I have never been good at writing songs. I can’t string more than two words together. I have always envied songwriters and their ability to create poetry through music. I knew from an early age that I would never be a songwriter. BUT, I had an obsessive fascination with sound and, to my surprise; I found that I understood sound and its physics much better than words and their relationships to each other. The motion and effect of a sound was as moving for me as a whole song. The ability to take a single sound and treat it so it moved dynamically, much as a song does, and to have it evoke an emotion was exciting for me. I decided, from an early age, that I would explore sound and try to acquire the skills to shape it. This led to countless sleepless nights studying sound and its physical properties, trying to find a happy medium between data and creativity. I decided to program as many synthesizers as I could for other people just to get the experience of manipulating sound. It soon dawned on me that there are three types of sound design areas: replicating, colouring and warping. Replicating involves replicating an existing sound like programming a horn sound on a synthesizer or sampling and designing a piano preset. Colouring involves using a replicated sound and creating variations of it but in a more creative manner thus giving rise to a new version of the same sound that still falls within the parameters of a replicated sound but with a new twist in representing it. Warping involves creating a completely new sound that doesn’t fall under the replication criteria but can use the replicated sound as a source. This involves total reshaping into a new texture and one that evokes a specific emotion. Whereas the replicated sound is about recreating an existing sound, warping is about twisting it into a new and detached sound. All forms of sound design start at the waveform stage whether sample based or pure. But reshaping, colouring, mangling, or warping an existing sound involves the use of dynamics and effects and how the modulation matrix can best make use of existing synthetic design tools. Of course, we can mangle a sound within the modulation matrix using the basic tools that come with the synthesizer but that can be limited and too specific. It is the area of effects that opens up the world of sonic mangling and if the effects can then be modulated and routed within a matrix then a whole new world of sound design opens up and you are limited only by your imagination. It doesn’t end there. Sonic mangling is one thing but creative production is another ballgame entirely and this is heavily reliant on effects and dynamics not just for corrective tasks but for creative ones as well.
An integral part of mixing and production is the area devoted to effects.
Effects are used not only to colour sound but to create an aural illusion. How this is achieved is dependent on the effect being used. But before we can delve into the wondrous world of effects we need to define what an effect is.
What is an effect?
An effect is a ‘process or device’ that adds to an untreated/dry signal by a user defined amount, whereas a ‘signal processor’ treats the whole signal and does not add to it. In the old days of patching analogue mixers the auxiliaries were used for effects like reverb etc and the inserts were used for processors such as compression. The distinction, in terms of processing, is quite obvious. The device, let us take reverb as an example, adds to the dry signal and outputs the mix of both dry and wet signals whereas the compressor treats and processes the entire signal and outputs the result. Even in today’s DAWs (digital audio workstations) this form of ‘patching’ still exists and is commonly used.
You may think that I am being a little pedantic here but in today’s diverse world of audio technology, terminology and description can often be confusing and general. Additionally, a number of manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to ‘rename’ conventional terminology in favour of sounding ‘hip and now’. Sadly, this makes it a nightmare for tutors to stick to a standard and it can get extremely confusing trying to reference new terminology against old and to decipher today’s manuals. To add to the headache most manufacturers now include additional non conventional features into their products to give added value and not outgun the competition.
Effects are excellent sculpting tools and a number of genres today have made their mark because of the type of effects used within the genre.
Trance would be a good example of the use of delays and reverbs.
Distortion is prevalent in the Rock genres etc.
Effects can be used globally on the whole mix, or individually on single tracks or events, or as a combination of both.
Effects can be used creatively to evoke an emotion, or, for example, correctively to encompass space where space is lacking. In the former, a big reverb on strings can result in the strings sounding huge and warm, or bright and exploding. In the latter, sensible use of reverb can add space to a certain sound in a mix that sounds too dry compared to the surrounding instruments that may have been recorded with space.
Chaining effects can lead to dramatic results. One effect feeding into another and so on is a great way to enrich a sound and make it evolve. The effects can run in series whereby one effect feeds or morphs into another or in parallel so that more than one effect is running at the same time.
However, soft and subtle use of effects can result in track strengthening qualities. Using a chorus on a bass sound can thicken the bass. Adding a slight amount of delay to vocals can make the vocals sound fuller and deeper.
It is limitless what can be achieved with effects. You are only limited by your imagination, and of course, which tools you use.
Understanding how best to utilize an effect is reliant on understanding the mechanics of the effect, what it does and how it works, and in what quantities to use it for optimum results.