Tools for Mixing: Insert Effects
By Ernie Rideout
In the Tools for Mixing series here at Record U, we discuss a number of useful types of effects and processing in other articles: dynamics such as compression and gating, EQ types such as shelving and parametric, send effects such as reverb and delay, and master effects such as maximizing and stereo imaging. Most importantly, these other articles cover how you can use these effects and processors to make your mixes sound great.
What’s different about insert effects, the subject of this article? Well, in some ways, absolutely nothing. Insert effects can be compressors, EQs, reverbs, delays, and any other kind of processor. Like these effects and processors, insert effects are very effective tools to give each track its own sonic space and to make your mix sound better — it’s these goals that we’ll focus on in this article.
In addition to their fundamental assignment as mix improvement devices, insert effects can be used as sound design and arrangement tools as well. Sound design means altering the sound of something, such as taking the sound of a guitar and making it sound a little different, significantly different, or even unrecognizable. Doing so can have a profound effect on the emotion of a track and even an entire song. In an arrangement, you can use insert effects to create subtle and not so subtle changes to the sound of an instrument or voice as the song progresses from one section to another. Using automation, you can have an effect get more intense in the choruses when the instruments are playing at full volume, then less intense in the quieter verses.
What?? You haven’t used automation before? It’s easy as pie. It’s very similar with all multitrack recording software, but it’s particularly easy in Reason. Let’s digress for a quick lesson on automation.
To record automation data for an effect parameter, simply alt-click or option-click on the knob, dial, or slider you want to automate. In this illustration, we alt-clicked on the Feedback knob on the DDL-1 Digital Delay device. A green box outlines the control, as you see here, to let you know that the control is now automated. At the same time, a Feedback parameter automation lane has been created for this device in the sequencer, as you can see at the bottom of the illustration. The parameter record button is red, indicating the parameter lane is record-ready.
Next, all you have to do is hit the record button in the Transport Controls, and then move the Feedback knob with your mouse to change the sound as your song progresses. You can see the cursor has been dragged up, and a parameter display appears indicating that the Feedback parameter has been increased to 44. In the sequencer, you can see automation curves being recorded.
When you finish a pass, you can easily edit and change the automation data you’ve recorded. Just double-click on the automation clip, and whether you’re in arrangement mode or in edit mode, you can edit the data points with the editing tools, such as the Pencil tool shown here.
There. Couldn’t be simpler.
For our purposes as budding mix engineers, the most significant differences between insert effects and other effect applications are the following:
- Insert effects work only on one channel, not across multiple channels.
- Insert effects process the entire channel; there is no un-effected track signal once the effect is active.
This means that though you have tremendous power over the fate of a single track with insert effects, the worst thing that could happen to your mix is that only one track might sound crappy. And you can always delete the effect and go back to your unprocessed track.
Adding insert effects is usually one of the last things you do when you’re mixing — unless you think like a sound designer, in which case adding insert effects to your tracks is one of the first things you do. With a song featuring acoustically recorded instruments, the order of business in a mix session usually flows like this:
- Set gain staging.
- Apply basic EQ to individual tracks.
- Apply basic dynamics.
- Set panning.
- Apply send effects.
- Apply insert effects.
Sometimes you’ll apply more than one tool simultaneously. Sometimes you’ll do things in a different order. The point is that insert effects are usually what you add to fine-tune your mix, to give individual tracks something special. As with all of the tools we discuss in Tools for Mixing, you could achieve a decent basic mix using insert effects alone; they’re that powerful.
Do This Before You Apply Insert Effects
No matter how you like to approach your mix, before you apply insert effects, make sure you do two things to your entire mix:
- Using a high pass filter on the channel EQ, roll off all frequencies below 150 Hz on all your tracks, especially those tracks that you don’t think have any energy at those frequencies. The exceptions are the kick and the bass. Even on the bass, roll off everything below 80 Hz. Doing this will make your mix sound much more open right away, and it’s critical to remove unnecessary energy in these frequencies before your insert effects amplify them.
