Send FX or Track FX

Today we are going to be looking at the difference between send FX and Track FX. This is a bit of a confusing topic for beginners and so I will outline the way it is done in two different DAWs: Ableton, and Reaper. We will explore when you would want to use each and how to do both types of FX in each DAW mentioned above.

What is Track FX?

Track FX (or insert FX) is an effect that you place on a single track, eg lead vocal, which processes that audio through the effect you put on it. Multiple effects can be added to a single track, in any order. These effects will only affect the sounds played from that track.

Track FX in Ableton

In the above image, you can see Ableton's arrangement layout with a drum track. On that track, I have added different FX which will help the drums sound punchier and clearer in the mix. Effects can be added by clicking the desired track and dragging an effect onto the rack section at the bottom.

In this instance, the sound goes from left to right, being processed by the "Drum Bus", then "EQ Eight", followed by "Compressor", "Overdrive", and finally "Glue Compressor".

Track FX in Reaper

You would be forgiven for thinking Reaper's FX interface is a bit more confusing, and that is certainly true for most people. This is in part because Reaper offers a bit more flexibility, at the cost of user-friendliness. The basic track FX works in a similar fashion to Ableton, but instead of double clicking on a track to open the rack on the bottom of the screen, the FX chain window opens up. Here you can add plugins in order from top to bottom.

Double clicking on a plugin opens it in a new window, so it doesn't have the multiple plugin view Ableton users are so used to, but in essence, the differences are purely cosmetic, and functionally, both DAWs work the same way.

What is Send FX?

Send FX, on the other hand, is on a dedicated "Return" track which holds no audio itself. Instead, individual tracks send their audio to the return track, at levels chosen by the producer, and all the sounds are processed together. If you mute the return track, the audio from all of the individual tracks still goes to the master, but the affected audio, eg reverb tails disappear.

The diagram below shows the routing of a project where the vocals and synths are sent through some reverb on a return track:

Send FX in Ableton

The image below shows the Return Tracks in Ableton, the three tracks at the bottom, just above the master track. In this project, I have a Reverb send, a Delay send, and a send called "Riser". I have sent some of the drums to the reverb send which means that the drums will sound like they are in a large room. If I solo the send, only the reverberations are heard, because the effect is set to 100% wet.

The red line indicates where the audio goes to as if a wire was connecting the output of the drum track to the send FX on the return track. Multiple tracks can send their audio to a return track.

You can, of course, have multiple effects plugins on a return track, and they are processed left to right in a similar fashion to the track FX rack. A good example of this is an EQ removing the bass frequencies before the Reverb to stop the FX send contributing muddiness to the mix.

In Ableton, to send audio to a return track, just use the send volumes under the track volume and pan controls. These will control how much that particular track is sent to each return track.

Send FX in Reaper

This is where Reaper becomes significantly more flexible than Ableton, again, at the cost of immediate ease of use. Any track can be configured as a return track, even if it contains audio or MIDI, this can be done by using the routing options on each track and deciding where it gets sent. In the image below, the red line indicates the virtual wire which the audio would be sent along to the reverb send.

To configure a send in reaper you can use the routing menu seen below. Alternatively, you can click and drag on the circled icon (which opens the routing menu) and drag towards the routing icon of the designated return track with the send effects.

Provided you set up dedicated return tracks for Send FX, then Reaper an Ableton work identically, just like they do with track FX, in all ways but visually.

When to Use...

The following section talks more broadly about the functions of each and so will be the same regardless of what DAW (or even hardware) setup you are running.

Track FX

Track FX is a great place to start when designing your sounds. Just like you would play about with your guitar amp controls in the recording studio to get the perfect sound, you can use the track FX to make that track's audio sound right, both before, and during mixing.

If you are designing a synth patch for your song, you will most likely want to use track FX as the final tweak in getting the sound perfect. Remember, any synth plugins which have inbuilt FX, basically work like track FX, and so adding an EQ to a track with a synth has the same function as using the inbuilt EQ in a plugin such as Serum.

The benefit of using Track FX is that you can really sculpt the sounds in a way that you can't with a send. If you want a particular reverb on a vocal, that you don't want to be applied to anything else then the ideal scenario is placing it directly onto that track. Effects can be blended in with the raw sound using a dry/wet knob and all the effects are pre-fader, so once you have the perfect blend, any volume changes after will retain that blend.

A big benefit of track FX is that you can freeze a track and it doesn't affect the sends. You are unable to freeze a return track and then proceed to continue editing the tracks which feed into it.

Effects you would typically include in your track effects would be things like EQ, Compression, Saturation, Chorus, etc.

Send FX

Sends are great when you are processing multiple tracks through the same effect. The best example of this is reverb. Normally, you want your sounds to give the impression that they are in the same room. This can be fiddly if identical reverbs are added to each individual track and so sending everything through a single reverb is often better. This also frees up computer processing power, especially if you are using high-quality plugins, which can add up quickly.

Computing power is an important consideration, and so that is why many Ableton live-performance sets will use sends liberally. While not offering the fine control of adding effects individually, it guarantees a safer performance with less chance of audio dropout. If you map a send to a knob on a controller like the Push, you can very quickly add reverb to each channel with a single knob.

Quite often, you may find yourself wanting to compress the reverbs or delays, and so if you have multiple reverbs across multiple tracks, you cannot compress them as a single thing. This means it is best to have a send with a reverb/delay followed by a compressor. All the sounds are then processed and compressed together, without affecting the dry signals. 

Drums are a great example of this, if you add reverb and compression to the drum tracks, you will lose a lot of punch through the activity of the compressor, by having the compressor on a send it ends up counting as parallel compression, also known as new york compression.

Like with the track FX, there are benefits to sends when freezing. You may want to freeze your MIDI synth lines or commit them to audio. Doing this can be difficult to reverse, by having the FX on a dedicated send, you are not committing to those effects as final. You can freeze all the tracks and still tweak the reverb to taste later.

Effects typically used in sends are reverb and delay, but the options go much further.

The Bottom Line

No way is correct for everything, each option has its own benefits. When you are mixing, you will most likely be EQing tracks individually so they fit amongst each other, likewise, when creating space, you will most likely want to send all your sounds through the one reverb/delay plugin. The best way to proceed is to use both, and be mindful of the benefits of each. 

I recommend you start your project with dedicated sends for reverb and delay (default in Ableton) and with each plugin decide whether it fits best on an individual track, or if it would work better as a send.

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