Music Production: Working With Effects

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At some stage in the music production process, I work with audio effects. These effects are known as software “plug-ins” that load inside of my DAW software. An effect can be as simple as an EQ or a reverb, or it can be a more complex type of sound mangler that alters a sound through filters, distortion, delays, and so on. To borrow some concepts from Guy Rehak’s book on visual special effects in film, More Than Meets The Eye (NYU Press, 2018), plug-in effects are visual effects’ audio equivalents—“dynamic agents” that help the composer create “fictive words” through “augmented performance” (21, 22), opening your ears to possible timbral journeys your sounds may take.  

When I work with effects I have a general idea of what they can do, but there’s something of a disconnect between all of their parameters precisely laid out as a series of virtual knobs or sliders and my vague sense of how I want to use them. My goal, though, is always the same: the effect needs to sound compelling in some way. It needs to get me thinking about the music’s sound in a new way. The effect needs to sound cool in a What is that sound? kind of way. It needs to add something to the music or heighten what is already in it. Because my goal is clear but my methodology vague, I’ll dive right into a plug-in by trying out various settings until I hear something that changes my perception of the music. It’s only at this point that I pause and take a closer look at what I’ve done, making note of what knob or combination of knob-turns led me to this interesting sound. Sometimes I’ll save those settings as my own presets for future use—assuming I can figure out how to save a setting.   

It’s often a fine line between a sound that sounds obviously “effect-ed” and a sound that masks its own effected-ness. One key to negotiating this line is being attuned to ratio: if you add too much of an effect it dominates your attention. (This is analogous to how adding to much salt draws attention to the taste of salt itself, while adding just enough merely heightens the inherent flavor of the tomato.) Another key to using audio effects is whether or not a sound has, for lack of better words, a sense of magic or enchantment about it. For me, a compelling sound is an enchanting sound—a sound I can’t quite figure out, its way of being never fully obvious, its tone through time never quite stable. A perfect example of this is the sound of a struck singing bowl. It’s no wonder bowls have been used for meditation for centuries: strike one and listen to its ringing fundamental and harmonics change and decay over a minute or longer, drawing your attention along with them.

Effects can quickly move from obvious to subtle. For example, the other day I was listening through some reverbs. One was meant to evoke the space of cathedral, the other meant to evoke a “dark” space. The cathedral was nice, but I didn’t believe the sound of its default settings because it muddied the attacks of my piano. I don’t think the piano would sound like that, in that space, from the standpoint of the performer. (Maybe the effect would have been perfect on another sound?) The dark preset was more evocative, keeping my piano’s attacks intact and surrounding them with a smooth ambience, but I wanted its overall presence to be stronger. These presets are only suggested starting points for subtle sound design. I could alter the pre-delay setting on the cathedral reverb to fix its sound-muddying problem, or I could turn up the “wet-dry” mix signal of the dark reverb to increase its presence. Or I could blend both reverbs into a hybrid, fade one into another, or automate them so that they gradually grow or recede into the mix. With music, sometimes enchantment comes only after you have run your materials through a process of one type or another that brings you to a new space. In the digital realm there’s no end to what a sound might become, nor are you given advance notice as to when and where enchantment might arrive—you just have recognize it when you hear it. At this stage in the production your job is to figure out a process that helps you get where you think you want to go.

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