Know the Difference? Mixing with Chorus, Tremolo, Phaser, Flanger

Chorus, tremolo, phaser & flanger are some of the most useful and creative mixing and production tools available. Learn the uniqueness of each effect and use them to create space, width, rhythm and psychedelic character.

By Josh Bonanno

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Chorus, Phaser, Flanger and Tremolo: while most modulation and time-based effects like these often find their origin in guitar playing and FX pedals, they can also be extremely powerful tools in the studio while mixing and producing. From super-wide sweeping, phase-bending effect sounds to more subtle and utilitarian uses like creating space and rhythmic enhancement, modulation is an incredibly useful tool to have in your toolbox and Waves Kaleidoscopes super-suite makes creating those sounds even easier. Let’s have a look at some practical uses of modulation in a mix using Kaleidoscopes.

Waves Kaleidoscopes

Waves Kaleidoscopes

1. Chorus instead of Reverb

At its core, a chorus effect is very close in design and function to the way a short reverb or delay would work. The dry signal is split into multiples of itself, and each copy is then delayed, detuned and effected differently upon playback. The result is a washy, blurry, wobbly, more distant feeling version of the original signal. Because of this, chorus can often be used in place of a short and subtle reverb to put an element of the song further back in a mix.

Let’s look at an application of this first example on an acoustic guitar. Using a single chorus engine on Kaleidoscopes at very slow speed, larger depth and low mix to blend the effect in to taste, you feel the acoustic get pushed just slightly backward in the mix without too much obvious detuned “warble” effect.

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So why reach for a chorus rather than a reverb in an instance like this? While the end result may be similar when heard in a mix, I feel the chorus has a bit more vibe and is altering the sound of the source directly, rather than just extending or augmenting the source as a reverb would.

The chorus settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes

The chorus settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes.

Take a listen to Example 2 below for comparison. When using a short reverb here rather than the chorus, you can feel that the acoustic guitars get pushed back and are quieter, but they do not have the same tonal shift, movement, sparkle and overall interest that they had in Example 1 when using the chorus. The reverb feels a bit more boring to me, which sometimes is fine. But depending on the situation, chorus can be a great substitute to make something more dis-tant while still sounding interesting.

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A key difference of chorus is that is doesn’t have a decay or “time” control knob like reverbs or delays do, which is helpful in controlling the size and depth of the space. What chorus does have is a speed and a depth control, which will affect the intensity of the result itself and can also be helpful in timing the movement of the effect with the tempo of the song. Pushing these knobs farther can result in some more obvious and traditional uses of choruses. Additionally, using the “sync” function in Kaleidoscopes, as you’ll hear in Example 3 below, can make for over-the-top chorus sounds that are still in time with the tempo of the song and maintain some sanity and coherency.

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2. Flangers as Stereo Wideners

Something unknown to many is the real difference between a chorus effect and its close counterpart, the flanger. While at their core, the two effects are almost identical in their manipulation of sound, the main difference is that flangers utilize a quicker internal delay time than a chorus does when reproducing the sound. Therefore, flangers result in less of a detuned “wash” style reverb effect than a chorus does, and they end up producing a much more extreme “phase” shifting sound. While hard to explain with words, this is an iconic sound for guitar players and can be extremely useful for creating a dramatic sense of width and depth in a mix. It is also a sound often associated with analog recording on tape machines, as “tape flanging” was a common old-school engineering technique to add a double track and create a sense of width in the mix.

In Example 4 below, I used a single flanger engine on Kaleidoscopes with a slow speed, large depth and low mix, and you feel the electric guitars get slightly wider and more interesting, with some obvious movement left to right.

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While chorus pushed things back, the flanger seems to push things outwards and bring more interest and movement. While most would reach for a stereo-widening plugin like Waves S1 imager for some extra width, a flanger can be a great alternative as it is not a stationary solution. The source actually feels like it is “moving” around from left to right rather than just getting wider and staying there. For that reason, using a flanger on your mixbus for width is likely not a good idea, but on something like guitars or background vocals, it can be a more interesting option. This is undoubtedly a subtle use of flanging, but we will look at more creative and fun uses later.

The flanger settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes

The flanger settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes.

3. Phasers for Psychedelic Effects

Flangers and phasers are often used as synonymous terms even though they are technically different effects. We won’t dig into the technical difference between the two here, but phasers are an iconic sound that you have undoubtedly heard before. Falling somewhere between the subtle wobble and space of a chorus but less dramatic than a flanger, phasers generally boast fewer controls and user input but create a unique sound of their own. From the classic guitar tones of Eddie Van Halen to more modern uses of the likes of Tame Impala, a phaser can be a great way to bring psychedelic movement and character to your track. Something about the phaser technology works specifically well on guitars and can be the ingredient that makes a guitar solo speak in a mix.