- Listen to each track carefully, and remove any sounds that you don’t want, including buzzes, bumps, coughing, fret noise, stick noise, or any sound made by a careless musician. Any unwanted sounds may get amplified by the application of insert effects.
Now that you’re at this stage of your mastery of mixing, it’s time to reveal what the deal is with signal routing. Most mixing boards and recording programs let you choose the order in which each track signal passes through the various processors and effects. At the top of each channel in Reason’s mixing board, you can see a little LCD diagram, entitled Signal Path. Just above the LCD diagram, there are two buttons: Insert Pre and Dyn Post EQ. When engaged, the Insert Pre button places the insert effects prior to the dynamics and the EQ; when disengaged, the insert effects come after the dynamics and the EQ. When the Dyn Post EQ button is engaged, it means the compressor and gate follow the EQ; when disengaged, the dynamics are in front of the EQ.
Fortunately, the wonderful mixer gives a very clear picture of how the signal path options work. Let’s look at this LCD picture as we discuss the musical reasons for choosing one signal path over another. And keep in mind that when you change the signal path, the compressor and gate don’t jump to the bottom of the channel strip, and the insert effects don’t slide on up to the top. In the channel strips themselves, the controls stay in their place. It’s just the audio that follows its various courses behind the scenes.
When you’re gaining experience as a mix engineer, it’s always nice to have a compressor at the end of your signal path to attenuate any extreme boosts in the signal you may inadvertently cause. Without the compressor in that catchall position, a severe peak might get all the way to the main outputs, where it could cause clipping — and it might take a long time to figure out what’s causing the overage. If you’re an experienced mix engineer, you’re likely to be vigilant for such accidents, and can therefore choose any signal path option for any reason you like. Here are musical reasons for choosing each of the four options for signal routing in Reason’s mixer over the others.
- In this configuration, the compressor comes first, so it tames the peaks in the track. The EQ is next, opening up the options for sound sculpting — but with no compressor or limiter following it to compensate for any boosts that might lead to clipping farther down. The most musical choice of an insert effect here would be another compressor, in order to get a super-compressed sound that moves forward in the mix. You’ll see this in action in Audio Example 20, later on.
- Similar to configuration No. 1, this puts the EQ first, and then the compression. The most musical choice for an insert effect here would be another EQ, in order to get a very specific frequency curve dialed in.
- This is the best configuration for less experienced mixers. You can make bold choices in the insert effect slot and really get some fun into the track, be aggressive with dialing in the frequencies you want with EQ, and then the compressor will be there to even out anything that gets out of hand.
- This configuration puts the compressor after the insert effect, which is good for safety, but with the EQ at the end, this configuration is best for an experienced engineer who uses EQ as their primary mixing tool even when fine-tuning a mix. This means the artistry such an engineer puts in to their EQ won’t get squashed by a compressor farther down the signal path.
And Now, the Insert Effects
Insert effects themselves are simple as can be. But their interaction with other processors and mixing tools can have surprising results from seemingly subtle changes. That’s why the preceding introduction is important: Any changes you make to your music with an insert effect will have an impact on the changes you’ve made using other tools. The difference, as noted before, is that insert effects impact the individual tracks more than the overall mix.
Insert effects come in a several types. Dynamics (loudness) processors: You’re already familiar with compressors, limiters, maximizers, and gates. They can be used as insert effects, too. Timbre effectsare also familiar to you already, as they include EQ and filters. Modulation effects include tremolo, ring modulation, chorus, flanging, vibrato, and vocoders. These effects use variations in pitch, loudness, and time to get their sound. Time-based effects include reverb and delay. Distortion effects include overdrive, vinyl effects, exciters, tube distortion, distressing, downsampling, and bit conversion. Pitch correction effects include Auto Tune and vocoders.
Combo effects: Amp simulators use a combination of effects in one package, including distortion, delay, compression, and EQ. The Scream 4 device uses a combination of distortion, EQ, formant processing, and compression to make its impressive sounds.
