Delay Effects: Exploring the Power and Sonic Possibilities

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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If you want a big sound, the delay is the way to go.

Delay is an audio effect that records an input signal to an audio storage medium and plays it back after a set period of time. The delayed signal may either be played back multiple times, or played back into the recording, to create the sound of a repeating, decaying echo.

Let’s look at what it is and how it’s used. It’s a form

What is a delay effect

Understanding Delay in Music Production

Delay is a unique effect that can be used in music production to enhance the tone and exciting elements of a track. It refers to the process of capturing an incoming audio signal, storing it for a period, and then playing it back. The playback can be straight or fused with the original signal to create a repeat or echo effect. Delay can be adjusted and modulated using various parameters to achieve different results, such as flange or chorus.

The Process of Delay

The process of delay occurs when an incoming audio signal is duplicated and stored in a medium, such as a computer software or hardware unit. The duplicated signal is then played back after a certain period, which can be adjusted by the user. The result is a repeat of the original signal that appears to be separated from the original by a certain distance.

The Different Types of Delay

There are different types of delay that can be used in music production, including:

  • Analog Delay: This type of delay uses acoustic spaces to simulate the delay effect. It involves tapping the incoming signal and storing it on a surface before playing it back.
  • Digital Delay: This type of delay uses digital technology to capture and repeat the incoming signal. It is commonly used in computer software and digital hardware units.
  • Tape Delay: This type of delay was popular in older records and is still used today. It involves capturing the incoming signal on a tape and repeating it after a certain period.

Using Delay in Live Performances

Delay can also be used in live performances to enhance the sound of instruments and vocals. It can be used to create a scream or a rapid succession of notes that appear to be played in unison. The ability to effectively use delay is a core skill for any producer or engineer.

Emulating Classic Delay Effects

There are many emulations of classic delay effects that are commonly used in music production. For example:

  • Echoplex: This is a classic tape delay effect that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It was developed by engineers who worked for the Maestro company.
  • Roland Space Echo: This is a classic digital delay effect that was popular in the 1980s. It came in handy for musicians who wanted to add delay effects to their live performances.

How Delay Effects Work in Music Production

Delay is a form of audio processing that enables the creation of echoes or repetitions of a sound. It differs from reverb in that it produces a distinct repetition of the original sound, rather than a natural-sounding decay. Delay is created by buffering the input signal and playing it back at a later time, with the interval between the original and delayed signals being defined by the user.

The Advancement of Delay Tech

The invention of delay effects can be traced back to the 1940s, with the first delay systems employing tape loops and electric motors to maintain the fidelity of the processed sound. These early systems were replaced by more durable and versatile mechanisms, such as the Binson Echorec and the Watkins Copicat, which allowed for the modification of the delay interval and the addition of rhythmic taps.

Today, delay effects are offered in a variety of forms, from guitar pedals to computer software, with each unit employing a unique combination of mechanisms and processing techniques to produce echoes of varying speed, distance, and appearance.

The Unique Features of Delay Effects

Delay effects offer a number of advantages over other forms of audio processing, including:

  • The ability to produce rhythmic and periodic repetitions of a sound, allowing for the creation of unique and expressive musical phrases.
  • The option to adjust the delay interval and the number of repetitions, giving the user precise control over the appearance and presence of the effect.
  • The convenience of being able to position the effect anywhere in the signal chain, allowing for a wide range of creative possibilities.
  • The option to cut or erase specific sections of the delayed signal, providing additional control over the rhythmic and tonal characteristics of the effect.

Artistic Uses of Delay Effects

Delay effects have become an essential tool for electronic music producers, allowing them to create densely overlaid notes and rhythms. Some popular uses of delay in electronic music include:

  • Complementary delays: adding a short delay to a sound to create a complementary rhythm.
  • Edge delays: adding a longer delay to create an edge or a sense of space around a sound.
  • Arpeggio delays: creating a delay that repeats the notes of an arpeggio, creating a cascading effect.

