Are you getting the most from your effects plugins? It’s a bottomless pool of possibility and inspiration, and even the most seasoned producer can always learn something new. With that in mind, we present Seven Ways to Make Your Effects Amazing. If you’d like a comprehensive guide to FX and how to use them, check out our online Complete Electronic Music Production course.
1. In the mix, less is almost always more
Of all the mistakes made by the novice producer, the overuse of effects is, without doubt, one of the most damaging. It starts innocently enough with a simple tremolo or phaser, but then that new auto-filter catches your eye; and since you’ve bunged that in there, you might as well get that crazy frequency shifter involved, too… Oh, and everything sounds better shoved through a chorus, right? Before you know it, your plugin chain looks like an explosion in a pixel factory.
Stop! Just say no! Keep it classy and give your sounds room to breathe. While almost every channel should include compression and EQ, and a touch of reverb or delay on an auxiliary bus always pays sonic dividends, beyond that, judgement should be exercised. As a rule of thumb: if in doubt, take it out.
Of course, when designing sounds and employing resampling techniques (see below), the application of multiple effects is all part of the process, but use your ears, and if things start sounding unbalanced or overcooked, dial them back. You don’t have to actually pull that saturation plugin out of the middle of your elaborately constructed chain altogether, but try pushing the wet/dry mix back towards dry, or lower the gain.
2. Turn off sync
The ability to synchronise plugin effects to host tempo is one of the countless benefits of the software-based studio, keeping your delay lines, LFOs and other temporal controls perfectly in time with each other. But have you ever thought about turning it off and setting your timings by ear instead? Almost all syncable plugin parameters also have a ‘free running’ option, where timings are set freely in milliseconds or Hz, rather than snapped rigidly to musical note values, and by taking your effects off the grid, you can lend an organic, natural feel to the parts in a track and the interactions between them. Feedback delays gently drift as they fade out, tremolos and wah-wahs sound more ‘human’, flangers and phasers take on a retro vibe…
It’s often said that contemporary electronic music sounds overly tight and ’perfect’, and the ubiquity of tempo sync has to be a factor in that.
Turn off sync for freestyle FX
3. Tart up your reverb
Reverb is usually employed as an ‘end-point’ effect. You route sounds to it on a send/return bus to place them in a virtual space, without anything else going on in the way of further processing apart from perhaps the reverb’s built-in EQ – and rightly so, as mixing ‘best practise’ demands. But how about using your reverb plugin as the starting point for a more adventurous effects chain? Follow it up with some distortion, say, for an edgier ambience; or an envelope-following filter for a dramatic tail; or a sidechain compressor keyed off a percussion track for a rhythmic angle; or a ping-pong delay for stereo weirdness – or all of the above (taking tip 1 into account, of course)? You get the picture.
4. EQ everything!
You probably already use EQ on most of the channels and busses in your mixer (and if you’re not, you should be!), but are you being similarly frequency-conscious with effects? Just as guitars, vocals, synths and cymbals can all get in each other’s way, requiring corrective equalisation to untangle, so, too, can reverb tails, delay echoes and other ‘wet’ signals, particularly those with abundant mid/high-frequency content.
Fortunately, many effects feature their own onboard EQs or filters, enabling you to resolve frequency clashes from the comfort of the plugin itself. If yours doesn’t, though, or if you can’t achieve the result you’re after with it, insert an appropriate plugin for the issue at hand (a high-pass filter if you just want to de-rumble a reverb, for example, or a parametric EQ for more complex situations) and get carving.
Whatever you do, remember to EQ
5. Think outside the box
It’s all too easy to get into a particular groove with your effects-based workflow – reverb on Send 1, delay on Send 2, the same old dynamics/EQ/saturation chain on the drums bus, etc – so pack your creative bag and head off on as many tangents as you can find. Try reverb on a bassline, a transient shaper on vocals, tremolo on drums, distortion on, er… flute! Or just insert a stack of randomly selected plugins and see where you end up!
Along similar lines, seek out effects on the weirder, quirkier side of the fence. There are loads of awesome oddities peppered across the software landscape, many of them free to download, such as GlitchMachines Hysteresis, Michael Norris Soundmagic Spectral, Inear Display Danaides and SmartElectronix’ classic LiveCut.
6. Resample and commit
When using effects for creative sound design, make resampling part of your workflow.
Resampling is simply the process of bouncing or rendering processed sounds as discrete audio files for further treatment. For example, you might render a flanger into a synth loop, then reverse the resulting sample, resample that with a delay applied, flip it back the right way round, slice it up, rearrange it, apply a reverb, resample again, etc. Not only does resampling force you to commit to your sound at every stage of processing, but the audio editing in between renders becomes an effect in itself.
7. Make your own modular effects matrix
Certain DAWs, including Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio and Tracktion Waveform, feature powerful integrated effects ‘racking’ systems, for the creation of complex parallel processing chains. However, you can build similarly intricate sound design setups using any software mixer’s auxiliary send/return routing scheme.
Simply load one or more effects onto any number of auxiliary return channels set to pre-fader input, and route a signal from an instrument channel to one of them. Now, send some (or all) of that return to one of the other returns, then that one on to a third return, then a fourth, and so on. By that point, things should be getting pretty mental, but if you then start tapping the returns back into each other and themselves, all sorts of wild feedback and phasing will start to happen. Having the returns working pre-fader means you can adjust their volumes without affecting the send levels between them.
Rack ’em up
If you want more high-quality tips and instruction, join us here at Point Blank Music School. We offer a BA (Hons) in Music Production and Sound Engineering accredited by Middlesex University, and there’s also an option to study remotely online. If a degree course is too much of a commitment we offer a range of production courses. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.
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