chops. Yet there’s something missing. The tracks lack a sense of space. They lack interest, falling flat the moment the sound drops out of the speakers. Why? What do the pros know that you don't? In a word: effects. Effects can make (or break) a track. They can be the perfect sweetener, adding lust the right amount of gloss or grit to bring your songs to life. They're a crucial ingredient in virtually any pop, rock or dance production - even classical music has some reverb thrown on, albeit of the natural variety.
For decades now, hardware studio effects units have emulated acoustic and mechanical processes, and these sorts of effects remain among the most popular: the reverberation of a natural acoustic space, for example, the whooshing jet noise effect of tape flanging, or the nasty distortion of an overdriven amplifier. Today, software plug-ins bring these real-world devices into the virtual domain, with no compromise whatsoever in terms of features and sound quality. There’s a vast wealth of effects plug-ins available, both free and for paid-for. Your DAW almost certainly includes a suite of them.
So how can you get the most from them? How are you to know what effects should be used and when? We're going to guide you around the most common and frequently applicable types of effects and give you step-by-step instruction on how they might be used. Well also show you some more out-there plug-ins and discuss their role in modern music production. As you explore each of these effects, you'll begin to realize that you've known about them all along, even if you didn't have a name to describe them, and by the time you've worked through this tutorial, you'll have the knowledge and tools to make your projects more engaging and professional.
Sends and Inserts
You may well have noticed that your mixer enables you to apply effects as "inserts" and "sends" (aka, "auxiliaries"). So what's the difference? Well, with an insert, the effect (or chain of effects) is only applied to the channel into which it’s loaded, and the entire signal is processed - although if the plug-in has a wet/dry control, you can set the audible balance between the original signal and the effected one.
A send effect, on the other hand, is placed on an auxiliary bus that's available to every channel in the mixer via each channel's individual "send" control, which enables you to send as much or as little as you like of every sound in your track to that effect. Thus, you can use, say, a single reverb to give the whole track a sense of space, with some sounds getting just a little bit of it and others getting more. This is especially useful if your reverb plug·in is CPU-intensive, since you're only using one of them to effectively do the work of many.
As mentioned before, the wet/dry mix enables you to set the balance of an insert effect. When using an effect on an auxiliary bus, the send controls on the mixer are used to determine the ratio of processed/unprocessed signal.
Effects that are intended to process 100% of a single signal are typically used as inserts (distortion, EQ, compression), while others are better suited for sends (reverb, delay), but there are, of course, no hard and fast rules.
An effect with a sidechain input enables you to use the volume of one signal to control the processing of another. For example, you could run a drum loop Into the sidechain input on a gate plug-in processing a synthesizer sound. When the drum loop's volume exceeds the set threshold. the gate will open, allowing the synth signal to pass through. This can be used creatively, as described here. or in a corrective way. You could, for example, use sldechaining to lock a bass sound to a kick drum track. Lots of different effects have sidechain inputs - compressors, limiters. filters, etc. It's no wonder that sidechaining is used by so many producers.
Creative vs Corrective Effects Processing
The subject of EQ provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the dual nature of certain effects processors, including compressors, limiters, exciters and even pitch correctors. All of these share a certain duality: they were originally designed to correct problematic recordings or performances, but turned out to also offer plenty of creative potential.
EQ, for example, was created to give the engineer the ability to attenuate (reduce) offending, overpowering frequencies and boost those that are weaker than they ought to be. Similarly, compressors and limiters are intended for correcting wayward fluctuations in volume, while the intended role of pitch correction is self-evident. Yet each and every one of these effects has become a creative tool. Engineers and producers have been quick to seize upon processor design quirks and subvert them to more novel usage.
The Auto-Tune effect is a prime example, as is the ever-popular filtered drum loop, wherein a filter (which is, fundamentally, an EQ) is used to remove much of the frequency content, leaving the loop with a highly stylized sonic signature. Then there’s the familiar "telephone effect" that's frequently applied to vocals or guitars. This effect is created with an EQ or filter and is anything but corrective.
Compressors and gates are also often used for purely creative purposes. You can't miss the percolating pulse of the "trance gate", so prevalent in modern dance music. This effect is created by sidechaining one sound into an effect to control how that effect is applied to another sound. Indeed. sidechaining itself was originally designed as a corrective tool. It enabled the "ducking" (lowering in volume) of one signal when another one's volume reached a certain threshold. It was meant to be used to reduce the volume of program material when a voice entered the scene - a radio announcer talking over music, for example.
The corrective roles of these effects are still essential. Use them sparingly, but don’t overlook the possibility of applying them in more creative ways. Explore them by tweaking and automating every parameter available. You never know, you might stumble upon that Next Big Thing in music production.