With nothing more than a basic mono phaser from Kaleidoscopes on the electric guitar in Example 5, you can hear a whole new depth, dimension and emotion come through in the track.

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The magic and mystery of a phaser are even more evident when you compare it directly to Example 6, where a flanger is doing the same job with similar settings. The effect becomes too defined, and you lose a bit of the emotion and subtlety of the guitar.

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4. Tremolo to Enhance the Groove

Maybe the simplest of all the effects on Kaleidoscopes is tremolo. Tremolo varies the volume of the source over time using a predetermined LFO or key source. While basic at its core, tremolo can be incredibly powerful and useful in creating rhythmic changes and dynamics in an otherwise static and boring track. I like to put subtle (or not so subtle) tremolo on static sustaining parts like pads or long-held background vocals in order to get them to move and sync with the beat more interestingly and make the mix feel less monotonous.

The tremolo settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes

The tremolo settings used on Waves Kaleidoscopes.

The audio below is a good example of this. A subtle volume movement is created by the tremolo engine in Kaleidoscopes and is synced to eighth notes using a triangle-shaped LFO modulator. This lets the vocals match the bounce of the drums, which are now accentuated, and they cut through more clearly. But the effect is also subtle enough that when buried in a mix, you would likely not notice the “choppy” nature of the vocals.

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As with most of these effects, you can be as subtle as you'd like, but you can also push things to be more extreme and creative. Example 7c is my attempt at doing that. Turning up the depth and speed of the tremolo effect turns our lush held voices into a syncopated vocal chop sounding synth. You could also automate any of these parameters to move with the song or section for super fun effects or sound design elements in your productions.

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5. Getting Creative - Mixing and Matching

Beyond single effects, it can be incredibly rewarding and creative using multiple instances of modulation effects on a single track in a mix. Kaleidoscopes makes that task more effective and efficient with its dual cascading modulation units. While most FX units only have a single-engine, Kaleidoscopes’ dual engines allow you to feed one effect into the other, or use two wildly different effects in parallel, creating layers upon layers and epic soundscapes.

Let’s look back at the original acoustic guitar example, Example 1. While the chorus did a great job of setting the acoustic back in the mix, what if we also wanted to highlight the drums a little and let the guitars move a touch more? Let’s add an additional tremolo in series after the chorus and see what happens.

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We now have an acoustic guitar that is not only pushed backward in the mix by the subtle chorus of effect 1 but is also moving in sync to the beat using the tremolo of effect 2. The result is a multi-dimensional acoustic sound that creates a unique rhythm and brings a whole new life to where we started in Example 1 with the dry acoustic guitars.

The chorus & tremolo settings on Waves Kaleidoscopes

The chorus & tremolo settings on Waves Kaleidoscopes.

What about a more exciting flanger use, like I promised earlier? That’s what I did in Example 9. Using two slightly different flanger settings in parallel rather than in serial, I was then able to pan one effect hard left and the other effect hard right using the master “mixer section” of Kaleidoscopes. Because the effects are in parallel, the flangers interact freely and independently of each other and can each be blended into the final signal using the “level” knobs on each effect. The result is an extra-wide guitar part that moves and swirls around your head in a psychedelic way.

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The dual flanger settings on Waves Kaleidoscopes used in Example 9

The dual flanger settings on Waves Kaleidoscopes used in Example 9.

We can also do something similar to our rhythm-bending tremolo effects. Putting two tremolo units in series or parallel can create a wild array of polyrhythmic effects as well as a ping pong delay-like stereo bounce that can completely transform the groove. Example 10 demonstrates great use of dual tremolos in parallel. Much like Example 9, I panned one tremolo effect left and the other right, assigning them both independent speeds. The result is a wide stereo, ping-ponging rhythmic movement that is almost a new vocal sound. You could certainly dial this effect back and tweak it to be something more subtle and useable in a mix, or you could add a plethora of more effects and turn those vocals into a new section of the song.

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I think it’s clear that modulation has far more practical and creative uses than just living on a guitar player’s pedalboard. From subtle depth and space in a mix to all-out psychedelic panning tricks, there really is something for everyone when it comes to using these tools, and Kaleidoscopes provides a simple one-stop shop. How do you use modulation FX in your productions?

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