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How to use a delay pedal

In this article we'll dive into the world of delay pedals, exploring their features and giving tips on how to dial them in.

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Delay pedals are remarkable tools for guitarists. They add depth and richness to your tone and can be used for anything from enhancing the impact of a solo to crafting ethereal soundscapes. For countless guitarists, the creative inspiration sparked by using a delay pedal has been a stepping stone to reaching new levels of musical expression.

Over the years, delay has played a significant role in shaping the sound of guitar music across genres. It has added that magical touch to many of the songs that have shaped the sound of modern guitar music - from the vintage slapback delays of the rockabilly era, to the scorching solos of the '80s, and the atmospheric soundscapes of modern post-rock.

In this article we'll dive into the world of delay pedals, exploring their features and giving tips on how to dial them in.

    What does a delay pedal do?

    A delay pedal records a portion of the audio signal coming from your instrument and plays it back multiple times after a predetermined time. This creates an echo-like effect, with the delayed sound typically being quieter than the original signal and decaying and fading out over time.

    The controls on the pedal let you shape the delayed sound in various ways. You can adjust how many times the delayed sound repeats, the duration before the delayed sound kicks in, and the balance between the original and delayed signals.

    Delay adds depth and dimension to your tone. You can dial in anything from a snappy slapback echo, to long, cascading repeats that fill the sonic landscape.

    Often, delay is used to add a textured layer of richness to guitar solos, making each note stand out with greater emotional impact.

    Different types of delays

    Primarily, there are three different types of delays; tape, analog, and digital. Each one has a set of unique characteristics.

    Tape delay

    Originating in the early days of recording technology, tape delay was initially created by using reel-to-reel tape machines. The tape would record the incoming signal and then play it back after a set period, creating an echo effect.

    Because of the analog nature of tape, tape delays often have a warm, vintage character with subtle imperfections that add to their charm. Modern tape delay pedals aim to replicate this nostalgic vibe and often feature controls to emulate the irregularities that vintage models would produce naturally.

    Analog delay

    Analog delay pedals use bucket-brigade device (BBD) chips to create warm and organic sounding echoes. The BBD chip passes the signal through a chain of capacitors, each adding a slight delay to the signal as it passes along. This process inherently colors the tone, typically resulting in a warmer and darker sounding delay.

    Because of the warm sound they produce, analog delays are great for adding a rich, subtle layer over your sound that doesn’t overshadow your original tone.

    Digital delay

    Digital delay pedals sample the incoming signal and then play it back with pristine accuracy. Unlike tape or analog delays which color and degrade the delayed sound, digital delays maintain a crystal-clear echo that can last for infinity on some pedals. This means your original tone remains intact and well-defined even during longer delay times.

    Most digital delay pedals come packed with features such as multiple delay types, tap tempo, and the ability to precisely control the timing and feedback of the delay, making them highly versatile and customizable.

    Typical controls on a delay pedal

    Though the features of delay pedals range from simple to highly sophisticated, there are three essential controls that appear across the majority of different models:

    • Time: controls the amount of time it takes for the delayed sound to kick in after you play a note. The delay time is usually measured in milliseconds (ms).

    • Feedback: controls the number of times the delayed sound will repeat.  Lower settings result in fewer repeats, and higher settings can even produce infinite loops.

    • Mix / level: controls the balance between your original “dry” signal and the delayed “wet” sound. At zero, only the dry signal is heard, while at maximum, the wet signal dominates.

    Other common controls include:

    • Tone: the tone control lets you shape the sound of the delay. Use it to dial in a brighter or darker echo, depending on your preference.

    • Tap tempo: this feature, often a separate footswitch on the pedal, allows you to manually set the delay time by tapping it in rhythm with your song. This is especially useful for making sure the delay matches your song's tempo.

    • Modulation: some pedals offer modulation controls, which add a chorus or vibrato-like effect to your delay for a richer sound texture.