As you explore the effects available in your recording software or hardware multitrack recorder or mixer, experiment like crazy with insert effects. Try out anything and everything, and don’t be afraid to just delete the effect and start over. In Reason, it’s quite easy to explore effects that have already been designed for particular musical applications; just click on the folder icon (Browse Insert Effect Patch) at the bottom of the Insert Effect section and find the Effects folder in the Reason Sound Bank.
Click this early, and often, to discover what insert effects can do for your music.
In the examples that follow, we’re focusing on acoustically-recorded tracks (that is, tracks that aren’t created from virtual instruments) that are intended to support a song, since creating good mixes of acoustic tracks is one of the biggest challenges that the majority of songwriters face. The examples here illustrate applications of a wide variety of effects to solve common mix problems: They’re designed to show the results various types of insert effects can have on the way the affected track sits in the mix. In most cases, we’re applying the effects in excessive ways, going a bit over the top to make the results obvious. It’s possible to solve problems in a mix using only insert effects. But in practice, you should use all the tools available to you — EQ, dynamics, send effects, panning, and inserts — to make your mix sound the way you want it to.
This example features a chicken-pickin’ rhythm section of drums, bass, and electric guitar, with a solo female vocal. No effects have been applied yet, but in addition to just setting the basic gain staging, we’ve carved out a little space for the vocal with a bit of EQ on the instrument channels. The vocal is audible enough to begin working more on the mix.
Make a vocal thicker by doubling
When we apply a simple doubling of the vocal track and a little detuning to the double using the UN-16 Unison device, the vocal suddenly has expanded to occupy a much more prominent place in the mix without adding any perceptible increase in level. Well, it’s twice as many as doubling, as we used the Unison’s lowest voice count of four (it also does eight and 16!). We set the detuning fairly low and the wet/dry mix so that the original signal is the most prominent.
Adding a UN-16 Unison device to a vocal track is easy. Just select the track, channel, or audio device and select UN-16 Unison from the Create menu. All connections are made automatically. All you have to do is decide if you want four, eight, or 16 voices.
Thicken up a vocal with delay
Running the vocal through a basic delay with just two repeats and a fairly low feedback setting makes a huge difference in the spread and level of the vocal. When you add delay, you should always watch that the volume doesn’t get carried away. This example uses the DDL-1 Digital Delay device with the wet/dry balance set rather dry, so the original signal comes through clearly. Even with just two repeats, the effect is very much like a reverb.
Ducking a vocal delay
The trouble with putting a delay on a vocal is that the repeats can get in the way of the clarity of the lyrics. You could adjust the wet/dry mix by hand, riding it towards the wet signal when each phrase ends. Or you could put a compressor on the delay and trigger it from the vocal signal. This ducks (lowers the volume of) the delay effect as long as the original vocal signal is above the threshold on the compressor. When the vocal dips below the threshold, the full delay signal comes back up in volume. This gives the vocal a bigger place in the mix, while keeping the effect out of the way of the lyrics.
It’s easy to set up a ducking delay. In this excerpt, we want the delay to be softer while the vocal is present, but to come back up when the vocal phrase ends. First, create a Spider Audio Merger & Splitter on the vocal channel. Run the Insert FX outputs into the input on the splitter (right) side of the Spider and connect one set of Spider outputs back to the Insert FX inputs. Create a new audio track for the delay, and create a DDL-1 Digital Delay and an MClass Compressor for this track. Take a second set of outputs from the Spider, and connect them to the inputs of the delay. Take a third set out outputs from the Spider and connect them to the Sidechain In on the compressor — this is what will trigger the ducking effect. Connect the delay outputs to the compressor inputs, and run the compressor outputs to the delay channel Insert FX inputs. Presto! Your ducks are now in a row.
Thicken a vocal with chorus
Another way to fatten up a vocal track is to run it through a chorus effect. This doesn’t necessarily make the track more prominent, but it does seem to take up more of the frequency spectrum. For this example, we used the CF-101 Chorus/Flanger, with very little delay, and just enough modulation to make the effect obvious while not overwhelming the vocal.
