Sound Design Workshop: Delay Tactics

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: Here, 1-bar guitar clips are alternated with a bar of silence. The displayed automation affects the Manual knob, which emulates tape-speed modulation.

If your approach to delay plug-ins is simply to insert one and set its delay time, feedback, and cross-panning, you''re missing a lot of the action. A little automation of even the most basic delay processor can add interest and keep your tracks from getting cluttered with echoes.

Choose the simplest delay effect you have; Propellerhead Reason/Record DDL-1, Ableton Live Simple Delay, and Apple Logic Pro Tape Delay are examples in three popular DAWs. Insert the delay on an audio track, select a dry and not-too-busy audio loop—such as a clean rhythm guitar or chord-comping keyboard part—and repeat it several times. Next, create automation lanes for the delay''s dry/wet mix (or wet level if they''re separate controls), delay time, and feedback. If you prefer to use the delay as a send effect, set its mix for 100-percent wet and automate the return (not send) level instead of the wet level in these examples. To begin with, sync the delay time to tempo, and if you''re using a stereo delay, link its two channels if possible.

Choose a delay time of three 16ths or three eighths, depending on the tempo. Start by automating the wet level, alternating it between zero and values below 50 percent for alternate segments of a bar, half-note, or beat. Adjust the levels and segment sizes to suit the music (see Web Clip 1).

Next, add some modulation to the delay time and ensure that the changes take place during the spaces where the wet level is zero. This will keep you from hearing the artifacts of the delay-time shifts (see Web Clip 2). Because you''ve synched delay time to tempo, the changes will be incremental rather than continuous.

Now add some feedback automation. With feedback, less is more, so leave some sections with little or no feedback. Feedback is also less obtrusive in sections where the wet mix is low; with automation, it''s easy to see and match up those sections (see Web Clip 3).

One of my favorite delay plug-ins is PSP 85 from PSP Audioware ( The unit emulates a classic tape delay with the delay-buffer size corresponding to the length of the tape loop and the delay sampling rate corresponding to the tape speed. You can automate both parameters on the PSP 85, and buffer size has separate controls for the right and left channels.

Changing the buffer size (labeled Main Time) in real time is like creating a splice in the loop; it creates a gap (lengthening the loop) or a jump (shortening the loop) in playback. Changing the sampling rate in real time (labeled Manual) temporarily transposes the material in the buffer either up (faster) or down (slower). The length of the buffer determines how long the transposition lasts—material recorded after the speed change plays back at its original pitch unless the speed is changed again.

In Web Clip 4, I''ve set the left-channel delay to one bar and the right-channel delay to nine eighth-notes. I''ve then fed the unit 1-bar guitar loops followed by single bars of silence. I''ve used automation to change the tape speed (sampling rate) during the silent sections and ensured that the tape speed returns to normal before the next guitar loop is recorded (see Fig. 1).

Len Sasso is a freelance writer and frequent EM contributor.