On Milliseconds: Diving Into Time-Based Effects

By: Tony Williamette

Date: 3/29/22

When I first started playing punk music in basements and garages, I did what most kids would do: screw around with their guitar player’s multi-fx pedal until everyone was thoroughly annoyed. It was the early 2000’s and these things were popular. I’m looking at you, Digitech and Line6.

At the time, I didn’t know the difference between phasers, flangers, choruses, and delays. It sounds silly just writing this now, but I don’t think I could have defined “reverb.”

In the subsequent years, I would learn about these effects and the best use case for each. I spent time with digital, spring, plate, and chamber reverbs. I fell in love with certain tape and digital delays and found go-to pedals and plugins for all my time-based effect needs.

Below is a clean breakdown of what I wish I had a better grasp on when I starting dabbling in the audio world.

To really grasp this and hear the changes, take any delay pedal/plugin, start with your “delay time” at 0 and slowly begin ramping it up.

~1-10ms: Comb Filtering

This is normally the territory of “phase” issues. And not the good kind of phase as described below. This range is usually undesirable in the audio world, but can be used as an effect under certain circumstances. Although it doesn’t have a ton of useful applications, being able to hear this can help to start training your ears to identify phase issues and recognizing timing differences in multiple-microphone situations.

~1-10ms: Flanging

Usually includes an LFO modulating time of the delayed signal. This time change creates movement of the signal and the tone can change from bar to bar in a given arrangement. These things can be a blast. Guitars and vocals come to mind immediately, but try them on hi hats and synths as well.

~1-10ms: Phasing

Very similar to a Flanger in that the audio signal is delayed and mixed with the original signal, a Phaser creates cuts in the high end of a signal with the placement of those cuts being modulated up and down throughout audio spectrum. This gives the feel of an automated tone control, but only over a small group of frequencies. Again, can be a total blast on guitars and vocals, but have fun with it on other instruments. No hard and fast rules here.

~15-25ms: Chorusing

Created the same way as flanging, but with a longer delay time, resulting in less phasey sounding. Chorus characteristics range from slow, deep sounds up to fast, shimmering sounds. I often think of chorusing as having an “underwater” feel. I use this all the time on vocals and it tends to tighten up the perception of the pitch of the vocals if there are slight issues. Using these on background vocals can give a wider, deeper sound to your mix. I’ve found that using a chorus effect in conjunction with Autotune somehow seems to give a pleasing sound.

~25-50ms: Reverb

For a small window here, we can actually create a sense of space and what I usually hear as a small room, depending on the characteristics of the delayed sound. Once the decay time of the delayed signal is turned up, we enter the territory of big reverbs including halls and chambers. Reverb has an infinite number of tasteful uses.

~40-120ms: Slapback Delay

This is usually when the human ear will start to hear the source and delayed signal as two independent sounds. Depending on the speed of the song and the tonal characteristics of the source and delayed sound, a Slapback delay can be used to create space and excitement on a source. Think rockabilly vocals. I often use very short delays on vocals, mixed very quietly (~5%-10%) to help thicken up the sound and give it a sense of persistence in a denser mix. Snares, hi-hats, and guitars are another fun use for short delays like this. My experience is that it can help thicken or assert a guitars place in the mix, pending panning choices. One of my favorite uses of the Slapback delay is on acoustic guitar, panning the dry signal to the left and the return to the right and balancing them almost 50/50. This can make one performance sound wide and exciting, especially in sparser arrangements.

~120ms+: Long Delay

Anything beyond the 120ms or so threshold turned into a distinct delay signal that can have countless uses in a mix. Vocals, guitars, synths, snares, hi hats- have fun. I think of these delays in terms of notes rather than in milliseconds, often dialing in 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 note delays into songs.

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