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Tweak's Guide
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Using Effects
in the Recording Studio

How to Tweak Up Special Effects that will Transform your Audio

by Rich the TweakMeister


  TC Electronic M-One XL 24-Bit Dual Engine/Effects Processor  Now with 25 incredible effects, this dual-engine processor delivers world-class effects and professional capabilities. Effects include XL Reverbs, Chorus, Tremolo, Pitch, Delay, Dynamics, and more. . Tweak: Great sound for the buck.  Generally regarded as having high quality "natural" sounding reverbs without the metallic artifacts of other reverbs.  Competes with the Lexicon MPX 500. Lots of debate over which is best.  

Lexicon PCM91 Digital Stereo Reverb Processor
The PCM 91 offers Lexicon's highest quality reverbs in a compact, affordable package with a powerful interface which allows both easy access and a wealth of programming capabilities for the sound designer. All of the features of the acclaimed PCM 90 are included, plus full AES/EBU I/O, new Dual Reverb algorithms, and new presets with dynamic spatialization effects for 2-channel or surround applications. All of the Dual Reverb algorithms and presets (available for the PCM 90 on a PC card) are built into the PCM 91. Tweak: Pro all the way.  Some claim it pays for itself.

TC Electronic D-Two Rhythmic Digital Delay With the introduction of the D-Two TC Electronic have once again succeeded in developing cutting edge technology, expanding the way you work with your effects processor! Your creativity will be the only limit when it comes to exploring the endless number of delay possibilities within the D-Two. Tweak: This is a premium delay unit that will someday be mine.

Alesis MidiVerb4 Effects Processor
The Midiverb 4 is the perfect effects processor for professional project studios and musicians who require an affordable solution for fully-programmable, high-fidelity effects. Its excellent effects algorithms produce dense, natural reverb, rich chorus, flange, delay, pitch effects, and up to 3 simultaneous multi-effects.

Yamaha SPX2000 Digital Multi-Effects Processor
The name "SPX" has been synonymous with "professional multi-effect processor" for more than 15 years, and the models like SPX90, SPX90II, SPX900, SPX1000 and SPX990 have been the most commonly found equipment in the studio and SR racks.

Behringer REV2496 Dual Engine Reverb Modeler
The REV2496 is a reference-class reverb modeler that simulates some of the world's most renowned reverb processors.

Lexicon MX400XL 4-Channel Effects Processor with USB and XLR
The Lexicon MX400 dual-stereo (4x4) Processor is equally at ease in the studio or a concert hall, with a unique VST/AU software interface via USB, delivering the classic Lexicon sound.

TC Helicon Voiceworks Plus Vocal Processor


What are Harmonizers?

MXR Guitar Effects

Digitech Guitar effects

Zoom Guitar Effects


MXR M101 Phase 90 Phaser Provides the classic, 4-stage phasing sound with continuous variable speed control. Phase 90 fixed regeneration level adds intensity and is particularly effective for keyboards. Tweak: It's a remake of a 70's shifter.  Defacto. This is the phase shifter. I have the original.


MXR M135 Smart Gate Pedal If you're addicted to the indispensable juice of a high gain amp or a string of stomp boxes, you need this pedal. Because along with your hot-wired tones, you're probably getting a generous helping of noise. Equipped with 3 selectable types of noise reduction, Hiss, Mid, and Full, the Smart Gate bites down on sizzle and hum but lets the smallest detail of your playing through  Tweak: Glamorous, no, Useful Yes! Particularly if you chain stuff up

Big Briar MF101 Moogerfooger Low Pass Filter The moogerfooger Lowpass Filter is a 2-pole/4-pole, variable-resonance, voltage-controlled filter, plus a fast-acting envelope follower. Control parameters are signal mix, cutoff frequency, resonance amount, and envelope amount.  Also see the MF 102 Ring Modulator  Tweak:  The classic Moog Filter, for those who must have it.


ffects are everywhere in our gear.  We have effects plugins of almost limitless possibility, rack mount effects units at nearly every price range, synthesizers with "built in" effects modules, effects controllers that track hand movements in the air or our finger on  an XY surface, and today's newest sequencers have effects whose parameters can be automated and modulated as the sequencer runs.  So much power!  Yet there is so little knowledge!  Knowledge of what effects are, how and when to use them, and how to create them.  I'm going to help you out by telling you some of the things I have learned about using effects that should help you get a better grasp on what you are doing.  And I'll give you some cool ideas to try.

