Create selective delay effects on vocals (and beyond)
Selective delay effects are a bit like ear candy: they are the sugary treat at the end of the meal. First, they’re exciting to experiment with. On top of that, they actually solve a challenge that many modern music producers face: how can you add effects to your mix without turning it into mush?
Delay (also known as Echo) effects on vocals are as old as the world, starting perhaps with prehistoric birds singing in a canyon. They can be used to create an impression of space, often along with reverberation, to add texture to an instrument, or simply to create a cool bouncy rhythmic vibe. But when mixing, there’s only so much audio material you can cram into your stereo field before the result turns to mush. A delay repeats your vocal recording multiple times. Often, the repetitions end up intertwined, like multiple singers fighting for attention, which makes it difficult for the listener to understand the lyrics.
So what can you do? Use delay only where it will be clearly heard – for example when the singer pauses at the end of a phrase – but not during the phrase, where it may conflict with the clarity of the vocals and the intelligibility of the lyrics. To accomplish that goal, a wide variety of tools and techniques can be used. Let me share with you my favorite method.
Listen to the Selective Delay effect at 0:36 in Church Williams’ Touch the Sun.
For this tutorial, I will recreate the selective delay effect heard in the song Touch the Sun by Church Williams. I recommend you use your own project to follow along. If you don’t have a Logic project with a vocal track, you can apply the effect to another instrument, or start a new empty project with one audio track, and drag in a vocal apple loop.
Before you get started, listen to the original dry lead vocal, without any delay effect:
Dry vocal (no delay effect)
Creating the selective delay effect
To create the effect we will use two different tracks:
- one track for the original vocal recording
- one track for the delay effect
Let’s create the new track, add the delay effect and move the desired section of vocals to that new track.
- Select the vocal track (or whatever instrument track you want to add the selective delay to).
- Click the Duplicate Track button (or press Command-D).
A new empty track is created with the same plug-ins and settings as the selected track. That new track will be used for the sections you want to feed to the delay plug-in.
- Rename the new track.
- On the new track’s channel strip in the Inspector, insert Delay > Tape Delay below the last plug-in.
- In the Tape Delay, make sure the Dry slider is set to 100%.
This makes sure that the original vocal on the delay track has the same exact level as the original vocal on the main lead vocal track.
- Click the desired note value next to the Delay Time knob (or choose from the Note pop-up menu).
In most cases, 1/4 or 1/2 note should give you the expected result.
- Command-drag the desired section of audio on the vocal track to highlight it with the Marquee tool.
You can press the spacebar to play only the section you selected with the Marquee tool and make sure you hear exactly the words you want to process with the delay.
To fine-tune your Marquee selection, hold down Shift as you Command-drag one of the edges of the highlighted section.
- With the Pointer tool, drag the highlighted section to the track below.
When you drag a region from one track to another, press (and release) Shift once to limit the dragging to a single direction. That way the region doesn’t slip left or right, which would make it out of time. You can press Shift again while you continue dragging to toggle that behavior on or off.
- Listen to the result.
The section you’ve dragged to the new track is the only part that is repeated. Because there’s no delay at the beginning and middle of the phrase, you can clearly hear the singer. You don’t have to strain to understand the lyrics, which is one of most important requirements in most pop music mixes. At the end of his phrase, you can hear the word or the last few words (here “see it all“) echo out while the singer pauses to catch his breath. You get the best of both worlds!
Selective delay effect on “See it all” at 0:08
Fine tuning the sound of the delay
By default, Logic’s Tape Delay plug-in gives you about one single repetition (you can barely hear a second repetition but then it stops). And, unlike on a real old school analog tape delay, the repetitions are full spectrum, meaning they contain just as many frequencies as the original. You can tweak the following Tape Delay parameters to change that:
- Feedback knob = Number of repetitions
- Wet slider = Level of the repetitions
- Low Cut/High Cut sliders in the Character section = EQ setting for the repetitions
Note that all of those parameters affect the sound of the repetitions only, leaving the dry vocal intact. Here is an example with a quite severe Low Cut setting to thin out the repetitions, which makes the singer sound even more ethereal:
Filtered selective delay with Low Cut set to 2,000 Hz
Beyond Delay, and beyond vocals
As with many music production techniques, you can expand your horizons by trying the same technique with different instruments, and with different effects. For example consider a synth riff that has only some notes distorted while the rest are clean. Or a snare drum track that has only a single snare (maybe the last one of your song) go through a huge reverb. The possibilities are endless, so get your mind churning and have fun.