The latest in a series on raising your mix game, from the accomplished NYC mixer/producer Jamey Staub. Visit him early/often at http://www.jameystaub.com.
Delays Delays… How do I love thee. Let me count the ways. In fact, there are countless ways to use delays. Some of which I haven’t invented yet.
In this article I will discuss the many ways to use delays by order of time delay. Starting with short time delay and moving to longer delay, I will expose the nature of using analog and digital delay to enhance your mixes and produce big results.
History of Delay
The first use of time delay and sound recording was through analog tape delay. Tape machines employ a system that incorporates three magnetic heads. The magnetic (or iron oxide) tape is threaded through a trail of rollers, guides and metal heads that both read and write magnetic information to and from the iron particles embedded in the tape.
Without getting too technical, it is important to understand that the first head allows for erasure and bias, the second head allows for recording to tape and the third head provides playback of recorded material. The distance between the record head and the playback head provides a time delay of recorded sound to playback of sound. The length of the delay is dependent on the gap length and tape speed. The gap length is fairly standard in the construction of tape recorders; however the tape speed is easily controllable by the user/engineer. As the tape speed decreases the time lag from record head to playback head increases, resulting in a longer delay time.
Soon after tape delay was introduced, companies like Multivox and Roland designed tape echo machines that were compact and easy to use in the mixing process. Then, with the advent of digital semiconductor chips, digital delay evolved — my two favorite digital machines are the Lexicon PCM 41 and 42 and the TC 2290. There are also many plug-in delays such as EchoBoy, Tel-Ray and Moogerfooger which are fantastic.
Whatever you choose to use, remember that there is a wide variety of ways to be creative in your mixes.
Uses of Delay In Mixing/Recording Techniques
As I mentioned, I would like to describe and explain the use of delay by mixing engineers in simple terms, starting with minimal delay times and moving up to maximum delay times.
The shortest delay time noticeable by the human ear is a few samples of digitally recorded music.
For example, if I take an overhead cymbal track in Pro Tools, duplicate it and then shift the duplicated track by a few samples, play it in addition to the original track, I can hear an anomaly that sounds like a swishing or swashing in the high frequency content. This is called phasing.
This sound is the result of the amplitude of the original frequency content being offset from the shifted frequency content resulting in changes of amplitude over time. If the additional track is modulated over time, the effect is more intense. The time difference that results in “phasing” is from a few microseconds to one millisecond.
A great example of this can be heard in one of my favorite songs ever – “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. If you listen to John Bonham’s cymbal crashes, you can hear this effect. In the 1970’s there was no digital recording so I believe the engineer used the wonderful Eventide Phaser unit.
An interesting note is that in the late 80’s, when we wanted to make sure two multitrack tape machines were synced together, we would bounce a high frequency signal (such as a high hat) from the original tape to the copy tape, adjust the synchronizer and listen to the two identical signals until the phasing was inaudible at which point we knew that the two machines were locked together.
Phasing is a fun and interesting way to enhance your mixes. For example, I love to use phasing on vocals, guitar solos, cymbals or even an entire drum loop. It is also effective if you only use it for a certain section of the song, such as the bridge.
As with Phasing, Flanging is an audio process that combines two copies of the same signal , with the second delayed slightly, to produce a swirling effect. The delay time is somewhere between 1 and 4 milliseconds.
The process originated before digital effect boxes and computer editing were available. The effect, invented in the early 1950s by Les Paul and later used by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, was originally created using two tape recorders.
Here’s how the non-digital process worked: While the original sound was being played from Tape Recorder #1, a second copy of the same audio material was played back from Tape Recorder #2. This process alone creates a hollow sound caused by the slight irregularities in the phase relationship of the audio waveforms. To get the flanging effect, the speed of the second recording was altered slightly. This was done most often by pressing a finger lightly on the 2nd tape reel’s “flange”, the large metal circle that surrounds and contains the tape on its hub. This created a time delay in addition to the phase differences, making the effect more pronounced.
One of my favorite examples of this is demonstrated in the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver, which was recorded on April 6, 1966 . John Lennon’s lead vocal is flanged throughout the entire song. According to historian Mark Lewisohn, it was Lennon who actually gave the process the name “flanging”.