Create Better Mixes: Delay in Music Explained
December 22, 2023 | Tero Potila
Delay in music is another time-based effect that, much like reverb, offers a simple yet profound way to add depth and dimension to your sound.
Imagine you're shouting into a canyon, and you hear your voice bouncing back; that's the natural echo, and delay creates a controlled, artificial version of this effect in a mix. When you implement Delay, the effect captures your audio signal, waits a short period, and then plays it back. This can be a single or multiple repetitions, creating a cascade of sounds that can rhythmically enhance your music.
The nuances of using Delay can turn an ordinary track into a rich, textured soundscape. You can apply delay to a single instrument to give it prominence or a group of instruments, providing all instruments in the group a sense of space and fullness.
With technological advancements, you have a range of delay types at your disposal, from digital to analog or tape, each bringing its flavor to your tracks.
The adjustments you make to the delay settings—like time, feedback, low and high cut, and mix level—allow you to fine-tune the effect, ensuring it perfectly complements your musical vision.
Mastering delay in your productions means you're not just filling empty space but creating an intentional, rhythmic, and atmospheric layer that can pull listeners into your music. It's not only about the echo itself but how these reflections interact with the original signal, potentially turning a simple melody or rhythm into a complex and more interesting representation of the original sound.
Delay should definitely be an important tool in your creative arsenal. In Soundtrap, you have access to a full suite of mixing effects, including Delay tools like Mod Delay, Slapback, and Stereo Delay. Sign up for Soundtrap for free today to explore all the mixing capabilities of our online DAW.
Fundamentals of Delay in Music
Understanding the Basics
Delay is a time-based effect that records your audio signal and plays it back after a short period. It adds a sense of space to the mix by creating repetitions of the original sound. You can hear these repetitions as echoes, which blend subtly with the dry signal or stand out depending on your settings and the type of delay used.
Types of Delay
There are various delay types, each with unique characteristics:
Tape Delay: Emulates vintage machines known for their warm, organic sound.
Digital Delay: Offers precise control and clear repeats of the audio signal.
Analog Delay: Typically has a darker, more subdued echo effect.
Ping Pong Delay: Alternates between left and right stereo channels for a sense of movement.
Slapback Delay: A short repeat often used in rockabilly and classic rock.
When working with delay, These are the main controls you can adjust:
Delay Time: Defines the interval between the original and delayed signals. It's usually measured in milliseconds (ms).
Short Delay: Under 35ms, used to thicken sounds.
Medium Delay: Between 35ms and 120ms, creates a distinct echo without overwhelming the original sound.
Long Delay: Over 120ms, results in a pronounced repeating effect.
Feedback: Controls the number of repetitions.
Low Feedback: Creates fewer echoes.
High Feedback: Results in many decaying echoes.
Mix: Balances the dry (original signal) and wet (delayed signal) levels. Blending the echo with the direct sound is crucial to achieving the desired sense of space.
Soundtrap includes four different types of delay effects; Delay, Mod Delay, Slapback and Stereo Delay.
Each effect has its own set of controls that enable you to dial in your sound anywhere from a slapback echo to longer delay times.
Slapback is a basic echo with controls for Mix and amount of Delay.
Delay and Stereo Delay are great for getting a clean, basic delay effect for mono and stereo audio tracks. They both include controls for Decay, Time, Low Cut, High Cut and Mix.
The Mod Delay gives you the widest range of controls: Modulation, Feedback, Time, Brightness, Low Cut, Stereo Width, and Mix. Experiment with these settings, and you'll get some versatile and unique effects.
Delay in Soundtrap
Delay Effects and Parameters
Common Delay Effects
The analog delay is known for its warm, decaying repeats, while the digital delay offers precise echoes and crisp timing.
Specialized forms like the tape delay replicate the vintage tonal qualities of magnetic tape machines, often with characteristic flutter and wow.
Chorus effects are also based on a delay; they rely on making a copy or multiple copies of the original signal, then delaying the copied signal and mixing it all back together. The end result is a thicker, more complex sound. The end result is similar to the effect of multiple instruments playing the same part.
Modifying Delay Characteristics
With delay plugins, you have control over various characteristics that shape the sound.
Delay Time: Determines the interval between the original signal and its repetition.
Delay Feedback: Adjusting the feedback setting increases or decreases the number of repetitions.
Mix: Blends the dry (original) and wet (effect) signals to your preference.
To further sculpt your delay sound, modify the delay line with:
Low-pass filters: Roll off the high frequencies for a smoother echo.
High-pass filters: Cut the low end to help delay sit better in the mix.
Feedback and Filters
The feedback control is pivotal; it dictates how many times the delayed signal will repeat. Too much feedback can lead to an overwhelming loop, but just enough creates a perfect echo.
Low-pass and high-pass filters within the feedback path allow you to shape the tonality of the echoes and avoid muddiness.
Applications in Music Production
In the Recording Studio
Delay can be a powerful asset when you're working on shaping your sound.
On a vocal track, especially the lead vocal, delay can add richness without the sometimes overwhelming feel of reverb. Your digital audio workstation (DAW) offers a variety of delay plugins that can be adjusted to fit the tempo and rhythm of your song precisely.
