The reverberation of the sound overlaps

Audio Effects: The Guide to Help You Shape Your Sound

Build yourself a top class effects rack.

Table of Contents

  1. Panning
  2. Delay and echo
  3. Hall
  4. Chorus
  5. distortion
  6. Equalization (EQ)
  7. compression
  8. tremolo
  9. Flanger and Phaser
  10. filter

Composers work with notes, melodies and chord progressions to write a song. Another creative tool can be found in the toolbox of modern producers: Audio effects.

Of course, producers also need to know at least a few basics of music theory. However, your tools of choice when mixing are audio effects. They are at the center of most of the processes that producers use to give shape to their sound and thus create music. Audio effects turn a rather poor mix into an impressive, finished track.

Regardless of whether you are working with analog or digital effects, all producers should always familiarize themselves with their tools. The problem these days, however, is that it is so many There are effects: Effects plugins for your DAW, floor effects, pedals, multi-effects processors ... With this agony of choice, it is all the more important that you choose the audio effects that suit your purposes.

How can you avoid getting lost in this sea of ​​opportunity? As soon as you do that Core concept Understanding each and every audio effect will make it easier for you to make the right decision.

In this article, we'll look at the following common effects:

  • Modulation effects - chorus, tremolo, flanger and phaser
  • Time-based effects - reverb, delay and echo
  • Spectral Effects - EQ and Panning
  • Dynamic Effects - Compression and Distortion
  • filter

After reading this article, you will know what audio effects are, how they work, and how to use them. So that you can get started right away, we also have some recommendations for free VST plugins and audio effects pedals in our luggage.

However, this list is by no means complete; it can be expanded continuously. So let's just start with the basics and work our way up from there.

What is panning?

Panning is the distribution of a sound signal over a (multi-channel) stereo image.

How does panning work?

People have two ears. Our brain processes the time difference between our left and right ears. This enables us to identify the placement of a tone in three-dimensional space - important for survival!

Instead of just one, stereo systems have two loudspeakers, left and right (L-AND-R ...). As a result, we switched from mono to stereo playback.

With panning, a larger or smaller portion of a signal is allowed through a loudspeaker, which creates various spatial effects.

How does panning sound?

With so-called hard panning to a certain side, the signal can only be heard from one side.

When panning in the middle, you hear the sound directly in the middle between the two speakers, in the 'phantom center' - i.e. it sounds as if the sound comes from one speaker directly in the middle between the other two.

Play a note and grab the panning slider. If you turn it slowly from side to side, you will hear the sound moving across the stereo image from side to side. This trick is often used for sound effects, e.g. for passing cars.

Common uses of panning

Panning is great for artificially positioning the sound at a specific point in the stereo image. You can also use it to prevent your mix from sounding spongy or indistinct, which often happens when two tones overlap and obscure each other.

You can use auto-pan effects to move a sound across the stereo image, which makes it feel like the sound is moving back and forth between the left and right sides.

The middle of the mix is ​​often the busiest. Usually you keep the lower frequencies (bass, drums) and the lead elements (vocals) in the center as they ground the mix.

Other instruments are panned to the right or left. It is important to create a balance: if you pan one instrument slightly to the right, you should pan another instrument with a similar frequency spectrum in the same place to the left.

Hard panning is generally avoided unless it is used for creative purposes. But rules are there to be broken, right?

Learn more about how to use panning to get a wider mix.

Panning plugins and panning pedal

What are echo and delay?

Delay is an audio effect in which an audio signal is recorded in such a way that it is played back a certain time after the actual signal. Delay can be played in a number of different ways, such as: B. as an echo that fades away over time, or as a noticeable, repeating doubling effect that gives your recording an extra layer.

Delay is one of the most important effects. Basically, it even forms the basis for other effects such as chorus and reverb. Nonetheless, delay is commonly used to describe pronounced echo effects.

How does delay work?

Most delay effects reproduce the dry signal, while they also reproduce the signal with the effect or the 'delayed' signal shortly after the original signal.

Early tape delay machines had a recording head and a playback head (sometimes several) that were a few inches apart. The recorded signal reverberated a short time after it was played back. Delay devices with multiple playback heads and tape settings finally made it possible for musicians to reproduce multiple echoes at different intervals in a more controlled manner.

Modern solid-state and digital effects devices use a recorded buffer to simulate the effect of the playback head of older delay devices. The incoming signal is saved and played back depending on the settings of the parameters that control the echo effect.

