Article about effects and sounds. Published in Atari Magasinet #2, 1999 (swedish magazine). Translated into english by the author.

Effects and sounds

This article will deal with how you can use various effects to make the music a little more polished and shiny - and perhaps also a few side-tracks around the theme... Previous articles have dealt with some post-production effects and some general effects, but now it's time for some a little more specific effects.

How do you make your own "sound"?
Of course, you have to use material that sounds good and then you combine it with various effects to transform it into something that sounds even better - so that you can sell your latest hit in a couple of million copies. Hard to do? Not at all - it's almost impossible!!! Well - maybe not. Someone has to make a success, so why not you?

Effects - what are those for?
When you come into a studio, you'll see racks full of more or less un-understandable units. Many of them are effects which are used for adding cosmetics to the music - or selected parts of it - which will make the listener notice something special among all other details. Others are effects which give a special feeling of "space" and lets you listen to instruments that aren't completely "dry" - something that can remove the pleasure of listening to just about anything...

Synths then? Don't they have effects built into them?
Of course, the manufacturers of the synths want their preset sounds to sound so great that everyone just has to have their latest creation. In the shop, most of those sounds really do sound great, but when you listen in quieter surroundings, those built-in effects unfortunately tend to be of poor quality and sound much worse than their rack mounted cousins.
To come up with the idea to place an analog effects section in a sampler, which uses nothing but digital sound paths everywhere else, is beyond me - since the noise level gets higher, which isn't very funny - but it's rather common with unlogical solutions... much more common than one likes to think actually :(
Mostly, you only have one effect which is applied to all the sounds - and not a couple of effects units which can be used for several different sounds at the same time. In either of those cases, it's often better to disable the internal effects and use an external effects unit instead.

A matter of taste
To a very large extent, the usage of effects is very much a matter of personal taste and something that sound great according to one person, might sound babsolutely terrible in anothers' - but that's just like music in general...
Many genres have very strict rules about what a song should sound like, while other genres allow almost anything. Take a look at swedish dance-bands, with their loooong reverb which sounds like if they're singing in a church or a big hall, the hardrockers' heavily distorted guitars, the wah-wah pedals of the 70's disco music and the 50's and rockabilly's slap-back echo.
If you look further, into the world of techno, synths with real-time sweeping filters rule - and one who don't use them is hopelessly "out"...

The limiting rules for the sounds and unwritten laws in some music genres make very many songs extremely predictable and uninteresting to listen to, but when discussing such matters, one's on thin ice because it's mostly a matter of taste. It can, of course, be very pleasing to listen to such predictable music also - just because you always know what to expect. Many listeners think it's nice when something new emerges, but in many styles among todays' music, even the individual sounds are copied, like when a new song has a special sound from the bass drum - you hear exactly the same bass drum sound on dozens of songs a couple of weeks later, when others have sampled it for their own use. I'ts boring when people only try to be copies of others instead of being themselves and make their own, new songs.
It's extremely boring when someone takes an old hit song and add a crappy rap instead of the original melody and lyrics - and the result sounds terrible compared to the original.
Some producers take old fantastic music, add a boring techno- or eurodisco-beat to it and let some kids "sing" and unintentionally make fun of both the original song and themselves... This can't be accepted as a cover, but rather a strange form of comedy (which I'm pretty certain wasn't the intentions of the producer in the first place...).

Hmmm.... Where were we? Oh yes! Sound - or sound image, which it also can be called.

What makes an artist unique?
The voice - absolutely! Who hasn't listened with admiration to Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Whitney Houston, Elton John, George Michael - just to mention a few? Even if you don't like their music genres, it's impossible not to admit that they're very good singers with personal voices that stand out from the crowd.

Playing style - definitely! Whatever you think of Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Robert Wells, Brian May and Stevie Wonder, they're great musicians who really know what to do with their instruments and play with a style that's hard to imitate.

The bands' style - naturally! A song with Queen is recognised immediately, Status Quo and ZZ Top as well, Chic are impossible to make a wrong guess about, SAGA, Chicago and INXS also have a very special sound - as well as numerous others. Many musicians try to imitate other bands, but it's mostly a mistake since you simply aren't able to copy every part of the music that's needed to make a trustworthy copy - and if you only copy part of it, it sounds like you tried and didn't succeed and is nothing but pathetic... Such copying attempts actually lead to that Queen patented their very special guitar sound. You're always better off being yourself - that's the only thing you're the world champion in.

