music production effects explained – BEGINNERS GUIDE

music production effects explained – BEGINNERS GUIDE play video
Written by: Dexxter Clark, 22-05-2020
The ultimate beginners guide to music production sound effects.
In this article WITH VIDEO I talk about the different sound effects and LET YOU HEAR what they sound like.

The purpose of this article is to give you an overview of the most important aspects of sound effects in music production.
I will briefly touch upon subjects like equalization and compression, but there is so much more to tell about all of these topics.
I can dedicate articles on all of these topics explaining all the details.
The goal is the overview as a beginner, not the details of all the topics, because it probably will overwhelm you.


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What are effects in music?
Sound effects in music production make all the difference!
Instead if sounding bone dry, they make your track something to listen to.
A little reverb may not be noticeable, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
10 of these tiny things make a track interesting and feel alive.

There are two types of sound effects, the ones that you buy in a sample pack and the ones you apply with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation = software to make music).
For example:
  • The sound of an explosion (you buy a file in a sample pack).
  • The echo sound of the explosion (is generated by software/DAW), you need source material to apply the effect to.
In this article I’m talking about the sound effects that are generated with software.
Most DAWs have these effects integrated, but you can buy 3rd party plugins that can produce better sounding effects.
Let me take you step by step and show you the different effects.

What is the difference between a wet and dry signal?
In music production we refer to 2 types of signals:
  • wet signal – the effect applied
  • dry signal – the effect NOT applied (original signal without effect).
How much of the original (dry) signal we keep and how much of the effect (wet) we want to apply, we express in percentages.
We generally have a combination of these 2 signals to make up your sound (it’s almost never 100% wet or 100% dry).
100% wet Only the effect is audible
50% wet Half of the effect mixed with half of the original signal.
25% wet 75% of the original signal is mixed with 25% of the effect.
0% wet Only the original signal is audible
In the table above I talk about steps (50% or 100%), but the percentage is often dialed in with a turning knob.
You can easily use 68%, 13% or 99% if you want to.


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EQ and Analyzer

I will start of with EQ and analyzer.
The two are often confused.
Understanding frequencies and getting the hang of EQ is the most important skill you can master as music producer.
It is EVERYWHERE!

Most DAWs have have equalizers integrated, because it is so basic.
But the “magic” happens with 3rd party plugins in terms of operation, but also sound quality.

What does EQ mean in music?
EQ is short for equalizer.

What is an equalizer?
With EQ you influence the frequencies.
You can cut, dip or boost them.

What is an analyzer?
With an analyzer you see what is going on in the frequency spectrum, this is the visual representation of all the frequencies.

In most equalizers is an analyzer integrated (hence the confusion), but it doesn’t have to be the other way around.
For example:
The free plugin “Span analyzer” only analyzes the frequencies, but you can’t influence the sound.

What is the purpose of EQ?
Two reasons why you use an equalizer:
  • To cut frequencies below or above a certain frequency. You do this to prevent muddiness in your mix (too much going on) and frequency interference (also called frequency masking or phase cancellation – a good topic for another article)
  • To boost or dip certain frequencies. If you want to make certain frequencies pop or filter them. You want to make the frequencies stand out because they are important (a kick i.e.) or filter them because they are annoying.
With music you have only so much room in your mix to fit all the frequencies.
The analyzer helps you to visualize frequency problems and with the EQ you can tweak them to fit all the frequencies in that “box”.
I will not go into detail here because we stray a bit off the general topic of effects.
But you should definitely dive into it if you are not familiar with the topic.


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What does bands mean in an equalizer?
A band is a point you can adjust in the frequency spectrum.
For example, consider the following statements:
  • cut all frequencies below 50Hz
  • dip frequencies around 4kHz
  • boost frequencies around 2kHz
Those statements are all bands in a EQ.

Most EQ’s have 4 or 8 bands, but a EQ like Pro-Q has 24.
I recommend using not more than 8 bands, just to keep the overview and add another instance of the EQ if necessary.
But if you need more than 8 there is probably something wrong with your original sound in the first place.

What is the best EQ plugin?
Hands down Pro-Q by Fabfilter: https://www.fabfilter.com/
It is somewhat the industry standard equalizer.
The equalizer is incredibly precise and very user friendly.
Although user friendly, it is packed with features.

It is incredibly visual, something you want as a beginner.
It helps you to understand what is happening to your sound.

Compressor

What is a compressor in music?
Compression is used to even out the volume of a sound (dynamic range).
The dynamic range is the difference between the quietest parts and the loudest parts in terms of volume.

For example:
a singer sings sometimes really loud and sometimes very soft.
To make sure we can hear the singer when he/she quiet we bring up the volume level of the quiet parts.


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We make the sound louder by reducing the volume of the louder parts.
WHAT??
Yes, you read it correctly!

Compression is a 2-step process:
  • Reducing the volume of the louder parts
  • To compensate for the loss of volume, we increase the volume again. Every compressor has a setting called “make-up gain” to make up for the loss of volume.
The problem with compression is that quieter parts get louder, so also will the background noise will also be louder.
This is an undesired byproduct of compression, working with good source material is therefore highly advised.
You can partially compensate for background noise with a gate, but it still can be audible (and still won’t beat proper source material).
I will come back to noise gates later in this article.

What is ducking audio?
Besides making sounds louder, the other use for the compressor is so called “ducking” or “sidechaining”.

For example:
You compress the melody (main chain) and let it react to the kick (side chain).
Every time the kick hits, the volume of melody is reduced to make room for the kick.
This has a technical reason to prevent frequency masking (phase cancellation), but it is also used as a creative and stylish effect in EDM.

