Using Delay Effects in Music Production

by Anders Johanson January 18, 2021 9 min read

Delay Effects

There are very rare instances when someone would want to use a completely dry piece of audio. A recording that has no equalization, no effects, no post-processing of any kind. One of the best things you can do to take your production skills up a level is to take the time to learn about all of the effects that are included in your digital audio workstation. Whether they are plugins that you downloaded or just the ones that come stock with your DAW, sit down with them and play around with them. Turn knobs, move faders, enter random numbers, see how changing one thing affects another. Before long you will start to really get a feel for what does what, and it might not surprise anyone when you find out one of the most fun, and most useful, effects to play with is the delay effect. Whether you are using outboard delay effects such as guitar pedals or rackmount effects units, or in-the-box effects like plugins or other software suites, delay effects can add an extra dynamic layer to your tracks. Delay can be used all over productions, from snare drums to guitar and synth leads to vocal layering, delay is one of the most versatile effects in a producer’s arsenal. 

Adding a delay effect to any audio will take some time and experimentation to get a grasp on. A delay will take any incoming audio and repeat it (as the name suggests, it “delays” the signal), but at a set interval, and repeating as many times as you would like. If you want your signal to repeat once every measure, you can set it for that. If you want it to repeat eight times every measure you can do that as well, and many things above, beyond, and in between. Delay effects can be set to react to either your project’s native tempo setting, or to a tempo or rate that you determine for the plugin. More often than not you’re going to want to keep it set to the tempo of the project, but if you are feeling adventurous you can come up with some cool grooves by moving away from that locked-in setting and dialing in your own repeat time. Keeping the delay paired with your project’s tempo, however, will make it easier to switch to half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and all of the dotted and triplet subdivisions.

In addition to just the regular time-related effects that delay plugins feature, some delay plugins, hardware delays, and delay pedals can go into different types of effects in their repeats and other parameters. Similar to how reverb pedals and plugins have different types and styles, delay effects offer a variety of flavors as well. 

What are Different Delay Types?

  • Analog/Tape Delay | This is the most common type of delay - a delay that emulates the classic tape machines of the 60s and 70s. Your sound goes in and out comes a delay that has some tape saturation, a little bit of degradation, and just a slight boost of character and warmth to it as the repeats go on. 
  • Slapback Delay | Slapback delay is very similar to the spring reverb in that it is one of the more recognizable delays, and a signature sound of early surf and rockabilly music. Slapback might not be the best for modern recording, but it still has its place. 
  • Modulated Delay | “Modulating” means that it alters the frequency of whatever is being routed through it, so a modulated delay is a delay that has parameters that affect its frequency, amplitude, and pitch. Modulated delays take your delay signal and add an extra effect to the repeats, such as chorus, flanger, phaser, bit crushing, or any other effects that you can choose from in the settings.
  • Ping-Pong Delay | This delay gets its name from the nickname for table tennis due to the fact that it causes the delay repeats to bounce back and forth in the stereo field, moving from the left ear to the right ear, in the same way that a ping-pong ball would bounce back and forth on a table. It’s a funny name, but it’s a fun effect, and it can be used effectively if the track calls for it. Setting up a ping-pong delay on a guitar lead or even on a vocal layer or snap sample could be really interesting. 

These are just some of the most popular delay effects that you will see in any digital audio workstation or plugin package, there are a handful of other options available out there, all with a wide range of usability and application. Getting the feel for when and where to use delay in your track will take some time, but once you have the delay mastered you will be glad that you started using it. Delay is most commonly used on guitars in a live and studio setting, but when you are at the desk you have the freedom to put anything anywhere you want. If you think your delay effect might sit well on your kick drum, go ahead and do that. If you have the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator drum machine, put some delay on that to get some truly trippy effects. There’s no limit to when and where to use a delay effect, it all just comes down to using delay tastefully and without going overboard with it. Similar to reverb, if there is too much delay in a mix it can get crowded and things can get lost in translation, and that just makes a track difficult to listen to. Learning how to tame your delay settings and figure out what gets the message across without being too much is key. 

How do I Use Delay in a Mix? 

Delay is not a picky effect, you can use it anywhere. Whether you want to set up individual tracks with their own delay settings, or route all of your tracks to a single delay bus, is up to you. If you want one track with an eighth note delay that has a bright EQ but you want a different track to have a quarter note delay with a darker EQ and fewer repeats, you are going to have to set up each track with its own delay plugin. Choosing this route can be especially taxing on your computer’s CPU so make sure your system has the power to be able to do that kind of thing. If your computer does not have a lot of RAM you might have to get creative with how you set up your delay settings, or at the very least you will have to commit to printing audio (exporting tracks with effects) and pushing forward from there. 

While delay can be a universal effect, useful in many places all throughout a project, there are still some guidelines to follow. Figuring out where to put delay and what to do with it depends on what you are trying to use it with. Of course you are free to experiment and explore, but here are a few tips for starting points when trying to use a delay effect. 