Examples of music with heavy rules are the swedish dance-bands and USA's country bands. Techno also falls into the cathegory with heavy rules in my opinion. The swedish dance-bands fill their function even though most of them sound very similar, since people who want to go out and dance (without going to a disco) prefer to know what to expect, so they don't have to concentrate on what's happening in the music.
The same applies for the country-bands - since USA is a huge country with a lot of cars, there's need for a predictable style of music as a companion and relaxation when driving long distances and besides this, the country music also fills the dance-floors with easy-listening music, just like the swedish dance-bands.
When it comes to techno, it's just the same, but with another target group of listeners who expect to find nice effects and sweeping filter synths - and also in this genre, the actual music disappears into the periphery. Naturally, there are variations within those genres, but they aren't as big as some people claim, cimply because there are strict rules that can never be broken...

How do you create a great sound?
This is an exciting question, but it's impossible to discuss since you can't discuss personal taste. You can't really predict what the audience will want, so the main thing must always be to trust your own ears and do something that you like yourself - otherwise, it's hard to do it really well. Various effects are a big help when you try to make your own sound and here, I intend to describe some of them and try to explain what hey do and how they're normally used. As usual when it comes to music, it's a matter of taste and you can experiment with "insane" effects choises if you want to, but some effects only adds confusion and makes the sound "foggy" - so you need your ears along the way, all the way to the final mixdown.

The sounds in the synths, I leave completely to their destiny. I use almost only factory presets, since I wouln'd have the time or the patience to fine-tune a synth sound just to fix a small insignificant detail that noone but me is going to notice in the end... If another sound is needed, it's better to combine two sounds, which play the same notes - and add new sound coloring that way instead.
When you mix the synths, you can let them be "clean" by mixing them in a line-mixer (mixer without eq) and from there in a stereo mix to the big mixer, to the computer, portastudio or whatever. If you create your own sounds in the synths, it's probably even more important to use a "clean" signal chain - otherwise you won't get exactly the same sound you've worked so hard for. If you want to add someting to the synth sounds, you might want to use a mixer with eq instead, where you can add coloration to different synths by adding some treble or midrange. Beware of the bass though, since it can ruin the mix completely if it get's too much. If you program your own synth sounds, it's preferable to make the extra processing in the synth instead of in the mixer - since a mixer with eq is more expensive AND adds extra noise compared to a line-mixer.

Most synths make noise. It's actually so bad, that the worst noise-sources in a modern digital studio are the synths. Check out how much noise your synths make by listening when you press a key - and I mean: really listen! You'll notice a hissing sound which comes up together with the actual sound, partially masked by effects etc, but such noise can make a lot of problems later on when making the mixdown. One way of getting rid of some of the noise, is to let the output from the line-mixer go via a DeNoiser unit from Behringer or a similar noise reduction unit before it's recorded. If you want to cut the noise heavily, it's possible to add some brilliance with an enhancer from Behringer, BBE or others. Beware, so you don't loose too much treble. It's hard to recreate something that's not there and then, the enhancer might add unwanted noise if you try too hard to make it remake all the lost treble...
The effects in the synths are often not of very high quality. This means that external effects units are preferable in most cases, but unfortunately your budget might set a limit too... You can look at it another way too; the synths often come a little back in the final mix, so then the poor effects won't be as apparent as they would be otherwise and you can perhaps stand then anyway.

Which types of effects are around?
They're numerous, but here are some of the most common ones:

Reverb: The effect you can hear when you sing in the bathroom or in a church. This effect is a little special since many digital reverbs sound metallic or like they're made out of several separate delays (see below). To tell the truth, a real reverb is actually an awful lot of delays, but in nature there's no need for any processing power to make a full reverb, but all those delays (which all have all different lengths of decay time) together sound like a compact reverb without any delay effects. It takes LOTS of processing power to produce a well, natural sounding reverb - so that's actually nothing I'd recommend you to use a computer for. There is a reverb effect included in Cubase Audio for Falcon, but it's really crappy to tell the truth. There are a number of plugin-effects for Cubase VST for PC and Mac, but those which sound acceptable use too much processing power from the computer, so it isn't realistic to use in most computer setups.

Reverb is by far the most used effect and there are a lot of variations, like "Hall reverb", where a large room with a reverb time of several seconds is simulated; "Room reverb" is a smaller room, where you get the feeling of being a lot closer to the source, since the reverb time is shorter; "Plate reverb" means that a large plate is simulated (the plate method was for a long time the best way to get a good reverb sound in the studios around the world), where you get a short reverb with a little special sound characteristic. There are too many variations to even start scraping the surface if the article isn't going to use up the whole magazine, so I think I'll stop here. Many people call the reverb effect "echo", which is very wrong.

Delay (also called echo): This effect appears if you scream across a valley or into a well etc - that is, the sound bounces back and sound like it's repeated. In nature, it's mixed with reverb mostly, but in an effects unit, it's possible to separate it and get a better control over the result.

Chorus: This is a little harder to describe, but it's a sort of doubling tigether with a phase shift... You can say that it sounds like the voice (or instrument) sounds a little like two voices - and gets richer at the same time. It's actually a special kind of delay effect with a very short delay.

