Delay is practically as old as modern pop music. Its origins lie in the reel-to-reel tape loop experiments of musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer during the 1940s, and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Elektronische Musik” of the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t until the late 1950s, when Ray Butts’ EchoSonic—a small amplifier equipped with tape echo—and the Echoplex arrived, that delay began entering mainstream recording.
With the Echoplex, a player recorded a guitar track, and the tape would loop it back so that a guitarist or keyboardist could play over top it again at variable speeds. Similar units, like the Roland Space Echo, were widely used throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s. Then, of course, came analogue pedals, then digital ones, and eventually an almost limitless variety of software delays.
While there are many creative ways to use delay in music, our task today is to explore five of them: on guitars, percussion beats, hi-hats, synths, and basslines. We’ll use iZotope’s DDLY plug-in to add delay to our tracks (download a free 10-day demo or buy it for $49).
1. Turn guitars into rhythm generators
Guitars and delays are old friends. Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley’s sound engineer, used tape delay on Scotty Moore’s guitar for The King’s track “That’s All Right.” Notable users in these early days of delay were Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp (who used Revox reel-to-reel records to pioneer long delay times with his so-called Frippertonics tape loop system), and later, U2’s The Edge. Portishead’s Adrian Utley still uses an Echoplex on his recordings.
Two modern bands that make extensive use of delay are Deerhunter and Animal Collective. In the song “He Would Have Laughed,” Deerhunter’s guitars become mesmerizingly rhythmic with notes played quickly and augmented by slapback delay. The guitar on Animal Collective’s song “Fireworks” is also largely driven by delay effects, creating a mirror image of the song’s drums.
In this clip, we set DDLY’s Analog delay time to 257.0 and feedback at 20% to create a ping-ponging guitar rhythm somewhat like “He Would Have Laughed” and “Fireworks.” The Wet signal is set to 100%, while 50% of the dry signal is coming through the mix. If one were to use similar settings in writing a song, this type of delay and guitar picking would create a rhythm around which the drummer and bassist, as well as other players, could build their respective parts.
2. Make basslines gallop
This might be rather unexpected, but Pink Floyd’s song “One of These Days,” off of the 1971 album Meddle, is maybe one of the finest examples of delay on a bassline. Roger Waters really knocked it out of the park on this one. The galloping, psychedelic bassline drives the entire tune, with drums, synths and guitar mostly serving the song’s atmospherics.
Waters’ bassline is so distinct that, when applying delay to bass, one will probably have to think about how to avoid its influence. But this is where experimentation really yields results. Play around with length, depth and feedback until you find something that works for your song.
In the dry mix, our bassline is pretty straightforward, and maybe even a little boring. But when delay is added, it begins to gallop like Waters’ bassline, although at a much slower tempo. Using Grain Delay, we set the delay time to 419.3 ms with 20% feedback. And since the bassline was recorded on a guitar, we dropped the grain pitch down to -5.3 st, set the signal to a size of 336.6 ms and made it 100% wet.
3. Turn a hi-hat polyrhythmic
On Nicolas Jaar’s song “Owe Me (Octave Edit),” the electronic music producer applies delay to his hi-hats. Jaar never really overdoes anything, so the hi-hat delays are subtle. More than anything, the delay and reverb on the hi-hats creates a sort of airiness to their sound. But showcasing hi-hats in a more upfront, polyrhythmic way can be fun as well.
In the dry mix of the ambient clip below, a basic hi-hat with some reverb is the only percussion. An LFO on the Digitakt is modulating the pitch to add some movement and sonic variety to the hi-hat. In DDLY, we set up two different delays—one analog, the other grain. The grain delay (the one on the top half of the plug-in) is set to 1/8 time with 91% feedback, giving it a sort of glitchy and gritty sonic texture. It’s also pitched up to +12.0 st., and pegged to 98% wet.
The analog delay, located at the bottom of the plug-in, is set to 1/2 time with 43% feedback, 2% dry signal and 98% wet signal. The result is an interesting hi-hat sequence that is polyrhythmic with two different timbres that could work well as an intro to an electronic track, or as a main feature throughout.
4. Alter synth sequences and arps
Adding delay to a bass or lead synth note is very often a good idea, whether a small or dynamic amount. A great example of just how much delay can alter a groove for the better is Aphex Twin’s track “5 Scorrier,” released during his Soundcloud dump a few years back. Richard D. James sequences his acid-tinged synthesizer, then layers it with generous amounts of reverb and delay, such that the synth notes sound like they’re percolating or bubbling up from the void.
Even more than the distinct percussion, which is relatively simple by Aphex Twin standards (and at a relatively low tempo), the delayed synth notes carry the rhythm; which is no coincidence, given that the song had a previous beat-less incarnation under James’ alias Caustic Window as the track “101 Rainbows Ambient Mix.”
In our clip’s dry mix below, the synth sequence is pretty straightforward for an electronic music tune. Maybe the sequence begins this way and rides the sequenced rhythm for a minute or so.
We used DDLY (much like with the hi-hat experiment above) to give the synth sequence two different delay types. The top delay is set to analog with a 1029.0 ms delay time and 36% feedback. We’ve also added some Trash distortion to the signal, and the overall sequence contains 89% of the dry signal and 100% of the wet. The bottom delay is set to grain and has a very short 1/64 delay time. There is also 70% feedback, the signal is pitch-shifted to +6.5 st., with a size of 1.0 ms and 99.0% mix between the dry and wet signal. What this combination does is give the synth sequence two different textures, with the top analog delay altering the sequence into a slightly different loop.
5. Make beats more complex
While delay on guitars and synthesizers, or even vocals get a lot of attention, and rightly so, delay on percussion can really alter the course of a work-in-progress. The type of beat could be anything: hip-hop, house, techno, electronic pop. By adding delay—whether it’s a brief ping pong effect, or something with a longer decay—one has the potential to radically shift the way the rhythm plays out. Delay on beats can produce interesting types of syncopation, asymmetrical hits, and other rhythmic effects that can pull a song out of the typical 4/4 beat.