The Depths Of Time
How much control over a delay plugin do you need? Delay time, feedback, mix level? Maybe a couple more knobs for tone? Or maybe you’re the kind of person who wants a bit more control – perhaps you want to do ping pong delays or even a bit of modulation?
Or are you the kind of person who wants to use your delay plugin to make noises that no delay plugin ever should?
Timeless has 32 knobs (plus assorted other controls) tightly packed into the plugin window. After poking around a bit you might start to recognize some familiar controls such as delay time, wet/dry levels, filter frequencies, etc. But some strange controls might not be immediately obvious. Four feedback knobs (that’s a LOT of feedback!), that tape/stretch switch (do we get to stretch the tape?), yellow rings around some of the larger knobs, and what looks like a synth envelope tucked in the bottom right (with separate knobs for attack, decay, sustain and release). What do all these controls do? Does a delay really need 32 knobs? And can it still do simple echo? Read on…
If it wasn’t already obvious, Timeless is a deep plugin. This is not your average delay with only a handful of different sounds. This is a delay designer, and it can do things you’d never expect from a delay plugin (and some things you’d never expect from any regular plugin). At it’s core, Timeless is based on two delay lines being fed into two filters. But as you read further, you’ll see that these aren’t your ordinary delay lines, they’re not your ordinary filters, and this is not even close to your ordinary routing and modulation.
The delay section is based on two delay lines, one for each side of a stereo track. The delay lines have all the features you’d expect. They have all the usual time divisions (including dotted notes and triplets), and an “unlocked” mode where you can specify the delay time with accuracy to a tenth of a millisecond. There’s even a “tap tempo” control where you can set the delay time by tapping the mouse in time with the music (which is great for an “almost-synced” delay time with a bit of vibe… providing you can tap in time!). While each delay line can have its time set independently, there’s also a “lock” option that allows both times to be set by one knob – handy when all you want is a straight delay without any widening effects.
The way tempo-sync is done is particularly clever. Rather than restricting the available time divisions, switching to tempo-sync mode actually changes the scale of the delay time knob. This can seem a little odd at first, and can take a little getting used to. For example, if you set the tempo-sync to a quaver (or eighth-note), the half-way mark on the delay time knob becomes that exact length. There are also places to click around the knob to quickly set it to exactly 50%, 66%, 75%, 133%, 150%, and 200%. This way you can set up dotted and triplet times. Unfortunately, these points are only labeled with little circles, not values, making it a bit of a guessing game until you get used to it. The real clever part is that the knob can also be finely adjusted outside of those preset values. This means you could set the delay time to be just a touch short or a touch long of a musical time value. This works a little like rhythm grooves where setting the delay time a little shorter than usual gives an urgent rushed feel, and setting the delay time a little longer than usual gives a more laid-back relaxed feel.
In unlocked (non-tempo-sync) mode, the delay time can vary over an enormous range of 10ms to 5 seconds. This is an extremely versatile delay that can do everything from chorus/flanging through regular slap and echo effects through to sound-on-sound looping and expansive atmospheric effects.
In addition to that, there are two different delay algorithms – “tape” and “stretch”. Tape mode is what we’re used to – changing the delay time while audio is playing causes the pitch to change. This is great for dub-style effects, and essential for chorus/flanger effects. The stretch mode, on the other hand, is a different beast, the likes of which I think we’ve never seen! In stretch mode, changing the delay time while audio is playing causes the audio to be timestretched in real-time without changing the pitch. This can be used for anything from subtle softening of feedback repeats to glitch-style audio manipulations.
Each delay line can be independently panned, but unfortunately, the pan knobs don’t snap to centre (CTRL-click resets the pan to hard-left or hard-right), and holding ALT while adjusting a pan knob doesn’t adjust both at the same time like it does for the delay time and feedback knobs. This makes it a bit fiddly to use the pan knobs to adjust the stereo width of the effect. Another problem is that when Timeless is inserted on a mono track, the second delay line is only active if cross-feedback is used. This is because the mono audio is only routed to the first delay line, not both. This means that some setups will sound quite different depending on whether Timeless is used on a mono or stereo track.