Use in Guitar Playing

Guitarists have also found delay effects to be extremely useful in their playing, allowing them to create dense and ethereal qualities to their sound. Some ways guitarists use delays include:

  • Singing delays: adding a delay to a vocalist’s or instrumentalist’s singing or playing to create a more interesting and textured sound.
  • Robert Fripp’s looping technique: using a Revox tape recorder to achieve long delay times and create solo guitar pieces dubbed “Frippertronics.”
  • John Martyn’s use of delay: pioneering the use of delay in acoustic guitar playing, showcased on his album “Bless the Weather.”

Use in Developing Experimental Techniques

Delay effects have been a key element in developing experimental techniques in music production. Some examples of this include:

  • The use of delay in developing the fuzz and wah pedals for guitar.
  • The use of the Echoplex tape delay inside the world of mixing and crafting interesting tones.
  • The repetition of simple delay patterns to create amazing textures, as heard on Brian Eno’s album “Music for Airports.”

Favorite Delay Tools

Some of the most popular delay tools used by musicians include:

  • Digital delay pedals: offering a range of delay times and effects.
  • Tape delay emulators: recreating the sound of vintage tape delays.
  • Delay plugins: allowing for precise control over delay parameters in a DAW.

Overall, delay effects have become an essential tool for musicians in a wide range of genres, from electronic music to acoustic guitar playing. The creative uses of delay continue to inspire musicians to experiment with this versatile effect.

The History of Delay Effects

Delay effects have been used in music production since the early twentieth century. The first approach to delay was through playback, where sounds were recorded and played back at a later time. This allowed for subtle or pronounced blending of previous sounds, creating dense layers of musical patterns. The invention of artificial delay utilised transmission lines, storage and station, to transmit signals hundreds of miles away from the city or country they were taken from. The outward journey of electrical signals through copper wire conductor was incredibly slow, approximately 2/3 of a million meters per second. This meant that physically long lines were required in order to delay the input signal long enough to be returned and mixed with the original signal. The aim was to enhance the quality of the sound, and this form of practical delay was fixed infrastructure, usually provided by a company.

How Delay Works

Delay works by sending the input signal through a delay unit, which then runs the signal through a constant writing and magnetising current. The magnetisation pattern is proportional to the result of the input signal and is stored in the delay unit. The ability to record and play back this magnetisation pattern allows for the delay effect to be reproduced. The length of the delay can be adjusted by changing the time between the input signal and the playback of the magnetisation pattern.

Analog Delay

Analog delay is an old method of delay effect that employs a unit with recorded echos that are naturally duplicated and adjusted to produce varying rhythmic intervals. The invention of analog delay was highly complex, and it allowed for additional means of expression in music production. The first analog delay processors were based on electric motors, which were highly complex mechanisms allowing for modification of the echosonic sounds.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Analog Delay

Analog delay systems offered a natural and periodic sound that was highly suited to a variety of music genres. They allowed for experimentation with position and combination of echos, and the ability to erase echos if needed. However, they also had some inconveniences, such as the demand for maintenance and the need to replace the magnetic tape heads regularly.

Overall, analog delay systems provided a unique and expressive means of adding depth and presence to music production, and they continue to be used by many musicians and producers today.

Digital Delay

Digital delay is a delay effect that employs digital signal processing techniques to produce echoes of a recorded or live sound. The invention of digital delay came in the late 1970s, when digital audio technology was still in its early stages of development. The first digital delay unit was the Ibanez AD-900, which used a sampling technique to record and playback a short period of sound. This was followed by the Eventide DDL, AMS DMX, and Lexicon PCM 42, which were all expensive and sophisticated units that grew in popularity in the 1980s.

The Capabilities of Digital Delay

Digital delay units are capable of much more than simple echo effects. They can be used to create looping, filtering, and modulation effects, employing a variety of additional means of expression. Digital delay processors are also upgradeable, allowing users to add new features and functions as they become available. Some digital delay units are even capable of stretching and scaling the input signal, creating a pure and natural sound that is free from the inconvenience of periodic motors and mechanisms.

Computer Software

In recent years, delay effects have become abundant in computer software. With the development of personal computers, software offers practically limitless memory and greater flexibility than hardware signal processing. Delay effects in computer software are available as plugins that can be added to digital audio workstations (DAWs) and offer a wide range of functionality to emulate sounds that were earlier only possible with analog or digital hardware.

