Learn how stage and studio effects work and how to use them to do your sonic bidding
We’ve all had the experience of listening to a song and wondering, "How did they get that sound out of the guitar?" Maybe it was a crystalline clean riff or a seething slab of distortion. Chances are what you heard involved some kind of effects processing. But just what effects were used to get that great sound? In this tech tip and the two to follow, we’ll talk about what effects do and how you can harness them to recreate the sounds of your favorite artists, or perhaps the sounds running around in your head that you’d like to capture. (You do experience them, don’t you?)
What are effects? They are anything used to alter the pure sound of an instrument or voice. In ancient days, outdoor theaters were designed in such a way they would give voices or instruments the greatest volume and resonance possible. This way, larger crowds could enjoy the music without amplification, which of course did not exist back then. Today’s effects are created using electronic circuits that can create everything from subtle limiter settings to over-the-top extreme distortion and modulations in which the original “dry” sound isn’t detectable.
When music recording was in its infancy, studios would use room environments to create effects. For example, mics were set up in tiled bathrooms to capture the natural reverberation bouncing off the hard surfaces. Recording tape was manipulated as it was played back, creating various kinds of pitch-shifting, phase and delay effects. In time, analog circuitry using tube technology was used to create effects such as echo and reverb. Preamplifiers were designed to impart pleasing coloration to sound. And of course, guitar amps began incorporating effects to produce tremolo and reverb sounds.
Decades ago, high-end effects were the exclusive domain of professional studios. One example is the Aphex Aural Exciter. Introduced in the mid-1970s, it used advanced technology to apply musically pleasing harmonic distortion and phase manipulation to recordings giving them greater definition and dynamics, especially when played back on home stereo systems of that era. Studios rented the original analog Aphex Exciter that used tube technology for about $10,000 a week.
That was then…
Until the early 1980s, effects used analog circuits that worked by directly changing the output from an amp, preamp or mic. In the early 1980s much more affordable versions using digital signal processing began to appear. Today you can buy a digital version of the Aphex Aural Exciter for a tiny fraction of its original cost.
With advances in digital technology, today’s home studios and stage rigs can be equipped with a mind-boggling array of effects for a relatively small price. These include both hardware effects units as well as the virtual effects built into today’s DAW software and mobile device apps. Modern guitar amps and signal processors often include hundreds of virtual effects produced by sampling traditional hardware effects, microphones, and speaker cabinets.
Beginning early in this century, companies such as Line 6 began introducing guitar amps, effects processors, instruments and stompboxes packed with modeled sounds. Much of this gear could be easily updated and expanded by downloading effects configurations (often referred to as “patches” produced by leading artists.
The modern musician can choose from a huge range of signal processors, many well within the reach of even modest budgets. You can buy a dedicated effects unit for one type of effect with multiple settings or a multi-effects processor with multiple effects that can be applied simultaneously. And let’s not forget all the classic and modern guitar and bass stomp boxes. They are small effect units themselves.
One quick note about effects intended for live performance before we get started: You cannot set up your effects in your rehearsal space and expect them to sound the same in the club you will be playing at this weekend. Room environments change the dynamics of your effects. Allow plenty of time to set up your equipment and tweak your effects at the club to get the sounds you’re going for. Every club has a different sonic profile and keeping notes can help you set up faster the next time you play that venue. (Some effects units and live sound mixers allow you to save your settings—a huge advantage when you play that club again.)
Now let's talk about specific effects. We’ll start with time-based effects since they’re among the most important tools in both live performance and studio settings.
Most time-based effects generate two identical signals, one of which is momentarily delayed while the other is processed in real time. At the output, the two signals are rejoined. Most of these effects allow you to dial in the amount of signal that’s affected as well as the length of the delay. You’ll find a huge array of delay and reverb effects pedals today, many of them offering numerous variations in a single unit.
Most reverb effects aim to replicate the natural echo produced in various spaces ranging from small, hard-surfaced rooms to enormous spaces such as amphitheaters and cathedrals. Many also replicate the sound of the reverberating plates and springs that were used in studios and vintage amps.
Generally, a little reverb goes a long way. Too much reverb in the mix can make distorted guitars sound muddy and make vocals unintelligible. Reverb used sparingly on clean tones can add drama and spaciousness to your music.
The TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb is loaded with 10 different reverb types and controls that allow you to shape them in a multitude of ways. Stereo output is especially cool in the studio and for use with stereo stage rigs. It also has a USB connector that lets you download so-called TonePrints—a huge selection of effects patches created by pro guitarists.
The TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb takes up little space on your pedalboard while delivering a giant array of reverb sounds from vintage to sci-fi.
In the early days of recording, delay was accomplished in various ways. One approach was to place a microphone at one end of the studio and another close to a speaker cabinet. You would then record the guitar on two tracks and play them back together producing a type of delay effect. If the effect needed to be tweaked, the engineer would move the microphones and/or speakers until the desired effect was achieved. In the era of tape-based recording, some delay effects took advantage of the distance between the record and playback heads of the recorder.
Delays can be repeated over and over to produce extreme effects or have a single repeat that produces the slap-back sound popular in rockabilly. The time between repetitions can be very short, measured in milliseconds. Or it can be longer and more dramatic. Delays can also add a rhythmic element to your playing. There are many different kinds of delay effects units available, and most offer a number of different types in the same unit. Delay is among the most valuable effects. It is the building block on which other effects such as reverb, flange and chorus are based.
As the name suggests, the MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay has an all-analog signal path and boasts delays up to 600ms. It gets high marks for its simple yet effective controls, and for tone tweakers there are two trim pots that open up new sonic vistas.
It’s hard to beat the MXR M169 Carbon Copy Delay when it comes to versatility. You can dial in everything from rockabilly slap sounds to extravagant, Pink Floyd-style delays.
Like reverb, echo, which is also sometimes referred to as a long delay, is based on a natural acoustic phenomenon. But unlike delays and reverbs,it occurs in large open spaces such as canyons or stadiums. If you’ve ever yelled into a canyon and heard your voice come bouncing back and a second later, you know what echo effects do.
If you make the delay of the echo long enough, you can play against the notes you just played and harmonize with yourself while the rate sets up a kind of beat.
Echo controls usually let you determine the level, the period between playbacks, and the decay—the rate at which succeeding notes become quieter and quieter until they fade out altogether. The period (or time) parameter is often controlled by a single button you push repeatedly in time with the music. This is called tap delay and keeps your echo effect from clashing with the music's time signature.
The circuitry in the Catalinbread Echorec stomp was inspired by the revered Binson Echorec—a vintage tube-driven effect that incorporated four playback heads and a magnetic drum to create other-worldy echoes made famous thanks to David Gilmour’s space flights.
Check out the Catlinbread Echorec in action—and be sure to fasten your seat belt!
Closely related to delay and reverb units, a looper allows you to record a musical phrase then play it back back repeatedly. You can then record more loops and layer them, one on top of the other. You control most recording and playback functions with a foot pedal, and once you’ve finished building backing tracks, you can then play over them in real time. Solo performers can put together complex songs that’ll have the audience wondering where the rest of the band is hiding.
Many of the more advanced loopers have built-in rhythms, custom effects, inputs for vocal mics and other instruments, plus MIDI and USB integration for use studio use.
While loopers offer lots of possibilities, especially for solo performance, and most are simple to use, looping can be challenging for the novice to master. We recommend you build your instrumental skills before getting into serious looping.
The TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay and Looper combines a 40-second looper with a huge collection of delay types ranging from vintage to modern. It uses independent circuits for the two functions to ensure excellent sound quality. MIDI capability plus access to the TonePrint library via its USB port put a world of control and sounds at your feet.
Explore the amazing capabilities of the Flashback X4 with its huge grab-bag of delay effects and looping possibilities.
Note: If you use compressor or noise gate in your pedal chain, put your reverb and delay behind them in the effects chain so they fade out naturally instead of being abruptly cut off by the gate or squashed by the compressor.
Learn more about getting your pedalboard in order with guitar magician Steve Vai.
Stay tuned for Effects Basics—Part 2 in which we’ll look at modulation effects including tremolo, phasers, flangers and chorus effects.
Want to dive deeper into effects? Our Guitar and Bass Effects Buying Guide looks at the entire spectrum of stompboxes and effects multiprocessors.