An effect is the modulation or modification of an audio signal to make it sound more interesting.  The use of effects, historically, has followed the development of audio recording devices form the beginning.  To really understand the terminology used in modern effects racks and plugins, you need to understand how these words came into being in the first place.  Yep, I'm gonna take you there, so jump in my time machine and we'll go back, back, back...


Reverb Effects. 

Before the widespread proliferation of television sets in the 1950s, reverb effects were already in use in studios making records.  The early reverbs were based on microphone and transducer technology. Reverb was created naturally in good sounding rooms or "chambers" with highly reflective walls and movable baffles. Microphones were placed in the room at various location to pick up the ambient sound.  These were large, expensive rooms of about 2000 square feet! Here's a pic of a great  reverberant chamber.  Few studios could afford to build a room this size, so quite quickly, plate and foil reverbs came about.   The Plate reverb was really a large steel plate, held up inside a frame so it could vibrate freely. The plates were anywhere between 6 and 18 feet tall and had to be isolated in a room of its own.  Imagine trying to do a home studio in those days!  Amplified soundwaves would make the plate radiate, like a large gong does, and microphones would pick up these vibrations and send them back to the control room as an audio signal.  So when you look at your digital FX box and see "plate reverb" and "chamber reverb" that's what these effects are tryng to emulate through digital mathematics.  Lets move on. .  The Spring reverb came about next and was quickly adopted by guitar amps.  Inside these units was a metal spring, like a Slinky,  that vibrated with the amplified audio.  You may have seen guitarists bang on their amps to get the spring to distort, and many radio shows used this effect to simulate thunder and lightning.  Here's a pic of how it worked.

Delay effects 

Early delay effects were made based on tape recorder technology and were made on reel to reel tape recorders.  Due to the gap between the playback head and record head, it was easy to get echo by simply monitoring the signal from both heads at the same time.  Because you could slow down and speed up the reels (by hand, or later with VariSpeed), you could get echoes of various length. Later reel to reels let you add the playback signal back to the source signal, which created feedback (that would go wildly out of control if you added too much).  One innovation done on tape decks was called Flanging. 

While the reels were moving, the engineer would put his hand on the flange of the source reel to slow it down slightly and create the effect. When the slowed down source signal was added to the original signal at the playback head, the slight change in pitch could create the authentic flange effects  Now you know where the term came from on your stomp box.  Another effect that worked in a similar way was phase shifting.  Here the source signal was delayed  from the playback signal and added back in at an equal level with feedback.  The result was an audio signal that shimmered and swooshed as the two signals went in and out of phase.  

Chorusing was another effect the reel to reel did.  By increasing the drag on the flange, the source signal would slow down even more to where a solo vocalist sounded like a chorus group. Finally, one could record a slightly slowed track next to the source track.  This effect is called "doubling" and results in a thicker vocal.  You have probably heard this a few million times on records.  Probably the ultimate tape effects were Tape loops, and with these, special effects turned into a craft all it own.  In his early days, the Tweak himself did some of these experiments.  One was to take two reel to reel recorders and stretch the tape from the source reel of deck 1 to the take up reel of deck 2. 

After you talked through the microphone the sound would go in and out of 4 heads, with feedback on both machines.  After your recorded your material, you could "rock the reels" and get all kinds of flanging effects, double slapback effects, pitch warping effects, syncopated delays "multi tap" delays.


What, Effects without Plugins?


