The Beginner’s Guide to Using Tape Delay on Vocals

Top engineers are always looking for ways to take on more creative control in the mix process, and time-based effects are one of the first tools they reach for to get them there. For most, a good tape delay or reverb is worth its weight in gold (not just figuratively, but literally when they can contribute to the sound that defines a gold record).

But all engineers face similar challenges when starting out: they all must learn to make their effects sit well in the mix. Using too much of an effect can make your source audio unintelligible, or worse, snap your listener out of the moment because “something doesn’t sound right”.

Here are a few quick steps to get you up and running with one of the most tried and true uses of time-based processing: Tape Delay on Your Vocals.

De-Essing Saves Ears

A vocal is a very sibilant source, and tape delays aren’t too forgiving if your singer is hissing away the lyrics. Due to the nature of tape, sibilance is can be accentuated in an analog or analog-modeled tape delay.

The fix is simple – overcompensate on the way in to avoid issues on the way out.

We’re lucky in the digital realm that adding a de-esser is as easy as inserting one on the channel prior to our delay. De-essers usually have few controls, and can be adjusted quickly for a simple fix. Need to pull out more once you dial-in your delay? No problem, just go back to the de-esser and pull it down a bit more.

Best of all, your source audio can remain unaffected by the de-esser, giving you complete control over your sound.

Lo-Fi = High Quality

In a somewhat counter-intuitive statement – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that lower fidelity delays are drastically more effective and “gluing” your vocals into a mix than an exact copy of your source audio might. Why?

Exact clones of your source are distracting. While there are times where this might be desirable, having your vocal delay ring out as if you have two will break the magic of a good mix.

Instead, play around with the Health of your tape delay. Take advantage of Speed, Flutter & other controls that might bring a lo-fi quality to your delay.

In return, you’ll get a lush, unique sound from your delay that can settle any vocal into a mix. Just like distortion can improve guitar tone, distortions to your delay can improve your vocal mix.

Adding Dimension to Your Vocals

Multi-head delays are a great tool for adding both width and depth to your vocals. By utilizing multi-head functionality, engineers can create varying combinations of delays – adding to the overall complexity of the delay sound.

Similarly, adding additional repeats (or feedback) can contribute to the intricacy of your delay. More repeats are going to allow your delay to become more of a soundscape than a single repeat can. Feedback can be looped back into the tape delay to create more spacious ambiance around your vocal.

Both elements can be hugely beneficial to the end vocal mix, and deserve some experimentation any time you’re looking to get creative with time-based effects.

Getting Creative

There are tons of tricks out there that can lead to insane tape delay effects. Because of the dynamic aspects of a tape delay, playing with automation can give you some otherworldly results (go ahead and automate the delay time to its minimum setting at the end of a line if you don’t believe me).

To pull every bit of creativity out of a tape delay, we’ve seen engineers do everything from daisy-chaining multiple delays to reversing their source audio, running it through the delay, and reversing it again once printed for a haunting reverse delay effect.

There is no “wrong way” to test the waters with tape delays – the only thing you can do wrong is not giving them a shot to see what you’re missing?

Ready to Add Tape Delay to Your Next Mix?

If you’re just starting out with tape delays, we recommend getting a plugin that has been tried and tested with as many features as possible. Our go-to is SOAR, which has everything from Health and Tape Speed to Multi-Head and Feedback options.

Once you get a chance to try it out, share the approach that works best for you with the rest of us over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. Happy mixing!