What is Delay?

Explore new ways to use digital audio delay and create the perfect echo effect for your next music or video project.

Delay is widely considered an excellent tool for music production and sound design. But how does it work? Is there more than one type of delay? When and where do we use delay most effectively? Can we alter the delay to our specific preference?

These may be questions you have when you first encounter this effect. This article will take you through the basics and explain its functions and uses.

So how does Delay work?

Delay is a time-based audio effect that takes an audio track and plays back delayed duplicates to create echoes. In modern-day technology, the creation of digital delay enables us to play around with various parameters that can create amazing effects.

Both in the music and filmmaking space delay is important to grasp. It can bring a video project to life in a new way by adding another layer to your film’s soundscape. You’ll definitely need to use a delay plugin if you’re trying to create an echo in your scene. Delay can also add more texture to your musical compositions.

Origins of Delay

Music production and sound design have come a long way in technological development. Not every music producer can record a guitar solo in a giant cave, so they had to think of innovative ways to bring delay to the studio.

3D isometric flat illustration of a rack effect unit
Image via Sashatigar.

The effect of delay came as early as the 1940s from tape loops. The magnetic tape used to record music or sound would be cut end to end, creating a loop, then put back on the tape recorder, resulting in hearing loops of the cut segment.

The Beatles were one of the pioneers of delay, and to this day, you can virtually find a hold on every Digital Audio Workstation as one of the primary audio effects.

Types of Delay and their Functions

Delay has a variety of variables we can explore. However, you use three staple types of delay in music and sound design. Each has a different character you can hear in the initial echo and in the delay trails.

Tape Delay

This came from the origins of delay from using magnetic tape. The effect worked by a tape recording sound, then being fed through playback head shortly after, which would create the delayed effect. However, the units used for this did make it challenging to manage. With the effect being so expensive (thus highly inaccessible to creatives) and sensitive to mechanical damage, it wasn’t always the most suitable option.

The good news is that today most DAWs have a built-in tape delay effect, and also pedals you can use when playing music live. The type of sound it creates has a warm and lo-fi quality, which will become more distorted. However, this can cause precision problems regarding pitch and noise. If you want a distorted vintage-sounding delay, tape delay is the one for you!

Analog Delay

Born out of necessity, this is the more portable version of tape delay, as guitarists wanted that same quality of tape delay but with the ability to carry it around. The mechanics behind analog delay differ as they utilize a “Bucket Brigade” circuit. Within the circuit are capacitors. These take a sample of the original signal and pass it along to the next capacitor, similar to what an actual bucket brigade does with water.

The results are similar to tape delay but with a much darker sound. The delays were shorter, making them more suitable for “slapback” delays. This is due to the signal passing through a low pass filter to keep the sound quality. The circuit samples the voltage, which isn’t an accurate representation of the original sound—so the quality is a bit more filtered. This is similar to digital sampling, but rather than sampling the bits, it uses voltage.

Digital Delay

More commonly used today, digital delay arose in the 1970s through the 1980s and was considered the cleanest delay. Digital delay started as an outboard unit, then went to pedals used by guitarists. It uses digital signal processing electronics—unlike tape and analog, which use magnetic tape and voltage, both of which can cause precision problems in the delay.

Not only is today’s digital delay more widely accessible, but it also has more parameters that producers can adjust to explore further sounds and effects.

Parameters and Other Delay Techniques

The parameters within delay can be adjusted to fit your needs. Whether you would like a longer-lasting delay, a very subtle and fast delay, or a darker-sounding delay, these parameters will enable you to achieve your desired sound.

Delay Time is the given time between each repetition of the echo. On most Digital Audio Workstations, you’ll find the option to either sync/not sync the delay. The sync is measured by note value (e.g., 8th or 16th), so the delay is rhythmically in time with the tempo of the track. Not sync is measured in milliseconds, providing more flexibility. This also allows your echoes to sound a bit more ambiguous, which is great for use in sound design for soundscapes.

3D isometric flat illustration of a reel-to-reel studio tape recorder
Image via Sashatigar.

Feedback controls how many repeats are played after the original sound. Setting the feedback at 100% will enable the repetitions to be just as loud as the original and not die away. Anything lower than 100% means the delays will get quieter until silence. The lower the percentage, the faster it falls to silence with each echo.

Dry/Wet controls the balance of the original signal and the effect signal. This is usually 50% for each, so there’s an equal balance. Setting the wet signal to a higher percentage allows the echo to be more prominent.

Check out this video, where Johnny explains it better than we ever could. He tests delay effects used on electric guitars and explains some of the parameters and what they sound like. It’s pretty amazing how slightly altering the parameters can really change the character!

Other delay techniques that are also worth exploring include:

  1. Ping pong (or Echo bounce) is a dual delay effect that moves across the stereo field. The creates a wide stereo rhythmic effect as well as a more immersive listening experience.
  2. Slapback is a short single repeated echo which was one of the first delays that came about. This was used in the 1950s Rock n Roll as a guitar effect. Slapback can add some energy to your mix as it is a great way to draw attention to sound. It’s more common in faster songs and uses either tape or analog delay for that classic vintage sound. In the sound design world, this type of delay could be used in a quick-time scenario of certain sound effects.
  3. Double Tracking delay is more of a textural delay. Rather than definitive echoes or single delay, it adds a doubled effect to make the sound thicker. This requires a much shorter delay time between 30-50m/s.
  4. Modulated delay includes combining other types of modulation, including chorus, flanger, or phaser. Adding a chorus effect can add some interesting color, while flanger and phaser can add more movement to the whole mix.

You can further the rhythmic side to delay by adding delay to the delay feed. Changing the delay times for the additional feed can create very cool polyrhythmic delays. This type of modulation is more suited for music production; it may not be as effective in dialogue scenes unless you want to add some otherworldly effects to your shot.

Delay in Music Production and Sound Design

Delay is heard in most of today’s music. The echoes could be super distinct for a burst of energy or really subtle to add some ambiance. Delay is heavily used on electric guitars and vocals to provide more character.

In sound design, delay can replicate a certain space. You may have a scene that is shot in a large space that has the possibility to create echoes. In post-production, you can add delay to the dialogue, or specific sound effects to add realism to the space you are visually showing. Delay can also create tension or fear.

A great place to add a delay effect are moments where the listener hears thunder. The delay can be very subtle; however, this adds extra darkness to the sound. Or, if you have a shot of dark industrial scenery you may want some mechanical sound effects for some ambiance.

Using it on vocals, e.g., breathing can be super effective. If you have a character where the sound of their breathing is amplified, try to add some delay to their breathing as this adds another layer. This adds a shuddering effect on the breathing, making those scarier moments more unsettling. The double-tracking delay would be the most suitable for these scenarios.

Here’s an example of a film soundtrack composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir for Chernobyl. The percussive sounds heard at the beginning have some delay, giving us the sense of space in the scenery. This is complemented by the low, swelling drone.

Now you know a bit more about this very cool and versatile audio effect. Next time you’re listening to music or watching a film, see if you can point out any moments of delay. And, if you’re an aspiring music producer, filmmaker, or sound designer, record some sounds and have a little play with the delay parameters. You’ll be amazed by the different sound worlds you can achieve, but most importantly, have fun with it!

Feature image via Sashatigar.

Want more in depth audio information? Check out these articles!

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