Flanger: A variation, somewhat like Chorus, but with a sweeping sound which is very characteristic and close to impossible to describe with words. Somewhat like a sweeping filter in a synth, but it can be used on any kind of sound.

Vocoder: An old effect which has surfaced again. You can hear it in songs like Cher's "Believe" and Earth, Winf & Fire's "Let's groove". It's a somewhat metallic sound where one sound source (synth, guitar or something else) is allowed to modulate another sound source (for example a voice), so that it sounds like the synth "sings" or "speaks", depending on the settings of the effect.

Wah-wah: Mainly a guitar effect which can often be heard in Jimi Hendrix' songs and in many disco songs from the 70's. It can be described as a flanger where you can control the "sweep" with a foot pedal. There are also automatic models where the sweep is time och velocity triggered, and the sweep starts whenever you strike a tone.

Distorsion: Initially only a guitar effect, where you distort the signal (amplify it too much, so the clean signal starts to get destroyed) and thereby get a sharper sound - and hopefully it sounds bad in a good way... Sometimes people use distorsion on the bass to get a harder sound and sometimes it's even used on vocals.

So far some explaining about a couple of effects. How are they used?

In "normal" music, the vocals is the most important instrument, since it should carry the message that the song might contain. That's why it's often processed quite a bit. The first thing is naturally the reverb, where you mostly in a quiet song choose a long reverb, to help fill out the space and create a special mood. In a faster song, it would be absolutely wrong with a long reverb, since it would diffuse and ruin the vocals, so that you can't hear the words properly. Often you can add a delay, which preferably should be synced to the tempo in the music - so that it doesn't destroy the rhythm of the song. With the delay, you can ease up the sound a bit and create a slightly different sound, but it's best to keep it at a low level since it might diffuse the words and make them impossible to hear in the same way a faulty set reverb would do. In some genres, like Rockabilly and in many of Elvis' songs, it's been popular with a "slapback" echo, which is a normal echo which is rather loud but only repeats once. If you want to make the vocals a bit "thicker", you can add a little chorus too - or you can dub the lead vocal.

Dubbing doesn't have anything to do with winter tires, but it means you sing the same vocals twice or more on different tracks and replay them simultaneously. The result becomes much more powerful than if the voice had been alone. Listen to Rick Astley's voice, for example in "Never gonna give you up" (remember Stock, Aitken & Waterman), and you have an example of how a well performed dubbing sounds. In most of Rick Astley's songs, the vocals were dubbed 4 times, something that's not very common. Mostly you only dub 2 times. ABBA's songs were often dubbed, to acheive a richer sound than what would have been possible otherwise. The dubbing sounds more natural than a chorus effect, so it's much nicer to use.

To make the lead vocal broader and thicker, it's also possible to use another trick; you use an effect which can detune the original in very small steps - in different directions in the right and left channel (for example slightly up to the left and the same amount down to the right). The original vocals should stay in the center and be louder than the effect.

Compression is almost a must when it comes to vocals and there is a somewhat strange way to apply it, which has been around since the good old days of Motown... They fed the output from a vocal track to two mixer channels, where one of the channels was clean, while the other was heavily compressed. When those two channels are mixed together, you've gained the best of two worlds. The clean channel gives you the clarity of the original voice and the compressed channel gives you a strong, supportive voice. Both of them combined is simply stunning! You can do it the same way either by splitting the channel like they did, but nowadays it's so easy to copy a track - so that's to prefer since the load on the output is different when you split a channel, which in turn can lead to a somewhat worse sound quality.

Rule number one when it comes to vocals is: Listen with effects on - and then off. If it sounds worse with an effect, reduce the effect's output or remove it completely. If you're uncertain about how to do, it's probably better to remove it than to take a chance... The lead vocal is very sensitive, so you should be very careful and use the effects with caution and don't overdo them!

Guitar - do they still exist?
In the age of sampling, is there really need for real guitars? You can say that a single note, like a plucking guitar can be simulated with great success on a synth. The sounds in the synths can be very good and to samplers, there are REAL guitar sounds available - but when it comes to chords, you can forget it if it should sound really natural. The guitar is an instrument where the strings are struck one after another, a short pause between each string in a chord is needed to simulate the real instrument - and it's no pleasure to edit every singe note on the screen throughout a whole song. To make it "real", you also need to make variation in the velocity of each note and maybe even remove some notes, since a guitarist never gets exactly the same attack in each chord. Most players also vary between strumming upwards and downwards the strings, so there's yet another variation for you to deal with. It's difficult and very time-consuming, but not impossible (yet almost impossible to endure the editing...).

