Making It Bigger: Understanding Effects & Adding Them To Your Mix
Particularly in club sound, the proper use of effects can leave the audience with the impression that they’ve heard a full-blown concert

April 24, 2012, by Tim Andras

live sound effects

On rare days off from running sound, I get the opportunity to go to several local clubs to check out the work of other mix engineers.

This is really cool because I pick up tips that can help my own work, in addition to experiencing a wide range of gear.

One thing in particular that I pay close attention to is effects, and I find that in most every case, some type of effect is applied on almost every instrument and vocal.

Which leads me to the point that particularly in club sound, the proper use of effects can leave the audience with the impression that they’ve heard a full-blown concert.

Reverb, simply defined, is the result of many decaying reflections of sound in a room.

Reverb units simulate reflections of different types of rooms, and most units are outfitted with standard pre-sets for long or short reverb times, reverse gates, gated reverb, delays, flange, chorus and so on. These settings can usually be adjusted and saved for specific

More specifically, some adjustable settings include:

Reverb type. Common choices include room, hall, plate, and vocal.

Reverb delay. The time between the initial signal, such as a vocal, and the start of the actual reverb effect.

Reverb time. How long the reverb can be heard after the input signal stops.

Gate time. The amount of time before the response is cut off. A gated reverb, typically applied for drums, cuts off the sound of the reverb more abruptly than the usual more gradual decay.

Reverse gate. Usually a gated reverb, but with a twist. Instead of simulating reflections that become quieter after the initial signal, a reverse gate simulates reflections where the sound gets louder over time, and then abruptly cuts off. Again, usually applied to drums.

In contrast to reverb, delay is simply a number of very distinct added repetitions to sound. These repetitions will usually be the same (or very close to the same) volume of the original signal, although many delay units now allow setting both volume and the decay of the repeating signal.

On most units, the timing of these repetitions can be set from milliseconds to several seconds. The user can also define “feedback” - the number of times it will repeat.

Delay can be used on almost any instrument, but most commonly on vocals. A short delay time used on a vocal can “fatten it up” nicely, whereas a long delay can create an echo effect.

Both delay and reverb run in stereo can also be used to create even bigger sounds and/or “ping-pong” effects. Some units also provide the ability to set different reverb or delay times for each side of a stereo system.

I always recommend running any effects in stereo in order to gain the biggest advantage from them.

Running effects in stereo versus mono is like comparing night versus day – the difference is quite substantial.

Now let’s switch to the application side. When adding effects to instruments and vocals, keep in mind that in most situations, it all should be done in a complimentary manner. (Except in very rare cases.)

For example, if mixing a slow ballad with a long reverb applied on vocals, then chances are that a short-gated reverb on the drums will sound awkward.

I’ve also heard different delay times and reverb settings on lead and background vocals. Again, for the most part this is not a good idea. If all vocals are intended to be part of a unified pallet, which is almost always the case, then they should be presented as unified.

In other words, adding a random setting to each vocal - without any specific artistic purpose - will result in vocals that are a jumbled-up mess.

I once found this out the hard way. Experimenting with a new, original song, I set up different delay times for the background vocals.

Everything sounded great - until all four vocalists started singing a certain passage together. Then it became three badly matched background voices topped by a lead voice that also didn’t remotely fit.

It suddenly sounded like a different song had started! (By the way, if you ever find yourself in this position, slap the side of your rack and act like the gear is causing the problem, not you.)

A very common question with effects: how much is enough? I think we’ve all come across mixes that were compromised or even ruined by the overuse of effects. (On the other hand, I’ve also heard some so-so bands that were saved by a good mix and heavy doses of effects!) 

Particularly in a smaller environment like a club, certain elements of a mix tend to stand out: guitar lead, keyboard lead, thundering kick drum, and so on, while most of the time, the effects are not intended to stand out.

The audience should notice when there is no reverb or delay on the vocals, but not perceptibly notice when these effects are applied. Enhance with effects, don’t over-compensate.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. A good example is the gated reverb on the snare drum in a lot of Phil Collins songs.

Another can be found on “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which has a heavy flange on the vocals. And that same band’s “We Are The Champions” offers a reverse gate application that lends a great sound to the drums.

So particularly if mixing the same band regularly, make it your business to learn the songs inside and out.

This includes going to band rehearsals, where you can calmly evaluate where effects might add something special, and also talk with the band about it as well. (This might seem obvious, but I’ve talked to so many mix engineers over the years that never bother to attend rehearsals.)

The routing of effects is another key piece to the puzzle. If at all possible, they should be sent from an aux send, a pre-fade effects send, or a monitor send (if not running monitors from front of house). The reason is control.

The band I regularly work with plays in a different club every night. This means that every show I readjust my gain structure, fader levels and EQ in light of the specific club parameters and specified volume limits.

By running pre-fader, I’m able to adjust the input to the effects unit and leave it the rest of the night without worrying about clipping when I push up a lead.

I also return all my effects back to a channel on the house console - again for more control. This provides the ability to EQ the effects and control the output easily with the faders, and I can also turn off the effects when the band isn’t playing.

Running it back to a channel also allows me to easily add an effect in the middle of a song, and to more easily and effectively add it to the mix.

For example, let’s say there’s an echo that needs to happen in the middle of a particular song. I set it up and have it ready, then when the right time comes, slide up the appropriate fader and then back down, and it’s on to the next effect.

Four effects units reside in my own club rack - one for delay on vocals, one for reverb on vocals, one for reverb on drums, and one that I use to achieve certain other things.

This unit is programmed ahead of time with different delay times, echoes, flanges and so on that I want for that night’s show.

Again at risk of stepping into the land of the obvious, I always name these effects according to the song they’re to be applied to. This way I don’t have to try to try to remember different setting names in the heat of the mix.

The extra unit also means I can leave my main reverb and delay settings untouched while adding the extra effects where and when I want them.

Many of the more common and affordable effects units now on the market come with the ability to pre-program several different effects on one channel, eliminating the need to purchase several units.

What effects units does Tim use? Top to bottom: TC Electronic M-One on vocals; Alesis MidiVerb 4 for a quad chorus on sax and some special effects on guitar, drums and vocals; Yamaha SPX 990 on drums; and an “old reliable” Roland SDE2500 for certain vocal reverb as well as delay on certain songs. (click to enlarge)

Keep in mind, though, that this can present some limitations.

To bring up the volume of the reverb, but not the delay, requires doing so in the effects unit settings rather than just pushing up a console fader.

And there is access to only the effect “sounds” and features/options provided by the given manufacturer of the unit. Still, the majority of units offer plenty of effects options.

One key difference is sound, which is where you come in, because as we all know, sound “quality” is a subjective evaluation.

Experiment by listening to various units to find the one (or ones) best for your operational needs and sonic situation.

If possible, rent a unit for a week or two to check out before buying, and never be afraid to ask the advice of others.

Tim Andras is a mix engineer with well over two decades of experience working with sound.

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Making It Bigger: Understanding Effects & Adding Them To Your Mix