Delay Audio Example
Delay Time(Right click and “Save as” to download)
Like the delay time controls, Timeless gives you all the feedback options you could think of, and then some. Each of the two delay lines has its own individual controls for regular feedback and cross-feedback (feedback from one delay line to the other). Like the delay time controls, there’s a handy “lock” button that allows you to use one set of feedback and cross-feedback controls for both delay lines (effectively reducing the number of feedback control knobs from four to a more manageable two).
There are a few extra tricks too. Each of the two feedback loops has a polarity invert option (strangely, and incorrectly, referred to as phase invert). This can be useful for extra-wide stereo effects (by inverting the polarity of one feedback loop when both delay times are exactly the same), or different sounds when the delay times are very short (when creating comb-filtering or chorus/flanger effects).
There’s also some kind of overload protection on the main feedback paths, which means that even though the feedback knob allows values up to 2.0 (double the feedback), you won’t get the ever-increasing repeats that turn into distorted noise. To get that sound, both feedback knobs (normal and cross-feedback) are required.
Feedback Audio Example
Feedback(Right click and “Save as” to download)
Separating The Wheat From The Chafe
Filters are a specialty of all FabFilter plugins, and unsurprisingly, the filters in Timeless don’t disappoint. There are two simultaneous filters in Timeless, and each filter can be set to one of six different filter designs, each with their own resonance and overload characteristics. Each filter design also comes in three different types (lowpass, bandbass and highpass) and three different slopes (12dB, 24dB and 48dB). With two of these filters running simultaneously, there’s a lot of scope for carving out the frequency spectrum! Of course, the filters themselves sound great – good enough, in fact, to use Timeless as a dedicated filter plugin (the minimum delay time is 10ms) for some modulated filter madness!
The filters themselves can also be arranged in serial, parallel, and per-channel. Serial mode combines the filters how you’d expect – a lowpass and a highpass together produce an overall bandpass effect (filtering out both the lows and the highs). Parallel mode processes both filters independently for a less extreme sound. Per-channel mode applies one filter to each delay line.
If that wasn’t enough, each filter is true stereo and has a “pan” knob that actually changes the left/right offset of the cutoff frequency. That means you can use one filter to produce an effect where the left and right speakers have different filter cutoff frequencies.
Of course, the filter modules are positioned in the feedback path of the delays, meaning each echo is progressively filtered. The typical arrangement is to use a lowpass filter to make the echos get darker and darker. Similarly, a highpass filter will make the echos get thinner and thinner. Combining different filter types (especially with resonance) can produce some interesting and ear-catching echo behaviour.
If you’re not overwhelmed yet, tighten your seatbelt! This ride’s going to get bumpy…
When Too Much Is Not Enough
While it may not be obvious at first, Timeless can do distorted delays and can overdrive with the best of them. This is done by overloading the filters using the input knob. The input knob isn’t just to compensate for a change in level as its range is +/-36dB! That means you’ve got a lot of scope for pushing the filters into overdrive and even all-out distortion.
The differences between the filters become a lot more pronounced when overdriven. Some filters don’t distort unless they’re resonant, others smoothly overdrive even when they’re fully open. Some filters eventually limit the signal once it reaches a certain threshold, others keep getting louder and louder as they overdrive. Some filters maintain smooth resonance at all levels, while other filters distort more when they’re highly resonant. Each filter has its own characteristics and its own behaviour, and there are some complex interrelationships between the original sound, cutoff frequency, resonance and input level.
It’s obvious that the training wheels are off. The input level is not automatically gain-compensated at the output, which means setting levels when using overdrive can be a tricky procedure. You’ll have to keep lowering the output gain as you increase the input gain. This is something that is easier with dedicated hardware than with a mouse alone. Fortunately, the MIDI learn system is pretty painless (simply activate the MIDI learn control, move the on-screen knob you want to assign, then move the knob or fader on your MIDI controller). The other thing to watch out for is that the output of Timeless isn’t limited or clipped. Audio can very easily go over 0dBFS! If you’re playing with extreme feedback or overdrive, make sure your levels are low and/or you have a limiter after Timeless. Your ears and speakers will thank you!
