Effects have been used in recorded, and for that matter live, music pretty much from the word “go”. Classical choral music, for example, makes use of the acoustic properties of churches, as an effect, to enhance the music as does orchestral music in a concert hall auditorium. In the 50s and 60s guitar amps began to feature such effects as tremolo and spring reverbs and it was not long before engineers began experimenting with tape to create many of the effects we take for granted today such as delays, chorus, flanging, and phasing. Today musicians, engineers and producers have a stunning array of effects available to them at the touch of a mouse button. Some programs even make it possible to call up combinations of effects as channel strip presets. The possibilities are virtually endless. However, as with most things in music, whilst random experimentation can often throw up some interesting results there’s no substitute for having at least a basic understanding of the tools you have at your disposal — especially if you want to be able to fine tune and manipulate them to get the results you’re looking for. This can be a daunting prospect if you are new to mixing and particularly if you have no experience of using mixing desks and effects units outside of a computer environment. In this chapter we will investigate the origins, main controls and usages for some of the most widely used effects.

Insert or send effect

An insert effect is inserted directly onto a track or channel strip. Only the audio on that channel is processed. Generally the whole of the sound is processed unless the effect has a wet/dry mix control. The signal is then output to the next insert or it continues down the channel path to the output via its pan pot and fader, Most programs allow the user to change the order of inserted plug-ins as sometimes becomes necessary when adding more processing.

A send/return effect is placed on an aux return or effects bus. Multiple signals can be sent in varying amounts via send pots on individual channel strips. These signals are combined on the send or bus path routed to the aux return or effects bus, they are processed collectively by the effect and then pass on to the output of the aux or bus channel via its pan pot(s) and fader.

When setting up any kind of effect the first question that presents itself is:– “Should I set this up as a send effect or use an Insert point on the channel strip?” There is not necessarily a correct answer. It largely depends on the type of effect, what its role is to be and how much of your processing resources it will take up. Here are some guidelines:

  • If the whole of the sound you are working on is to be processed by the effect then set it up as an insert.
  • If you need a mixture of the effected and unaffected sounds then a send is more appropriate. Although most plug-ins include a wet/dry control so you can still do this on an insert point. It’s worth noting that if you set up an effect (such as a reverb or delay) on a send, you will generally want to set the mix to 100% wet since you will be able to control the wet/dry mix by the amount you send from the channel (don’t forget to make sure the send is post fade).
  • If the effect is to be applied to only one sound then use an insert point.
  • If the effect needs to be accessed by more than one sound then you should definitely set it up as a send. This most obviously applies to reverbs and delays which are time based effects. If you had enough processing resources you could use multiple instances of the same plug-in, with the same setting on different channels but it is extremely wasteful. Using a send is a good way of conserving DSP resources since one effect can be applied to many sounds. Leaving more room for experimentation with other plug-ins later if necessary.
  • If the effect is stereo and the original signal is mono, it may make sense to use a send in order to retain control over the panning and placement of both the effected and dry signal

Expermienting with effects is one of the most fun and rewarding stages of the mix process. With the plenty of possibilities open to engineers today at the touch of a mouse it can be very easy and tempting to keep adding plug-ins until your DSP resources are used up. However, too many effects can make a song busy and over produced so it’s good to keep a bit of perspective. Try to use effects where they seem musically and sonically appropriate and where they enhance rather then detract from the message or mood of the piece.