  • Vocals| In a lot of professional mixes you might hear delay on a vocal line in a verse or chorus. This is an excellent way to give your vocals more character in the mix. To give even more depth, automate your delay track to pick out one word to add a delay effect to, rather than having it on the whole time. If you have your delay set to a low amount of repeats and mix it with a pitch shifter that is just a few cents higher or lower than the original audio, you can create a time-augmented doubling effect. 
  • Guitars | Delay is great for lead lines on guitars, but it can also be used for rhythm. If you are using it on leads, a longer feedback and repeat setting can make your guitar sing more than usual. Bending strings while playing with a delay can also make for a cool warbly tone in your playing. If you are using delay on rhythm, quick string rakes can create a percussive element in the mix, one that might pair well with the drums.
  • Drums | Delay on drums is tricky, as it is a sound that is not easy to replicate live. That is not to say that it can’t be done, you can definitely add a delay to a snare, hi-hat, or kick, but it might come off as sounding unnatural - which might be what you are going for. Sending samples through a delay is a completely different story. Putting a delay on snaps, snares, and claps will give your drum samples a more interesting character, especially if the delay mix isn’t very high. It will give listeners a little bit extra to listen for in the mix. 
  • Synthesizers | Synthesizers and delay go together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether you are playing lead lines, stabs, or pads, adding a delay to a synth is one of the best things you can do. Synthesizers are known for being more of a sound design element in a song, so putting a few different effects and processing techniques on them just makes them come to life. If you are using an arpeggiator on your synthesizer, setting your delay to a subdivision like a dotted quarter or eighth will give it a galloping feel, which can really blend in nicely into a track. 
  • Bass | Bass does not really lend itself well to many effects, which is not to say that you cannot use them. It’s just that they are hard to incorporate when the primary function of a bass is to drive the rhythm and not necessarily stand out in the mix, unless that is your intention. A delay on a bass guitar in a quieter section of an arrangement will make it pop out to a listener, and if you have a bassist that can play slap bass then a delay on that will be excellent. For a synthesizer bass or a sub bass, delay might just end up making the low end of the mix sound muddy instead of defined. Tread lightly here, but it is definitely doable. 

No matter what instrument or track you are adding delay to, you will make it stand out in the mix. Hearing the repeats as the track progresses can be really engaging, or it can ruin the vibe of the song. You will definitely want to get a feel for what is right in that moment. 

Best Free Delay Plugins 

As with reverb, there are loads of different delay plugins out there, from hundreds of dollars all the way to absolutely free. If you are anything like me, free is the best route. As always I would encourage you to spend time getting to know the plugins that come stock with your DAW. You might find out that you like them and end up using them more than other plugins. Once you know the ins and outs of the stock delay effects, figure out what you are missing and what you would like to have and then go fill those holes. A lot of stock plugins are more versatile than people tend to give them credit for, but some are definitely more stripped down as well. Here are a few delay plugins that are absolutely free, waiting for their new home in the plugin folder on your hard drive. 

Valhalla - FreqEcho

Valhalla is a plugin company that you need to know about if you don’t already. They are primarily known for their reverb plugins but they also have a couple of delays that are underrated and underappreciated - and one of them is free! Valhalla themselves market it as a psychedelic delay, but you can certainly tame FreqEcho to behave more like your typical delay and less like a chaotic mess of sound. FreqEcho’s biggest feature is its pitch shifting effect, which, with some automation, can give you truly unique results. 

kiloHearts - Delay Snapin

This is one of the most barebones plugins you could possibly see. With just feedback, an on/off toggle for a ping-pong effect, ducking, panning, and mix knobs, it should be easy to dial in a delay sound on Delay. You can manually enter the amount of milliseconds for the delay repeats or have it sync to the tempo of your project. 

TAL - Dub 3

The TAL Dub 3 is one of the more basic delay plugins available but, as they say, free is for me. Dub 3 has a simple interface with the typical functions of a delay plugin, but it also has some interesting saturation features. You can turn up the input gain to give your signal some extra coloration from the delay, and the parameters on the screen can even be controlled via knobs on your MIDI controller. 

Variety of Sound - NastyDLA

NastyDLA has the most extensive feature set out of all of the plugins in this list. With an interface reminiscent of vintage rackmount delay units, NastyDLA delivers on the sound quality of those units as well. Chorus, color, modulation, ping-pong, presets, this plugin has it all. There’s only two downsides - first is that it is a Windows-only plugin, so Macintosh producers are out of luck here. Second is that in order to get this plugin you have to download it in a pack with over a dozen other ones, which is a bit of a bummer. 

With some fine-tuning and experimenting, using delay effects can be extremely rewarding. There’s no mystery as to why guys like Edge from U2 are so addicted to using these sounds - they make something basic sound more complex and complicated, which really just makes you sound better as a whole. Grab some of these free plugins and throw them in your project, see what they do with your synthesizers or your vocal lines, and keep working on adding new elements to your tracks. 

Anders Johanson
Anders Johanson

Also in News

Music Mixing Guide
Essential Guide to Mixing Music

by Anders Johanson January 30, 2021 12 min read

Read More
Free Drum Kits
The Best Free Drum Kits

by Anders Johanson January 30, 2021 11 min read

Read More
Best Drum Machines
Best Drum Machines for Beginners

by Anders Johanson January 16, 2021 9 min read

Read More