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Audio Effects: The Beginner’s Guide to Shaping Your Sound

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Audio Effects: The Beginner’s Guide to Shaping Your Sound

By Leticia Trandafir TOOLS LANDR

Build your effects rack with all the knowledge you need.

  1. Panning
  2. Delay and Echo
  3. Reverb
  4. Chorus
  5. Distortion
  6. Equalization (EQ)
  7. Compression
  8. Tremolo
  9. Flanger and Phaser
  10. Filters

Composers work with notes, melodies and chord progressions to write a song. The music producer’s toolbox is made of another kind of creative tool: audio effects.

Of course producers need to understand musical theory. But audio effects are their bread and butter when it comes to mixing music.

They’re at the core of how producers shape sound and make it into music. Audio effects turn a so-so mix into a powerful finished track.

Whether working with analog effects or digital effects, all producers should get to know their tools inside out.

The problem nowadays is there’s so much to choose from: effects plugins for your DAW, stompboxes, pedals, multi-effects processors… Choosing the right audio effects to find the perfect sound is key.

So how do you avoid getting lost in a sea of choices?

This guide will help you learn the concepts at the core of each audio effect and give you the knowledge you need to make the right decisions for your sound.

So without further delay

What Are Audio Effects?

Audio effects are hardware or software devices that manipulate how an audio signal sounds. Effects can be controlled via various parameters including rate, feedback or drive. They are useful when playing live or as studio tools while recording or mixing music.

This article explains all the core effects:

  • Modulation effects—Chorus, Tremolo, Flanger and Phaser
  • Time-based effects—Reverb, Delay and Echo
  • Spectral effects—EQ and Panning
  • Dynamic effects—Compression and Distortion
  • Filters

By the end of this article, you’ll know what audio effects are, how they work and how to use them. To get you started, we’ve packed TONS of recommendations for paid and free VST plugins, and audio FX pedals.

This is by no means an exhaustive list—it’s more of a launchpad for your effects journey. So let’s start with the basics and go from there!

What is Panning?

Panning is the distribution of a sound signal in a stereo (or multi-channel) field. Panning creates the illusion of a sound source moving from one part of the soundstage to another.

How Does Panning Work?

Humans have two ears. Our brain processes the difference in timing between our left and right ear. This gives us the ability to identify the placement of a sound in a 3D space!

Stereo sound systems have evolved from a single speaker to a set of two, left and right (L-AND-R… get it?). This has allowed us to move from mono to stereo sound playback.

Panning works by letting through more or less of a signal into each speaker, creating various spatial effects.

What Does Panning Sound Like?

When something is ‘hard panned’ to one side, you hear it coming from only from that side.

When something is panned to the middle, you will hear it coming from between your speakers at the ‘phantom center’ (you hear it centered even though there is no speaker in the center).

Play a sound and grab your panning knob. If you turn it gradually from one side to the other, you’ll hear the sound travel across your stereo field from one side to the other.

Common Uses of Panning

Panning is a great way to artificially position your sound in a specific place in your stereo field. It also lets you prevent muddiness and masking in your mix (when two sounds cover each other up).

Using auto-pan effects lets you sweep a sound across the stereo field over a period of time, creating a sense of the sound moving between the left and right.

The center of your mix is usually the busiest. It’s common to keep the low frequency elements (bassline, drums) and lead elements (vocals) panned to the center because they ground your mix.

Other instruments are panned somewhere to the right or left. But where do you put them? The best rule of thumb is to keep a balance: if you pan instrument slightly to the right, pan something with a similar frequency range at the same spot to the left.

Hard panning is generally avoided unless it’s a creative choice. But rules are made to be broken, am I right?

Read more about how to use panning to get a wider mix.

Panning Plugins and Panning Pedal

Pancake

Free Panning Plugin: Cableguys PanCake 2 

Panman

Paid Panning Plugin: Soundtoys PanMan ($129 USD) 

EHX Pan

Panning Pedal: Electro Harmonix Pan Pedal ($91 USD)

Delay Echo

What is Echo and Delay?

Delay is an audio effect that records an audio signal for playback a set period of time after the original signal. Delay can be played back in different ways to achieve sounds such as echoes that decay over time, or a pronounced repeated doubling effect that adds new layers to a recording.

