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How to Chain Effects

When chaining effects, there are some combinations that work well at accomplishing particular tasks or achieving specific timbres. For example, using an 1176 with fast attack and release times, then reverberating low frequencies by about 10% or less works very well on a kick drum.

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Emphasis, De-emphasis Chain

So I know you know how to chain effects by putting one effect after another, but we’ll cover 11 different specific small chains that I think we’ll be really helpful and can be used wherever needed.

An emphasis, de-emphasis chain is kind of a classic combo, in which you start with an additive EQ to emphasize a certain range or ranges. Then you’ll usually compress or saturate, and then follow that effect with an EQ that’s equal and opposite to the first one.

This way we make the middle processor work harder on the frequencies we emphasized, but balance out the response with the de-emphasis EQ. Let’s take a listen

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Subtractive EQ into Compression

This is one I use a lot - in short, I use an EQ to attenuate any aspects of the signal that I want less of or that don’t sound right and then compress. The reason I do this is to avoid amplifying these unwanted aspects of the response.

Granted, compression attenuates the signal, but in the long run will amplify quieter parts of the performance, especially when make-up gain is applied.

Let’s take a listen.

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Peak into RMS Compression

If you want a fair amount of dynamic control over your signal, I find combining peak and then RMS compression to be really helpful. Peak will compress from the peaks down whereas RMS will compress from the average loudness down - combined they compress a good amount without unwanted artifacts.

Let’s take a listen and notice how this combo works better than if we were to use peak down compression aggressively to achieve the same amount of attenuation.

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Parallel Comp & Saturation, Into Upward

This combo is great for creating a super dense sound that can be blended in as needed - I’ll start with a parallel send, on which I’ll use somewhat aggressive compression, followed by saturation to introduce harmonics. Then I’ll use upward compression to bring quieter details forward.

The compression lowers the peaks, saturation creates a full and complex signal, and the upward processor amplifies the first 2 processors from the noise floor up. Let’s take a listen and blend in the effect with the channel fader.

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1176 into Reverb for Kick

If we want a really impressive kick that cuts through a mix, we can start with an 1176 compressor, with faster attack and release times to distort our transient - in turn adding to the click and punch of the kick. Like previous chapters, make-up gain will amplify quieter details.

Then I’ll introduce subtle low-frequency reverb with a higher decay time to fill the low-frequency range and add sustain to the kick.

Let’s listen to how this works great for rock kicks.

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EQ into Saturation for Lo-fi

For a quick and useful lo-fi sound, first, use EQ to isolate the response to the mid frequencies with high and low pass filters, and some bell filters at the cutoffs to create resonances. Then introduce saturation and utilize it somewhat aggressively depending on the sound you want to achieve.

The more you cut out of the frequency response and saturate, the more significant the lo-fi nature of the effect will become.

Let’s take a listen to it.

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Downward Compression into Transient Expansion

This one seems counter-intuitive since compression will attenuate transients, but if we use compression to create a denser sound, subsequent transient expansion will build off of the more dynamically controlled signal. This results in a full, dense, and detailed sound that still retains dynamics.

I like the effect a lot on drums but could work well on synths, rhythm guitars, and anything you want to sound full but detailed.

Let’s take a listen to it used on a drum bus.

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Vocal Compression into Additive EQ

This one's pretty simple - I use a compressor with quick attack, quick release, lookahead, and make-up gain to bring the vocal forward significantly. Then I insert an EQ and amplify 2-5kHz, and maybe the fundamental, to give the vocal presence and power respectively.

If you’re looking for a modern vocal sound that cuts through a mix, this is, at least in my experience, the quickest way to get close to that. Let’s take a listen.

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Reverb into Side-chained Compression

Pre-delay on reverb works well at keeping the reverberated signal’s detail, but I’ve found this works better. I use reverb as a send for whatever I want to reverberate, then I insert a compressor with its external side chain set to the dry, non-reverberated signal.

The compressor will attenuate the beginning of the reverb, letting the signal come through a bit dryer before the reverb returns to its original amplitude.

What I really like about this is the ability to alter the knee, ratio, attack, and release of the compressor to shape the reverb’s behavior. Let’s listen and notice how our reverberated signal retains its clarity.

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Delay into Side Chained Compression

Let’s do the same thing we did in the last chapter, but this time with delay. Some delay plugins let you introduce ducking, or compression of the delay based on the dry signal, but again, this setup gives us a lot of control over the behavior of the temporal effect.

Let’s take a listen and notice how attenuating the first moments of the delay helps retain the signal’s clarity.

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Soothe 2 After Additive Processing

I added this one last since I know not everyone has this plugin, but it can be really useful at the end of a chain before adding temporal effects like reverb and delay. For example, on a vocal, I can first use subtractive EQ, compression, saturation, and additive EQ.

Then to ensure the signal is balanced I’ll add soothe 2 which will attenuate any resonances originally present in the vocal, as well as any added or exacerbated by previous processing.

Let’s take a listen and notice how it adds a subtle but needed layer of control to the signal, that helps it sound more polished.

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