Vocal Delays: Use a short, subtle delay to thicken your lead vocals or a longer, ping-pong style delay for a creative effect.
Guitar Effects: Apply tape delay to your guitar for a vintage vibe or a digital delay for precise repeats that crystallize in the mix.
Remember, each delay type serves a different purpose with its specific tonal qualities:
Tape Delay: Warm and vintage
Digital Delay: Crisp and versatile
By applying different types and parameters of delay, you can create a sense of space and depth that reverb plugins alone cannot achieve.
Live Performance Enhancements
During a live performance, delay is an invaluable tool to elevate your sound. It can create a more spacious, energetic soundscape that resonates with your audience.
Real-Time Adjustments: Modify delay parameters in real-time to fit the song's live energy.
Atmospheric Qualities: Use modulated delays to add a shimmering quality to a guitar solo or vocal melody.
You have the power to transform the live acoustic environment by syncing delays with your performance, ensuring that every echo complements the music rather than clashing with it.
On-The-Fly Tweaking: Be prepared to adjust feedback and delay time to adapt to the venue's acoustics quickly.
Combinations with other Effects: Blend delay with other effects, such as reverb, for an expanded sonic palette.
In both studio and live settings, delay helps you sculpt the space in which your music exists.
Hardware and Software for Delay
In music production, your toolkit for delay effects can include both hardware devices and software plugins. Various solutions exist to cater to your artistic needs, whether aiming for the warmth of analog or the precision of digital delays.
Utilizes magnetic tape to record and playback sound, creating echo effects.
Classic units employ tape loops that pass through a tape recorder's playback and record heads.
Tape delay is a nostalgic nod to the past, using magnetic tape to create echoes. The sound signal is recorded onto the tape and then played back after a short duration, which causes the delay.
Vintage units sometimes feature tape loops, which are actual segments of magnetic tape that continually pass through a tape recorder to create the effect.
One iconic example is the bucket brigade delay (BBD) in some analog delay units. BBD devices pass the audio signal through a series of capacitors, one stage at a time like a line of workers (the "brigade") passing buckets of water to fight a fire. This process creates a warm, degraded echo characteristic of many analog delay pedals.
Digital Delay Units
Modern devices offering higher precision and versatility.
Can emulate the characteristics of analog delays, including tape-like qualities.
In contrast to analog, digital delay effects offer a crisper form of echo with the advantage of more precise control over the delay time and feedback.
Digital delay units can mimic the sounds of their analog predecessors, including the sought-after tape delay, without the hassle of maintaining physical tape loops. They're often found in a stompbox format as a delay pedal, giving you hands-on control when performing live or shaping your sound in the studio.
For an in-the-box solution, delay plug-ins should be your go-to. Software-based delays offer endless possibilities, often including a suite of features such as stereo widening and complex feedback patterns that can be adjusted with the click of a mouse. These plug-ins can range from simple, streamlined interfaces to more complex ones that recreate entire vintage delay systems digitally.
Creative Use and Techniques
Shaping the Sound Space
By applying stereo delay, you give your sounds a larger-than-life presence. On the other hand, a simple delay can add subtle nuances and a sense of width. Using a ping-pong delay, where the echoes bounce between left and right channels, can make your tracks more dynamic with its rhythmic echo.
One great delay trick is the Haas Effect: A slight delay between left and right channels can simulate a stereo effect and make your sounds appear wider.
Like with reverbs, it's a good idea to set up delays as a send effect whenever multiple elements in your mix use them. Utilizing delays this way allows you to blend wet and dry signals by adjusting the amount you send to the delay bus. This setup helps save your computer's processing power and keeps your DAW project more organized.
Exploring ways to use delay can help you find a more unique sound in your music:
Multitap delay allows you to set multiple delay times, which can create intricate rhythm patterns and textures. This method is especially useful in electronic and experimental music, where complex soundscapes are a hallmark.
Dub Delays: Use feedback-heavy delays to get that classic dub sound, where each echo progressively degrades for a psychedelic impact.
Doubling Effect: Apply a very short delay with no feedback to subtly double a vocal or an instrument, adding fullness to the track without reverb's washiness.
Mastering the use of delay is a transformative skill for creating rich, atmospheric mixes.
Delay, a time-based audio effect, captures and plays back the input signal after a short time, creating various echoes. This effect can be manipulated in different ways—through short or long delay times, feedback control, and mix level—to enhance the musical sound.
There are many types of delay effects that all offer unique sonic characteristics. Whether used subtly for a thickening effect or more prominently for rhythmic and atmospheric layers, delay is a versatile tool for sound shaping.
It’s crucial in both studio productions and live performances, adding depth and texture to vocal tracks, guitar lines, and more.
Whether you're an aspiring music producer or a seasoned pro mixing engineer, understanding and creatively employing delay can significantly elevate and improve your mixes.
About the author
Tero Potila is a professional music composer and producer. His career combining knowledge and experience from music, TV, film, ad, and game industries gives him a unique perspective that he shares through posts on teropotila.com.