This article about creative ways to use delay first appeared in FlyPaper by Soundfly. I reprint it here with permission and I encourage you to check out their courses. You can get a 15% discount code on a subscription using the promo code AJTRUMM15.
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Delay is one of those staple effects. No DAW is without at least one delay plugin, and most mixes utilize this bread-and-butter effect in some way. Not to mention, hardware delays are a lot of fun too. There’s a good chance you’re using it regularly, perhaps to create a repeating effect, make a ping-pong happen, or any number of creative things. There are, in fact, a whole host of useful things you can do with a delay, so we thought we’d go over five creative ways to use delay in a mix.
Create and change rhythms
One beautiful use of delay is to create or change rhythm tracks. You can take an otherwise boring drum beat, say boom bap boom boom bap, and make it swing and sway, turn it into a whole different thing, or just make the snare do a few interesting flims and flams. Try sending both kick and snare through a tempo delay set at factor one half (8th notes). This will turn boom bapp into Boom(boom) Bap(boomBi) Boom(boomboom) Bap (boom Bi). Adjust the wet dry mix to emphasize or deemphasize the original rhythm and use decay time to adjust how long the new delayed rhythm plays out.
Or try using a stereo delay that’s locked to your project tempo. Set one side to factor three quarters and the other to one half. You can use feedback to mess with the rhythm further, and if your delay has a crossfeed setting, you could even automate that to come up at certain times to create variance in the pattern and pseudo fills. You could even combine feedback and crossfeed to create crescendos. Use your imagination, try a whole bunch of different things, and you can create a ton of rhythms you wouldn’t have thought of.
Use delay instead of reverb
To get quite technical, reverb is simply a kind of delay. You can set your delay to basically give you reverb, or even better, use delay instead of reverb to create space without washing out the sound. For example, here’s a trick that adds depth and presence to a vocal track:
Send the vocal to a buss and insert a tempo-locked stereo delay. Set one side to a 16th note and the other to a 16th dotted or triplet. Set the feedback to something low like 7% on the left and 9% on the right, so that you get one or two repeats. Bring the buss up until you have what you want. You can use this effect instead of a reverb, or in combination with one. It works as an in-your-face effect in some mixes, and sometimes it’s appropriate to use it subtly, like something you only notice when it’s gone.
Make a mono track stereo
If you’ve got a mono track, perhaps a synth or guitar and you want it to be stereo, you can use a delay to do this. Just copy the signal to another track and pan each copy hard left/right. Then insert a delay on one side and set it somewhere between 5 and 20ms. Make sure the wet/dry is set to 100% wet, with no feedback or crossfeed (unless you want to see what happens!).
Alternatively, use three tracks with the original in the center. Insert a separate delay on both left and right with a similar setting, say 5 to 20ms on the left and 10 to 30ms on the right, making sure they’re different. Bring the two sides down or up to taste to create your new stereo track.
Create a metallic effect
If you set your delay to a very fast response, say around 15ms, and set feedback to a generous setting, say around 50%, what you’ll get is a very metallic effect, akin to some kind of robot sound. This effect is enhanced by a high pass filter cutting out low frequencies.
Play with the feedback and crossfeed settings to create more metal effect or decrease the delay time even further to inch toward a flange-like sound.
Delay the delay
Finally, there’s no rule against combining delays. To put some of the previous examples together, I created a simple pattern with kick and snare. Next, I inserted a delay and set the delay time to around 17ms, with a feedback of 40% and a wet/dry mix of 44%. Then I inserted a stereo delay, this one tempo locked, and set the left side delay time to factor one half (8th notes) and the left to three quarters. I set the feedback at 26% and the wet/dry mix to 34%.
That was cool enough, but the fun part was automating the crossfeed setting in time with the rhythm. On the metallic delay, bringing the crossfeed to around 50% at the last beat of the measure created a kind of synth accompaniment, and jamming it all the way to 100% created basically a wobble bass, as the low end from the kick modulated, then interacted with the second delay. Next, I tried automating the crossfeed on the second delay, which created fills and variations in both the drum track and the new pseudo synth.
All of this coming out of only one drum patch, with a simple kick and snare pattern.
Put it into practice
If there’s one thing that comes up over and over in audio, music and mixing, it’s that there are no rules. You can find creative ways to use delay any way you see fit, and it’s a great idea to experiment. Play with settings, break the rules, and find your next crazy, interesting, beautiful sound.