We explore the depths of modern delay tools
In a musical project, just as in a railway network, delays are an essential part of the experience. The idea of repeating a piece of audio, automatically and along with the music, has been-with us for so long that we’ve become duly accustomed to it, and so too have our audiences.
Today’s delay processors feel as sophisticated as an avocado in a Happy Meal. It’s so easy to load a delay plugin on a track – or just mindlessly send elements to the processor that’s inevitably part of a DAW’s template project – that you can be forgiven for not going down the rabbit hole and experimenting with the modern tools we all have at our disposal. We’re going to set you on the right path here.
Not only have delay plugins themselves been maturing, but the techniques used by producers to push their tunes further using the technology has also been coming on in leaps and bounds. We’re going to give you some insight into every aspect of today’s top delay tools and practices, giving you a few production workouts along the way.
Echoes of yesteryear
When recording studios emerged in the ’50s, sound engineers were just finding their feet. Once you’ve got controlled sonic setup in a treated room, how do you bring back some of the real-world effects? This was the agenda that the studio boffins – and indeed, the musicians they were recording – now faced.
The real world has complex sonic scenes – reflections of sound, building and growing; sometimes short, sometimes long. Perhaps the most obvious time-based effect was the echo, and this was soon conjured up with tweaking the tape machines that were used to record sound.
A tape machine had two mechanisms of operation: one for recording and a ‘repro head’ for playing the recorded sound back so it could be monitored. By moving the repro head further down the tape (later in time), that signal could be delayed, and by routing the ‘monitoring’ signal elsewhere – back into the input or to another tape machine – the tape delay was born.
Soon, dedicated processors for tape delay emerged. The Echoplex and later the Space Echo inhabited a convenient hardware box that could be lugged around, and tweaked to provide far-out echoing effects: you can hear its unique stamp on reggae from the time.
The next innovation in delay came when the electronics themselves began creating the effect. It was the ’70s – buckaroo – and the development of bucket brigade devices saw the use of capacitors to hold the input signal for a certain time before outputting it again.
Of course, a chain of capacitors on a circuit-board was much lighter, cheaper and more convenient than tape-based setups, and so portable stompboxes like the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man and the Boss DM-2 brought delay technology to guitarists.
With the added flexibility of electronic delay, shorter delays were also within reach as timing wasn’t limited by physical play and repro heads, and flanging and chorus effects were born – notably the Boss Chorus Ensemble and the MXR Flanger/Doubler.
While reverb and delay are related (reverb is basically lots of tiny delays, as we’ll show you in a couple of pages’ time), reverb technologies developed in isolation, using physical hardware like plates and springs rather than being electronically generated.
It was in the digital world that reverb and delay’s paths finally met, with multieffects providing copious effects resources for guitarists and units like the PCM42 giving up the goods in the studio.
If the digital seeds had been sewn in hardware, they blossomed
in computing. Today’s delay applications include loopers, complex multitap setups, and of course, plenty of emulations of the vintage units from the days gone by.
The modern, computer-based studio can be a playground for creative effects, and with processing power at an all-time high, there are few delay and reverb setups that can’t be catered for. The world is now the creative developer’s oyster, and we’ve seen plenty of delay innovations in recent years.
Every DAW has its own stock delay – if not multiple – that would make producers of the past gasp at the ease with which complex patterns can be created. While simple setups are fair game for use in your tracks, it’s the third-party developers, with their need to offer you something a little different, who are treading out the new paths in delay and reverb technology.
Analogue emulations still grace many producers’ tracks. Universal Audio’s recent UAD aping of the Roland Space Echo is a great way to get started with those of-the-time dub effects, while Audio Damage’s Dubstation 2 provides a cheaper way to get the same flavour, and doesn’t require the specific hardware that UA’s option does. If you want to go through the digital looking glass, you should certainly check out PSP Audioware’s PSP 42, a plugin emulation of a [gulp] digital hardware delay unit, Lexicon’s PCM42.
Multitap delays offer a visual way of manipulating your delay signal. Instead of one fixed-time delay line being run through itself until the signal dies down, these let you exactly determine specific repeats at strengths and times of your choosing, helping you create unusual rhythmic patterns… or just a slightly more customised ‘normal’ delay signal. Pushing the boundaries is D16 Group’s Tekturon, which fuses a sequencer into the bargain. More on multitap later.
For a do-it-all delay studio, check out FabFilter Timeless 2. Basically a blank canvas for delay-based shenanigans, this plugin uses two separate delay lines (each with left and right signals), has you feed all four back into each other as you see fit, and then sticks them through two filters in parallel or serial configuration. That’s all joined by FabFilter’s excellent modulation system, which lets you whip up LFOs, envelopes, X/Y pads and more, and route them to practically any parameter at a depth of your choosing.
Delay doesn’t live in a vacuum, of course. Other effects you can create using delays and echoes include modulation effects. Recently, delays that are built with this in mind have surfaced – units that offer not just classic delay but also inbuilt modulation ready for crafting choruses and flangers. PSP Audioware’s PSP stompDelay takes on a guitar effects bent, as the name well implies. Crucial to the stompDelay experience is the large LFO, which automatically creates flanging and chorusing effects out of the delay processes. With this much versatility on tap, you no longer have to draw a line between modulation and echo processes.
Elsewhere, the world of glitch plugins is still going strong. Classics like Effectrix are now being rivalled by companies like Inear Diplay, whose Incipit Delay is proclaimed as a ‘creative delay toolbox’, providing three chains for manipulation alongside four LFOs and a host of other tweakables.
Another category of effect is the humble looper. Originally popular with guitarists, these ‘macro’-style delays take in far larger chunks of sound – whole bars or otherwise several seconds of audio – and repeat them ad infinitum as you play other material over the top or add to the signal. Loopers aren’t just the friends of buskers, though: check out Unfiltered Audio’s Sandman Pro for a new take on the concept. While it functions like a regular delay most of the time, Sandman’s Sleep function acts like a freeze function in a delay or reverb processor, and offers modular patching for flexible routing, and plenty of cross-feeding potential.
With processing power at an all-time high, there are few delay setups that can’t be catered for
The uniquely-portable-for-the-time Echoplex – a key component in reggae
Unfiltered Audio’s Sandman Pro bridges the gap between looper and delay