Music production is an amazing way to flex your creativity. There’s no getting around the fact that the fundamentals of rhythm and melody are the core of any great piece of music, but music production opens up a world of sound design that lets us bend sound, those mystical waves of energy, to our will.
But there are so many effects! How can we hope to master them all? Well, just like most things that seem unfathomably broad and complicated, there’s a way to break things down and look at effects in groups — categories, perhaps — and give us context to the rabbit holes we’ll inevitably end up falling down.
In fact, in the broadest terms, we could categorise music production effects into three different distinct types: time based, dynamic based, and harmonic based. Of course, there’s crossover and nothing is ever as cut and dry as ‘music production effects 101’ might have us believe, but it’s a pretty good starting point. Let’s take a look at each of them, the kind of specific effects in each, and how they’re used…
Time based effects all work on the concept of taking a sound wave and ‘copying’ it over time. The simplest and most direct example is probably delay, where a sound is triggered again and again (again, again, again) as time goes by — perhaps rhythmically, for instance every 1/4 note interval, or perhaps a discreet amount of time, say 200ms. In the ‘real world’ we’ll call the phenomenon an ‘echo’, and it happens because the sound waves hit our ears coming directly from the sound source but then after that the reflections of the wave bouncing off another surface hits our ears too. Obviously for this to happen, the space needs to be pretty huge… think vast caves, grand canyon, that kind of thing.
When the reflections of a wave hit our ears with less time to spare than there is for the direct sound to play out in its entirety, we call this reverb. Sound ‘reverberating’ in a space, with reflections from a source coming off all the surfaces in a room and hitting our ears at different times, is what we unconsciously use to recognise the size and shape of a room and the position of the sound source within it. In other words, reverb is pretty much always a factor in our sense of hearing, and it’s rare to ever hear a sound fully ‘dry’. Being able to configure how a reverb effect colours a sound gives us the ability to ‘fake’ the position of a sound in the imaginary sound stage we create, from making a voice sound like it’s being sung in a cathedral to a drum kit in a small wooden recording studio.
Chorus, Flangers, and Phasers
Sometimes the source of a sound is huge — huge enough that the same direct sound hits each of our ears at a subtly different time. We can create this effect with a chorus effect, that very subtly alters the timing of a sound coming out of the left and right speaker. It fools us into imagining that the sound source is big and wide enough that it completely surrounds us, which is a really useful technique for giving a sense of size and presence to an instrument. But there’s more. Change the timing offset of the left and right signal and we get a sense of the direction and position of the source changing in relation to our heads. Very trippy. This effect is called a flanger, and is an amazing way to make a sound appear to move around the sound stage and give us a real sense of a third dimension. Taken even further, a phaser effect shifts the timing information of just certain frequency ranges in a signal. Often this is described as a ‘bubbly’, ‘underwater’, or ‘alien’ kind of sound — because of the way that only certain frequencies in the sound source move, we don’t so much get a sense that the sound source is moving but more (unconsciously, mind) that the space itself is shifting and changing around us and the sound source. It’s not something we often hear in the real world, so in a way we’re ‘hacking’ our innate sense of how we perceive the world through our senses. Amazing stuff!
Of course, there’s a lot more to music production than just finding a reverb plugin, dropping it onto a track, and calling it a day. How we adjust the various controls of a reverb to change our perception of the resulting sound — a bigger room, our distance from the sound, a more metallic, hard surface or a softer, cushioned space — all these things take time, practice, and understanding. How we change the timing of a delay, the way it fades out, delayed signal being ‘fed back’ into the delay effect, even the panning of the delay signal itself, all come together to make delays anything from realistic representations of being in the rocky mountains to psychedelic, otherworldly effects. The same goes for phasers, flangers, and choruses; the number of notches in a phaser, the speed and time delay, how we alter these settings in real time to get even further craziness… it’s all part of the fun of having the power to manipulate sound in any way we want.
If you want to really get to grips with effects, improve your skills as a music producer, and make better music, then take a look at Essential Music Production. It contains hours of practical explanations, advice, audio and video demonstrations, recommended software and hardware… not just about effects, but everything you need to get really confident with taking your music production to the next level whether you’re just starting or you’ve hit that intermediate wall. If you want to improve, take a look at the best way.