Delay and Reverb
We begin with two of the most common (and essential) effects. The first of these, delay, is closely related to the second, reverb. although far simpler in design. A delay plug-in does exactly what the name implies: it delays the audio signal by a specified amount and plays it back at a later point in time. A delay can be used to adjust timing errors in a signal or performance, but it's more commonly used to create an echo effect. You've heard it countless times: the subtle slapback echo on a surf rock guitar. or the spacey tail of a trance synth lead.
The first delay units were tape-based devices. In fact, some delay plug-ins continue to present themselves in faux tape-machine finery, complete with movable tape heads to adjust the time between each repeat of the original signal.
Just about every delay plug-in enables you to control the delay time (most can be synchronized to the tempo of the DAW hosting the plug-in), along with a mix control to determine how much of the original signal is audible in relation to the processed signal (called the "dry" and "wet" signals - remember that. because it comes up again and again).
There will also very likely be a feedback control, which enables you to route the processed signal back through the delay again for thicker, more Intense effects. Be careful, though: too much feedback can lead to uncontrollably loud signals that can damage your ears and your speakers.
Finally, your delay plug-in may have a built-in filter. which alters the frequency content of the echoes to better simulate the sound of hardware echo boxes, or can be used as a sound-shaping tool.
Convolutuon and Algornthmlc Reverb
Not so long ago, algorithmic reverb was the only kind of digital reverb available. It simulates complex acoustic spaces by piling on lots and lots of delays with subtle variations to their feed back and frequency. Depending on the algorithm used, the effect can be quite convincing, and algorithmic units from companies like Lexicon and TC Electronic set the standard for studio reverb for many years.
Convolution reverbs, however, use sampled "impulse responses" of real spaces to create a complex mathematical model of how your signal might sound in such a space. The results are nothing short of remarkable in terms of realism and quality, and they’re very different to what you get from an algorithmic reverb. Nevertheless, both types have a place in modem production.
Compressors, Gates and Limiters
This is the class of corrective devices known as "dynamics processors", designed to control the volume of your signals. For example, have you ever found that the volume of your drums or vocals is all over the place? Enter the compressor. which gives a more uniform level throughout by compressing the volume range of the signal, making the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter. You're (usually) given control over the compression ratio (strength), threshold (volume level) at which compression should begin to be applied, and make-up gain, which brings the level up after the compressor has done its work. since the process invariably leads to a certain loss in overall volume as well as a reduction in distance between the loudest and quietest bits.
A limiter is another, simpler type of compressor. It simply creates a "ceiling" beyond which the signal will always be reduced In volume to a predetermined level. Multiband compressors, meanwhile, apply different amounts of compression or limiting to different frequency ranges, and are used in the mastering process to make the mix sound louder than it actually is.
A gate is a little different, but shares many of the same parameters as a compressor. it simply shuts the output off entirely when the signal falls below a certain threshold. This is commonly used to allow the desired parts of a signal to pass through, while blocking any lower-level noise In between them.
Chorus, Phasers and Flangers
This class of effects all draw upon the same processes to produce distinctly different results. However. their origins and intent are exclusive to each. The phaser Is based on the idea that each waveform has a distinctive cycle, made up of positive and negative phases (usually identical, with one of them "flipped"). A signal's phase is an important consideration in getting a good recording, and engineers are always battling with phasing issues introduced by microphones. Conversely, we can play with a signal's phase to produce interesting results. Here's the thing: when you play an exact copy of a signal alongside Itself and reverse the phase of one of them, the signals will cancel each other out, resulting in complete silence. If the copied signal is then sent through an all-pass filter, with an LFO to modulate (change over time) the frequency, you'll get that characteristic sweeping effect.
The sound of the flanger is similar to that of the phaser, except that a very short delay Is placed in the signal path. This provides a reasonable simulation of tape flanging, an effect created by playing two tapes with identical material recorded onto them at the same time, and manually altering the speed and frequency content of one deck to get the classic 'jet plane' sound so adored by psychedelic musicians.
Finally, chorus. This one uses a similar method to flanging to emulate the sound of multiple sources. each slightly different in pitch from the others. The reality Is a shimmering kind of sound that works wonders on guitar, electric piano and the relatively thin timbres of simple analogue waveforms.
Delay-based Processing and More
There are only a handful of different types of effect available, and most plug-ins are built on one or another of them. Among the most prominent types is the delay-based (aka time-based) effect. As we mentioned before, chorus, flanging, phasing and reverb plug-Ins employ delay to process sounds, and so we tend to group these together under that heading.
