Easy Synth Programming – Echo
Hello? Hello? Hello? Is there anybody IN there? Remember Pink Floyd? That sound, as you know, is called an echo. Technically, it’s called a delay. It’s called a delay due to the mechanical way it’s produced in audio. If you go to the grand canyon, it’s an echo. Two different things. Today, we’re going to explore echo-slash-delay and how it can turn your flat synth patches into deep, dancing, delightful delicacies by using Syntorial.
So your sounds suck. So far, if you’ve been following along in this Easy Synth Programming series, you’ll have learned to use an oscillator, filter, filter envelope, amp envelope as well as how to transpose oscillators to create a taller sound. But what if you want more depth.
Height it one thing. You perceive it as height but, in audio speak, it’s just a broadband signal. If you have a bass that goes from 20Hz to 20kHz then you end up with a very tall sound. In reality, that almost never happens.
The reason why is because you need to have other instruments in your mix, typically. For instance, if you have a kick drum and a bass then one needs to take precedence over the other in the sub woofer range.
This doesn’t answer or question about depth though. Regarding depth, you need to have sounds that are front-to-back. There are a few ways to accomplish this but the way we’ll be focusing on today is with the use of echo. You can also use filtering so be aware of that.
Truthfully, there’s only so far front-to-back you can go. Too far forward and everything else will sound small. If you put a sound too far back then it’ll just disappear in the wash of other sounds. The way we get around this is adding more signal to the signal.
But won’t that make it louder? Well, in a sense. But what if we were to take a copy of the sound and release it later? What would that sound like? Well, like an echo, of course.
If you have no spaciousness around your sounds then a few bad things happen. One is that your mix sounds unprofessional. This is because your sounds will not gel together like great records do. Think of a band playing in a room. All those sounds are getting mixed together and recorded as a whole. The correct use of delay will help recreate that effect.
The other problem is that, without using delay or other spatial effect, your sounds will be narrow, perhaps too forward or too unfinished sounding. It will just sound artificial.
Now a few things can be causing this to happen. One is that you’ve never considered the acoustic properties of recording spaces, natural environments, or taken the time to study digital effects. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
The room you’re in right now has a sound. Don’t believe me? Ever heard of an impulse response? Look it up if you haven’t. Basically it’s a short sound played through a speaker. That speaker is on one side of the room. A microphone which records that sound is placed on the other side of the room. Can you guess what happens next?
Why don’t you try it out? Set up a microphone and start recording. Go to the other end of your room then clap your hands. Come back and listen to the recording. I’ll wait.
What you’re hearing, besides the actual clap, is the sound of the room. Rooms have reflective surfaces. All those echoes tend to blend together into a lush reverb tail but not always. Typically in small rooms, you get distinct echoes but they’re between two parallel surfaces and they just go ‘boinggg’. This is not the kind of echo you want on your sounds.
The other thing you might have noticed is that your clap sounded further away. That’s because the sound of your clap is quieter relative to the sound of the room. If you could magically remove that room sound then your clap would not sound further away. It might sound a little quieter but you could always turn it up. Spaciousness is a function of reflection and echo.
So what am I telling you? Am I saying that every time you want to record a deep-sounding lead sound that you have to record it from across the room? No. I’m giving you the foundation on which you can build solid knowledge. Since now you know that spaciousness is caused by echo after echo you can find other ways of bringing echo into your sound.
Given that echo happens in a real space, all we can hope to do to capture that is to record actual echoes via microphone. That’s kind of messy though. I think many of use have gotten into recording because we like to be in control. I’m talking major league control. Down to the millisecond.
Believe it or not, there exists a technology. It’s been around for awhile now, actually. It’s called a delay. Ever hear of it?
You may have heard of it but did you know that it’s the closest thing we can get to an echo sound without actually recording anything? Yep, it’s true. We used to do it on tape but now there’s also digital and analog versions available.
Got it on Tape
Again, let’s keep it simple. I’m not going to talk about tape loops (though I’m sure you’ve heard of those too) because I’ve never actually made one myself. Neither have I used a proper analog delay. I have used digital delays so let’s discuss those.
Digital delays function similarly to how tape and analog delays work. A sound is recorded (I said nothing would be recorded but this is different) and then that sound is stored somewhere else temporarily. After a short time, it comes back into the mix and we hear it again. But there’s a catch.
If you were using an analog delay, the sound wouldn’t come back the exact same. The reason why is because the media and circuitry will add some noise, perhaps remove some fidelity, and otherwise return you a sound that’s slightly different. With a digital delay, that’s not a problem.