In short some compressor terms:
Threshold: At what volume does the compressor start compressing?
Ratio: The amount of compression that is applied? I.e. 2:1 = by exceeding 1db, it needs to compress 2db.
Attack: How long does it take for the compressor to react when threshold is exceeded?
Release: How long does it take for the signal to to back to normal volume level when goes below threshold again?

When should you compress audio?
• To make sound overall louder
• To create space (I talked about the limited amount of space with EQ’s)
• To prevent frequency masking (topic for a dedicated article)
• To create a coherent track. You “glue” sounds together to prevent sounds from sticking out too much.

Should you compress every track?
Yes and no.
Don’t compress for the sake of using compression.
But every song has compression.

You almost always compress:
• leads / instruments
• vocals
• kick
• drums
• master chain (all sounds combined that go out your DAW)

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If you use samples from sample packs, you probably don’t need to compress it, because the samples are already compressed.
Again, don’t compress for the sake of compression.
It will hurt you more than you will gain.

What is the best compressor plugin?
There is a wide range of compressors.
The reason for that is, because most compressors in the analogue realm have a certain sound characteristic.
A lot of compressor plugins mimic that character, for example the SSL compressors.

There are many good compressor plugins.
To name two:
But there are many more other good compressors out there.

Limiter

What is a limiter in music?
A compressor and limiter a closely related.
A limiter limits the sound when it exceeds a certain threshold.

A compressor and limiter both reduce volume of sound.
But the goal is different.
The limiter is used to prevent the sound from getting too loud (and therefore clip which leads to unwanted distortion), while the compressor is used to make sound louder.

A limiter is basically a simplified compressor with an unlimited amount of compression:
unlimited:1.
The volume of a sound can’t go above the threshold.
This is why a limiter is often called a brick wall limiter, nothing comes past the wall.

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It is wise to always use a limiter on your master chain to prevent clipping when the volume gets above 0 db.

Limiting is not without a cost.
Exceeding the threshold too much will mangle your audio.
So, you still need to keep your volume levels in check.

What is the best limiter plugin?
Hands down Pro-L by Fabfilter: https://www.fabfilter.com/ .
It is industry standard for limiting.

Especially for a beginner the Pro-Q is very user friendly because it is extremely visual.
You see what is happening to your sound (instead of staring a meter which moves a tiny little bit).

Delay

What is delay in music?
A delay repeats the sound at a lower volume after a set timeframe.
Echo is a form of delay.

Every melody line has to have a little bit of delay, same for vocals.
It makes the signal sound more natural.
Delay often goes hand in hand with reverb.

Reverb

A behemoth in music production is reverberation.

What is reverb in music?
For the untrained ear: a big reverb make it sound like you are in a church, big hanger or a big hallway.
In a real-life scenario reverb is the sound are bouncing of walls.
How much frequencies bounce depends of the pitch of the frequency and the room size.
Lower frequencies tend to resonate and bounce more than higher frequencies.

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Every room has some kind of reverb.
This is why musicians and recording studios treat their walls with sound absorbing material to prevent reverberation, so they can add it later in post production (their DAW) in the amount they want.

Reverb is applied to melodies and vocals to give it a more natural sound.
Be careful with too much reverb, it can drain (wash out) your signal and will also push your sound to the background.
A lot of reverb will take up a lot of precious frequency space, you might need for other things (for example: make the lead pop).

There is a debate if reverb on lower (bass) frequencies is considered good or bad practice.
This is why it is often advised to EQ to cut the lower frequencies before the signal reaches the reverb plugin.
If you decide to use reverb in the lower frequencies, be very careful not to mask the frequencies by ducking for example.

Gate / noise gate

A gate allows sound to pass through above a certain volume threshold.
This way you could cut out background noise in a vocal for example.

Technically, you cut out quiet parts of a sound signal.
But the background noise is still there when the volume of sound signal reaches the threshold.
This can be audible (if the background noise is loud) and even more annoying for the listener than a constant background noise they are “used” to.

If you have the ability to get good quality source material, you should.
It beats using a gate every single time.
But in the cases you don’t, a gate could be an option.

Distortion

Distortion makes your sound dirtier, grittier, less neat, less clean.
You basically destroy a good and clean signal.
A guitar amp that makes an electric guitar sound bad-ass screechy is distortion.

Panning

Panning is directing the sound to one speaker.
You can pan a signal to the left or right speaker.
Panning is dialed in in percentages, it is often not 100% left or 100% but somewhere in the middle.

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Tremolo

Tremelo is a LFO (low frequency oscillator) that applies a certain effect in a sine wave fashion to a signal in a certain tempo.
This tempo can be 4 beats, 1 beat, ½ beat etc.

The most applied tremolo effects:
  • Ducking a signal (from going quiet to loud).
  • Panning a signal (from left to right speaker and back).
When music producers are talking about tremolo they mean tremelo panning from left to right speaker.

Chorus

Chorus makes it sound if there is more than one sound like you would have if humans would sing in a chorus.

Phaser and Flanger

Phaser and flanger are closely related.
They give a sizzling, swirling effect.

Phaser and flanger is basically an EQ effect by boosting and dipping certain frequencies.
But the swirling occurs because the frequencies that are effected are changing from lower to higher to lower etc.

The difference in Phaser and flanger is the amount of dips and boosts.
Flanger has more dips and boosts.

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photo author dexxter clark
Dexxter Clark
Music Producer / YouTuber

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