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In the Studio: Timing Your Effects To The Song

Getting delay and reverb to "pulse" with the tempo of a song

By Bobby Owsinski May 24, 2012

This article is provided by Bobby Owsinski.

Recently I posted about the six rules for adding effects to a mix, and three of the rules entailed timing your effects to the track.

One of the comments I received asked about more information on just how to do that, so here it is.

Timing the effects to the track means that all of the delays and reverb parameters are timed so that they match the tempo of the song so they pulse with it.

As a result, the effect isn’t noticed as much (sometimes not at all), but make the track sound bigger with a bit of an ambient sheen that doesn’t push the track too far back in the mix.

First of all, the absolute easiest way determine the timing is with my Delay Genie iPhone app (that’s its icon above/left) which will easily determine the tempo of the song if you don’t know it, and give you all of the possible combinations that you need. If you don’t have an iPhone or just want a bit more in-depth explanation, here’s some info taken from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and the upcoming Audio Mixing Bootcamp.

Delays are measured tempo-wise using musical notes in relation to the tempo of the track. In other words, if the song has a tempo of 120 beats per minute (bpm), then the length of time it takes a quarter note to play would be 1/2 second (60 seconds ÷ 120 bpm = .5 seconds).

Therefore a quarter note delay should be .5 seconds or 500 milliseconds (.5 X 1000 ms per second) which is how almost all delay devices are calibrated.

But 500 ms might be too long and just sound confusing in the mix.

Divide that in half for an 1/8th note delay (500 ms ÷ 2 = 250 ms). Divide in half again for a 1/16th note delay (250 ms ÷ 2 = 125 ms).

Divide again for a 1/32nd note delay (125 ÷ 2 = 62.5 ms or rounded down to 62 to keep it even).

That still might not be short enough for you so divide again for 1/64th note (62 ÷ 2 = 31).

Again this might not be short enough, so divide again for a 1/128th note (31 ms ÷ 2 = 15.625 rounded up to 16 ms).

And yet this still might not be short enough so divide again for a 1/256th note if there is such a thing (16 ms ÷ 2 = 8 ms).

Now such small increments like 8 and 16 ms might not seem like much, but they’re used all the time to make a sound bigger and wider. It’s something that you might not exactly hear, but you can perceive it since it acts as the critical “first reflection,” which is the loudest and most important echo of a sound in any environment. Even a short delay like this will fit much more smoothly into the track if it’s timed.

Another way to determine the delay time is to use the following formula:

60,000 (the number of milliseconds in a minute) ÷ Song Tempo in bpm = Quarter Note Delay In Milliseconds

Example 60,000 ÷ 128bpm = 468.75 milliseconds (rounded down to 468 to keep it an even number).

All the other values can be determined from this by either:

—Dividing by 2 for lower denominations (i.e 468 ÷ 2 = 234 ms for 8th note delay, 234ms ÷ 2 = 117 16th note delay, 58.5 32nd note delay, 29ms 64th note delay)

—Multiplying any of the above by 1.5 for dotted values (i.e. 234 ms x 1.5 = 351ms for dotted 8th note)

—Multiplying any of the above by .667 for triplet values. (i.e. 234ms x .667 = 156ms 8th note triplet)

Dotted and triplet values are very effective delay settings and many times take precedence over straight note delays since they have an interesting feel, providing movement to the part in a subtle way. Plus they fall in between the “can be heard” and “can’t be heard” crack. In other words, they’re noticeable without sticking out like an untimed delay.

It’s also an interesting effect to sometimes use a stereo delay with a straight delay of a 1/4, 1/8th, or 1/16th note on one side and a dotted note or triplet on the other. If the delays are under 100 ms or so, it simulates the sound of a room. During the early 1980s and 90s, a delay of around 25 ms on one side and around 50 ms on the other was used to enhance the sound of a clean electric guitar, for instance.

While we’re mostly talking about delays, timing also applies to things like predelay and decay time on reverbs. Use the above formulas for the predelay, but to time the decay time, use the snare drum to set off the reverb, then set the decay so it lasts just until the next snare drum hit or the one after that.

Remember that you don’t always want an effect timed to the track. Sometimes a delay that’s not timed will stick out, but it might be appropriate for the song. As in all cases with mixing, the right effect or effect parameter is what works for the song.

Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website and blog.


About Bobby

Bobby Owsinski
Bobby Owsinski

Music Industry Veteran and Technical Consultant
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information and to acquire a copy of The Recording Engineer’s Handbook be sure to check out his website.


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