Delay is one of the most important effects. In fact, It’s the foundation for other effects as well including chorus and reverb. However, the current definition of delay is normally used to describe more pronounced echo effects.

How Does Delay Work?

Most delays work by playing back the dry signal while also playing back the wet or ‘delayed’ signal shortly after the original.

Early tape delay units featured a recording head and playback head(s) (also called a tap) a few inches apart. The result was an echoing of the recording signal shortly after it was played. Delay units with multiple taps and tape settings eventually gave artists the ability to playback multiple echoes at different intervals with a greater level of control.

More modern solid state and digital effects units use a recorded buffer to emulate the playback head effect of older delay units. The incoming signal is stored and played back depending on tweaks to the parameters that control the echoing effect.

What Does Delay Sound Like?

There are many common applications of delay. But there a are a couple that are more prominent than others.

Perhaps the most iconic example of delay is the Slapback effect used on early 50’s rock records—most notably Sam Phillips and Sun Records artists such as Elvis.

Slapback delay is achieved by playing back the wet signal between 70 – 120 ms after the dry signal is played. The result is a quick doubling effects that fills out an arrangement with quick subtle delays with a fast decay.

More pronounced uses of delay were popularized by dub and reggae throughout the 70s and 80s. The effects of delay are a lot more prevalent in these examples as sounds are repeated, echoed, and fed back to achieve richer layering to create a rhythmic symphony of psychedelia.

More pronounced delay effects like these still resonate throughout music today and give musicians a whole palette of experimental possibilities. Even the simplest arrangement can be filled out using creative delay techniques.

Common Uses of Delay

Shorter uses of delay, like slapback or doubling effects, are useful for filling out a performance, especially vocals or guitar.

Drawn out delays with multiple taps are useful for creating whole new rhythms and layers in a performance. Multi-tap delays are common in dub and techno to create the swirling synth lines common to the genres.

Learn about five of our best delay techniques.

Delay Plugins and Delay Pedal

Stereo Uni

Free Delay Plugin: ATK Stereo Universal Delay 

Dubstation

Paid Delay Plugin: Audio Damage Dubstation ($39 USD) 

Strymon Timeline

Delay Pedal: Strymon TimeLine ($449 USD)

Reverb

What is Reverb?

Reverb is short for reverberation. Reverb happens daily, but we don’t always notice it.

When a sound occurs, two things happen: A) the direct sound hits your ears B) a bunch of other sound waves bounce off of surfaces before reaching your ears. Those other sound waves will reach your ears later and with less energy (therefore quieter).

Reverb is a bunch of echoes all happening at the same time, so you hear them as one single effect: reverb.

There’s different kinds of reverb in many types of spaces. The most obvious examples of reverberant spaces are tunnels, cathedrals, halls and caves.

How does reverb work?

The most readily available reverb is the one found in natural spaces.

In music gear (such as pedals and amps), electromechanical analog reverb is created using a metal plate or spring that picks up echoes and vibrations inside the tank and transforms it into signal with an analog circuit.

Digital reverbs and reverb plugins calculate the needed delay, level, frequency response and algorithmically generate multiple echoes. Reverb plugins do thousands of calculations per second—that’s why they’re often very CPU-intensive.

What Does Reverb Sound Like?

Reverb is echo-y, it makes things sound like they’re in a particular kind of room. Reverb brings some sustain to a sound and makes it stick around for longer—often referred to as reverb tails. It gives a dreamy, even solemn quality to your signal (think a choir in a big cathedral).

Reverb makes things sound further away in the mix if you push the wetness and bring down a lot of the original dry signal. It can widen the mix and make it sound bigger and fuller.

Common Uses of Reverb?

Use reverb to shape the sound, space, time and mood of an instrument or whole track.

Reverb adds fullness, spaciousness and depth to a sound depending on what reverb types you’re using. It smoothes out little hiccups and adds sustain to your sound.

Read about five of our best reverb tips.

Hot Tip: Use reverb creatively by sampling long reverb tails and using them as a synth pad (video).

Reverb Plugins and Reverb Pedal

Protoverb

Free Reverb Plugin: U-He Protoverb 1.0 

Fab Filter Pro R Reverb

Paid Reverb Plugin: FabFilter Pro-R ($199 USD) 

EHX Cathedral

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