On Using Time-Based Effects

By: Tony Williamette

Date: 4/19/22

A few weeks ago, I published a blog detailing the differences in various time-based effects. This forced me to harken back to my first experience with them- a parking garage with my Papa Eddy, hearing the “echoes.” When I started attending school for audio engineering and getting exposed to real studio equipment, the old Lexicon and Eventide units presented infinite opportunities and served as a sort of inspiration for new sounds and textures. Rack-mounted guitar pedals with real pedigree, cool!

My workflow has evolved and I’m now dealing primarily with plugins, but still enjoy fiddling with tape echoes, spring reverbs, and effects pedals. Sometimes getting away from the screen and putting your hands on real knobs, buttons, and faders can do wonders for my inner child.

I’ve put together a few tip/tricks I’ve learned that help can put these effects to use.

Go too far. Find the line.

Push that big reverb/delay/phaser/chorus/etc. as far as you can. Learn what the extreme ends of your effects can do. It’s so easy to be conservative with these things, but you’ll hear when you’ve gone too far. And when you do hear it, back it off a few degrees and re-evaluate. That “too far” sound might be perfect in a future context, and now you know what your effects can/can’t do.

Listen in Headphones.

This is huge! I find that having even a cheap pair of headphones on hand can show me when I’ve gone too far with effects. I find this particularly true for reverb and delays. Getting new perspective on a mix is vital, and listening for overbearing effects is one of the crucial things I listen for on headphones.

Dial delays into the BPM of the song.

This sounds elementary, but I travel from session to session with pre-built delay plugins for 1/16 note, 1/8 note, and 1/4 note delays in my back pocket. These don’t always get used, but it’s nice to have them on hand. I find that the song-timed delays tend to “melt” into the mix a lot more and generally stay out of the way of most instruments. Even throwing a slight delay on a vocal as a very low level can help bring it to life and add “excitement”.

EQ Your Effects.

Sometimes your effect is popping out too much and the dedicated effect plugin doesn’t have parameters for EQ, or the sound isn’t doing it for you. I’ll often darken reverbs heavily with an EQ plugin inserted directly after the reverb on its channel. Some reverbs and delays are handy enough to have filters built into them. Another distinct sound can be creating a “telephone” sound by adding a bandpass EQ after the effect. There are thousands of ways to use this effectively.

Automate your effects.

This can sometimes feel labor-intensive, but I find it’s often worth spending time on these little details. Bringing the level of a reverb send on the snare up and down as the chorus transitions to the verse can have a giant emotional impact on a song. Automating the “feedback” on a delay throughout a specific vocal passage can be a nice touch as well. You may also find that a transient from a vocal or percussive element catches your effect differently as different times in the song. Simple automation can help tame this.

Reverbs can take some time to dial in, so spend time creating rooms/halls/chambers/ambiences that you like.

This will save you time while mixing. Again, I often travel from session to session with about 5 different reverb plugins or “spaces” that I’ve created, some following me over the last 10 years. Often times a song may call for a specific reverb I don’t have pre-built. This is when it’s time to get creative and have fun crafting a new one. I sometimes find that creating a new reverb gives the song a life it would have never otherwise had. It can inspire the direction and ultimately becomes a big part of the sonic profile of the song.

Cascade your effects

Stacking effects after other effects can be fruitful. Reverbs on delays, distortions on delays, AutoTune on delays, and on and on. You will find that cascading multiple effects on one Aux return will let the effects work together and push each other differently than if they were on their own returns. For example, I’ve got really nice 1/4 note delay with a beautiful ambient reverb that often gets used in mixes. When combining effects like this, you can begin creating sounds that literally no one has ever made.

Use what you have. Don’t get caught up on the gear.

Some of the coolest sounding rough mixes come into my studio using stock Pro Tools delays and reverbs. They often leave me wondering, “how did they get that sound?” It’s all about context, not how much you spend on plugins or that vintage Lexicon unit. I’ve also had great results re-amping vocal tracks through cheap guitar reverb pedals and printing it back into my session 100% wet. I can then treat this wet track like a “reverb send” and bring it up and down as needed for the mix. This also eliminates the need for protracted recall when reopening the session.

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