Are effect tools or toys? The answer is, it depends.
In the hands of a seasoned operator, time-based effects deepen the sonic landscape and present a clarified image of the proceedings. However, when wielded by a careless knob-jockey, effects tend to cheapen the sound and draw attention away from the message of the song.
Before the effects are brought in, the vocals must stand on their own with clarity and intelligibility…
The difference between tool and toy falls to understanding the effect's purpose and its role within the larger scope of the song.
Fortunately, the learning curve for effects is shallow and the concepts straightforward. Here, then, are some simple steps to transform a staid mix into a stellar achievement by using effects to their fullest.
In the worship environment, the differentiating factor of a song is its lyrical content. The words convey the eternal meaning. Thus, vocals must take priority in the mix. Before the effects are brought in, the vocals must stand on their own with clarity and intelligibility, the ability to distinguish among consonants.
Once the vocals are gained properly on the console, a judicious EQ cut in the low-midrange (around 250-500 Hz) will do wonders for vocal transparency. Once clear, the dry vocal can be enhanced with effects.
Types Of Effects
Effects can be based on time or level manipulation. Level (or dynamics) controllers use compression, gating, expansion, and limiting to adjust the level of the signal. In contrast, time-based effects combine the original signal with a delayed one to form a new construct that is a combination of the two.
From their early days as mechanical devices to today's software model algorithms, time-based effects have evolved in step with other technologies. Along the way, though, certain designs crossed the threshold of fad and became classics.
Plate reverb, tape delay, and spring tanks survived the test of time and are standard settings on any current digital processor. Reverb and delay effects use signal reflection or regeneration over time to provide aural cues for room size and character.
Reverb is diffuse; that is, its reflections are too numerous and dense to perceive individually. Early reflections from nearby surfaces combine with later reflections from distant areas to create the room's sonic signature.
Delay, on the other hand, is distinguishable to some extent. Discreet reflections can be detrimental to speech clarity but beneficial for music production. If the real environment contains smooth natural reverb decay within the timeframe appropriate for its use, there is no need for artificial reverb.
Reverb tends to reduce intelligibility, so adding reverb to a reverberant room is counterproductive. However, if the room is acoustically dead or neutral, digital reverb and delay can add to the music's sense of space and presence.
Contemporary effects devices are multi-input and multi-function, with most units capable of creating reverb and delay effects simultaneously.
On vocals, the key is to tailor the effect to the tempo and character of the song. In nature, reverb decays based on the distances and surfaces in the immediate environment.
With effects processors, though, the environment is artificial so the time and density can be adjusted for each song. For instance, a two-second RT60 (the time it takes for the signal to fall 60 decibels) is useful in a mid-tempo song (96 beats per minute, or BPM) since the reverb will become non-invasive before the next phrase begins.
If the reverb time were raised to three seconds, its tail (end of the effect) would roll over into the beginning of the following phrase, making it difficult to understand the words. However, setting the reverb at one second on the same song can leave the vocals lifeless and sterile, so a compromise based on listening works best.
Reverb character is akin to musical timbre where the combination of frequency response, tonal quality, and harmonics create a unique aural signature. If, for example, the song is reflective and contemplative, the reverb should follow suit, with thick reflections and dampened high frequencies. In contrast, upbeat, energetic songs should be accompanied by bright, clear reverb settings that emulate the song's energy and focus.
As a rule, modern effect processors follow a common architecture and layout. As line-level devices, they accept input from aux sends and group outs on mixing consoles.
Typically, three knobs populate the left section of a processor's faceplate. One is dedicated to input level, one to output level and one to the ratio between the unaffected (dry) signal and the affected (wet) signal.
The wet/dry control should be in the fully wet position in a sound system environment. Only when a musician connects the unit directly to an instrument amplifier should the control be moved from the wet position in order to blend the dry signal into the processor output path.
Input and output are designed to work best at a unity gain setting where the output level matches that of the input. Digital devices require a strong signal to achieve the best sound quality. Input meters should illuminate just below the clipping indicator during a loud passage.
If the input is allowed to increase beyond the processor's range, a distinctly unpleasant sound will be generated and returned through the sound system. Conversely, too low an input level will hamper the clarity of the output, often evidenced as hiss and graininess.
If a spare compressor channel is available, it can be looped into the signal path just prior to the effect's input. The compressor can be set to reduce peaks enough to keep them within the effect processor's dynamic range (the difference between soft and loud signals).
After the levels are set, it is time to choose a preset. For most vocal situations, a hall or plate reverb is preferred.
Usually, the manufacturer provides a broad palette of presets with descriptive names such as "bright vocal plate" and "rich hall."
The best way to choose a setting is to align the preset's title with the singer's voice character and the song's musical density. For example, a soloist accompanied by piano benefits from a thick reverb layered with doubling delay to add depth to the voice.
However, if the song is highly orchestrated, a thinner, brighter preset will allow the voice to cut through the mix without resorting to an increase in volume.
Once the processor's output is routed back to an input on the console, the question of how much reverb is appropriate arises. The short answer is, if the effect is discernable as a distinct entity, its level is too high. Reverb and delay, aside from long delays used as repeats, need to remain below the primary signal level. Reverb should only be noticed in its absence.
Short delays, below 80 milliseconds (ms), are effective bolstering devices, especially useful in solo or duet situations. Doubling, comping, and tracking are terms used to describe a short delay indistinguishable as a separate signal.
Long delays, up to several seconds, are practical for repeats generated in sync with the song's tempo. However, delays should be used sparingly to avoid drawing attention away from the song. Tapped delays are aligned via a simple front-panel trigger that is tapped in time with the tempo.
Once generated, taps can be brought in and out on the console's return channel. If the drummer uses a click track, the click can be routed to the front of house console and used as the timing reference to assure proper synchronization from the first downbeat.
Once a preset is selected, it can be altered to taste. Most processors set aside a bank of open user presets where edited versions can be stored. The tedious process of creating a patch from scratch can be avoided by starting with something close to the desired result.
Typical adjustable parameters include reverb time (RT60), pre-delay (initial reflections), damping (high frequency roll-off), and routing scheme (what goes where in the chain).
Full display LCD panels are easier to navigate than limited LEDs whose cryptic codes require the use of a deciphering key. Advanced models sport a compare feature to allow evaluation between the original setting and the altered version.
In use, effects should only be brought to bear on the mix after the fundamentals are firmly in place. A great snare verb is useless if the vocals are muddy.
In rehearsal, the effects should be muted until the mix is clean and clear. Then, reverb can be added to the primary vocals, followed by the BGVs (background vocals) and then the instruments, starting with the snare. During the performance, effects should be turned off between songs to keep speech patter intelligible and levels should be tracked to the ebb and flow of the songs.
Despite vocalists' objections, effects should be kept out of the stage monitors since reverb and delay mask time and pitch references that are the reason monitors exist. In drama, effects can be used to create James Earl Jones-esque commanding vocals to convey authority. While reverb is not used in speech reinforcement, the occasional doubling effect delay can be included when the orator needs some help with their tonal character.
When misused, effects represent ear candy. However, when thoughtfully applied, they can raise a mix beyond the ordinary to a professional plane. Judiciously layered reverbs and delays thicken and sweeten the mix just as a well-blended icing crowns a perfectly baked cake.
Turning an effects toy into a tool is simply a matter of getting the vocals clean and tight and then adding a sprinkle and dash of effects to take them over the top.
(Kent Morris is recognized for his church sound training abilities. He has more than 30 years of experience working with A/V, has served as a sound mixer for several noted performers and is a product development consultant for several leading audio manufacturers.)