Wiki: Zircon's ReMixing Tips Compendium/Part 4: Effects Processing

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Covers reverb, delays, chorusing, distortion, overdrive, phasing, and flanging. Lots of audio examples.


Hello and welcome to Part 4 of my ReMixing Tips series. I had a lot of requests for different topics to cover in this one, and it was difficult choosing which I wanted to do. One of the most popular suggestions was mastering; but I don't have any intention of doing that anytime soon. Simply put, I don't feel qualified to speak on it. While I am happy with the sound of my own songs, that's the only sound I really know how to do, and I'd feel uncomfortable telling other people how to mix/master in MY style! Ultimately, after considering various other topics, effects processing seemed like the most sensible one. So let me begin...

Many people believe that effects - like reverb, phasing, flanging, and delay - are the "icing on the cake" of a mix, and that they're not really important. In actuality, using too few or too many effects, or not using the effects properly, can severely impact the quality of a song. Even a brilliant production can be ruined by bad effects. Of course, if you DO use them right, you can turn an average mix into a great one, and a great one into.. well, let your mind go wild with that! Simply put, using the full range of effects is an excellent way to treat and spice up a song. By just spending a little bit of time tweaking, you can make that "eh" track you were working on into a winner. Interested? Read on!

Common Effects

First, I'd like to discuss the palette of common effects in brief. Please note these are not necessarily 'technical' explanations.

  • Reverb - Short for reverberation. Simulates an acoustic space, adding a sense of space to a sound.
  • Delay - Creates echoes of the sound.
  • Chorus - A delay-based effect that can detune, widen, and "fatten" a sound.
  • Distortion - Saturates and shapes the sound to give it a harsher edge.
  • Overdrive - Increases the loudness of the sound much like an amplifier would.
  • Phaser / Flanger - Creates a 'swirling', moving effect in the sound; somewhat difficult to describe, but you'll know the effect if you hear it!

(The following are not really effects processors in the traditional sense, but for the sake of this tutorial, are treated as such.)

  • Compressor - Capable of squashing the sound in different ways to limit the dynamic range.
  • Filter - Can be used to remove certain frequencies from the sound, depending on filter type. The user controls the cutoff frequencies, resonance, and more.
  • EQ - Lets you boost or drop the volume at certain frequency levels. Most graphical EQs like the Fruity 7-band EQ have bandwidths (Q) and bands set in place. Parametric EQs give you much more control.

This particular tutorial will cover Reverb through Phasing/Flanging. Part 5 (the sequel to this one) will deal with compression, filtering, and EQ.

You can add effects to your projects using your host's built in effects (most have at least some), or, if your hostis VST-compatible, you can grab stuff like the mda effects bundle or the Classic effects bundle from For the sake of this discussion I will be using FL's default effects and the Classic effects. And now, for a more in-depth look at each effect I mentioned above.


Basically, reverb (short for reverberation) creates the "image" of the sounds that are created when sound waves bounce of various surfaces. Different acoustic areas with different surfaces and objects will produce different kinds of reverberation. For example, a small studio has very little reverb, and the sound is relatively subdued. A cathedral has a lot of reverb that takes much longer to decay, and retains more of the original frequencies. A reverb processor attempts to simulate this natural effect and lets the user control the parameters of the virtual room.

Many sounds can benefit from reverb. Almost all "real" instruments can use at least a alittle bit of reverb to help them sound more realistic. It can also help to mask imperfections in a low-quality sample. Drums are usually recorded in small spaces and thus can do with short reverbs (or sometimes none at all, depending on the recording). The human voice usually can be treated with varying amounts of reverb, depending on the context. For instance, choirs often have large amounts of reverb as do soloists and vocalists for electronic music. Studio singers and pop/rock vocalists, on the other hand, usually have a small amount of reverb so as to not give a "distant" effect. The list goes on and on.

Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what sounds should have reverb, and in what amount. It also depends on whether or not the recordings you are dealing with had any reverb recorded (or if they were recorded "dry" - eg. no natural ambiance), or if you are dealing with recorded sounds atall. Before I give some more specific suggestions on that topic, though, let me describ some of the basic controls found on a reverb processor.

  • Reverb or decay time - How long it takes for the reverb to die out. Larger spaces typically have longer reverb times.
  • Reverb amount (or dry/wet) - How much of the processed sound is heard compared to how much of the original sound. A distant sound would be mostly wet, with little dry remaining, while a close up sound might have 90% dry and a fair amount of wet.
  • Low cut / high cut - Controls the lower and higher frequencies removed before the reverberation is generated. A very low low cut and a very high high cut will result in a full reverberation.
  • Damping - Controls the rolling off of the higher frequencies in the reverberated sound.
  • Predelay - The time it takes for the reverb to kick in. While it is easy to set this value to 0 and forget about it, in the real world, it takes a little time for the reverberation to reach the ear after the initial waves hit. Thus, some predelay can contribute to a more realistic reverb.
  • Diffusion - Controls the "density" of the reverberation, eg. how many tiny echoes there are. A very low amount of diffusion sounds particularly mechanical, and more like a crude delay line than a reverb, while a high amount tends to sound more realistic.
  • Room size - Controls the size of the virtual room, which affects the quality of the reveberation. Sometimes synonymous with reverb time, which is somewhat confusing .

