The Basics of Delay

With time-based effects like reverb and delay, there's a fine line between have a worship service that sounds nice and full, and creating something that sounds like you're having church in the middle of the Grand Canyon. But what are these "time based effects" anyway? This week, let's check out some common misconceptions about delay and talk about the best ways to use different types of delay units.

First, what is delay? The technical definition of delay states that it's an audio effect which records an input in to a storage medium, and then plays it back after a specific amount of time. That's a pretty complicated way of saying that a delay effect simply repeats what you put in to it. If you put a voice in to it, you'll hear a voice come back out, but slightly later than the original.

Delays generally come in three different varieties: Analog, Digital, and Tape delays. Today, nearly all of the delays that we deal with are digital, but they'll almost always include recreations of classic analog and tape delays which have their own sonic characteristics. If you're lucky enough to have a classic analog or tape delay unit, then you're blessed with access to come incredible sounding tones, but even if you're in the all digital realm, modern delay units can get remarkably close to the classic analog and tape tones and anything I say about analog or tape delays applies to their modern digital recreations.  

Digital delays are typically the "cleanest" sounding delays. What goes in is what comes out. Analog and tape delays usually have more "colored" repeats. This is because tape and analog circuitry causes each subsequent repeat to lose some of the high frequencies which makes it sound "darker" with each repeat. Sometimes this darkening of the tone is very desirable because it makes the delay sound warm and organic. This loss of high frequencies on the repeats is usually the first thing you'll notice when you try a digital model of an analog or tape delay. 

Personally, I love tape and analog style delays on vocals. The reduced high frequencies allow the delay to sound like it's tucked back behind the lead vocal, rather than a super clean digital delay which can sometimes sound like multiple vocalist all singing on top of each other as the repeats build up.

Digital delays work really great on things like guitars and keyboards. Since the repeats are so clean and defined, you can really make the instrument sound huge by putting some delay on it. Keyboardists and guitarists will often have their own delay effects, but if they don't, you can use one at front of house.

Another common feature of delay units is the option to "modulate" the delay. This just means that the repeats will have subtle (or not so subtle) variations in pitch to create a sort of swirling effect. This can sound great mixed in on vocals and pianos. You don't want to use so much that it sounds like they're out of tune, but just enough to create a sense of depth and space.

Another cool trick is to use the tap tempo button on your delay unit to match up the tempo of the delay with the tempo of the song. This will cause the repeats to fall in line with the beat of the song and will sound really great. Use a quarter note or eighth note setting for best results.

Last but not least, let's talk about how to set up an outboard delay unit. Typically, you'll want to set it up on an aux (auxiliary send) from your mixer so that you can send whatever channels you want to the unit. You would do this by connecting the aux send outputs from the back of your console to the inputs on your delay unit, and the connect the outputs of your delay unit back to two free channels on your mixing board. By connecting the output of the delay back actual channels of your board, you can use the faders on those channels to control the overall volume of all your delays simply by bringing those faders up or down.  

If you're running your delay on an aux send, MAKE ABSOLUTELY SURE that the delay is set to 100% "WET" on the mix knob. This means that the only signal coming out of the delay unit will be the delayed signal  ONLY, with none of the original "dry" or un-delayed signal. You've already got the dry signal coming from the channel, so you don't need it again with your delay.

I hope this has given you some insight in to the world of delay effects. Obviously, every delay unit has it's own settings and parameters that you can adjust, but hopefully I've covered some of the most common things that you'll find on the delay units that you use every day. Good luck and happy mixing!