Interestingly, many of the above are all effects you can get in a modern digital audio sequencer without using any plugins at all. You simply copy tracks and offset the pitch and start time.  And guess what, it usually sounds better and more authentic if you craft an effect this way.  And if you really want to stand out from the crowd, go down to the local pawn shop and find an unloved reel to reel sitting there.

By now you should be marveling at how inventive human being have been to make their audio standout from the rest. Why?  Because new and unheard effects often translated into mega-hit records especially when paired with a well known artist (Madonna, dahling, you are invited to the TweakLab at anytime!). And it is still going on.  In the 70s and through the 80s, effects technology took off on the low end with guitar pedals featuring distortion, wah-wah, chorusing,  flanging and phase shifting. Analog delays used tape inside a small box with several playback heads .  One of the classics here was the Roland Space Echo. Roland also had a line of inexpensive spring reverbs as well in their new Boss line. Dedicated rack units featuring microprocessors came next and as the home studio market boomed companies realized they could put these computer models of effect, called algorithms into a rom chip.  The digital delay was first and was quckly followed by digital reverb which at the beginning was very expensive, and then finally multi-effects boxes that did everything.  Some landmarks in the development of effects were the Midiverb, the product that brought Alesis into the recording world.  The Midiverb was a flat square box that had several types of digital reverb for abound $500 bucks.  Yamaha came out with the SPX-90 which boasted 90 different FX programs that were user editable and recallable by midi program changes.  I think I paid about $775 for mine.  I still have it, and it still works and sounds great.  Effects units then proliferated till they were nearly everywhere and the prices on them have plummeted on all but the best quality effects units. 

The Plugin Revolution. 

It became evident after a while that what distinguished a quality effects unit from an inferior one was mostly due to the quality of the software algorithm, the code.  Because the code was developed on a computer, it was just a short step to use the computer's audio resources to play the effects.  The plugin, a small program containing an effect algorithm was born and by 1997, were making inroads in Logic and Cubase VST.  You can read all about plugins on my plugin page.  Early plugins sounded OK when they just sat there doing an effect, but if you changed a parameter, you'd often get (and still do get) a digital zipper-like noise.  Improvements of the last few years have made these dynamics smoother and more musical to the point where plugins can now be tweaked in real time on a computer, in way like the early engineer could rock the reels. This has brought into the fray new ways to control effects.  We have devices like the Alesis Air FX, Roland's D-Beam that work off of hand movements in the air, and touch surfaces like the Korg Kaoss Pad, touch strips on synths, and dedicated controller surfaces like Logic Control that will allow use of faders and knobs to control plugins in real time, while automating the moves for playback. 


Tweak's FX Tips


Ok the history lesson is over now we get on to how to use effects, uh, effectively.  Were going to get into how the brain interprets audio information and some practical things like chaining effects, and the art of leveling and balancing effects in a digital or analog mixer.  

Be Extreme

Just like our early ancestors came up with flanging and delays by abusing the motors on their reel to reel decks, we need to be just as extreme today to get new great sounding effects.  Rule number one.  There are no rules.  The coolest sounds come from a relentless drive to experiment.  Use any device in you studio to create your effects.  Go WILD.  That's how you come up with great stuff.  Newbies, Try this: So what happens when you run your vocal through a guitar distortion pedal then through the audio input of your electribe and tweak the filter?  Go try it, It's cool! 

Be Subtle

Reverb on Vocals.  Unless you are going for a special effect, do not drown the vocal in reverb.  Instead, try this, bring up the return on the reverb till you hear it, then notch it back a little.  Here the reverb provides depth and thickens, but doesn't have hardly any tail.  On pop songs, too much reverb hanging there through the whole song is a sure sign of newbie production.  Remember, people want to listen to the vocalist and not to your reverb.


We all know that a good digital delay will sync to tempo by midi clocks.  This is cool for trance and stuff.  If you never did this before do it and get used to it.  If you have done this before, it's time to take it another step.  Try this: Set the delay to the wrong bpm on purpose and find a setting that offers a strange perspective. 

