I love using delays in my mixes. I often find them even more useful than reverb, especially for things like voices and guitars, because they can often get you the desired result of blending a track into the whole mix, without as much smearing and loss of presence that happens with reverb.
If you are going to use delay, the obvious first question is: What should the delay time be?
There is an almost infinite number of correct answers to this question (for some experimental ambient projects we might even use delay times of several minutes), but in a normal mix there are 3 basic approaches I am often using:
1) The Classic Slap Delay
Slap delay is the classic tape delay that was popular with artists like Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Around 166 ms, determined by the space between the record head and the playback head of the tape machine (no need to worry if that does not totally make sense right now). The classic slap delay has 0% feedback, meaning it only has a single repeat.
I always assumed that this was an old fashioned and dated delay style so I rarely used it except when I was doing a retro style of mix, but one day I was at Chris Lord Alge’s studio and he mentioned that he used it quite often on vocals. I was surprised, but then I went back to my studio and tried it. When I mixed it high in the mix it sounded really out of place, but when I mixed it low, I was blown away by how much it affected the way the vocal sat in with the band. It creates a nice ambience without drawing attention to itself. It has become one of my favorite vocal processing tricks.
Fun fact: a friend of mine that played with John Lennon told me that the reason those Lennon albums have so much delay is because John hated the sound of his own voice and kept asking the engineer to add more delay to bury his voice. Think about that the next time you are lacking confidence in the studio!!!
2) Timed Delays
Timed delays are delays whose length is equal to a rhythmic sub-division of the tempo: 1/4 notes, 1/8 notes, etc. These kinds of delays are cool for two main reasons. They can be used to create rhythmic excitement or drive, especially on short staccato sounds. Creating new sub divisions that are “in time” can help give a mix an extra sense of energy or groove. I often find that these work best with little or no feedback on the delay. The other cool thing about timed delays is that they blend into a mix. What I mean by that is that the listener’s ear is not as easily drawn to hearing the delay effect in a mix. This lets you get away with using more delay in the mix without it starting to sound over processed…. or the dreaded….. “Over Produced” (I really hate that term). But this is the same thing that can make timed delays not so cool. You kids have it so easy today (said in my best grumpy old man voice); back when I was starting out it actually took work to set delays to a strict sub-division of the tempo, so most of the time we just dialed things in by ear. These days, recording to a click track is more common than it used to be, and most delay plugins have a button you can push to easily make something a 1/4, a triplet, a dotted 1/6th note… In my opinion that feature gets over used ….
3) Not-Timed Delays
One of the things that people overlook is that when you lock your delays to a grid, they lose all their grooviness. They lose a lot of vibe. So if you are trying to add a sense of washiness, soupiness or psychedelia, it can be a good thing to get your
delays off of the grid and dial them in by feel. When I am mixing legato solos like guitar, horn or string solos I usually add delays that are not
“in time.” I also like to keep many of my vocal delays off the grid.
There are no rules for delay range on these kinds of delays, but I seem to find myself dialing in times between 250 - 750, and often with different delay times panned hard left and right. With out of time delays for psychedelic purposes, I usually like a bit of feedback. You have to trust your ear to find the right amount of feedback, but just keep in mind that if delays repeat too many times you run the risk of hurting the impact of the whole mix.
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