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The ultimate beginner's guide to delay

delay
(Image credit: Future)

Read any interview with professional engineers and producers and there will no doubt be mention of their favoured equipment, whether it be synthesisers, outboard equipment or more often than not these days, favoured plugin effects. 

Dig a little deeper and you might get an insight into some of the tricks of the trade, and among those who wax lyrical about the wonders of reverb, we would wager that there are just as many who will effervesce about their favourite delay. 

DAWs are packed with them, or you can get them from classic gear like tape recorders. Step outside and shout in the right location and they are there! Yes, delays are everywhere! So how do you make the most of the delay in a musical context? 

That’s where this feature comes in with workshops and tips to make the most of your delays. So if you’ve ever found yourself reaching for reverb before you add delay, we’re going to use some tactics which might make you think again!  

Getting tactical

One of the most common questions that arises from this topic is: what is the difference between a reverb and a delay? The two effects are heavily related, and often distinguished by their behaviour, in terms of what we hear.

Let’s deal with delay first of all; in our world of music production, delay is sometimes described as echo. That’s a great way of looking at it. If you’ve ever been to a location, such as a vast chasm or room, where you can shout loudly and literally hear your voice bouncing back at you, we would generally describe that as echo. You could achieve similar results by shouting at a bare wall or window, where any other surrounding surfaces are either acoustically treated, or maybe within the confines of your lounge, where soft furnishing will dampen additional sound wave reflections (see Fig. 1).  

Delay

Fig. 1 (Image credit: Future)

When we reach for a delay plugin, that is effectively what we’re trying to recreate; the audible appearance of a sound, such as a voice, which will then come back at you as some form of repeat, and moreover, a repeat which will be entirely recognisable as something close to the original source. 

The good news is that unlike standing on a precipice at the Grand Canyon, we have far more control over our echo, or delay, meaning that we can dictate and change the number of repeats, and the sound of each repeat. The number of repeats is normally governed on a delay device or plugin, by a control which is often labelled Feedback. The greater the feedback level, the more the number of repeats, which can sometimes extend into a never-ending cycle of feedback. 

Often located in very close proximity to the Feedback control are elements for dictating tone colour. This can take the guise of a high and low cutoff filter or control, which allows the dictation of which frequencies are repeated, while excluding the frequencies you don’t wish to hear. 

The physics of how a delay or echo operates in the real world is all to do with soundwaves bouncing off surfaces. If you have ever stood in a large room with little in the way of furnishings or belongings placed on the wall, performing a single handclap will likely yield a form of echo or delay. The further you stand from the wall, the longer the echo or delay time will be. 

Good delays gone bad

So this brings us to the point where echoes ‘go bad’ at which stage they turn into reverberation. To be fair to reverberation, or reverb as we tend to use it as a shortened term, it is entirely down to location and the number of reflective surfaces available. If you have ever walked into a large building or a long tunnel, you may well have been tempted to perform a clap, or if you’re feeling particularly brave, sing a short note, purely to hear the reverberation. It is no surprise that our desire to do this is at its strongest when we walk into a building such as a large church or cathedral. 

Being predominantly made of stone, the number of reflective surfaces, facing in many directions, creates an inviting environment for a soundwave to bounce from one surface to the next, in many different directions (see Fig. 2). 

Delay

Fig. 2 (Image credit: Future)

It is under these circumstances that beyond the beginning of our performed note, the resulting sound and tonal colour blurs our initial sound source, decaying over time, as the reverb tail declines. The larger the building or structure, accompanied by surfaces that reflect sound waves, the longer the tail will be. Consequently, it is not unusual that when trying this out in a cathedral, you’ll hear a reverb tail extending for many seconds. 

So to summarise, if you can hear your performed sound coming back at you as a straight repeat, you have an echo or delay on your hands. If the sound you’re hearing is more of an audible mush, albeit a very pleasant sounding audible mush, you have a reverb.

Too many echoes

Where we get a small degree of crossover between the two effects is with an element known as pre-delay, which is found on reverb effects units and plugins. The purpose of this control is to induce a small delay between the initial sound and the start of reverberation. 

While this is always present in some minor capacity or other, we have been known to use this effect to our advantage, especially on instruments of a percussive nature such as drums. That effect, where you hear a snare drum with no reverberation for a few milliseconds, only to then hear the reverb appear, is where we have a longer or exaggerated pre-delay.

So if reverb is so cool and grandiose, why would we ever want to entertain using delay instead? The answer to that lies in the versatility of a delay. It can be used a little bit like reverb, but many producers prefer the versatility and control that you can get with delay, which tends to remove the mush-like status that we previously mentioned. 

We are not knocking reverbs – they’re great, but control in production is a wonderful thing. Moreover, delays can add rhythmic colour and cool effects to your own produced music. Let’s explore how, in the coming pages.

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