Ambient FX

You want really otherworldly ethereal ambient sounds?  Pay close attention now. Try it:  Call up a flute or choir synth patch and drown the sucker in the best reverb your system has.  Hit a chord of notes in a quick stab, so the reverb tail rings for a second.  Sample to Wave.  In the wave editor, cut out everything except the tail so all you hear is a reverb tail.  Loop, it and put a slow fade on the attack.  Send it back a sampler.  Listen--pretty darn ethereal, eh?  You can also do this with drums.


So what is it that makes an effect standout?  It's differance' an esoteric term for contrast.  The function of an effect is to draw attention.  It does so when the listeners perspective is changed and they have to pay attention to see what happened.  In order to have difference, you must have a norm.  Try it: You have a typical vocal pop song.  For the last phrase of the 1st verse, drop out the drums and put the vocal through a hi pass filter to create a telephone voice.  Yeah, this effect is used a lot but it works all the time.  Why is that?  The 1st 3 phrases of the verse set a norm and then you violated it with differance'.  You can do effects like these with even a crappy FX box.  As it is with other parts of making a song, it's really not the gear, it's how the mind creatively uses the gear. 

Cascading, filtered Delays

Simple and evocative.  Try it: Chain up some effects as follows  Standard echo with medium feedback-->Delay with width modulation or a pitch randomizer set subtley-->analog filter with resonance, swept, --> another delay, either synchro slapback echo tweaked in and out of hi feedback.  Run your bassline through that.

Gate Yer Drums. 

Try it: For the newbie, run the drums through a standard gated reverb program and play with the parameters till it sounds cool.  I say this because most people never touch setting on their FX boxes and you really are missing out.  If you are advanced, lets go a few more steps.  Lets put a limiter on it so we can make the drums sound like loud bursts over pure silence.  Got it sounding cool?  Ok take it off the drums and put it on something else.

Use MIDI program changes

Newbie: This is another thing that can be used as an effect in itself.  Try it: Change the program every time the vocalist takes a breath. Advanced:  In your sequencer, route a randomizer to program change commands.  Chain up 3 FX boxes.  Yep, click on the randomizer to get the three boxes to change at the same time to a random patch.  Now lets go another step.  Have Box one change every bar, Box 2 change every half note and box 2 any other interval you desire. It's totally cool. 

Abuse your reverb

Run it through a compressor so the tail noise is amplified and also so it bring all kinds of system noise into the signal.  Record  it and compress again to accentuate the nastiness.  Now run it through a gate and set the threshold where it constantly cuts in and out. 

Make your old analog mono synth sparkle.

Newbie:  Simple.  Just run it through a chorus effect without any shimmer with the frequency very slow.  Really makes it sound awesome and wide. Advanced  For a sense of tight, transparent audio run the whole mix minus the vocal and minus the drums through a light, tight, chorus.     

Dirty pots make great effects.

 If you have any piece of gear that has a dirty knob that makes noise when you turn it, don't clean it!  Run it through a delay with some source material.  A great alternative to record surface noise. 

Hey there's more, but the bell has rung (in a decimator)


Cool Articles

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Cool Quote:

"Art is permitted to survive only if it renounces the right to be different, and integrates itself into the omnipotent realm of the profane.."

Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), German philosopher, sociologist, music critic.

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More Articles on Recording and Composition by Tweak

Recording and Composition INDEX
Recording Process Made Simple
Inspiration and Style
Step-by-Step: How to write a Song
Write Drum tracks without a Drummer
Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Simple
Hip Hop Production and Mixing
Hip Hop Drum Tweaks
Using Electronic Drum Kits
How to Record Vocals
Preparing for a Vocal Session
Vocal Processing
Recording Guitars
Using Compressors
Using Effects Processors
Buying a MultiTrack: Watch Out!
Using an AW1600 Recorder
Podcasting from your Home Studio
MultiTrack Recorder Price List
Outboard FX Price List
Studio Racks List


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