How does delay sound?

There are many popular uses for delay, some more popular than others.

Perhaps the most emblematic example of delay is the slapback effect that can be heard on many rock albums from the early 1950s - especially those by Sam Phillips and musicians signed to Sun Records such as Elvis.

Slapback delay occurs when you reproduce the effect signal between 70 and 120 ms after the dry signal. The result is a fast-paced doubling effect that fills the arrangement with fast, subtle delays that quickly fade away.

In the 70s and 80s, even more pronounced applications of the delay in dub and reggae enjoyed great popularity. The effects that Delay creates are much more dominant there, as notes are repeated, echoed, and fed back to create a dense layering that creates a rhythmic, psychedelic symphony.

Such pronounced delay effects still haunt the musical landscape today and provide musicians with a wide range of experimental possibilities. Even the simplest of arrangements can be filled in using creative delay techniques.

Common uses of delay

Shorter delays like slapback or doubling effects are great for filling in a live performance, especially when it comes to vocals or guitar.

Elongated delays with multiple playback heads can be used to bring completely new rhythms or layers into a performance. Multi-tap delays are often used in dub and techno to create the swirling synth lines so typical of these genres.

Check out our post on the best delay techniques.

Delay plugins and delay pedal

What is reverb?

The reverb effect is sometimes called reverb, which is an abbreviation for reverberation is. Reverberation is a daily phenomenon, but we don't always notice it.

When a sound is sounded, two things happen: A) the direct sound hits your ear and B) many different sound waves bounce off all sorts of surfaces before they reach your ears. These sound waves reach your ear later and with less energy (they are correspondingly quieter).

Reverb consists of many different echoes at once, which you perceive accordingly as a single effect: reverb.

There are different types of reverb in different types of rooms. The most obvious examples of reverberant rooms are tunnels, cathedrals, large halls (the name says it all) and caves.

How does reverb work?

Reverb occurs mainly in natural spaces.

Music equipment (such as pedals and amplifiers) generate electromechanical analog reverb with the help of a metal plate or spring that picks up echoes and vibrations in the housing and converts them into a signal using an analog circuit.

Digital reverb and reverb plugins calculate delay, level and frequency response and generate multiple echoes using algorithms. Hall plugins perform several thousand calculations per second, which is why they often put a heavy load on the processor.

How does reverb sound?

Reverb is echo-heavy and makes things sound like they're in a very special room. Reverb provides a sound with more sustain and makes it sound longer - this is called reverb tails. They give the signal a dreamy, almost sacred quality (like a choir in a cathedral).

Reverb makes the tone in the mix sound like it is further away by boosting the wet signals and reducing the original dry signal. This can widen the mix and make it sound fatter and fuller.

Common uses of reverb

Reverb is used to shape the sound, space, time and mood of an instrument or entire track.

Reverb gives the sound fullness, space and depth. It smooths out problem areas and adds sustain to your sound.

Check out five of our top reverb tips.

A little hint: Use reverb creatively by sampling long reverb tails and using them as a synth pad (video).

Reverb plugins and reverb pedal

What is chorus?

Chorus is an effect that occurs when similar sounds with small differences in tuning and timing overlap and are heard as one sound.

This happens automatically when different sources cause similar sounds to overlap. Like a choir singing several parts at the same time. They all overlap and thereby form a very specific sound. The chorus effect does exactly the same thing!

How does chorus work?

In its electronic form, the chorus effect works as follows: The chorus audio processor (whether pedal, effects device or plug-in) creates copies of the original signal and provides them with delay and pitch modulation (using LFOs).

A stereo chorus does the same thing, only that it also has panning in the delays and an offset phase on the LFOs. This causes the added copies and modulations to move between left and right. The effect sounds fuller due to this movement in the stereo image.

How does chorus sound?

Chorus creates a fuller, fatter sound with subtle dynamics. It gives your original sound harmonic harmonics and consolidates it.

Common uses of chorus

Chorus adds complexity and movement. He's also the epitome of the cult sound of the 80s!

A stereo chorus expands your stereo image. It is used by guitarists to make their sound more 'dreamy' or to make the bass fatter. It is also often used for synthesizers, organs, and vocals.

For example: Use chorus to make your monophonic bass sound thicker and therefore harder.

Chorus plugins and chorus pedal

What is Distortion?