    • Subdivision: advanced delay pedals may have a subdivision feature that lets you divide your delay time into rhythmic patterns, like quarters, eighths, or dotted eighths, offering a more intricate sonic texture.

    • Mode: on digital delay pedals, you may find options to switch between different types of delay like tape, analog, or digital for example.

    • High / low pass filter: several delay pedals in Neural DSP guitar plugins feature a high / low pass filter knob that lets you adjust the frequency range and shape the tone of the delayed sound.

    The delay pedals in Archetype: Tom Morello, Archetype: Plini X, and Archetype: Rabea

    Where are delay pedals placed in the signal chain?

    Delay pedals are most commonly placed after overdrive, distortion, and modulation pedals but before reverb. By placing the delay after the gain effects like overdrive and distortion, the repeats inherit the characteristics of the distorted signal, creating a more cohesive sound. If you put the delay before the overdrive / distortion, each repeat would be increasingly distorted, which might result in a muddy texture.

    Placing the delay after modulation effects like chorus, phaser, or flanger ensures that the modulated signal gets delayed rather than the other way around. This gives you a more natural and musical echo rather than one that sounds overly processed.

    Additionally, having the delay before the reverb allows the reverb to naturally spread out and soften the edges of the delayed sounds, creating a more ambient and atmospheric texture. On the other hand, positioning the delay after the reverb can create a more pronounced and articulated repetition of the reverb's tail, giving you an echo-filled sonic landscape.

    Of course, these are merely suggestions, and the right placement for your delay pedal may vary based on your specific needs, equipment, and the particular sound you're aiming for.

    Experimentation is key. Don't hesitate to try different placements in your signal chain, you may uncover some rather unique sounds.

    How to dial in a delay pedal

    Before you start dialing in your pedal, try and think about what kind of a tone you're looking for. Do you want a fast, rockabilly-style slapback, a boost for your solo, or an ethereal wash for a dreamy passage?

    Start with the "time" knob to set the duration of the delay. A shorter time will give you a quicker echo, while a longer setting will create more space between the original signal and its repeated sound.

    Next, adjust the "feedback" control. This controls how many times the delayed sound will repeat. Lower settings will produce fewer repeats, while cranking it up will lead to multiple, or even infinite repeats.

    Use the "mix" or "level" knob for balancing the original “dry” signal with the “wet” delayed sound. A lower mix setting allows more of the original signal to come through, whereas a higher mix setting will make the delay more prominent.

    If your pedal has additional controls like "tone" or "modulation, you can use them to fine-tune your tone. Try them out and hear how they affect your sound.

    Additionally, always consider the musical context. Your guitar tone might sound great on its own but get lost in a band mix. Experiment and adjust as needed until your delay not only sounds good on its own but also complements the other instruments and the song as a whole.

    Try these commonly used delay settings

    Slapback delay

    A slapback delay creates a fast singular repeat that almost immediately follows your original tone. It makes your tone sound fuller and adds a sense of space.

    Originating from the early days of the rockabilly era, slapback delays are often used in genres like rock, blues, and country.

    Listen to Van Halen’s tone in Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love for a classic example of what a slapback delay sounds like. 

    • Time: between 50-200 milliseconds.

    • Feedback: keep it low, usually around 0-10%, so the sound only repeats once.

    • Mix / level: Adjust to taste, but generally, it should be set moderately to blend well with your dry signal.

    Try the preset “Fuzz Mid Push Strat Lead” in Archetype: Rabea for a fat sounding slapback delay.

    Moderate delay for leads

    A moderate delay will give your lead sections a fuller and richer sound without drowning them out. You should aim to add just enough delay to make each note sing a little sweeter and each phrase resonate a little longer, but don’t overdo it as it can make your tone washy.

    • Time: 300-500 milliseconds.

    • Feedback: Moderate, around 25-35%, for a few repeats.

    • Mix / level: 40-60%, set higher to make the delay more prominent and add more texture to your tone.

