One of the earliest additions a beginner DJ makes to their arsenal is the use of effects. Effects are another tool up a DJ’s sleeve to add creativity to their sets. They can also be used to assist with difficult transitions. However, they can be overused and in some cases end up as a crutch that a DJ relies upon. In this guide, we’ll cover the top 5 simple DJ sound effects that you should master. We’ll also cover the best times to incorporate these effects.
What Are DJ Sound Effects?
Effects are a variety of presets and controls that will impact on the sound of the track you are playing. They can range from extreme warping of the sound all the way to subtle alterations. By now you would be familiar with the EQ controls on your hardware. Effects play a similar role in altering the sound.
Most DJ hardware has some built-in functions to be able to add and alter effects. The level of control and the number of options vary between different pieces of gear. Your software will also have a variety of effects built-in that can be triggered by the software. On DJ hardware the effects section is generally located towards the top of the gear. While this isn’t a rule that is set in stone it seems to have become the natural home for them. This is especially the case with a small DJ controller. It’s a logical spot for the extra knobs and buttons associated with triggering effects.
The range of available effects is definitely something to consider when selecting your DJ software. Likewise, the effects controls associated with the hardware is worth assessing. Even if you think you may not use effects that often you want your hardware to have simple to use and well-positioned effects options.
Effects are usually set to an on/off state via a button. The amount of the effect that impacts the music is then controlled via one or several knobs. This is often referred to as the dry/wet mix. When set to dry or the lowest setting on the knob it will only be playing the original source music. As you turn the knob you increase the amount of balance between the effect and the original source music. For example, if you have the knob at the halfway mark it will be playing 50% of the sound from the original music and 50% of the altered effect music.
To select individual effects you can do this from your software. Some hardware also gives you the option to select effects directly on the hardware. When you do get your DJ equipment I suggest you spend some time playing with the various effects options. You want to have a base understanding of where to activate the effects and what the buttons and knobs do.
There are differences between software and the effects they offer. There are however some classic DJ effects which are universal.
Top 5 DJ Sound Effects
Let’s jump into the top 5 most common effects and how to use them in your DJ sets.
An audio filter is one of the most common effects that DJs use. It has become so popular that it is often given its own dedicated knob underneath the EQ knobs. This knob is in its neutral state at the middle point. Moving the knob to the left will activate the low pass filter while moving it the right will activate the high pass filter.
These two modes will impact the frequencies that will be played. As the low pass filter is activated it will begin to cut out higher frequencies. The more you turn the knob to the left the lower the cut off becomes. Likewise, the high pass filter does the same but it cuts off lower frequencies the further you move it to the right.
If you listen to electronic music you would have heard these two effects at some stage. Music producers use these effects to add colour and depth to their tracks.
As a DJ the filter is a great tool to build drama or a break where there is none. For example, before a major drop, you can activate a filter to either bring the sound low or high before bringing it back into the neutral state for the drop.
The filter can also assist with transitions. As you are mixing between two tracks you can fade the original track out using the filter. The key to this technique is to keep it musically in time. For example, gradually activate the low pass filter over the course of a phrase. It’s not ideal to activate the filter aggressively. To achieve that smooth sound be sure to give yourself enough time to progressively increase the filter level.
Mastering the use of the filter will improve your mixing capabilities. It will give you the freedom to inject a natural sounding transition point into any track. Take some time to play with the filter and become familiar with how it affects the sound. Once you feel comfortable you can start experimenting with it both during a track and for transitions.
The phaser effect is another popular effect that DJs use. The phaser effect alters the sound of the music in a way which makes it sound like it is coming from a rotating speaker. This effect can add a lot of dynamic energy to a track.
Generally, the parameters you can alter for this effect are the depth of the phase sound and also the length. The deeper the phase the more pronounced each end of the sound spectrum will become. While the length simple dictates how long the phase effect will go for before returning back. Picture altering the speed in which the speaker rotates.
The phaser is best utilised for melodic elements of a track. It can create a sweeping panoramic feel to the music. This ebb and flow will work well with pad elements within tracks and longer breakdowns. Where the phaser isn’t as useful is in any heavy bass sections as the phase effect can distort the audio to a point where it can even push your sound into the red.
When setting up your software have a play with the various parameters associated with the phaser. See how it impacts various sections of a track so that you can become familiar with where it sounds good and where it doesn’t.
