Audio Effects : The Complete FX Guide For Beginners

Audio Effects, also known as Sound FX, are widely used to mix music, add interest, and create different types of sounds. Today, sound effects are primarily used in not only musical productions but also in films.

Creating sound effects has never been easier, thanks to the growth of microcomputers and electronics. Things that we couldn't have imagined just a few years ago are now possible.

In this article, I am going to share in-depth knowledge about audio effects used in music or film for mixing or sound design purposes. I will discuss in-depth the different types of Audio FX, what they are and how they are used.

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What Is A Sound Effect?

Sound Effects is a generic term that refers to the modification or alteration of sound characteristics due to different physical phenomena. A sound effect can be a natural phenomenon (like echo, reverb, Doppler effect, phasing etc.) or a man-made alteration of these phenomena, using analogue and digital mediums.

For example, if you shout out loud in the hills, and you hear your own sound as it is sent back off a surface, this is a naturally occurring sound effect called “echo”. The same effect can also be created inside a studio or live on stage using an audio FX known as a delay.

What Is An Audio Effect?

If we discuss a more precise term, i.e. audio effects, then the definition would be: Audio effects are analogue or digital devices that purposely change the sound of a musical instrument or other audio source using different techniques or devices. Most modern recordings employ audio effects in some way, either through the use of hardware or a software effect.

Audio Effects can be subtle or dramatic, and they can be applied in live performances or in the studio. Reverb, echo (delay), EQ, distortion, flanger, and compression are some of the most prevalent effects. We will discuss more about these.

Why Use Audio Effects?

Audio Effects are used to improve, alter, or add to artistic performances and the audience experience in one way or another.

Sound is vital because it engages audiences; it contributes to the delivery of information; raises the production value; elicits emotional responses; emphasises what's on-screen or on stage; and is used to signal mood.

When used correctly, language, sound effects, music, and even silence can drastically improve or add to the audience’s experience and entertainment value. The first use of audio effects in films can be dated to the 1930s. Ever since, the use of audio effects has grown and has been a part of nearly all mainstream media and entertainment.

Different Audio Effect Types and Categories

Audio Effects can be categorised based on:

  1. Physical appearance
  2. How they process audio.

Based on Physical Appearance

Audio effects are classified into three categories based on their physical appearance:

  1. Rack Equipment: - Audio racks are box-shaped effects featuring analogue or digital effects that may be stacked inside a cabinet with standardised shelves developed specifically for them. The rack, strictly speaking, refers to the cabinet that houses "rack-mountable" effects units. Rack effects are often used in conjunction with a mixing desk for sound recording in studio situations, mixing, mastering, and sound reinforcement.
  2. Pedals: - Pedals are also called “stomp boxes”. With stomp boxes, effects are incorporated into a physical pedal. These types of effects are generally used by musicians to shape the sound of their instruments when playing live or in a studio. Pedals are widely used by guitar players. A guitarist pedal board generally incorporates a distortion, equaliser, Wah-wah, compressor and a delay effect. Pedals can be a single effect or have multiple effects incorporated into one pedal.
  3. Plugins Or Software Effects: - Plugins are software components that can be recognised by a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Avid Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, PreSonus Studio One, FL Studio and many others. Digital audio processing software such as Adobe Audition, WaveLab, Audacity, and others also recognise and use plugins to process audio. Plugins can be used with DAWs to add effects like distortion, reverb, flanger etc. or even a virtual instrument
    There are different types of software plugin formats like VST, AAX, AU etc. Which one you will require depends on your computer OS and the DAW compatibility. E.g. Ableton Live, FL Studio, and Studio One support VST plugins, but Pro Tools does not support VST plugins. Pro Tools Supports AAX plugin formats.
    VST instrument plugins and VST effects plugins allow you to introduce a range of virtual instruments into an audio recording without having access to real instruments, and VST effects plugins allow you to manipulate sounds in new and fascinating ways. Different types of VST plugins, when used together, can help you generate a more compelling final product.

Based On Audio Processing

From the perspective of audio processing, audio effects can be categorised into six broad categories:  

  1. Filtering Effects: Filters are used in audio signals to cut, eliminate, amplify, or change regions or frequency bands(known as filtering). There are four major types of filtering effects: Low-Cut, High-Cut, Band-Pass Filters, and Band-Stop Filters. Equalisers are used to filter out or add to the audio frequencies of signals.
  2. Dynamic Effects: The relative level of loudness of the sound source is affected by dynamic effects. The dynamic range is the difference between the softest signal and the loudest signal, stated in dB, that describes dynamics.
    Dynamic effects alter the spectral makeup of the signal to add nuance to the sound. Variations in acoustics and timbre, which typically characterise our impression of the power of sound, can alter the dynamic range, which describes the level of sound as experienced by an observer.
  3. Frequency Effects: Frequency effects modify or vary the frequency of an audio signal, for example. Frequency effects were among the first effects utilised by artists in the early generations of analogue and later digital electronics.
  4. Modulation Effects: Modulation effects insert a little delay into the audio stream, which is then read back to the original signal.
  5. Time-Based Effects: Time-based effects alter the sense of time of a signal. Effects like delay and reverb are the main time-based effects. Time-based effects are sometimes also called spatialisation effects, since they perfectly characterise the sound and ambience of a space.
  6. Unclassifiable: Effects that don't fall into any of the other six categories, for example, because they affect more than one of the audio signal's essential characteristics: frequency, modulation, amplitude, dynamics, phase, tempo, and so on.

Different Types Of Audio Effects

Audio Effect Family Members Of Family
Filtering Effects
Graphic equalisation
Parametric equalisation
Semiparametric equalisation
Band-stop equalisation
Linear phase equalisation
Dynamic equalisation
Auto Filter
Wah-wah
Auto-wah
Crossover
Dynamics Based Effects
Compressor
Limiter
Expander
Noise gate
De-esser
Saturation
Fuzz
Overdrive
Distortion
Exciter, enhancer, embellisher
Frequency Based Effects
Vibrato
Transposer
Octave up/down
Pitch shifter
Harmoniser
Autotune
Modulation Based Effects
Flanger
Phaser
Chorus
Rotary, univibe, rotovibe
Ring modulation
Time-Based Effects
Analogue reverb
Digital reverb
Convolution reverb
Delay
Slapback
Doubler
Pan delay
Echo
Unclassifiable
Fuzz&Wah
Octafuzz
Shimmer
Tremolo
Declicker
Decrackler
Denoiser
Declipper
Debuzzer
Looper
Time stretching
Resampling
Spatialisation

In the Audio Effects Module on learnmusicproduction.in, you will go over all the different aspects of each type of audio effect mentioned above.

If you have any questions, comments or feedback, please do share in the comments section.

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Udeeksh Sood on

Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer and Co-Founder of learnmusicproduction.in. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.