    The preset “Liquid Lead” in Archetype: Petrucci has a delay set that’s perfect for soloing. For a heavier lead delay, try the preset “John’s Hidden Gem” in the Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ Suite.

    Ambient / atmospheric delay

    For an ambient delay, set a long delay time and a high level of feedback. Adding a heavy reverb to your chain will compliment the delay and add an additional layer of space and depth.

    • Time: go for a long delay time, anywhere from 600-1000 milliseconds. This will allow the repeats to linger, enveloping your sound in a halo of echoes.

    • Feedback: set this high, around 50-75%. This will generate multiple repeats that decay gradually, adding to the dreamy quality of the sound.

    • Mix / level: set this moderately high, so that the delay is noticeable but not overwhelming.

    Try out the preset “Ambient Octave” in Archetype: Gojira for a deep and dreamy ambient tone.

    Dotted eighth note delay

    A dotted eighth note delay adds a rhythmic pattern to your sound as each delayed note interacts with the notes you're currently playing.

    You can hear this effect in the intro of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Gun’s N’ Roses, “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2, “Blue Light” by David Gilmour, “Flight Of The Bumblebee” by Nuno Bettencourt, or John Petrucci’s solo in “Surrounded” by Dream Theater just to mention a few examples.

    The effect adds a percussive rhythmic quality to melodic lines and sounds great when used with a clean or slightly overdriven tone.

    • Time: calculate the dotted eighth note duration based on your song's tempo by using a tempo-to-milliseconds calculator. Many digital delay pedals also have a subdivision function that allows you to easily select a dotted eighth note delay and a tap tempo function that lets you manually set the delay time by tapping it in rhythm with your song.

    • Feedback: Set to moderate, around 30-40%, to achieve a rhythmic cascade of notes.

    • Mix / level: Adjust to blend well with your dry signal, usually around 50% to make the delay noticeable but not overpowering.

    The preset “Dotted Delay” in Archetype: Tim Henson gives you a beautiful crystalline clean tone with a dotted eighth note delay. Complimenting the tone is a heavy chorus and a reverb with a shimmer effect.

    What is the difference between delay and reverb?

    While both delay and reverb are time-based effects that add depth and dimension to your sound, they do this in different ways and are used for distinct purposes in music.

    Delay captures a specific segment of the audio signal and plays it back after a set interval,  giving you calculated, rhythmic echoes that can be adjusted.

    Reverb, on the other hand, simulates the natural ambience and reflections of a physical space. Instead of producing distinct, timed echoes, it creates a series of reflections that decay over time, mimicking how sound behaves in different environments like a small room, a concert hall, or a cathedral for example. The tone it creates is more "washed out" and makes your instrument sound like it's part of a larger space.

    Both effects have their place and they're often used together to create rich soundscapes.

    What is the difference between a delay and a looper?

    While delays record a short portion of your signal, loopers can record entire phrases or sections of music that you can then play back in a loop. Loopers let you control when the recording starts and stops, allowing you to loop anything from a few notes to several minutes of music.

    The looped phrases usually sound exactly the same as the original sound, and you can typically overdub additional layers to create arrangements.

    Next steps

    Now that you've delved into the world of delay pedals, it’s time to start using them to shape your dream tones.

    Neural DSP guitar plugins feature a vast collection of delay pedals for you to try. All of our plugins come with a fully featured 14-day free trial, so you can experiment with different delay types risk-free.

    Always trust your ears when tweaking your delay settings. If a tone feels "right" and complements your musical vision, you've hit the sweet spot.

    At the end of the day, the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the creative process. Delay pedals are tools that can help you express yourself in new ways, so play around with them to see what you can come up with.

    To broaden your understanding of guitar effects, make sure you read our articles on how to use distortion and overdrive pedals.

    For an extensive look at guitar effects in general, browse through our catalog featuring over 70 high-quality guitar effects across our diverse range of guitar plugins.

    If you're a beginner in the world of guitar plugins, our getting started guides will help you at every step.

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