Effects used with the guitar are among almost every possible and impossible kind. Most frequent are probably reverb, distortion, chorus, flanger and delay in a delightful mixture - and it's often easy to make some wild and weird stuff here, since the guitar should "only" play notes and not, like the vocals, deliver lyrics which need to be clear and decipherable. Compressor is very usual also with the guitar.

Bass - something to play around with?
As an old bass player, I must regretfully admit that you in mot cases can replace the bass with synths or samplers. You almost always play only one note at a time and then samplers can handle exactly the same heavy sound as a real bass. What can make a difference is the playing style, but if you can play the bass, it's easy to copy your own playing on a synth. When using a real bass, the most common effects are compressor, chorus and in some cases distortion. Effects like reverb and delay only messes things up and should not be used.

Nowadays it's common for synths to replace a number of instruments, since it simplifies things for songwriters and since the synths actually are able to replace most instruments with an acceptable result. Piano is an instrument which is hard to copy even in a sampler. Since the piano actually needs to be sampled with many velocities for each note to sound really good, it takes enormous resources in a sampler. You can get a good enough compromise to work in a mix, but when played alone, it becomes obvious immediately that it's not the real thing. Effects used on a piano is almost only reverb - other effects distort the clean piano sound and if you start with special effects on a piano, you're not after the piano sound in the first place...

Brass is another instrument group which is often replaced by synths. The result is of very shifting quality in different synths, but you can often make it sound good - if you first listen to how the real instruments are played and try to play it in a similar way (and don't go outside of the range of the real instruments...). Effects for brass is mostly reverb and often, it's effectful to use a little longer reverb than for the vocals, to get the impression that the brass section are a little further away than the vocalist. Sometimes the opposite - a very short reverb can do the trick and place the brass section very close to the listener instead - but then also the vocals should have about the same reverb, so that both are present "in the same room" as the listener.

Strings was probably the first instrument that was replaced and in the start, they sounded terrible and not much like strings, but the string machines got a very important place anyway, since the sound of the bands was filled out with them. Now, every synth has some sort of string soundin their presets and also in this case, the result is very shifting. Normally, you'll mix the strings rather weak, mostly to fill up the sonic image - and then almost any half bad string sound can be acceptable, but if you need to have the strings a little "closer", you have to listen carefully before you buy... Effects for strings are mostly reverb, but also chorus and sometimes a light flanger.

Other really "synthy" sounds are more difficult to say anything about since they're synthesized and not copies of natural instruments. You can probably say it's rather free to choose effects, but be careful and don't use too much, since the sonic image may be overheated and too dense if too many synths have too "fat" sounds.

Drums - oh no!?
How do you lay effects on drums? A tough question, but if you like Phil Collins' drum sound, you use a gated reverb. A short room reverb can be very effective too - and maybe also a combination of a gated and a room reverb, while long and big reverbs just makes the drums undefined and dull. I guess I should explan what gate reverb is; It's a reverb that's cut off completely when the decay has reached a certain level - instead of a normal reverb which continues to ring until the maximum time has gone. The gated reverb is especially good for drums since it can be used without getting the sound "booming" because of the constant hammering of the drums - like a normal reverb would have.
In the days of the drum machine, the drum sound is still very important and most drum machines sound very good today since they contain sampled sounds and drum sounds aren't very demanding when it comes to memory space. Outputs is another chapter and I'm very satisfied with my drum machine, which has 8 separate outputs in addition to the stereo output - so I can mix the machine just like I would mix a regular drum set, enabling me to put slightly different effects on each drum if I want to. Bass drum and Snare drum, which are played all of the time (almost), should'nt have too much effects (the bass drum should have almost nothing) - while the Toms can have a little more since they're used as an effect in themselves to amplify certain events in the music. If you have a drum machine with more limited outputs, I think you should take at least the bass drum ad the snare drum separately - and preferably the hihat too, while the rest can use the stereo output.

I finish by saying once again that the matter with a personal sound is a very hard chapter in life since so much depends on personal taste - but by using two very fine measurement intruments most humans are gifted with (even if I have my doubts every now and then...), and by using good advise and learn from mistakes others have already made, you don't have to make them al over again, like using too much or wrong effects - or too "fat" synths which steal the attention from other instruments which are more important to the contents of the song. Too many "fat" sounds and effects are tiring to listen to and that's a pity since you probably want others to listen to your music too...? Now I hear someone thinking -What are those measurement instruments? Well - you have them on each side of your head and you should take very much care of them since they're precious instruments that can easily be damaged beyond repair, rendering them useless when you want to make a new mixdown of your next megahit...

I see that this article has become rather long - but it's hard to stop writing about interesting things, so what should I do? I just hope the editor (and the readers) can stand my babbling... ;)

I'll be back with a new article about something that hopefully can be interesting for everyone.

Until then - have a good time!
Claes Holmerup