Making Your First Tune: A Guide For DJs, Part 3

Joey Santos
Read time: 3 mins
Last updated 29 April, 2016

Studio Sound
Want to get that polished, professional sound in your production? If you think your production sounds a little bit flat right now, we’re going to give it a little bit more depth and space in this week’s training.

We’re now more than half way into our Ableton Live training series, designed to get you from total beginner to first track made using nothing more than a commercial sample pack, the trial version of the software… and these tutorials, naturally. If you’ve been following along closely, give yourself a pat on the back: You’ve taken a big step forward by learning a new piece of music production software, and you’re almost done making your first tune as well!

If we spent majority of our time in the last video arranging our production, in this week’s training we’re going to focus on adding depth and space in our song. I’m going to introduce you to two important effect plugins that ship with Ableton Live called reverb and delay; I’m going to explain what they are exactly, and how they can be used in the context of your production.

I’ll also show you how you can program these effects to turn on and off or increase and decrease in intensity by making use of automation, which is a feature that you’ll be using often when you tweak and polish your production. So let’s start by learning a bit about them:

What is reverb?

Church Interior
Reverb can make your track sound like it’s in a large acoustic space like a church, in a small room, and anywhere you choose in-between.

Whenever we make a sound, like talking, singing, or clapping your hands, a portion of that sound travels straight to our ears, while the rest spreads out in the space you’re in and bounces off objects before going to your ears.

Our brains process these complex sounds by grouping them together, and these grouped sounds are what gives us the impression of being in an acoustic space. It’s how we can tell that we’re in the middle of a large concert venue or inside a library even if we’re blindfolded.

A reverb effect plugin simulates what it’s like to be in an acoustic space, and you’ll find that the reverb plugin in Ableton Live can simulate different venues like a hall or a church, and can be further customised and tweaked through the different parameters in the plugin.

Let’s try adding reverb to a track in our project. Follow along closely in the video to see how we can make use of Ableton Live’s mixer sends, which lets you add an effect to any number of tracks using only one copy of the effect plugin. This is particularly useful for giving multiple tracks in your production a sense of being in the same space while also saving computer resources since you don’t have to put several instances of the plugin per track.

What is delay?

Tape Delay
Delay is an effect that replicates a sound and is played back a few milliseconds or seconds later. In the analogue days, tape was used to record the sound and was played back through the effect unit.

Although delay can also be considered a “reflected” sound, it differs from reverb because the delay is an exact copy of a sound reproduced at a later time, so instead of creating the impression or idea of an acoustic space, delay just repeats a sound, like an echo. Think about shouting “Hey!” inside a large empty warehouse, and hearing that same “Hey!” sound bouncing back to you.

While reverb is used to give an instrument a sense of space, delay can be employed as an effect for stuff like lead synths and guitars, either to thicken them in the mix or to create a doubling sound.

Now let’s try adding some delay to our lead synth in the hook chunk in measure 41. Check out how I do it in the video using Live’s mixer sends again, and then go ahead and try it yourself.

How to automate lots of this stuff

Vintage Console
In the days of analogue recording, level and effect parameter changes had to be executed manually as a song was being mixed down to tape in a professional studio. Today, we can do this same process with a higher degree of accuracy and speed by writing automation in our digital audio workstation.

You can’t sit there tweaking stuff in real time all the time when producing tracks, like you do when DJing, right? After all you’ve only got two hands! That’s where automation comes in. So finally this episode – now that we’ve added some delay and reverb to our tracks – we can further modify their levels and behaviour by programming points where these effects turn on and off or change volume. This process is called “writing automation”, and is key to making your production ebb and flow instead of sounding like a static mix.

Actually, in the days before digital audio workstations and recording consoles with motorised faders, recording engineers had to manually make fader and knob adjustments on the fly as a song played during the mixdown process, usually requiring more than one person to help out (back to the “two hands” thing…) If even the slightest error was committed, the whole process had to begin again.

Today, we can simply program these in our DAW using a mouse, saving a lot of time and effort, particularly if we want to make changes to our mix later on. In the video I demonstrate the process for writing automation by placing automation breakpoints in measures throughout the song, so I suggest checking it see how it works…

The training video

Here are the other parts in this series:

Making Your First Tune: A Guide For DJs, Part 1
Making Your First Tune: A Guide For DJs, Part 2
Making Your First Tune: A Guide For DJs, Part 4

Give us your feedback!

Have any questions about reverb, delay, or writing automation? Any specific topics you’d want us to consider adding for our final training article next week? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, we’d love to hear from you.

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