These are simply the basic controls, and even these may not be found on every reverb processor. Conversely, you may find more controls that enable you to further sculpt the virtual reverberations. Howver, the controls I described are the essentials present in most reverbs. Anyway, on to some tips on how to use reverb musically.

  • Don't go overboard! It is very easy to add "hall" reverbs to every instrument in your song, and find that the mix is now a total mess. Err on the side off caution, especially if you mix on headphones.
  • Try not to use very long (3s or more) reverb times. They are unrealistic and cause clutter easily.
  • Don't apply the same reverb to every sound. It might save CPU, but in my opinion, crafting a new reverb for each instrument is a better idea. Booming timpani should not share the same reverb as a solo violin, as they are in different areas on the stage, for example.
  • Avoid putting much (if any) reverb on bass instruments, including bass drums. It tends to get muddy very quickly.
  • A short (.5-.7s) reverb with high diffusion, small room size, and damping at 4-5khz at about 100% dry and 10% wet can make a snare sound better.
  • A little bit of reverb on hihats with a slighter longer tail than the snare reverb can help them to 'sizzle' more.
  • I find that lead sounds - synths, guitars, violins etc - benefit from having a meaty reverb @ 1.5-1.8s, with a relatively full range of frequencies involved.
  • Classical piano and any orchestral instruments just about always could use some reverb to simulate a concert hall. I recommend looking for a 'hall' setting and tweaking that to your liking whenever you use this sort of instrument, unless you plan on arranging pop piano or pop strings, in which case, less reverb is preferable.

Here are just a handful of audio examples (before and after).

Piano: using FL reverb

Choir: using Classic Reverb

Pizz. strings + violin: using FL reverb


The concept of a delay is simple.. delay the sound so it doesn't play immediately. Sounds boring and sort of useless, but wait! What if the delays could bounce back and forth in the stereo spectrum? What if you could customize the wet/dry ratio of the delayed signal to the dry signal? What if you could have multiple delays with user-controllable time and feedback, and they could be filtered too? Well, that's the type of thing you'll be using with your average delay plugin. Here are some of the delay controls explained - though just like reverb, it's not the same for every delay processor.

  • Wet/dry - Self explanatory, as this is the same as the reverb/wet dry. A full wet signal is not very useful when you are dealing with delays, though.
  • Feedback - Controls to what extent the echoes created in turn create more echoes of eachother.
  • Cut - Controls the degree to which echoes are filtered as more are created.
  • Input pan/volume - Controls how much of the original signal enters the delay and if it is panned or not.
  • Delay time - How much time there is between echoes.
  • # of echoes - Self-explanatory.
  • Stereo offset - Adds width to the delay.
  • Delay modes (eg. ping pong) - Alters how the echoes sound to the listener in terms of their phase and panning.

There are many practical uses for delays. I personally like using them on pads, leads, and harmony synths - it's usually not the best idea to try them on drums, though, as it can quickly irritate listeners. Adding them to pianos, guitars, or bells can create a sort of "dream" effect that's common in new age music. Also, delay works very well with reverb. Here are some audio examples (again, before and after).

Solo classical guitar: using FL Delay 2

Synth pad: using FL Delay 2 and FL Delay (no reverb used!)

Again, like with reverb, you don't want to go overboard. Don't have excessive feedback or a ridiculous amount of echoes. It's good for adding a little bit of a "tail" to the sound without using a lot of reverb. Just experiment with it and you'll find that it's a great tool to sweeten up your mix.


Chorusing is somewhat based on the delay, in that it creates multiple copies of the sound and delays each of them. By creating these multiple voices (and often detuning them), the original sound becomes "fatter". I know this isn't the most technical explanation, but hey, that's what it does Smile Chorusing is a very useful tool for adding stereo width to a sound and simply making a sound 'larger'. I don't think I need to go into explanations of what the different controls do in this case, because chorus/stereo widening processors tend to have very different sets of controls. However, they're all relatively easy to tweak in my experience, so I'll just go into a general set of dos/don'ts when using the effect.

  • Chorusing works great on all sorts of bass sounds. It can add a more funky element to a monophonic and dull sound very easily.
  • Most synth sounds, from harmony synths to leads, can benefit from chorusing in varying degrees. A simple NES-type squarewave can become pretty meaty with heavy chorusing applied! If you're doing any sort of dance or trance music, you'll probably want to use choruses on the lead sounds in particular.
  • If you're going to use chorusing on drums - which is not usually advisable - go VERY easy on it. Adding a lot of chorusing to a bassdrum or snare makes it sound weak, rather than punchy and tight, and doesn't add the kind of fatness you usually want when you're talking about drums.
  • Chorusing combined with some stereo delay and reverb can turn even the most mono, centered, tiny sounds into huge and wide ones.

