The first delay effects were achieved using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems. By shortening or lengthening the loop of tape and adjusting the read and write heads, the nature of the delayed echo could be controlled. This technique was most common among early composers of Musique concrète (Pierre Schaeffer), and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had sometimes devised elaborate systems involving long tapes and multiple recorders and playback systems, collectively processing the input of a live performer or ensemble. Audio engineers working in popular music quickly adapted similar techniques, to augment their use of plate reverb and other studio technologies designed to simulate natural echo.Analog delay
Before the invention of audio delay technology, music employing a delayed echo had to be recorded in a naturally reverberant space, often an inconvenience for musicians and engineers. The popularity of an easy-to-implement real-time echo effect led to the production of systems offering an all-in-one effects unit that could be adjusted to produce echoes of any interval or amplitude. The presence of multiple "taps" (playback heads) made it possible to have delays at varying rhythmic intervals; this allowed musicians an additional means of expression over natural periodic echoes.
The Binson Echorec, another popular unit, used a rotating magnetic drum as its storage medium. This provided an advantage over tape, as the durable drums were able to last for many years with little deterioration in the audio quality. Other devices used spinning magnetic discs, not entirely unlike those used in modern hard disk drives.
Robert Fripp used two Revox reel to reel tape recorders to achieve very long delay times for solo guitar performance. He dubbed this technology "Frippertronics", and used it in a number of recordings. John Martyn is widely acclaimed as the pioneer of the echoplex. Perhaps the earliest indication of his use can be heard on the songs Would You Believe Me and The Ocean on the album Stormbringer released in February 1970. This was a first taste of things to come from Martyn’s interest in electronics and the boundless possibilities of electric music. Glistening Glyndebourne on the album Bless The Weather (1971) showcased his developing technique of playing acoustic guitar through the echoplex to stunning effect. He later went on to experiment with a fuzz box, a volume/wah wah pedal and the echoplex on highly acclaimed Inside Out (1973) and One World (1977). Martyn is cited as an inspiration by many musicians including U2's The Edge.
The availability of inexpensive digital signal processing electronics in the late 1970s and 1980s led to the development of the first digital delay effects. Initially, they were only available in expensive rack mounted units but eventually as costs came down and the electronics grew smaller, they became available in the form of foot pedals. The first digital delay offered in a pedal was the Boss DD-2 in 1984. Rack mounted delay units evolved into digital reverb units and on to digital multieffects units capable of more sophisticated effects than pure delay, such as reverb and Audio timescale-pitch modification effects.
Digital delay systems function by sampling the input signal through an analog-to-digital converter, after which the signal is passed through a series of digital signal processors that record it into a storage buffer, and then play back the stored audio based on parameters set by the user. The delayed ("wet") output may be mixed with the unmodified ("dry") signal after, or before, it is sent to a digital-to-analog converter for output.Uses
The most familiar use of delay processors is by electric guitarists in popular music, who frequently employ delay as a means to produce densely overlaid textures of notes in rhythms complementary to the tempo of the overall piece. Electronic musicians use delay for similar effects, and less frequently, vocalists and other instrumentalists use it to add a dense or ethereal quality to their playing. Extremely long delays of 10 seconds or more are often used to create loops of a whole musical phrase.
Echoplex is a term often applied to the use of multiple echoes which recur in approximate synchronization with a musical rhythm, so that the notes played combine and recombine in interesting ways. In fact, it was the name of a particular delay unit, the Maestro Echoplex.
Doubling echo is produced by adding short-range delay to a recorded sound. Delays of thirty to fifty milliseconds are the most common; longer delay times become slapback echo. Mixing the original and delayed sounds creates an effect similar to doubletracking, or unison performance.
Slapback echo uses a longer delay time (seventy-five to 250 milliseconds), with little or no feedback. The effect is characteristic of vocals on 1950s rock-n-roll records, particularly those issued by Sun. It is also sometimes used on instruments, particularly drums and percussion. Slapback was often produced by refeeding the output signal from the playback head of a tape recorder to its record head, the physical space between heads, the speed of the tape, and the chosen volume being the main controlling factors. Analog and later digital delay machines also easily produced the effect.
Flanging, Chorus and Reverberation (known as "reverb") are all delay-based sound effects. With flanging and chorus, the delay time is very short and usually modulated. With reverberation there are multiple delays and feedback so that individual echoes are blurred together, recreating the sound of an acoustic space.
In audio reinforcement, a straight delay is used to compensate for the passage of sound through the air. Unlike audio delay effects devices, straight delay is not mixed back in with the original signal. The delayed signal alone is sent to loudspeakers so that the speakers reinforce the stage sound at the same time or slightly later than the acoustic sound from the stage, approximately 1 millisecond of straight delay per foot of air or 3 milliseconds per meter, depending on the air temperature's effect on the speed of sound. Because of the Haas effect, this technique allows audio engineers to use additional speaker systems placed away from the stage and still give the illusion that all sound originates from the stage. The purpose is to deliver sufficient sound volume to the back of the venue without resorting to excessive sound volumes near the front.
Straight delay is also used in audio to video synchronization to align sound with visual media if the visual source is delayed. Visual media can become delayed by a number of mechanisms, in which case the associated audio should be delayed to match.