The delay, or echo, is one of the oldest effects for guitar. Probably my favorite effect, I have one on every recording I do, at least somewhere. Knowing a little history about this effect and some common settings can help you transform an otherwise boring guitar part by transporting it to a time machine or into outer space. This series will focus on the history and application of standard effects for those who are just getting started, and hopefully be a gateway into the wonderful world of effects use. No, not everyone uses effects, and that is just fine too. But if you are curious about what this whole “delay thing” is, stick around. These descriptions and clips are based on the Vapor Trail Analog Delay, because that’s what is on my pedal board right in front of me.
Time After Time
First, we should understand what we mean: A delay pedal produces an echo of the original signal. In other words, the original signal is what you are playing. A delay pedal copies that original signal and repeats it. The space between the original signal and the copy is called the delay time. All delay pedals have a delay time knob, and as you turn it up, the echoes get further and further apart. They can vary from a few milliseconds (thousandths of a second) to more than 20 seconds (depending on the pedal) between the original signal and the first repeat. As someone who uses delay a lot, I will use echoes 3 minutes apart for ambient music, but this article will focus on the most common time values: 50ms-600ms. The Vapor Trail Analog Delay has a light that flashes every time there is an echo, so you can see where it is set even if you are on a dark stage.
Three Repeats! Three! Ah Ah Ah!
The next most common knob is the repeats or feedback knob. This tells us how many echoes come after the direct signal. These can range from one to infinity. You have to be careful with some of the higher settings of this knob: the more you play, the more it repeats, so it is easy to have everything repeating over itself. At the highest position on the knob, the repeats never die out, and become very dense. It sounds a bit like feedback, and it is a cool effect if you can control it from getting too out of hand.
On the Level
The last knob most delay pedals have is a level, or mix, knob. This allows you to balance the direct sound (what you are playing) with the echoes. Only you can find the right balance, but a good place to start is to have the direct sound about twice as loud as the echo. This varies with the type of echo, and the kind of music you are playing, but it is a good starting point. While there are scientific methods to figure this out, I recommend using the most popular musical measuring device: your ears. Turn the knob until it sounds good. Play a song, and if the delays overtake the live playing, turn the mix/level knob down.
What is this true bypass thing, and do I need it?
True bypass on delay pedals can be useful to preserve your signal when you switch the pedal off: When it is off, your signal goes right through the pedal without any kind of coloration from the pedal itself. This does preserve your tone, but it has an important trade off: the echoes don’t trail off when you turn the pedal off. For some, this isn’t a problem, but if you like really long echoes, and want to continue playing a solo over the repeats, you will have to have a delay that keeps the echoes going when you turn it off. For my very long delays, this is an important feature, but for short ones (less than 800ms or so) it isn’t.
What is this mod delay then? Do I want that too?
Mod stands for modulated, which means that the echo is not an exact copy of the direct signal. See, many years ago, the echo effect used an actual loop of recording tape, to record the signal and play it back. The time it took to get from the recording head to the playback head on the tape machine gave you the delay time. Now, anyone who grew up in the cassette tape-era knows what happens when you play the same piece of tape over and over: the tape degrades. It sounds wobbly and hissy, and loses high frequencies. Modulated delays mimic the way the tapes in the old echo machines sounded. They sound a little wobbly, and slightly distorted. So while your direct signal remains untouched, the echoes themselves sound a little fuzzy and shaky. The Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail Analog Delay mimics the sound of old tape delays with a circuit that adds that quality right in. The rate knob controls how fast the wobbles are, and the depth is how wobbly the echoes get. Some people feel that if the echo is too ‘clean’ sounding, it interferes with the direct signal. We delay junkies get pretty particular about these things.
Tap Tempo? Digital vs. Analog? What means this?
Tap tempo is the ability to tap a switch in time with the recording or band you are playing with. This allows the echoes to fall ‘on the beat’ of the music. This is relatively new (last 20 or so years), as classic delay units never had this. For some people, this is essential…other people just set their delay time and leave it there no matter where the tempo is.
Generally speaking, digital delays use a microprocessor to control all aspects of the echoes. You can get very long delay times, and there are usually many more parameters to tweak. I use digital delays for old school looping, where I want the loop to sound exactly like what I played.
Analog delays get their sound the way they used to: with good ol’ analog electronics. They have the warm sound from all of the records we grew up with. The delay times are not very long (usually less than 1 second), but the delay actually melds with your direct signal in a warm, fuzzy glow. I use analog delays for almost everything, as it is easier to blend with the rest of the band. The echoes don’t compete with the direct signal, and it sounds so good that you want to keep it on all the time. For classic slapback and runaway feedback effects, nothing beats a good analog delay. Analog delays are also a great choice if you are the kind to leave the pedal on all the time.
Some Simple Sample Settings
These are for the Vapor Trail, but can work with almost any delay. These settings make use of the Vapor Trail’s modulation and analog sound. For an exhaustive look at the Vapor Trail (including sound clips), check out this article.
The slap-back delay is one of the most commonly used delay effects, giving a subtle thickening to the overall sound. It adds solid punch to power chords and depth to articulate solos
Run to the Edge
Need we say more. Start picking some eighth notes and hear the magic!
Classic long delay with light modulation gives an atomsphereic vibrato effect.
Sparkle & Shine
Light, airy delay with a lush and ambient trail off
Long and Liquid
Heavier amount of classic delay that hangs in the air long enough to play off of.
Classic delay and modulation warmth, reminiscent of classic tape delay sounds.
Don’t be afraid to turn the knobs, or use echo in interesting ways. You might just be the person the next generation wants to sound like.
How do you set your delay? What songs have the best use of delay?