Used at the right time the phaser is a great tool to add more dynamic sound to your DJ sets. Used at the wrong time will result in horrible audio so be careful when using this effect.
The flanger is another phase based effect. Much like the phaser, it creates a swooping effect to the music. The flanger, however, tends to be more aggressive.
Like the phaser, you can alter the intensity of the flanger as well as the length. The flanger is often used as part of a build up to a drop. It can lift the sound up or down in anticipation of the release.
Careful timing and use of effects can add a lot of energy to your DJ set.
It can be a tricky effect to utilise correctly as too much aggressive use of the flanger can overwhelm the track. Once again have a play with the effect before incorporating it into your sets so that you can become familiar with how it impacts the music. Also, aim to avoid an aggressive flanger effect over the top of kick drums and bass. Much like the phaser, it will not sound good.
Another thing to remember with the flanger is it’s best used in time with the structure of the track. For example, you can activate the flanger in the final 16 beats before a drop to create more drama. It can swoop up and then back down right in time for the drop. Timing it accordingly will produce the best results.
Reverb is a clever effect that can create the illusion of the sound taking place in a large space. Imagine playing your track in a small room compared to a large cathedral and you’ll get an idea of the type of effect Reverb is.
The more reverb you apply by using the knob the greater the effect will become. It will build on the “size” of the room it is replicating.
In a practical sense, reverb is used in breakdowns to give more emotion and a haunting feel to the music. It can also be effective in creating a deeper edge to vocals. It can be difficult to balance the reverb to find the sweet spot for a particular track. The more reverb added the bigger the feel of the imaginary space but you also risk it sounding too hollow and distant.
Reverb can be used in your transitions as well. It can be a good way to make the existing track begin to sound further away as your new track is introduced. The new track can also have a reverb added and you can slowly reduce the reverb on the incoming track as you complete your transition.
Echo is as straightforward as it sounds. It will repeat the section of the song from when it was activated and will progressively diminish in volume.
The knob for this effect will impact on how long the echo will continue. The more you push the knob to the wet side the longer the echo will go for.
Effects like Reverb and Echo add depth and space to your transitions.
The echo effect can be effective as you are transitioning from one song to the next. Apply the echo effect to track one in the final beats of the phrase to give it some carry over as track two begins playing. Slower basslines also respond well to the echo effect. They tend to echo off into the distance which can add a lot of depth to a track.
The echo effect can also be used on vocal elements. When it comes to vocals it’s best to have a clean section of vocal to apply the echo too. Since echo adds extra sound on top of the track it can create a “busy” sounding mix so be careful when you use this effect on vocals.
Once again have a play with the effect to become familiar with it before applying it to your DJ sets. You may find you prefer shorter echo effects and as a result, may not need to move the knob very far to the wet side. The only way to determine this is from practice.
FX Units and Pedals
So far all the effects I’ve discussed can be activated by your software and in most cases with direct control from your hardware. FX units and pedals give you extra options which cannot be found on most hardware.
FX units and pedals have been around for a long time and have been used for other styles of music for decades. The DJ space has also taken advantage of these pieces of gear. DJs have a range of units they can add to their setups to give themselves greater control over effects. These units can have multiple effects running at the same time and add a more granular amount of control over those effects. There is a large range of options in this category.
While these pieces of kit are fantastic as a beginner DJ I don’t recommend you invest in them. There are plenty of skills to master on your DJ equipment before you start adding more components.
You may find you don’t use effects that much in your sets. If this is the case your money can be better spent. On the other hand, you may fall in love with using effects. In this case, taking your level of control to the next level will be a huge improvement over the options available on your existing hardware.
A Final Word of Warning
You now know the top 5 DJ sound effects and how to incorporate them into your sets. Before we wrap it up I do have one final piece of advice.
Effects can add a lot of dynamic energy to your sets. They can give you the creative freedom to warp and change the sound to suit your mixing desires. Effects can also make your mixes sound like a horrible sounding mess. Use effects sparingly and intelligently. Not every transition requires you to layer effects over the top. Likewise not every track needs effects at every big drop or breakdown.
Practicing with effects at home is a good idea before applying them to your live sets.
The more you practise using effects in your studio the better prepared you will be for when to utilise them in your live sets. As with many aspects of DJing sometimes more is less. A well-timed flanger or echo can elevate your mixes to the next level just be mindful to not overdo it. Music producers have spent countless hours crafting their music. Sometimes you need to trust the track will be enough on its own without your extra embellishments.