A few audio examples:

Digital bass: using FL chorus

Squarewave: using FL chorus + reverb

Distortion & Overdrive

If you're a guitarist, you already know these effects and use them constantly. And some people think that these effects are only useful for just guitar sounds - but that's not really true. Both distortion and overdrive can be used on a vast array of sounds and can add a whole lot to a mix if used properly (they can also ruin it if used IMproperly, or turn it into industrial music.. whatever is worse). There are many different kinds of distortion/overdrive processors, so like with chorusing, it's not really worth it for me to analyze the controls of them. The key to using distortion in my opinion is not so much the actual settings of the processor, but rather, how much you use (dry/wet), and what you are using it on. Here are some tips on using distortion and overdrive.

  • Organs and electric pianos like the rhodes can be appropriately dirtied up using a generous serving of overdrive. Put some sort of compressor or limiter on (explained later), and maybe just a little bit of distortion to saturate the sound, and you'll get that fuzzy, gritty sound that you've probably heard all over before.
  • Putting some overdrive and just a little bit of distortion on a bassdrum or snare can help a lot if you're going for a big beat/drum-centric style. For an added bonus, once you're done with your drum loop(s), run all of that through just a little bit more overdrive and distortion, to give it a sort of pseudo-tape saturation effect.
  • Sampled guitars should always get some level of distortion on them, even if they were sampled with distortion already. Why? If you don't, you won't get those lovely harmonics that are essential for power chords!
  • Pads shouldn't have much if any distortion/overdrive. They're almost always being played in chords, so you'll get lots of mud from the harmonics.
  • Basses usually shouldn't get any distortion, though some boost/drive using an overdrive effect works. You want to keep your basses generally clean so they don't muddy up in the low end, unless you're doing some variant of drum n' bass.
  • If you want a nice, cutting lead sound, adding some light distortion can help if EQing alone doesn't really work.
  • Just like most other effects, it's pretty easy to go nuts with distortion effects, so be careful with them.

Some audio examples:

Hammond B3: using FL blood overdrive

Les Paul guitar: using FL blood overdrive + fast dist

Big beat drum loop: usinf FL blood overdrive + fast dist

Phasing & Flanging

These two effects are not unlike chorusing in that they are based on delays, but rather than creating a fat sound like chorusing tends to do, they create 'swirling' effects for lack of a better word. You've almost assuredly heard phasing/flanging in action at SOME point, as they are both very commonly used, particularly in pad sounds. Since it's difficult to describe this exact effect, here's an audio demonstration (this isn't necessarily a GOOD use of the effects, though!). First you will hear the unprocessed sound, then the sound after it has been flanged, and then the sound with phasing (but not flanging).

As you can hear, these are both very interesting effects. Unfortunately, I personally have not really studied up on phasers and flangers in regards to their controls - I tend to just tweak different parameters until I get a sound that I like. Thus, I can't really describe what each one does in depth. I can, however, offer advice on when to use these effects.

  • Synth pads! Take any old synth pad and apply some phasing or flanging. Tweak the wet/dry until it sounds good, and you've got a great swirling sound. This is a very common technique.
  • Various lead instruments. A little bit of flanging on a lead guitar or synth can give it extra motion, which in turn makes it sound cooler overall.. most of the time, anyway.
  • Sound effects, for added flavor. Taking some white noise, filtering it, and adding some phasing/flanging can produce interesting results. Be creative.
  • Don't have it going all the time. Phasing/flanging that goes on continuously can really wear on the ears of the listener and irritate them, even if the settings of the effects are good.
  • Neither sound very good on bassdrums or snares, unless you're specifically going for a washy, weird effect. Even then, it can get old fast, so it's usually best to apply it sparingly to percussive breaks or for cutting-edge style electronic drums.

Here's a quick audio example (I admit, I could only think of one on the spot!)

Squarewave synth pad: using FL phaser

Putting it all together

Hopefully, at this point, you should have a better idea of what these different effects do and how to use them. So now, I'd like to show you a before-and-after demonstrations, this time using MULTIPLE effects to show how powerful they can be.

Guitar, piano, string ensemble, ahh choir:
AFTER (reverb, delay, phasing, flanging) -
This example is not so extreme, but you should hear how the reverb/delay "expand" the instruments and make them sound a little more real.

Electric guitar, drum set, synth pad:
AFTER (reverb, delay, distortion) -
Again, this is somewhat subtle, but you should be able to hear how adding reverb to the snare made its tail a little less harsh. The bassdrum's distortion gave it more of a punch, and the guitar became more cutting and more like a lead instrument when the distortion/reverb/delay was applied.



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