Extreme reverb effects for setting off vocals
Adding reverb to a vocal track is a sure way to give it some of its own space, even apart from the reverb you might apply with the send effects. You can even get some extreme sound design effects with reverb, such as this reverse reverb algorithm on the R7000 Advanced Reverb. This may not be the most appropriate use of reverb for this particular track, but you can easily hear how the reverb imparts its own space and EQ to the vocal, setting it apart from the instruments.
Use multieffects to bring out vocals
For vocals, the best approach to insert effects often involves a subtle combination of reverb, delay, chorus, compression, and EQ. Here is our track again, this time with a blend of two reverbs, delays set to different timing in the left and right channels, a mono delay set to yet a third delay rate, and a chorus, all routed through a submixer in a handy effects preset called “Vox Vocal FX.” The four channel insert effects controls have been programmed to control the various delay times and levels, the reverb decay, the delay EQ, the dry/wet balance. The vocal sounds sweeter, all the lyrics are clear, and the track seems to float in its own space in the mix. Sweet!
Distressing effects for vocals
At the other end of the spectrum, there are distortion effects. For the vocal track we’ve been working on, distortion may be rather inappropriate — but we won’t tell the vocalist if you won’t. The result is powerful. We inserted a Scream 4 device, set the Destruction mode to Scream, set the EQ to cut the low end, and set the tweaked the Body size and resonance to get a very distressed bullhorn sound. It’d be more effective if it were Tom Waits singing something that would tear your heart out, but you can hear how this may or may not be just the ticket for your own songs.
Let’s listen to the excerpt we’ll be working with for the next few examples, before we start mangling the guitar. This track has mono electric guitar and mono electric bass, both recorded direct, with no amps and with no effects. The drums are in stereo, and they have a bit of room reverb on them. Although the guitar has a decent bit of sonic real estate in which to sit, it sounds kind of thin. Let’s see what we can do to beef it up a bit.
Spread out a guitar with phaser
Adding a phaser to the guitar pushes it back in the mix a bit. But the gentle swirling of the phased overtones gives it a new frequency range to hang out in. The PS-90 is a stereo effect, so our mono guitar is now a stereo guitar. Even though the track is panned straight up the center, the phaser gives it a wider dimension.
When vocals or lead instruments collide with guitar
What if there’s a vocal or lead instrument that shares some of the same frequency range as the phased guitar? Is the phase effect enough to make the guitar distinct from the lead? As you can hear in this example, without further adjustment the guitar and trumpet are competing. Does this mean more work with EQ and dynamics to solve the problem? Check out the next example to find out.
Making room for a vocal or lead by spreading a phased guitar
Since our phased guitar track is now stereo, let’s see what happens when we widen the stereo spread. As you can hear, the two sides of the PS-90 effect are panned hard right and left, leaving the center of the track virtually guitar-free, and the trumpet part now sounds like it’s all by itself. This is a great technique to use to make room for a vocal or lead instrument; sometimes just putting a time-based effect such as a phaser on a guitar or keyboard part and then spreading the sound wide is all you need to do to make the vocal stand out clearly.
Add presence to guitar with chorus
Chorus is another modulation effect that gets a similar result to a phaser when applied to a guitar in a mix, in that the guitar seems pushed back in the mix We’ve taken the stereo channels of the CF-101 Chorus/Flanger and spread them wide, left and right. The guitar definitely has more presence, and seems to float in a shimmery kind of way above the drums and bass.
Re-amping for sonic flexibility
Re-amping is a great technique for working with direct-recorded guitar tracks. In a nutshell, you send the signal of a direct-recorded guitar to an amp, then you record the sound of the amp. Re-amping gives you a lot of flexibility in guitar tone. If your recording program has amp models, you can use them in a similar way. Reason features guitar and bass amp models from Line6, which you can add to a track just like you would with any other effect, and it can make a huge difference to the presence and tone of the guitar. Here, we’ve selected a very clean amp model, and without boosting the bass, the low strings are a lot more audible. The guitar now has a much better location in the mix.
