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Using Negative Track Delay to Pull Your Track Into Time

Negative Delay Enlarged

Today’s tools for creating music are awesome.

If you doubt it, just look back a few years (or more) and think about how you put your tracks together and the sounds you used and where you recorded them… Yup… So now it is a little easier eh?

Of course you still have to be musical and you still have to have talent… But that’s another issue and there is no denying that DAW technology has come a looooooong way.

One thing that comes up a lot when making music with electronic tools is timing. Especially now, when we have such fantastic sounds available… Kontakt Orchestral Libraries like Spitfire’s Alboin and CineBrass to name just two of the many beautifully designed sample sets.

But with great power comes great responsibility – to make your music play and sound in time

I remember the first time I came across this issue was back in 1986, using my Roland MC500, I had a very old string sample (triggered by MIDI) that had a nice slow realistic attack on the sound. But when played in the track it just sounded wrong.

The first note was playing exactly on the beat but it didn’t sit right with the rest of the music. I soon found that the MC500 had this magical feature that allowed me to shift an entire track backwards in time… I had discovered negative track delays. So now I could quantize everything and then move it backwards and thus have it play accurately and in what sounded like correct to me.

Now in today’s modern DAW application we still need track delays and everyone should be using them regularly. We can even use them on audio now, not only MIDI.

Cubase 7 Track Delay
Cubase 7 Track Delay
Why do we need negative track delays?

If an instrument has a slow (or even a fast) attack on it you (the musician) would normally compensate for that when playing the instrument by playing ahead of the beat. Depending on the length of the attack you would play further ahead of the beat.

As modern sample libraries become more and more realistic, the attack section of the note can make the instrument sound really obviously late in your track. And you don’t want to get rid of that attack, that is what gives the instrument much of its realism. I made this graphic that may explain it better.

Attack Compensation
Attack Compensation

Of course this is not limited to orchestral music. Many rock sounds have slow attacks. The same goes for dance music too. Although quantization is vital in dance music, many a dance producer will forget (or be oblivious to) the fact that if a sound has a short attack it will sound out of time when quantized.

How do you use it?

Put simply you enter a negative amount into the Track Delay area of your sequencer. In this example, using Cubase 7, you can see quite a large negative delay of -35 Milliseconds. This was used to pull a string pad sound into time even though it was not quantized and actually played manually ahead of the beat too.

Negative Delay Enlarged
Negative Delay Enlarged

There are a number of ways to get this right. My preferred method is to play the click quietly and have my track playing. I will just juggle the delay until it sounds right to me. Some sample library companies will actually supply you with their own values per instruments, personally I would rather trust my ears.

Of course with some kinds of music it can help to actually play the instruments manually and do not use any quantisation but even then some track delay may be useful.

For me the key is, as with almost every other thing in music creation and production – Use and trust your ears.

We have the tools to do some amazing things. And with small things like track delays we can make those amazing things sound even more amazing.

If that isn’t clear, or if you would like to see a short example of this I have prepared a short video walk-through that may be of some interest.

I hope you find this helpful.

Thanks for reading.