Basic Delay Effects Parameters Explained:

The delay time is the amount of time it takes for the delayed signal to repeat. This can be controlled by turning the delay time knob or by tapping the tempo on a separate controller. The delay time is measured in milliseconds (ms) and can be synced to the tempo of the music using the DAW’s BPM (beats per minute) reference.

  • Delay time can be set to match the tempo of the music or used stylistically to create a longer or shorter delay effect.
  • Longer delay times can produce a distant, thickening feeling while shorter delay times can be used to create a quick slapback effect.
  • Delay time is dependent on the musical context and should be controlled accordingly.


The feedback control determines how many successive repeats occur after the initial delay. This can be turned up to create a repeating echo effect or turned down to produce a single delay.

  • Feedback can be used to create a sense of space and depth in a mix.
  • Too much feedback can cause the delay effect to become overwhelming and muddy.
  • Feedback can be controlled using a button or knob on the delay effect.


The mix control determines the balance between the original signal and the delayed signal. This can be used to blend the two signals together or to create a more pronounced delay effect.

  • The mix control can be used to create a subtle or pronounced delay effect depending on the desired outcome.
  • A mix of 50/50 will result in an equal balance between the original signal and the delayed signal.
  • The mix control can be adjusted using a knob or slider on the delay effect.


The freeze function captures a moment in time and holds it, allowing the user to play over it or manipulate it further.

  • The freeze function can be used to create ambient pads or to capture a specific moment in a performance.
  • The freeze function can be controlled using a button or switch on the delay effect.

Frequency and Resonance

The frequency and resonance controls shape the tone of the delayed signal.

  • The frequency control can be used to boost or cut specific frequencies in the delayed signal.
  • The resonance control can be used to increase or decrease the resonance of the delayed signal.
  • These controls are typically found on more advanced delay effects.

Where to Position Delay Effects in Your Signal Chain

When it comes to setting up your signal chain, it can be easy to feel confused about where to position different effects pedals and devices. However, taking the time to establish a suitably organized chain can help you shape your overall tone and amplify the function of each individual piece of gear.

Basic Principle of Operation

Before we dive into the specifics of where to place your delay effects, let’s briefly remind ourselves of how delay works. Delay is a time-based effect that creates rhythmic repeats of the original signal. These repeats can be adjusted in terms of their timing, decay, and other components to provide a natural or unnatural ambience to your sound.

Benefits of Putting Delay in the Right Place

Placing your delay effects in the right position can have a great impact on your overall sound. Here are some of the benefits of establishing a well-organized signal chain:

  • Avoiding noisy or irritating noises caused by placing effects in the wrong order
  • Compressors and delays can work great together to create unique sounds
  • The right combinations of delays and reverbs can provide attractive ambience to your performance
  • Placing delay effects in the right position can help you establish your own personal style and tone

Where to Place Delay Effects

Now that we understand the benefits of establishing a well-organized signal chain, let’s take a look at where to position delay effects specifically. Here are some suggestions:

  • At the beginning of your chain: Placing delay effects at the beginning of your signal chain can help you establish a unique tone and shape the overall sound of your performance.
  • After compressors: Compressors can help you stay in control of your tone, and placing delay effects after them can help you avoid boomy or unnatural consequences.
  • Before reverbs: Delay effects can help you create rhythmic repeats that reverbs can then enhance, providing a natural ambience to your sound.

Other Considerations

Of course, the exact placement of your delay effects will depend on the type of music you’re playing, the physical tools you have at your disposal, and your personal style. Here are some additional things to keep in mind:

  • Experiment with different combinations of delays, phasers, and flangers to find what works best for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or suggestions from more seasoned guitarists or sound engineers.
  • Stay flexible and don’t conform to a formula – the most attractive sounds are often created by standing out and marking your own unique style.


So there you have it – a delay effect is a tool that allows musicians to create a repeated sound effect. It’s a very useful tool for musicians to add interest to their songs. It can be used on vocals, guitars, drums, and pretty much any instrument. So don’t be afraid to experiment!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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