Tempo-Synched Effects: Cool or Crap?

Does music groove more when all the effects are in sync?

What’s better: synchronizing your modulation and delay effects strictly to tempo? Or “freewheeling” it, and letting the effects wobble and drift a bit?

I eagerly embraced tap-tempo stompboxes when they appeared — how liberating to re-clock your effects without stooping over and fumbling with little knobs! But these days, I often forego strict timekeeping in favor of a sloshier, more organic feel.

Sometimes tempo-sync makes parts groove better. And sometime it makes everything sound cheesy, like the computer-clocked sound and lights of a loud and lousy Broadway show.

One thing that made me more reluctant to over-synchronize my sound was the illicit release of the various “Multitrack Master” audio files, in which classic rock recordings were distributed as individual solo tracks — an illegal yet awesome development I wrote about here. This example in particular blew my mind:

Okay, the analog delay effect on that iconic keyboard part is a bloody mess, the echoes flamming chaotically against the played notes. But would anyone dare suggest it’s not one of the grooviest parts ever committed to tape?

On the other hand, when I do go digital, I’m more likely to take it to extremes. Here’s a little example I threw together using a multi-effect plug-in created with Native Instruments’ Reaktor. (Reaktor itself isn’t an effector, a synth, or a sequencer, but a programming environment for creating all those things and more. This plug-in, called Freak Show, is free for Reaktor owners via the Reaktor User Library. The creator is Carsten Brück.) It’s a set of eight effects — but the active effect changes in time with the sequencer. (You might have reverb on beat 1, pitch-shift on beat 2, phasing on beat 3, etc.) Check it out:

When I interview Johnny Marr many years ago, he detailed how difficult it was to manually sync his Fender Twin Reverb amps to create the apocalyptic trem-fest “How Soon is Now?” These days you can obtain a similar effect in seconds with a tap-tempo trem such as the Line 6 Modulation Modeler or the Cusack Tap-A-Whirl. I can’t even say whether Marr’s opus sounds better for its imperfections.

Obviously, there’s no right or wrong. But for now, my attitude is, don’t assume tight synchronization is superior — but if you go for it, then really go for it!

8 comments to Tempo-Synched Effects: Cool or Crap?

  • bear

    One of the nice things about the RLD Adrenalinn is that you can choose to sync just the delay [i]or[/i] the modulation [i]or[/i] neither to the internal rhythm (or whatever MIDI source you’re following). Having that stuff on different clocks makes it much more lively.

    Real chaos, though, comes from less predictable periods in the sound. One of the beautiful things about an old tape delay is how the delay time is a moving target as the tape drags or flutters. Now add that to Twin reverb opto trem falling out of sync with, hmm, a Princeton’s bias trem just to make it more chaotic. Now I really want to make that happen.

    • joe

      Roger Linn is SUCH a genius. The Adrenalinn was definitely the first device I knew of featured the sort of elaborately clocked filter effects you could previously get only from a computer. But now that I’m moved over to a laptop for (some) live performances, I don’t really have the patience to program anything on a little LCD screen or using complicated multi-function buttons. But if my laptop-gig experiences were just a little worse (and they ARE a trial), I’d give up and use something like an Adrenalinn.

  • I love stacking phase and tremelo out of sync to create really organic sounding synth-patchy textures. There’s something about the two different oscillations tripping over each other that’s just magic!

  • Oinkus

    A finger on the reel always made for fun and great variations in sounds.There is no such thing as PERFECTION ! Not in anything in The Known Universe !Remember , if you aren’t having fun playing music you need to make a change .

  • Digital Larry

    I love the Adrenalinn also, but its imprint is heavy on anything you might choose to do. Other than goofing around with it I have only made 2 recordings with it.

    The Freak Show effect plug-in is pretty darn cool! I can see that opening up some new creative avenues.

    As far as synchronization goes, I think my old dead hero Frank Zappa took it as far as one could go (at least in one direction) with his concept of “Xenochrony” (strange synchronization). On his “Joe’s Garage” 3-LP set, he couldn’t be bothered to play any guitar solos in the studio, so he simply printed guitar solos from live tapes over studio rhythm tracks, without explicitly synchronizing them at all.

    The tune “Rubber Shirt” from FZ’s “Sheik Yerbouti” is a drum and bass duet similarly constructed. The two performances are in different time signatures and were not recorded at the same time – nor did one overdub while listening to the other. They were just slapped together. And the result? Well – it is what it is. Maybe a little bit of it goes a long way. But is it creatively viable? You betcha!

    I’d say a mixture of both elements makes for a compelling approach every now and then.

  • joe

    Larry, I suspect you’d really geek out over Reaktor. It’s an amazingly deep and fascinating program. The only caveat is, Native Instruments has really been dragging their tail on updating the program, though they swear it’s not slated for elimination. I used to program in it a lot years ago, but haven’t for a long time — there is such a fantastic user community that I satisfied just mooching off the superior creators. :)

  • mwseniff

    I have recently been digging on Reaktor myself very cool program.

    As to tempo-synced FX i used to play with a guy that used them a lot. Unfortunately he could never seem to get close to the actual tempo we were playing with the tap tempo buttons. I mean really wrong we would sort of just look at each other and shake our heads. Eventually he left to start a karaoke business where he schlepped his system around to bars and parties. But he hogged the karaoke system all the time at (he was a terrible singer too) but he couldn’t stop himself apparently.

    I’ve been a bit jaded about tempo-synced FX ever since.

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