Musicians have always searched for fresh and exciting sounds. Back in the 1920s, trumpeters would put a derby hat over the bell and move it in and out to create a wah-wah effect. A few years later, Don Leslie’s rotating speaker added a shimmering stereo chorus to liven up the rather stark tones of the Hammond organ. Guitarists in the 1960s sometimes sliced their speaker cones with razor blades to produce grinding, buzzing distortion.
In the age of computers and plug-in software, adding spice to your tracks is easier than ever before, thanks to the rich palette of effects found in even a basic recorder. Effects have become absolutely essential in today’s recordings. If you’re producing your own tracks, you can’t afford not to know how to use effects.
In this article we’ll look at the three effects that are most often applied to drum sounds: equalization (EQ), compression, and reverb. They can be used to produce big, obvious changes in the sound, but often the best way to use effects is to massage the sound in such a subtle way that your listeners think they’re hearing something perfectly natural. We’ll look at what the effects are, how to send signals to them, and how to use them for musical purposes. The effects we’ll discuss are available in hardware units, but because computer-based productions are so pervasive, we’ll focus on effects that arrive in the studio as software.
Chances are you’ll be recording your drums into a multitrack program called a digital audio workstation (DAW). Most DAWs come with a good set of basic effects. These may supply everything you’ll need.
At the point when you want to go further, however, you can buy third-party effects software in the form of plug-ins. Plug-ins can provide higher quality sound than the DAW’s included effects, or more exotic types of sounds. When the plug-in is correctly installed in your computer, it will show up in the DAW’s menus just like the DAW’s own effects. Some software synthesizers do double duty as effects. If you’re on a budget, don’t overlook this option.
Plug-ins come in various formats. Before buying this type of software, check to make sure it comes in a format that’s compatible with your DAW. On Windows computers, VST and DirectX formats are commonly used; in the Mac, AU and VST are the main choices. Pro Tools users need the RTAS format, which is available for both Mac and Windows, or the TDM format, which runs on high-end Pro Tools hardware systems.
Many plug-ins have an installer that will let you choose any of the above formats (except TDM; TDM effects tend to be expensive, and are sold separately). So the choice of plug-in formats is not a huge issue — it’s just something to keep an eye on. A few effects, especially those that you can download for free, may be Mac-only or Windows-only.
All of the effects discussed in this article can be used in real time. That is, the track will play back through the effect. You’ll be able to adjust the parameters of the effect and hear your changes instantly as part of the mix. Some DAWs also offer non-real-time effects. These operate by editing the data in the track, which is contained in an audio file on your hard drive. Before using a non-real-time effect, be sure to create a backup copy of the original, unedited audio file, in case you need it later.
Fig. 1 An audio channel in Steinberg Cubase 4 has a big equalizer section (center) with four parametric EQ bands. A stack of up to eight insert effects can be set up in the left column — here I’m about to add a compressor. The aux sends from this channel are in the right column. The ModMachine is a Cubase delay line. In this window I’ve set the send level to the ModMachine at -19.17dB by dragging the light blue line just below the send. This line is actually a fader. The green lines in the EQ bands are also faders, and the EQ curve can be edited graphically by using the mouse to drag the dots in the graph.