Bit-crushing, granular synthesis, time-stretching, auto pitch manipulation — the sonic possibilities inherent in modern digital signal processing (DSP) are nothing short of amazing. Entire electronic genres, such as glitch, spawned largely because of advanced plug-ins, DSP and modular synthesis. But what about timeless classic effects such as chorus, flange and delay? Reverb is certainly still a staple, and delay is still common in some dancefloor genres, although often in mundane ways. As for chorus and flange — they're just not around as much anymore.
DON'T SLEEP ON THE SWEEP
For starters, let's talk about flangers. Rack processors used to dedicate entire groups of presets to flange effects, yet I've had a hard time finding plug-ins that sound as good as the flange effects on old Lexicon, Yamaha and Alesis rack gear. As the saying goes, if it ain't broken, don't fix it. There may be good flange plug-ins out there, but to infuse that classic sound into your tracks, forget VSTs and instead check out your local pawn shops, used gear stores, eBay and Craigslist.org. I'll bet the farm that you can find a used Alesis Quadraverb, Lexicon MPX 100 or something comparable for dirt cheap. A cutting-edge IDM producer I know plugs a crusty old Boss BF-2 Flanger pedal into the mix. Keep in mind that if you use guitar effects, they are made for instrument-level signals rather than line-level, so you may need to do a bit of signal-level doctoring to work them properly, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Flange is a simple yet very dynamic effect. Especially with a slow oscillation, it accentuates the feeling of sound sweeping through time. Once you have a flange that you like, try further accenting its sense of movement by panning the sound in time with the flange's oscillation rate, or use a slow oscillation and pan it even slower. You can also try gradually raising the volume in time with the flanger's frequency peaks and then lowering the volume with the frequency valleys; that can infuse the feeling of a pulsing sound moving toward and away from you, rather than side to side.
CALL IN THICK
A chorus effect is structurally similar to a flanger, yet it typically uses a longer delay time on the duplicated voice. In essence, a chorus takes a signal and mimics the sound of two (or more) of the same signal playing simultaneously. For a unique, saturated effect, try setting your chorus with a relatively short delay, and then route the chorus effect through a flanger. Record that effect as a separate track, and then play it on top of (but lower in volume than) the original dry signal. Experiment with nudging the effected track forward and backward on the timeline in relation to the dry track, but be mindful not to phase-cancel the dry version.
Chorus is designed to thicken a sound, so why not roll with it? Take a vocal or a constant tone (such as a synth pad), apply chorus and bounce the effected sound down to a separate track, which you then pan fully right or left. Now, change the chorus setting, bounce down another version to another separate track, pan this track fully to the opposite side as before and see if you get a really full sound. Be careful, though. This process can easily make your mix muddy, or at least occupy a lot of sonic real estate, so I recommend that approach in slow, sparse songs. An alternative is to follow these same steps, but mute the original dry signal to see if the chorused tracks alone hold their own in the mix.
WAIT FOR IT
Even though it's probably the least neglected of the three effects presented here, the delay effect always allows room for fresh experimentation. One of the typical modern uses of the effect is to apply a long, rhythmic delay to any element in the mix that contains a relatively strong attack, such as a percussive accent or a vocal. You can apply the effect with, for example, a 16th-note delay and just leave it as is. Or try bouncing the delay line down as a separate track, and then move the delay region on this track exactly a half or a whole beat (or a different fraction of a whole) forward on the timeline. This “delaying-the-delay” action can create an interesting, large-echo-chamber effect, especially when more than one of those delayed delay lines appears in different points in the mix, and their decays overlap.
The last suggestion applies to all three effects (or almost any other effect), and props go to forward-thinking producer Bill Laswell for this idea. After bouncing any effect down as a separate audio file, try slowly fading the effect in and out of the mix without changing the volume of the dry track. Or do the reverse: After the effect is in, fade the dry track out and leave just the effected track in the mix. These two operations have to be done with care to really work, and I can't tell you how or where to do it; the technique is all about feel and takes a DJ's sensitive ear. My only guideline is that effected-only tracks often sit best in quieter parts, such as breaks or bridges of mellow, cerebral songs.
IF IT WORKED FOR THEM…
Chorus, flanger, delay and other effects are often applied for a utilitarian purpose; they create spaciousness and accentuate a track's rhythm, which is perfectly fine. But to some engineers who scoff at experimental uses of effects, I say pshaw! One need only to listen to influential artists of the past and present such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Orb, Aphex Twin and again, Bill Laswell, to hear a plethora of successful, experimental uses of a variety of effects. Those artists and others, such as those of the glitch movement, prove that with experimentation, plug-ins and hardware effects can be instruments in their own right.