How to create a crazy synth from a single sine wave using delay

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When we think of delay, we usually think of echoes - sonic repeats that make a sound deeper and more involved. However, over the last decade and a half, delay plugins have become far more comprehensive processors than they were in the days of hardware, effectively serving as near-limitless multieffects.

In this tutorial, we’ll use a variety of powerful delay plugins to turn a plain sine wave into an exciting synth tone. For more on delay-based sound design, pick up the August 2017 edition of Computer Music.

Step 1: To explore the creative possibilities of echo-driven sound design, we’re going to pile up several delay plugins over a plain synth signal. We’re starting with Ableton Live’s Operator, outputting a basic sine oscillator. These techniques aren’t specific to Live, of course - you can follow along with any raw sine patch.

Step 2: First up, we throw an instance of FabFilter’s Timeless 2 over our simple synth signal. In Timeless 2’s Modulation section, we play around with the Frequency of LFO 1 (which is modulating Timeless 2’s filter) and push it into audio-rate territory for buzzy, distortion-like echoes. The left and right channels are slightly out of sync for a wide stereo effect.

Step 3: Shifting the pitch of delay signals is a tried-and-tested sound design tactic, so the next device in our chain is the creative ValhallaFreqEcho, a free delay plugin with a built-in frequency shifter. A slight positive Shift of 3.80Hz, a 145ms Delay and around 50% Feedback completely washes our synth signal out with shimmering repeats.

Step 4: It’s time for a third delay plugin: the insane Sandman Pro from Unfiltered Audio. This one creates a range of delayed overtones, making the sound appear crystalline and dreamy. The extended feedback makes the echoes drift out.

Step 5: Next, FXpansion Bloom irons out the jagged edges a little, and makes each note in our melodic sequence melt into the next, nearly completing the floating effect started by Sandman Pro.

Step 6: To finish, we recruit the weird ’n’ wonderful DDLY from iZotope to complete our washed-out ambience. A feedback-heavy, unsynced 20.5ms Delay setting provides a metallic, pitched timbre. We dial in a touch of Trash and Widen the echoes to engulf the listener in a dreamy soup of melody.

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