Distortion is caused by overloading the audio circuit, which leads to clipping, which means that the signal is cut off. It might sound like something you might want to keep your hands off of, but if used correctly, Distortion is a very effective and creative tool. The lo-fi, digital equivalent of the distortion effect is called bit crushing.

How does distortion work?

Distortion alters your original signal by boosting it so much that it causes clipping and compression. This brings pleasant harmonics and color to your sound. Bit crushing reduces the resolution of a sound - especially the sampling or bit rate.

How does distortion sound?

Distortion comes in many forms and the sound depends on which type and how much you apply Different circuits generate different types of distortion.

For example: Tube distortion is often warmer and condenses the sound as harmonics are added. Distortion generated by transistors is often harsher and more dissonant as it adds unusual harmonics. Bit crushing sounds crisp - like the music in video games.

For a more in-depth look at the differences between distortion, Overdrive and Fuzz you can check out our guide to distortion.

Common uses of distortion

Distortion is commonly used in electric guitars and increasingly also in synthesizers. It is generated by pedals, effects devices and rack mounts. Sometimes it is already built into amplifiers and preamps.

Distortion gives you fatter and fuller sound with more complexity and a fuller body.

Distortion plugins and distortion pedal

What is equalization?

Equalization (or EQ) is responsible for lowering or increasing a certain frequency (or several frequency ranges) in the frequency spectrum.

The human ear can perceive frequencies in the range between 20 and 20,000 Hertz (Hz). All sounds that humans can hear are accordingly within this frequency spectrum.

An equalizer (EQ) divides the spectrum into so-called bands, which you can use to lower or raise parts of your sound.

How does equalization work?

EQing helps you give shape to your sound, but does not in itself add new frequencies.

EQ shapes your sound by boosting or cutting certain frequencies. It also changes the balance between the frequencies that are already present.

Common uses of EQ

EQ is one of the central tools in mixing. It helps you create a place in the frequency spectrum for each of your sounds so that they fit right into the mix.

Without EQ, your mix can quickly sound dull or spongy as sounds obscure each other.

EQ is applied to remove unwanted elements from a recording. You can also use EQ to highlight the key elements in your mix.

Learn more about the difference between corrective and creative EQ.

EQ plugins and EQ pedal

What is compression

Compression is the reduction of the dynamic range, i.e. the difference between the loudest and the quietest elements of your audio signal. When you apply compression, the quieter elements of the signal are boosted and the louder elements are attenuated.

How does compression work?

Compressors reduce the gain of your signal (the abbreviation 'GR' in your DAW compressor stands for "Gain Reduction").

Compressors lower the volume of loud signal peaks - they create a balance between the dominant sounds. This allows you to increase the gain of the entire signal without clipping.

What does compression sound like?

Ideally, compression makes your sound more expressive and taut. In addition, thanks to compression, you get more volume on average.

When you over-compress a sound, it sounds crunchy, dull, and noisy.

Sidechain compression is a 'pumping' sound typical of dance music. A good example of this is Untitled by Lady Starlight.

The great thing about compressors is that each one is unique, giving your sound a very special color. You should therefore familiarize yourself with several compressors.

Common uses of compression

If you know how to use compressors correctly, you will get a polished and expressive sound without clipping.

All in all, you get more volume while at the same time keeping the signal peaks in check. Reducing the dynamic range of certain sounds makes it easier to balance the levels of different instruments in your mix.

Learn more about compression parameters and how to set them correctly.

Compressor plugins and compressor pedal

Hot tip: You can get a few more free compressor plugins here.

What is tremolo?

Tremolo is a modulation effect that occurs when the scope (Volume) of a signal is changed. The result is a trembling effect - the word comes from the Italian tremolarwhich means to tremble.

It is often confused with a vibrato, which modulates the pitch.Many Fender guitars have an arm that is mistakenly called a 'tremolo arm'. Strictly speaking, this is actually a vibrato arm because it changes the pitch, not the volume.

How does tremolo work?

Electronic tremolo effects are created using an LFO that modulates the range up and down at different speeds. With the help of a tempo regulator you can control how fast the modulation takes place. How drastically the volume changes can be determined using a bass control.

How does tremolo sound?

It sounds pulsating and 'watery'. The tremor can be subtle (if you're using a triangle or sine LFO, slide the fader up and down) or you can switch between on and off (if the LFO is a square wave), it depends how far you push the parameters.