We probably needn't tell you what the term "pitch-based" describes, and that particular type is often combined with time-based processing in plug-in design. In fact, the two used to be inextricably linked. However, recent developments in DSP (Digital Signal Processing) technology have created a class of pitch effects that are now removed from the time domain. Until not that long ago, any shift in pitch resulted in a similar shift in time. In other words, if you wanted to, say, reduce the pitch of a sound by an octave, that sound would have to be stretched to twice Its original length to make it happen. Now we can make use of various time and pitch altering processes that change one without affecting the other. Granular effects fall Into this category, as do "elastic audio" programs like Acid and Live.
Distortion effects are entirely different, relying on various different processes to distort the original signal. Some emulate physical phenomena, such as overdriven amplifiers, while others exert influence over the mathematics of digital audio in order to degrade it. Fuzzboxes, plus tube and tape saturation belong to the former bunch, while bit-crushers and aliasing plug-ins fall into the latter group. These all sound very different to one another. It's worth noting that distortion is sometimes added to non-distortion effects - many compressors, EQs, delays, etc, feature "tube" or "saturation" settings, designed to add a bit of vintage-style grit to their sound.
Don’t Go Overboard
From radio to the internet to the television, we’re inundated with tunes these days, from bedroom demos to professionally mixed masterpieces - and one of the main things that differentiates the two is the usage of effects. A professional engineer knows how to use effects with discretion and taste. He or she knows that subtlety is the key to a successful mix. Reverb is used to suggest a space, delay to add a bit of drama here and there. Dramatic special effects should be used sparingly. When an effect is overused or abused, It loses its potency. We don't have to tell you that. It’s been a long time since any of us thought an exaggerated, Auto-Tuned vocal was a fresh idea. Effects are the icing on the cake. The right amount of them, perfectly chosen, can accentuate and draw out the flavor of your track. However, if you add too many effects. or choose the wrong types, you’ll end up annoying your audience and dissuading them from further listening.
It can be tempting to pile on as many effects as you have, turn all the dials up to 11 and let them run for the entirety of a mix, but such gimmickry will grow tiresome pretty quickly. Remember that just because it sounds cool, doesn't mean you need to use it all the time.
Exercise restraint and know your threshold for ear fatigue. And take frequent breaks when mixing, so that you don't lose focus and perception. Reverb is a particularly insidious effect, for example, since it simulates a natural phenomenon. After an extended mixing session, your ears become accustomed to it and you don't notice it, so you reach for the aux send and add a little more. Pretty soon, the whole track is swimming in the stuff. EQs and filters can have similar issues, so relax and go easy. when you think you have enough reverb, dial it down by 10%. You'll be glad you did.
Recommended Free Plug-ins
Christian Knufinke Software SIR1
Convolution reverb for PC with some tricks up its sleeve to minimize the usually high CPU consumption associated with such processing.
Part of a donationware bundle from the brains behind KarmaFX Synth. it's Windows-only, unfortunately, but a brilliant little plug-in.
Kjaerhus Audio Classic Reverb
Simple, smooth and low on CPU, this Is one of many must-haves In the PC-only Classic series.
Togu Audio Line TAL-Reverb
Cross-platform, at last! TAL-Reverb Is easy to use, offers pre-delay and filtering.
Audio Damage Rough Rider
Beautiful cross-platform compressor combing a modern sound with a vintage approach. Bursting with character and a doddle to dial in.
Camel Audio Camel Crusher
Another cross-platform compressor that's combined with a filter and distortion.
A retro sounding delay for Windows with all the trimmings.
The Wem Copicat is a classic tape-based echobox and Is emulated superbly In the WatKat. Mac and Windows versions available.
Studio Devil BVC
The classic British valve sound in a simple, free and cross-platform plug-in.
Not your normal distortion, as this one is designed to sound like circuit bent hardware.
Cyanide, the graphical waveshaper from SE's Bram, has graced many a mangled track.
Analog Industries Filterizer
Excellent Mac/Windows VST multi band filter.
Blue Cat Audio
Triple EQ This three-band parametric EQ is a fine example of Blue Cat's considerable talents.
Ohm Force Frohmage
Utterly devastating filter from one of the premier effects developers.
Voxengo Overtone GEQ
Want it quick and easy? Get hold of this superb seven-band graphic EQ.
Patterned after rack-mounted multi-effects hardware, this is practically a one-stop shop.
ndc Plugs Reversinator
It has one button and one light, and clicking that button does just what you think it does.
This plug-in from SE's Koen Tanghe will screw your stuff up In a big way. And that's a good thing. Granular processing for free!
Valhalla DSP ValhallaFreqEcho
When we first discovered this free Bode-style frequency shifter, we could barely contain ourselves. Send your Cybermats into a tizzy.