A Few Extra Hands
As you might expect, the modulation capabilities on Timeless are far beyond most delays. There are eight independent modulation sources, including two LFOs, an envelope generator, and various MIDI messages. The available MIDI messages for modulation include aftertouch, velocity, pitchbend, and keyboard track, which traditionally aren’t easy to assign to plugin controls. Almost all knobs on the plugin interface can be modulated, with each modulation assignment also having its own independent level and polarity settings. This means that you could, for example, assign one LFO to control the frequency of both filters, but have the two filters moving in opposite directions (set to 48dB bandpass and with the frequencies set correctly, this can produce a cool “ya ya” effect). It also means you could have one LFO controlling the filter resonance a lot, but only subtly controlling the feedback level as well.
If that wasn’t enough, the speeds of LFOs themselves (and the envelope generator) can be modulated as well, as can the modulation amount for any modulation assignment. With all this, you should have the ability to create almost any modulation scheme you could imagine!
With all these options, setting up modulation is surprisingly easy. Each modulation source has a small circle that looks like a crosshair. To assign that modulation source to a knob, simply click and drag that crosshair to the knob. It gets even easier – when you click and hold on the crosshair, the whole interface goes dark, highlighting the available modulation targets. What’s more, double-clicking on a knob shows all the modulation sources assigned to it, and double-clicking on a modulation source crosshair shows all the modulation targets it’s assigned to. It’s a pretty innovative system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other plugin designers implement similar solutions.
With modulation being this easy to assign and keep track of, you might be tempted to assign a LOT of modulation… no matter, Timeless has you covered. There are twenty-four modulation assignments possible (equivalent to a twenty-four slot modulation matrix – in a delay plugin!), arranged in three banks of eight. Only one bank of eight is visible at any one time, no doubt to keep the interface from getting even more busy!
The only problem with the modulation section is the strange omission of a true envelope follower. There’s an envelope generator, but that works by generating a synth-style envelope every time the input audio level exceeds a threshold. By contrast, a true envelope follower generates an envelope that follows the contour and level of the audio. This would allow you to do things such as link the delay time to the level of a vocal performance, making the delay longer (and the pitch lower) as louder notes are sung. It’d also let you create flanger or chorus effects that “bounce” with the rhythm of a dynamic percussion part.
Doing It Manually
The included manual is quite clear and easy to read, if a little dry. It’s fairly comprehensive, but it doesn’t describe some of the subtleties of the plugin. For example, it doesn’t explain that creating echos that get louder (instead of decaying away) requires both normal feedback and cross-feedback because normal feedback alone isn’t enough, or linking the delay times prevents them from being independently modulated.
In addition to the manual, Timeless also has a nifty online help system. Hovering the mouse over any control for a couple of seconds causes help text to appear that explains how to use that control. Like the manual, the text is well-written and provides a fairly decent explanation to get started using that control. The time delay before the help text appears is also long enough that it doesn’t get in the way of regular usage.
We Use Presets
Normally you wouldn’t bother with too many presets for a delay plugin. Timeless, however, is so complicated and versatile that it can do everything from regular delays to chorus/flanger effects, and even bizarre filter feedback noises that defy description. Even regular delays have a lot of scope for subtle colour and movement. As such, the presets that come with Timeless are actually quite useful in showing some of what the plugin is capable of. In fact, Timeless comes with over 200 presets! So many, there’s even a “Best of” preset folder that contains 25 highlights!
The presets themselves tend to focus on bizarre effects and “wow factor”, rather than more subtle settings that would be more useful in a regular production. As such, the presets seem to turn the plugin into something more akin to those expensive multi-effects processors in the hardware world – something you might turn to for some special spice or ear-catching effect. For more regular duties, it’d be nice to see a bank of presets with more “everyday” settings that can be easily dropped into a mix.
Why Use It?
If you only get one delay plugin, it’s hard to beat Timeless. It does everything you’d expect from a regular delay, but it can also be pushed into places you’d never expect a delay to go. Even if you’re not a tweaker, there are enough bizarre presets to find the right crazy spice for your mix. I’ve already started using it in my own music where my regular delay just doesn’t cut it.
Why Not Use It?
Probably the biggest reason not to use Timeless is that it can be fiddly to set up. Even if all you want is a basic echo, it’s easy to get caught up in the different filter algorithms, feedback controls, and subtle modulation. Once you get to know Timeless, you’ll find it invites tweaking. If you only need basic delay sounds, you probably won’t need all the advanced options Timeless offers.
The Bottom line… line… line…
Download the demo and try it out for yourself. Just make sure you spend some quality time with it before you dismiss it outright. This is certainly a plugin that rewards those who get to know it well.