Do I Record With Effects? A brief look at the good & the bad

You’ve probably heard about the history of various effects – delay, for example, was just one of quite a few classic effects created by studio guys being aggressive with their reel-to-reel tape decks and equipment. Back then the creative formula was to get in there, get dirty, extreme and risk it once in a while.

But nowadays, when such options as undo, copy/paste and save are available and just a click away in the digital environment, we tend to think twice before taking the smallest steps.

Anyhow… this comes to mind when recording process is pondered upon. Judging by what people are asking on various forums and discussion boards, many of us get quite uneasy when it comes to recording – a prospect of poorly choosing our gear, methods & technique scares us. Sometimes it’s just because we’re new to the art and sometimes – simply because mistakes can turn out to be very expensive ($).

One huge question that has to be answered again and again is – do I record with effects or do I keep it clean? Let’s take a look at what really happens in both of these theoretical situations.

Leveling-up your takes

One thing you should understand right away is – if you’re working in DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), putting an effect (or a ridiculous bunch of them in fact) on a track only affects what you hear – it does not get recorded in and does not change the actual audio in any way.

Well… that’s almost true – doing a take with effects, especially delay, echo, reverb, can actually change your playing style to a varying degree at that particular time. Imagine playing a very fluid, slow delay-dependent clean/crunchy guitar solo without hearing the effect – some much needed adjustments to strumming style, dynamic will not be present.

If you’re recording a singer, it is actually very common to use a bit of reverb during takes. Vocalists, especially beginners, can get quite uncomfortable in the vocal booth if they hear their clean voice, with no room in it. Adding some well chosen reverb can be VERY empowering to the singer, speeding up the process and helping him relax and feel good about his tone.

Hard-coding an effect into your track

As you’ve probably understood, the phrase “recording with effects” can have multiple meanings – if you’re talking about adding some delay/reverb/echo in your DAW, there’s no risk of changing the recorded audio to the point it’s unusable.

It’s a whole another thing if you have a very special, beloved, dear-to-heart delay pedal you’re planning on putting before your interface. If that’s really the case (either with delay or any other modern effects unit) you should know that general rule of thumb is – only use effects and settings that you are truly willing to commit to.

Understand that the take you get with this setup will contain whatever you’ve put right after your guitar/bass/vocal or any other microphone. Now think about the big picture – will the type of delay you’ve hard-coded into your track, fit the whole mix, keeping in mind that revisions, significant changes in concept/structure can be necessary. 

Careful with that compressor, son

Are you using your EQ excessively right away to remove large chunks of lows or highs? This will usually be a RED FLAG meaning that you HAVE to go over your microphone placement, guitar/bass setup. Re-evaluating the recording space/acoustics/noise risks (if they are a factor in your setup) would be advisable as well.

If we’re talking about using effects during recording, EQ and compression is where you can do some serious damage. Who is to blame if the sound you’re hearing is way too boomy, way too hissy or way too dynamic? One again: before patching it all up with EQ and compression, please, discuss it with the musician/singer and DO check your microphone placement or guitar setup. As said in previous entries, the raw sound you get during takes has to be AS CLOSE to what you need as humanly possible – that is the real art and success of recording audio. Strive towards naturally good sound.

DO NOT immediately fix bad room, bad musician or bad microphone setup with ANYTHING else other than relocating, adjusting your gear, having a talk or re-thinking your microphone setup.