A digital echo is called a delay because the sound is recorded into a buffer which stores the sound. It’s just like any other kind of digital recording like ‘sampling‘. Based on whatever setting you have made, it will replay the sound after the initial sound has happened.
Hey, Hey, You, You
So, if you say, “Hey!” and then I say “hey,” my hey is quieter than your HEY. Maybe it’d be a better example if you said hey twice. Say it once loud and once a little more quietly. That’s mimicking a natural echo. With digital, though, nothing needs to be natural at all!
Even with tape and analog delays, you can create an effect where the echo gets louder over time. This is in exact contrast to what we expect in a natural space. Oh, the joys of audio.
Digital delay can do the same thing. Whereas in analog, an amplifier needs to be placed in what’s called the ‘feedback loop’, in digital you can just increase the sound numerically. Either way, it’s a funky effect.
I mentioned ‘feedback loop’. What does this mean? It’s kind of how a feedback compressor works. It comes from old analog practices where you send off that copy of the sound around the room (or around the circuit board and into an resistor-capacitor array) with a long tape. Based on how long the tape is, you get a different length of delay. Make sense?
Loop d’ Loop
You can put other devices in that loop if you want. In fact, if you set up a delay return aux in a mix then place effects after it, this is exactly the process about which I’m talking. It’s all pretty simple now.
Delay is nothing but a copy of the sound which is played later. You can effect the sound to sound natural or you can effect it to sound unnatural. Even if you don’t effect it at all, it will sound unnatural. This is because actual spaces change the character of the echo. It’s up to you, in many cases, how you want to implement this for yourself.
I won’t go too far into processing delay but if, for instance, you place a filter after the delayed sound, the subsequent echo will sound more dull. This is more in line with a natural response because various surfaces, in a real space, will eat up the high end as the sound hits the boundary.
Another thing you can do to make delay sound more natural is to also use a reverb. Reverb is nothing more than thousands of tiny echo sounds which are so crammed together that they just sound like a wash. I know it sounds hard to believe but it’s true.
Together or Separate?
Importantly, you can’t separate two sounds which happen within 10 milliseconds of one another. The two sounds will just merge together as one large sound. Now, you can tell from which direction the sound is coming. For instance, if you pan one sound to the left and another to the right, ordinarily they will just sound like they’re coming from the center. However, if you add a small delay of less than 10ms to one side, the sounds will begin to appear more and more stereo.
That’s it for the history, technical crap, and brief tips on electronic echo. Now I want to get into some meat and potatoes details about how to implement echo with a synth. We’ll explore a few synths and a few echo options.
Get in the Mix
Let’s start with Primer. Primer is the synth that’s built into Syntorial. If you haven’t picked up Syntorial then I advise you do so now. It’s a very neat program which guides you through all the basics you need to start designing your own sounds. In fact, it’s the program I’ve been using to make all these Easy Synth Programming tutorials!
Open up Primer in your DAW of choice. Though you may have been following along, once you open up the real Primer, you may get a little overwhelmed. There are a lot of knobs, faders, and buttons which are distracting. Just direct your eyes to the lower right of the synth and keep them there.
Primer has four options when it comes to delay. They are as follows: mix, spread, feedback, and time. Let’s explore those in depth as they will apply to other synths and delay effects as well.
Let’s start with time. Time, I feel, is the easiest of the four to understand. We’re all familar with the sound of a ticking second hand, right?
A second hand on a watch makes a little tick sound once every 1000ms. 1000ms = 1 second. That’s the same thing as a metronome playing at 60 bpm. 60 seconds in a minute, 60 beats per minute = same thing.
Why is this important? Well, often you have to set the delay time manually. Even if you don’t, it’s helpful to know this basic fact. It’s related to sync.
Sync is what happens when your synth is internally locked to your DAW’s metronome. Therefore, if you set your metronome in your DAW to 60 bpm and then set your synth’s delay time to quarter note, it will send out one echo ever time your metronome plays a click.
In contrast, if you were to set your metronome to 120 bpm, twice as fast, then quarter notes will be as eighth notes were at 60 bpm. I’m sure you’re tracking.
But what if we wanted to manually set eighth notes for 120 bpm? Well, since a quarter note at 60 bpm is 1000ms then a quarter note at 120 bpm must be half that or 500ms. So then what’s an eighth note at 120 bpm? You guessed it: 250ms.
This is all well and good when you’re dealing with even divisors like that. Unfortunately, once you bump the bpm up to 128 and then want triplets things can get complicated fast. This is why Primer relies exclusively on synced values.