Distortion and overdrive to bring out the guitar
Then there’s the time-honored tradition of making more room for a guitar in the mix by using an amp that’s overdriven and distorted like crazy. Here’s the same track with the Line6 guitar amp inserted and the “Treadplate” preset selected. The correct phrase is, “My goodness, that certainly cuts through the mix now, doesn’t it?” But it doesn’t overpower the drums and bass, either.
Multiple amps for huge yet flexible guitar sounds
Amp modeling plug-ins such as the Line6 amps give you lots of sonic flexibility and options for getting a guitar track to sit in a mix. But sometimes you want even more from a guitar sound. In this example, we’re running the same exact guitar track through three separate Line6 amp simulators. To get the maximum flexibility, we inserted a Line6 amp on each of three mixer channels, then split the dry signal using the Spider Audio Splitter & Merger device and sent it to each of the other two amps. This setup lets us use the channel dynamics and EQ on each of the amps, which allows us to roll off the low end of one amp, to just use the highs, and then dial out the high and low end on the third amp so it just projects middle frequencies. It’s a great way to build up a massive guitar sound while giving you more options for making it all work in the mix.
Here are the three Line6 amps, each in their own track.
To connect the three amps in series, create a Spider Audio Merger & Splitter on the guitar track. Since we’re dealing with a mono signal, run the Insert FX Left out into the Spider Left input. Run one Left output to each of the amps. Run the amp outputs back to the Insert FX inputs. Now you’re ready for some serious guitar sound sculpting — as well as some powerful mix crafting.
Set the guitar apart with tremolo
Tremolo is a classic modulation effect that not only helps give a track its own sonic space, but also imparts a whole new character to the performance. This tremolo effect is created by a combination of effects in a preset called “Wobble,” which you can find in the Reason Sound Bank just by clicking on the Browser Insert FX Patch button in the Insert section of any channel strip. “Wobble” uses a combination of limiters, EQ, and compression, the latter of which is controlled a CV signal triggered by the track volume. Reason has tons of effect patches that are designed to give you the effect you’re looking for while helping to make the track fit into the mix. Just browse some of the effect patches to discover more.
Beef up the drums with delay
If your drum track isn’t quite as full sounding as the rest of the instruments in your track, you can increase its sonic girth by adding a delay to it. The delayed signal should have no more than one or two repeats, the repeats should be so soft as almost inaudible, and the repeats are most effective when timed with the music. Start with the delay timed with the quarter-notes, then try eighth-notes, then 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, and even smaller values. If done well, the drums will just sound fuller, and you won’t be able to distinguish the delay. For this example, we inserted a DDL-1 Digital Delay device on the drums, and set its dry/wet ratio to 8, so that the repeats were almost subliminal.
Give cymbals a psychedelic shimmer
Cymbals lend themselves to certain modulation effects. Applying a flanger to a drum track with lots of cymbals results in a trippy, swirling sound that also has the benefit of beefing up the track. For this example, we split the stereo drum track using the MClass Stereo Imager, setting the crossover frequency to around 1.8 kHz, and then sending the high band output to a CH-101 Chorus/Flanger device. We adjusted the flanger to get a slow swirl, then mixed the flanged sound back in with the direct signal using a Micromix submixer device. If you have multitracked drums, then you can just slap a flanger right on the overhead channel.
Put the bass in your face
One of the more common inserts to apply to a bass track is compression, though any modulation or delay effect can sound great, too, depending on the material. Now that we’ve got the guitar tremolo and the drum cymbals swirling from the previous examples, the bass is sounding flabby and getting lost. Compression is a good way to attack this. We cranked up the channel compression, but it was still not quite enough. So we flipped the signal path so the insert effects came after the dynamics in the channel. We applied an insert effect preset named “Super Bass Comp” to the bass track, cranked the ratio (which was mapped automatically to the insert effect knobs), and presto! A bass sound that’s solid as a rock, and seems to be coming towards you as you listen, rather than hanging back. This is the litmus test for a hard-compressed track: If you’ve done it right, the track comes forward in the mix. This preset utilizes three MClass devices, Compressor, Equalizer, and Maximizer.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ernie Rideout is Editor at Large for Keyboard magazine, and is writing Propellerhead Record Power! for Cengage Learning.