Through this article, we'll be exploring creative uses of delay and looking at more streamlined approaches to regular uses of the plug-in, as well as exploring some more creative pathways to leftfield treatments of this staple effect. Probably the most common use of delay is to place the effect towards the end of an insert effect chain so that a whole part is treated to an even delay treatment throughout. While this can be effective, it's not without its problems too.
Let's first address how you can avoid swamping sounds with such fixed delay treatments. As well as rendering vocals inarticulate if too much effect is applied, so the sharpness of percussive material can be diluted by over-use of delay, not just for drum sounds but for any that feature sharp attacks. This is of less concern if you're using relatively low levels of delay in the mix and you just want an echo effect to add some gentle colour, but if you're drawn to more obvious use, there is a solution which should prevent your sounds drowning.
If you set your delays up on an auxiliary channel, automating the send level from a dry sound into your delay is hugely effective, as you can take complete control of which words, sounds or passages of audio are—and aren't—ignored. .
Obviously, delay plug-ins vary in terms of the features they offer, some provide EQ control, filtering and even pan and transposition values for each delay step. Regardless of sophistication, however, the two controls you're bound to find are those for the rate of the delays and for feedback. To deal with the latter first, feedback controls how long the delays echo before they fade to silencee. Low feedback levels might generate just a single delay, whereas higher values here will see delays echoing many times as they fade or even begin to regenerate and build up in volume instead.
As concerns the rate of the delays, almost all DAW-based delay effect plug-ins feature the option to sync echoes to the tempo of your project and, in fact, most provide this as the default option. However, if you're working with hardware delay units or have come across a plug-in which doesn't feature this standard, there's a simple formula to calculate the speed of your delay taps to ensure they fall into tempo-sync'd line. Punch 240,000 into a calculator, divide this number by the tempo of your project and divide the resulting number by the quantize value for your chosen delay taps to calculate the number of milliseconds required. So, if you're working at 124 BPM and want 1/4 note delays, the formula would be 240,000 ÷ 124 ÷ 4 = 483.87ms.
If your delay plug-in is a humble device with limited "in-house" controls over extended parameters such as tone or pitch, the best way to get creative with how those echoes are shaped over time is to insert subsequent plug-ins in effect chains after them. Let's suppose you wanted a vocal sound to be treated to a delay chain which sounded as though it was coming from a telephone speaker (while leaving the original vocal telephone free).
Again, why is this most effective if you set up effects on an auxiliary rather than an insert? This is because you'll want the whole of the delay signal to be processed by the subsequent EQ curve. If you try to achieve this with insert effects, you'll have to balance the dry, original sound with the wet, effected one. Unless you select 100% wet, which will remove the presence of the original sound altogether, some of the dry portion of the sound being delayed will bypass the effect and head straight into the EQ, diluting the telephone treatment. If that sounds fiddly and complex, that's because it is! It's much easier to route treatments like this to an auxiliary, where delays can simply be set to 100% wet; remember, the dry part of the overall sound and the effect it triggers are usefully separated.
Next, be careful how you create automation ramps to control send levels to delay auxiliaries, particularly when working with vocals. Natural vocal performances often blur phrases as one word slides into the next, so it's often not effective just to create a "square box" of automation around the word you want to delay but rather to quickly ramp up into the word and, if necessary, ramp out again in the end to achieve a natural sounding treatment. You can see an example of this below. A fast "up ramp" has been created to send the sound to an auxiliary as the end of one word crosses into the final word of the phrase.
If you're working with regenerating delays, automation takes on a whole new spin. Rather than the send level to the delay auxiliary being the control you'll need to automate, the feedback on the delay plug-in itself will become your automated target, as regenerating delays can't simply be left at a static level. By their very nature, delays which get louder will continue to do so. When that happens, the beginning of a regenerating delay will sound great, but very soon you'll be treated to a howling, distorted mess unless you grab hold of the feedback level and tame it when things start getting out of hand.
The automation you can see here shows the automated feedback level on a track created for the auxiliary channel rather than on the piano track itself. In Logic's Tape Delay plug-in, regeneration occurs above 50%, so you can see the level climb to 57% into the drop, before sloping back down fairly naturally into the part where the beats and bass come in. Again, the natural tail is deliberate—if the feedback drops too steeply, the piano delays will completely stop before they're retriggered over the beats and bass, which will decrease the energy built up through the regenerating delays. Effects like UAD's EP-34 plug-in can create regenerating havoc if you so desire.
Delay plug-ins which let you program multiple parameters for each step allow for even greater control, though they'll "take up more of the mix" as a result. Delay effects like this are great for special effects such as drops, where it's possible to run one or more track elements into, for example, an effect where each delay step drops down a scale or filters in a crazy, ear-grabbing way. Logic's Delay Designer, as one example, allows just such a degree of control, allowing you to manipulate filtering, transposition, resonance and pan per delay tap, creating the kinds of effects you can hear here where each step drops in pitch while bouncing from left to right across the mix.
The delays re-order, reverse and slow down at random, keeping the listener guessing, unlike the more regular rhythm of the original piano and celeste parts and the delays they trigger in the first clip. Remember, SupaTrigga is a freeware plug-in, so if you like the idea of more warped delay treatments like these, go and grab it. For even more scope over which parameters glitch and warp, investigate iZoptope's Stutter Edit or SugaBytes' Turnado as just two of several examples.
Also give some thought to the use of filter plug-ins after delays. If you want to set up a "static" send level to a delay effect but the regularity of this starts to bore your ear after a while, try a filter plug-in after the delay and either automate the cutoff point so that the tone of the delays rises and falls or, if available, use the filter plug-in's LFO to achieve this movement for you.
Hopefully it's clear that while delay is a great effect in its own right, the ways in which delay treatments can be enhanced with additional effects to create more bespoke treatment for sounds within your mix are almost endless.