The acoustic corollary of time is how far away your surfaces are. Remember, you can’t hear a reflection as distinct when it comes from a surface less than around 5′ away. Sound travels at about 1.1’/ms. Again, your direct sound has to travel to the surface and then back again so double your distance. If you want the equivalent of a 250ms delay then the surface will have to be about 113′ away.
You are now officially a delay and echo time master. Now, delay can add depth but wouldn’t it sound unnatural if you went to the grand canyon and you only heard your voice echo once? That would be every anticlimactic. Luckily, there’s a knob for that
The knob in question here is called ‘feedback‘. Remember the feedback loop we talked about earlier? What happens to that sound once it’s reintroduced back into the mix? Nothing! It stays there until mother nature gobbles it up with a magnet or existential rot. Before we lose it forever, why not use it twice?
Such resourcefulness is the nature of the feedback knob. Twist that sucker to the right and hear glorious echo go on for life. Wait, we’re back in fantisy land.
Naturally, if you want an organic sound then find a balance between a single, solitary echo and a setting which goes on like Barney’s favorite song. Or don’t! It’s up to you.
Time and feedback are easy enough to understand. So then what about spread? Spread, like butter or jam, helps make a sound more delicious. Let’s look at how it works and how you can apply it.
Got You Surrounded
Normally, a delay is just a carbon copy of the original. Analog magic notwithstanding, a basic echo is not all that exciting. What if we could make it appear as though it’s surrounding us? Now we’re using our acoustic thinking caps!
Somewhere along the line, someone decided to use more than one speaker. While it took awhile for us to use them properly (remember your first stereo?) we now have it pretty much figured out. Bearing in mind our Haas effect we talked about earlier (10ms), we can make the echo sound like it’s wider than it actually is.
In Primer, with the spread knob all the way to the left, there is no spread. What you get is a vanilla, and probably mono, echo. Open up the spread half way, however, and things get frisky.
All the spread knob is doing is delaying the delays. Sounds confusing, right? It is but just imagine that your delay sound has to stop and take a dump. The dump was so large that your delay can no longer walk correctly. That’s the difference between no spread and spread.
Turn the knob all the way to the right and you can confirm this yourself. Your delays will now be out of sync. The reason being that you’ve spread them out so far that they no longer appear to sound like one. That’s pretty much all there is to it.
I’ve saved the mix knob for the end. I did this for two reasons: it’s the most generic knob in the synth’s echo section and two, it’s the easiest to understand. That’s strange though, because, despite the name, there is really no real0-life parallel to a dry wet knob. Actually, there is.
Go to the sink. No, no.. Not the sync, the sink. I’m sure by now, you’ve figured out that two separate pipes deliver water there. You have hot and you have cold. Hot and cold water don’t travel down the same pipe, y’all.
These pipes are probably parallel. I mean, why would they criss-cross? They don’t. Like I’ve been telling you: keep it simple.
Just like parallel pipes, in audio we also have parallel signals. You can think of these signals as water traveling through a pipe. For now, let’s call the cold pipe our main signal and our hot pipe our delay signal.
It may surprise you to find out that the delay never actually touches your sound until it actually, well sounds. What happens is a copy of your sound is sent to a ‘water heater‘ (delay unit). It sits there for awhile until it’s warm (the correct time) then when you open the hot water faucet (mix knob) it’s reintroduced at long last.
Out of the Pan
Pretty much, the copy of your signal that goes to the delay unit (hot water heater) becomes totally drenched in the effect (very warm). Since none of us like scalding hot water, we can thankfully adjust how much is blended in with our cool, creamy sounds. That, boys and girls, is how dry wet knobs are born.
I just want to touch on the echo functions in Massive as well as an external option inside of Ableton Live known as Simple Delay. These are not quite as flexible as those found inside of Primer, however. First up, Massive.
Massive, as a synth, is pretty massive. More so in the oscillator options, though. When it comes to delay, it’s more like meh-sive. Sure, you get a basic sync delay and another with which you can manually set delay times. You can get spread but not in the same way as in Primer.
Out of Time
I dive more deeply into Massive’s delay functionality in my Patron-exclusive bonus on this topic. For a measly $3/mo., you get access to advanced training for every single Easy Synth Programming video I do. That’s in addition to daily posts I make, access to other patrons, as well as private playlists I share which save you time when hunting for learning materials.
Sorry I don’t have time to go into the rest in detail. Again, patrons have it made. Thanks for reading and make sure you sign up for the newsletter to be alerted when I make another post in this series.