Delay is one of those effects that can often form the basis for the whole sound of a track – it can turn regular synth or guitar riffs into intricate arpeggiated patterns that would seem impossible to program or play manually; and not forgetting that the whole Dub genre owes much of it’s sound to the skeletal and stripped-down track arrangements treated with healthy doses of spacious analogue delays.
Of course, delay also has many more subtle uses in a mix, particularly when used in conjunction with other effects – reverb, distortion, pitch modulation etc. Delay also comes in a variety of different flavours depending on which technology is used to create the repeats. So, in case you ever wondered why vintage delay units are so desirable, and why we would want to model them in modern plugins, read the brief history below. You might then see the Top 10 Delays below that in a different light…
Delay: A Quick Pocket History
Tape delay: Prominent during the late ’50s through the ’60s. The principle behind a tape delay is pretty simple. Inside the large casing there’s an intricately coiled tape loop that can run uninterrupted through the machine (i.e. it’s not a reel, but is free flowing). On the front of the machine the tape runs through several recording and playback heads (or ‘taps’)., and the delay times are created and adjusted by physically moving the heads forward or backward. For instance, by increasing the distance between the record and playback heads, the delay time would increase accordingly.
Because of the essentially mechanical nature of the processing, there is always a certain amount of “wow” and “flutter” (read incidental, uncontrolled modulation of the sound) as the tape loop goes around. But before you write off tape delay as being unpredictable and old fashioned, you should know that it is precisely this organic, ‘musical’ effect on sounds that makes tape delay so revered even today. The aural results of these small mechanical variations range from subtle random phasing to flanging and chorus-type effects, and it is these tiny imperfections that can bring the sort of life to effected material that straight digital delays simply cannot recreate (unless they are modelled on vintage delay algorithms, more of which later).
One particular model, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, has become a staple in pretty much every forward-thinking studio of the 70’s and far beyond, much loved by everyone from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby and the other dub innovators, to Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, The Clash and, famously, Radiohead.
Analogue delay: Analogue delays were introduced in the ‘70s as a more practical, cost-effective, and easily transportable alternative to tape delay units.
However, analogue delays didn’t really sound like tape delays. The output of the delay is much more ‘lo-fi’, especially as delay time is increased – the delays tend to quickly degrade over time (unlike tape delays, which were closer copies of the original sound). This was generally considered a downside at the time, and when ‘perfect’ digital delay appeared in the 80’s, many people ditched their analogue delay units. But since then, as with tape delay, analogue has found its place in the musicians toolbox, because of those ‘limitations’ that turned out to be defining characteristics.
Some classic examples of analogue delay units and guitar pedals are the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, Boss DM-2 and DM-100 models, and the modern-but-rare Moog Moogerfooger MF104 series.
Digital delay: With the advent of digital delay units in the ‘80s, delay times and fidelity were no longer issues. Now, some people say digital delays are cold and lifeless in comparison with tape and analogue types, but the thing to remember here is that every tool has it’s own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and digital delay is no different. For more electronic or dance styles where hyper-accurate tempo-sync’ed delay’s are important, digital accuracy is great. And with huge delay times and great sound quality, digital delay can be inserted into a large string of other effects, leading to that many more creative options, without suffering quality loss.
Again, Boss pedals are favourites, particularly the DD-3 and DD-7; in the studio, the TC 2290 rack unit from TC Electronic became something of an industry standard digital delay.
Of course when it comes to plugins, they’re all digital – but it’s useful to know the background of those plugins that are modelled on old tape or analogue hardware, so that you can make more informed creative decisions when you’re mixing, and find the best tool for each situation.
The 10 Best Delay Plugins – The List
1) PSP 85
This delay plugin’s origins can be traced back to the classic Lexicon PCM 42 hardware rack unit, which was also officially emulated by PSP. But this version takes everything quite a bit further: someone said its like a pair of Lexicons on steroids, with enhanced filter and reverb sections, and a rather innovative built-in sidechain feature that allows you to duck the delays around an external ‘key’ source if you want. This is great if highly compressed-sounding, rhythmic effects are your thing, and makes a welcome change from the usual go-to tempo-sync’ed delay effects.
Perhaps the only downside is the slightly cramped interface, especially compared to some of the other plugins featured here – but the sound and overall flexibility of the PSP 85 mean it has to be in the Top 10 regardless.BUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
2) Ohm Force Ohmboyz
My personal favourite, and the go to delay plugin in my collection. Ohm Force are one of the most fun and slightly mad/genius audio software companies around and all their plugins are great by the way, check them out if you haven’t already (you can follow the link just below).
This thing has a character all of it’s own, with just the right number of controls and parameters to make some really complicated or extreme effects very easily, but it also possesses the subtlety and ‘musical’ tone that makes it easy to fit into tracks.BUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
3) Soundtoys EchoBoy
EchoBoy is the sort of plugin you end up putting on every channel when you’re mixing a track – it does some of the best emulations of vintage delay units, but it also has it’s own distinctive sound and control set which make it one of the best go-to plugins of any kind around. As we mentioned in the recent update to our 10 Best Reverb Plugins article, it’s algorithms can be happily pressed into reverb and other ambience duties as well.
As we also noted here, Soundtoys have just released the long-awaited new update to their entire plugin range, Soundtoys 5, so there’s never been a better time to invest in the EchoBoy magic, along with all the other superb effects. Highly recommended.BUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
4) Waves SuperTap
SuperTap comes in 2- and 6- tap versions – this refers to the number of discreet delays you can send the signal through, enabling you to build some really complex delay patterns – panned and modulated all over the place – with an easy and fun graphic slider for each tap.
