Disclosure: We may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, our opinions are not for sale.
Learn how to effectively use effects and audio processing plugins.
Apply creative and experimental strategies to define your own sound.
Here are 5 practical tips for creative sound design.
Getting Creative With Audio Effects/Plugins
Although it’s easy to take effects for granted, how often do we stop to consider exactly what an effect is in the context of making music?
Effects are certainly expressive and making the case that they are instruments in their own right would be a noble hill to die on.
In this article…
We’ll reinforce your pre-existing knowledge about how effects work
Introduce some new ideas,
And provide examples you can listen to.
Above all, my goal here is to encourage you to think of how effects get used in the creative process beyond just being “tools”.
My 5 Creative Sound Design Tips
1. Build Familiarity With Effects
This is sort of a meta-rule but an important one to deal with first.
What this means is play around with them when you’re not busy making music. Become familiar with what the different controls do and build associations.
Perhaps make some samples to use later in your compositions. Remember that the character of some controls will be affected by others.
For example, the rate of an LFO will be redundant if the depth is set to 0 and the ratio on a compressor is useless if the threshold is too high.
Going back to the idea of effects as instruments in their own right, this is you practicing your instrument.
Eventually, you will know how the effect will alter the sound before you even hear it. If you’re worried this sounds too technical, the point is to have fun!
In the same way musicians imagine chords and notes in music they write themselves, sound designers can build enough familiarity with effects and processing to imagine how sounds will change when altered with EQ, filters, chorus, reverb, and any other process they are familiar with.
This is an important skill not only for mixing but also for guiding your creativity when experimenting. You’re probably already doing this without realizing it.
It’s ok if you’re starting out and don’t have enough familiarity with the specifics to know how to achieve exactly what you’re imagining.
You’ll be surprised how quickly you pick it up, the more you practice the more it becomes a reflex rather than a head-scratcher.
2. Save Your Effect Racks/Chains
This tip is pretty self-explanatory and strongly linked to the first one: if you have an effect setting you are familiar with and use often, save it as a preset in a convenient spot so you can call it up instantly whenever it is needed.
If you plan on making music for many years to come, and I hope you do, all that time spent manually calling up the exact same settings each time is a huge waste.
Unless you really enjoy the mental challenge of doing things the long, tedious way (you weirdo) it’s a no-brainer that we want to save as much time as possible when it comes to the creative workflow.
Saving presets in individual plugins is easy enough and certainly helpful, but what about entire effects chains?
This will come down to your DAW but most will do this in one way or another.
In Ableton Live, this is called an ‘Effect Rack’ which acts as a container for multiple VSTs and native effects.
Effect racks can be dropped onto any track just like a normal effect, you can also attach macro controls that map to multiple settings so all your sound shaping options are in one place.
Effect racks can also contain other effect racks, plus the ability to add numerous chains side by side means parallel processing becomes a breeze.
3. Use Parallel Effect Chains
If you’re not sure what this means, let’s first look at a simple effects chain.
Here you can see the effects are in series, the output of the chorus goes into the reverb, and the reverb goes into the EQ. We’ll call this a serial chain.
In parallel chains, two or more separate serial chains are mixed together. This is advantageous for a number of reasons.
For starters, heavily layered sounds are achievable in real-time, no more tedious rendering for each layer. Parallel effect chains lend themselves to thick textures and spacious stereo effects with delays.
In a serial chain, a single effect can drastically alter the whole sound leaving you with fewer options sonically.
Consider a fuzz effect completely obliterating a signal, or a highpass filter ensuring no bass can be heard under any circumstances.
In parallel chains, these effects do not have as strict of an influence on the overall sound, and their sonic characteristics can still be present without taking over.
Filters and EQ help in this area by carving out frequencies you don’t want in each chain, whether they are unwanted or just already well represented in the others.
In this audio example, a synth chord progression repeats three times.
The first time around, no effects are added. The second time around a fuzz effect is applied, distorting everything in a rather harsh and unpleasant manner.
The final repeat features a simple parallel chain that still has the fuzz effect, but this time it is filtered and then mixed back in with the original dry signal.
Parallel processing means even a brutal, harsh effect like fuzz can still be used subtly.
4. Go Extreme!
Too often we use effects in more or less the same way each time. We all have our favorite ways of using compressors, chorus, flangers, what have you.
There’s nothing wrong with this — if anything it shows you have built some familiarity with the effect and know how you want to use it (see tip #1 if you skipped over it).
Now it’s time to take it a step further, move out of our comfort zones, and push things into unchartered territory. After all, lots of great sound design comes down to informed experimentation and happy accidents.
In this example, many Live effects have been pushed to the extreme!
Delay time is extremely short, feedback is high, phasers are fast, compressors are brick-walled.
Listen to how the dry drum break becomes robotic mincemeat the second time around. Anyone into industrial or experimental music will probably find it much more interesting. With the harmonically rich bass line in the example, this extreme effect creates a feeling of muted chaos ready to be unleashed before the drop.
It’s exciting, psychedelic, absolutely irresistible. Sometimes it can be a little too easy to reach for, but there’s no reason to give it up entirely.
Delay is an incredibly versatile effect. In fact, in the DSP world, many effects we are familiar with – such as flange, chorus, and reverb – all use delay lines to some extent.
Chances are, most times you use delay it is in a rhythmic fashion, synced to the song’s tempo, with some level of feedback to create successive echoes.
While this is fine, let’s try something radical: turn down the feedback…all the way down.
Yes, feedback sounds cool but it’s often too easy to just rely on the delay tails to create interest in your mix.
What’s worse, this ends up filling in space in your mix where more vibrant elements could potentially be, so try to only use feedback when absolutely necessary.
If it’s adding a level of atmosphere that can’t be achieved any other way then play ball. But if you’re just adding feedback because it ‘sounds cool’ then consider trying some different approaches.
Now that the feedback is down, the effect is less of an echo and more of a single repeat. This creates rhythmic effects that are tight, defined, and rhythmic with intent. Listen to this audio example…
First time around, the melody plays without any effects. The second time, an effect chain is applied that has 3 parallel components: one chain is the dry signal, and the other two are delays with different times.
The third time the melody plays, a different chain is applied with just two components, a dry chain and a chain with two delays in series. In all cases, there is no feedback on any of the delays yet we still get the bouncey fun that feedback provides.
Why Even Use Audio Effects, Anyway?
Even the most organic, lavender-scented folk-rock album will have some degree of processing in the mixing and mastering stage as the engineers strive to achieve the best translation of the song for all common listening setups.
These days, many of us are simultaneously creators and engineers, even if we still hand our music over to qualified professionals for mixing and mastering.
This role has its roots in dub music, where studio engineers broke through as musicians in their own right by manipulating and remixing other works into new compositions, prominently featuring delay, filtering and other effects we still use today.
There is so much to look at with effects, a whole article could be written about any one of these points, so consider this just a crash course on the art of effects.
Effects are not merely tools we use to get the same result each time, they are a part of the creative process.
If you’re not willing to accept that effects are instruments in their own right, you can at least consider them important parts of instruments as they extend the synths and samples in your collection in countless ways.
Most synth presets will feature at least one effect to spice things up – try turning them off next time to hear how a hit-making patch can become a boring dud with just a single ingredient missing.
Finally, if you’re reading this and are feeling the urge to build up your effects library, we’ve got you covered. We’ve already written about the best free EQs VSTs as well as the best free compressors! There’s nothing stopping you from building up your arsenal of VST effects and creating some wicked new sounds in your DAW right now.