Have you ever been to Audio Effectsville? Surviving the pitfalls of Audio Plug-in Effects – Part I

May 2 21:14 2007 John Milner Print This Article

A relatively non-technical look at the audio sound effects and plug-ins used for making music.  Also offering a few hints and tips to help avoid over using these tools.

Have you ever been to Audio Effectsville? Surviving the pitfalls of Audio Plug-in Effects – Part I

When you first start to play with audio effect plug-ins,Guest Posting especially if you have no experience of studio or analogue type recording, you will probably be over-awed with the possibilities for manipulating sound.  Indeed it seems that whatever type of effect you need there will be some space age plug-in that is available with more parameters than you know what to do with. It is like being a child in a sweet shop, there is too much choice and you want to try everything all at once.  You will get sucked in like a fly to the proverbial turd.  As your pc grinds to a standstill and you manage to turn off all the plug-in effects all you are left with is the humble sound you started with and after hearing it with phasers and pitch shifters and distortion and delay and reverb and autopanners it suddenly sounds small, uninteresting and useless.  When you reach this point, and you might not realize that you have, you have fallen into the audio limbo where you will waste many hours on music that will never see the light of day and even you will not be able to bear to listen to it  even years later.  You have reached audio Effectsville where nothing is real and everything is out of phase.

I am no expert on these matters but through much trial and much error I have learnt to be very careful with audio effects and have some basic rules of thumb that I will attempt to outline in this article.  We all love to experiment with effects and I am no exception but it is very important that too many creative effects are not being used at any one time as this make the listening experience very tiring.  Listen to some early Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix; these guys were really into creative effects and got away with as much as they could, in fact they were really pushing the barriers at that time.  But when you analyze what they do you will find that the backing tracks will be pretty clean and unaffected.  This is because for the music to be coherent there has to be a solid framework there to support experimentation.  Jazz musicians create their own effects just in the way they play but they too need a framework from which to work from.  So rule number one: put the effected part into the context of the music, everything has to have it place in the sonic spectrum.  Do not let an effects laden lead guitar cause problems with crucial elements in a mix like a lead vocal or the bass guitar.  Do not let the kick drum and bass guitar hit the same frequencies as this will mess up your sound up.

Two, learn which effects really matter.  Equalization, reverb and compression are without doubt the most important effects that you will ever need to make music with.  With just these three effects you have practically all the effects you need to engineer and produce an album. Why? Well compression allows you control the dynamics of any sound, equalization allows you to make a place for your sound to sit in the mix, and reverb lets you decide how near or far away you want your sound to be in the mix.  Panning can also be considered an effect as using it helps creates space and texture.

Three, be subtle. Get things to sound good together by using the effects of point two while remembering that most of the time LESS IS MORE…. Too much treble on guitars or vocals sounds bad. In fact avoid boosting frequencies too much.  Most sound engineers agree that cutting is much preferable to boosting.  Roll off the bass from instruments that do not need it like guitars and pianos. Remember that putting too much reverb on a lead vocal makes it sound further way rather closer to the front of the mix.  So if the bass guitar seems more up front than the vocal than the vocal then you have problems.  Listen to the Stone Roses long awaited second album, The Second Coming, where the vocals are lost in a sea or reverb and the whole thing is too bassy, it is a shame because the songs are not really done any justice.  So watch out from going over the top. If in doubt then listen to some music that you know very well and that is also generally accepted as top draw i.e. Abbey Road – The Beatles, or Ok Computer – Radio Head. Sometimes you do not need anything on a sound: if it sounds good then it probably is good.

Four, set up a couple of effects sends for your reverbs.  Having a different reverb insert on each track is very wasteful on processing power and can muddy up the overall sound.  By using an effects return for a reverb unit you help knit the individual sounds together by putting them in the same virtual room.  You can eq these effects sends and easily raise and lower the global level of them.  A good tip is to have a fast small reverb send set up to help give vocals and drums a bit more liveliness, then also set up a longer larger reverb send which can be used to help glue all the tracks together.  Remember to not push the levels to these sends.  Kick drums and bass do not usually need any reverb but a tiny hint of short reverb can help them sit in a mix.  As a pointer, I rarely want to hear more than 10 percent of any sound affected by reverb.  That said, reverb levels can be much higher than that at times, particularly when there are maybe only one or two instruments playing. Experiment with pushing up levels as a sound naturally decays; this is great for enhancing vocal performances or the end of guitar solos etc.

In part two of this article I want look a bit closer at compression, phasers, flangers, chorus, and delay effects.  Between now and then try scrutinizing how you use your effects.  Experiment with changing the order of the effects i.e. delays on distortion sounds different to distortion on delay.  Also try to discern if you are using lots of effect plug-ins to hide what is essentially a badly recorded or badly played part.  If this is the case then consider rerecording the part to a higher standard.  Try not to hide behind your effects plug-ins or you and your music will most likely be found hanging out down at Effectsville. I record and produce royalty free music for whitebeetle.com

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About Article Author

John Milner
John Milner

I am in my mid thirties and I enjoy making music and writing.

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