Not exactly a go-to delay then, unless you’re making trance music or something else that’s requires a lot of really intricate and modulating delays. However, when you’re looking for something that’s easily and so visually tweakable, Supertap is always a good place to start.
I’ve also used this plugin for sound design work for films – it has a vector graph for placing each of the delays in ‘space’ i.e. front to back as well as left to right, which is always handy when you’re trying to match sounds to a visual environment. Can be a bit extreme for films outside the sci-fi genre though… :)BUY NOW via Waves.
Also see: SuperTap is one of five great plugins included in the Waves Musician 1 Bundle.
5) Fabfilter Timeless 2
Everyone loves Fabfilter plugins, both for the sound and also for the simple but inspiring interfaces. There’s a little bit of Ableton Live-ness in the design to me, especially with the little draggable nodes on the graph displays.
But quite apart from all that, this plugin is actually way more than a basic delay (although it does tape-style delay very well). It’s one of the best plugins for creatively mangling sounds for all sorts of different effects.
With Timeless 2 left and right channels can be treated completely separately, with diferent filtering and modulation, so you can create very complex-sounding and spacious effects pretty easily. There’s also an alternative mode which can be really useful for keeping your crazy delay lines uncluttered and focused without the need for extra plugins to do the tidying: mid/side mode. This splits the signal to the sides and the centre (mono), allowing you to put heavier delays on the outside edges of the sound whilst keeping the middle relatively dry.
This second version also features a Freeze Buffer – with this you can store a snippet of incoming audio in the plugin, and loop it continually while you tweak all the filter and modulation controls.BUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
6) PSP 608 MultiDelay
Probably the most feature-packed delay plugin around, this one almost feels like a great emulation of a nice old hardware effects box that never actually existed… with a few extra bells and whistles thrown in for good measure. It’s got a great smooth sound (as you would expect from PSP), ranging from vintage tape-style delays to more weird and experimental effects. The presets folder is large and good fun to browse through, showing off its range. The core of the plugin are the 8 highly controllable delay taps, each of which also feature independent filters, good reverb and a particularly nice Drive control for added saturation.
If you’re in the market for experimental delays, try this, or alternatively Native Instrument Spektral Delay (a close runner up in this list). Or of course the already-mentioned Ohm Force Ohmboyz!BUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
7) Audio Damage Dubstation 2
Dubstation 2 is modelled after a number of vintage delay boxes that used a system called ‘bucket brigade’ to create their delays (the system was developed in the late 1960’s and was so-called because of the way the analogue signal was passed between several capacitors, like a line of people passing buckets of water, to create the individual delays).
This makes these old units, and the Dubstation plugin, a generally interesting and useful alternative to either your typical vintage tape or crisp digital delay effects – it falls somewhere between the two extremes.
More info here.
8) Waves H-Delay
Another delay plugin that many say harks back to the good old days of analogue effects units, coupled with the obvious convenience (and reduced likelihood of circuits melting and the thing blowing up etc. hehe) afforded by our more reliable digital times. Wow, that really does make outboard gear sound fairly pre-historic… How did any of us cope in the outboard age, with our studios apparently threatening to fall to bits around us at any moment..? :)
This is a favourite of some of the film post engineers I’ve worked with, probably owing to it’s incredibly intuitive interface that makes bringing up and tweaking effects settings fast and simple. And it sounds amazing too, of course.BUY NOW via Waves.
9) Avid / Line6 Echo Farm
A favourite with guitarists, Echo Farm is the go-to tape delay for Avid Pro Tools users.
Echo Farm has been been around for a while, and has only ever been available in TDM format for Pro Tools users – but perhaps because of this, it also has one of the most dedicated fanbases, who generally fall in love with the officially licensed emulations of classic delays including the Maestro EP-1 Tube Echoplex and EP-3 Echoplex, Roland RE-101 Space Echo (see below for more on this one), Boss DM-2 Analog Delay (one of the classic ‘bucket brigade’ units mentioned above), and the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man.BUY NOW via Amazon.
10) Universal Audio Roland RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay
As mentioned at the top, the original hardware Roland RE-201 Space Echo pretty much sums up the romance of pre-digital delay – this is highlighted by the fact that many software delay plugins (including many in this list) still feature their own take on the Space Echo sound, whether they are acknowledged as such or not.
With this one however, Universal Audio pulled off the same trick as they achieved with their version of the EMT 140 Plate Reverb I mentioned here; licensed by the original manufacturers to spend over a year working out how to emulate the delicate characteristics of the analogue unit in plugin form.
This plugin is a perfect example of the best of old and new technology, and is just one of the best audio plugins available full-stop. It’s got so much warmth and character, and crucially it’s hands-on (or at least as hands-on as plugins get): there’s not too much programming, selecting from menus and number-crunching to be done; just start turning the dials and it feels as though you are literally moulding and pressing the sound into the shape you want.
Available for Mac and PC users of a UAD-2 DSP Accelerator PCIe card (installed inside a PC), UAD-2 Satellite DSP Accelerator (standalone hardware units), or one of Apollo series of audio interfaces. The current lowest-budget DSP hardware option for gaining access to UA plugins is the Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Audio Interface with Realtime UAD SOLO Processing.
What’s your favourite delay? Feel free to leave a comment!