Common uses of tremolo

Tremolo creates the impression of movement, tension or drama. The sound becomes more rhythmic or stutters slightly. Tremolo can also be used to create a pulsating effect.

With acoustic string instruments, a tremolo is created by quickly stroking the bow back and forth. With the guitar, this works by scraping the plate quickly back and forth over the strings.

A tremolo control can be found on many amplifiers, effects devices and keyboards.

Tremolo plugins and tremolo pedal

What are flanger and phasing?

Flanger and Phasing are effects based on modulation. This means that your original signal is being modulated by another signal, usually a low frequency oscillator (LFO).

How do flanger and phasing work?

Flanger is similar to phasing in terms of sound, but closer to chorus. It uses a short delay (0.1ms - ~ 10ms) and modulates this against the dry signal with the help of an LFO. If you increase the delay time on a flanger, you get a chorus.

A phaser uses an all-pass filter instead of a delay line, but is based on a similar concept to the flanger and sounds almost like it. When the filters are mixed together with the dry signal, steps are created which are then pushed through the frequency ranges by an LFO. The more 'phases' a phaser has, the more stages a sound has and the more intense it is.

Both flanger and phaser can feed the processed signal back into the input, which further amplifies and intensifies the effect. Very extreme settings can lead to feedback and uncontrolled 'howling noises' (like a humpback whale singing through a Marshall amplifier).

How do flanger and phasing sound?

Flanger and phasers are easy to recognize by their 'swoosh' and swirl effect. These effects often have a watery quality at higher speeds.

Phasing is generally more subtle than a flanger. Both sound better (and less cheesy) when used wisely - but trying is better than studying!

Common uses of flanger and phasing

Flanger and phasing are commonly used on guitars and synthesizers. You can find them on tons of albums, especially in funk and rock from the 70s.

Legendary guitarists like Pink Floyd's David Gilmour were keen fans of phasing - you can do that in tracks like Shine On You Crazy Diamond or Have a cigar Listen.

A great example of flanger is Anthony Jackson's bassline in the funk classic For The Love Of Money by The O’Jays.

Flanger plugins and flanger pedal

Phaser plug-ins and phaser pedal

What is an audio filter?

An audio filter attenuates (lowers) a set of frequencies above or below a certain limit value, which is also referred to as the cutoff frequency. Audio filters are often found in EQs or as a stand-alone plug-in (such as the auto filter effect from Ableton).

How does an audio filter work?

The most common types of filters are high-pass, low-pass and band-pass filters. They differ in shape and 'gradient'.

Low-pass filters let through all frequencies below the cutoff frequency and boost those that are above. High-pass filters let through all frequencies above the cutoff frequency and attenuate those that are below.

Bandpass filters let through all frequencies within a certain band and attenuate anything above or below it.

The steepness or aggressiveness of a filter is determined by its slope. The flatter (or gentler) the slope, the gentler the attenuation of the frequencies above or below the cutoff frequency. A slope of 6dB per octave is smooth, whereas a slope of 48dB per octave produces a far more audible effect.

Most filters also have a 'resonance' control that boosts the frequency band around the cutoff frequency. With extreme settings, some filters can oscillate independently and can therefore be used as additional oscillators.

How do audio filters sound?

Filters can be either very subtle or extremely distinctive, depending on how much you cut off and how steep the slope is. They color your sound by making it darker (low-pass filter) or lighter (high-pass filter).

Common uses of audio filters

Filters can be used for both corrective and creative purposes. They are an indispensable tool if you want to make room for certain instruments and frequency ranges in the mix. If you z. For example, if you want to layer drums, filters can help edit the timbre of your kick, snare, etc.

Many modern VSTs can be used to create completely unique curves for your filter shapes.

They're also the DJ's best friend, as they can be used to create exciting build-ups and transitions. This is a creative use of filters that can also be used as a production tool.

Filter plugins and filter pedal

Use effects effectively

Audio effects are essential if you want to turn a rough mix into a musical masterpiece. A good effects chain is at the center of unique sounds.

By learning how effects work and how you can best use them, you will find your way through the maze of plugins and stompboxes that exist now.

Once you know the basics, you can consciously choose your tools and get the most out of them.

So get on with the effects bacon!


Annika loves strange stories and dazzling characters. She writes about music and everything else she can get her hands on.