There are hundreds of ways to mix with reverb, though it is easy to use too much. You’ll know if you’ve used too much if your mix becomes muddy or unclear due to your reverb usage.
It’s important to note that reverb is essential for creating depth in a space. Great mixes have a sense of three-dimensional space that is only achieved through the use of reverb (and sometimes delay).
In this short reverb guide, we are going to look at why you would want to use reverb, and how to add it properly so you will recognize when to apply proper reverb in your mix. Also, check this post to explain How And When To Use Algorithmic And Convolution Reverb In Your Mix.
What Does A Reverb Effect Do?
Reverberation or the reverb effect is meant to replicate external acoustics so that we can use them in our mix. In real-life, reverb hits a hard surface and bounces back at the listener at varying amplitudes and times to create complex echoes. Reverb effects in your DAW simulate natural or unnatural reverberations.
The environment informs every sound we hear in real life. The environment a sound is in can give it several different qualities, including large, thin, dark, bright, and more.
Reverb provides mixes with a sense of depth, though it also provides listeners with clues as to where the sound exists. With reverb, you can bring listeners into a cave, a concert hall, a cathedral, a chamber, or a smaller, more intimate room.
How Do I Add Reverb?
There are a few steps that we like to take when adding reverb, which include:
- Setting Up A Send
- Selecting The Type of Reverb
- Setting the Size
- Setting Pre-Delay
- Setting Early Reflections and Diffusion
Setting Up A Send
Using reverb effects on every channel can cut into your CPU very fast. This is why we want to create send/aux/bus channels to put our reverbs on instead. We can then send the sounds that we want to be effected to our reverb bus.
Plus, setting up a send rather than sticking your reverb directly on the track gives you more control of your sound.
Selecting The Type of Reverb
If the reverb you are using has presets, try testing them out to get a sense of what they sound like. One question you might ask yourself is,
What space do I want to put my sounds in?
Choose the type of reverb that suits your mix in the best way possible, whether you are using it on multiple instruments or a single source.
Setting The Size
The size parameter gives you control over the size of your space. The smaller the size, the shorter your reverbs will be, and vice versa. It is important to note that size can also impact the stereo image. Larger reverbs will give you a longer, fuller sound, while shorter reverbs will provide you with a narrower, more intimate sound.
It all depends on what Reverb plugin you are using, for instance, in Valhalla Vintage Verb, the size is labeled as “Decay”. In FabFilter Pro-R, the size means “Space”.
Tip – If you are using longer reverbs, keep them quieter in the mix. Long reverbs tend to wash out a mix. You don’t want your mix to feel like it’s lost in space. Shorter reverbs, on the other hand, can be brought up a bit more without adding mud.
Pre-Delay provides you with space between your dry signal and reverb signal. A short pre-delay time will give you little to no time between your dry and wet signal, creating the sound of a room. On the downside, no pre-delay can make your reverb sound messy.
Larger pre-delays will create a small delay before your reverb kicks in, giving you the sound of a larger environment. Plus, you get the benefit of maintaining a clear signal while still hearing your reverb.
Tip – Always make sure to time your pre-delay to the track you are working on.
Here is a handy delay and reverb calculator that you can use to improve your mixes.
Setting Early Reflections and Diffusion
Early reflections are categorized by sounds that arrive at the listener after being reflected once or twice off of a surface. The more early reflections you have in a mix, the more of an echo or doubling effect you get.
Diffusion, on the other hand, gives you the ability to add or reduce reverb texture. Setting your diffusion levels high gives you more complex space with obstructive objects. We like to think of a church with a ton of people in it. Setting your diffusion levels low gives you a more basic sound. We like to think of an empty garage with reflective surfaces.
High diffusion levels breed smoother and warmer reverb while low diffusion levels breed bright, less-colored reverb.
In Valhalla Vintage Verb, Early and Late Reflections are linked to diffusion, though other types of reverb plug-ins are different. In FabFilter Pro R you can change the Early Reflections with the”Distance” knob:
Should You Put Reverb On Everything?
When you drown all of your tracks in reverb, you miss out on that contrast. Essentially, if all of your tracks have reverb, all of them will sound far away without any of them sounding close.
The point here is to choose a track that you want to keep upfront (like a vocal, for instance) and don’t add any reverb to it. This way, you can add reverb to your other instruments in your mix, such as your guitar, keyboards, synths, etc. to separate them from your lead vocal.
Remember, the point of reverb is to create depth. Some tracks need to feel close to you, while others need to feel further away. Reverb helps achieve this depth, though you need to be selective when using it.
How Much Reverb Is Too Much?
You’ll know when you have too much reverb as it will reduce the audibility of the important sounds that you want to hear. Too much reverb creates a swampy mess of feedback that can eat up a mix faster than anything else.
For us, there are three levels of reverb.
- The first level is the “feeling” reverb. As the name suggests, this type of reverb is so subtle that you feel it rather than hear it. A good rule of thumb for this type of reverb is to turn it up until you hear it and then back it off just a little bit.
- The second level of reverb is a reverb that is heard, though not for very long. This type of reverb can be used on vocals to give them space, snares to make them sound larger, etc. Be careful with this type of reverb and use it sparingly. Make sure to dial in pre-delay so that your dry signals do not get swallowed up.
- The third level is a reverb that is used heavily as an effect. Think about deep, long pads or larger-than-life, ambient guitars. This type of reverb is special and should rarely (if ever) be used on multiple sounds within a track.
Should You Put Reverb On A Kick?
It’s important to note that we generally do not want to put low-frequency information through reverb channels, as it can spread our low-end image, giving us a cloudy mix.
One great example of a song with reverb on a kick is Lord Huron’s “Wait By The River.”
In the quieter, more sparse sections of the song, you can hear a slight bit of top-end reverb on the kick, which gives it a sense of space. So as you can see, there are no hard and fast rules about having reverb on your kick. Whether or not you put reverb on your kick depends on what emotion you want to evoke.
Sometimes songs call for a dry drum sound, though if you want that endless, stadium-rock style sound, then try and throw your kick into some reverb and see what happens.
Tip – Try and filter out your lows if you decide to put reverb on your kick. Load up a reverb bus, put an EQ on it and set a low-pass filter up to 300-400HZ, and send your kick to it. This way, you will only get reverb on the top end of the kick.
How Do You Get Perfect Reverb Every Time?
To get your reverb to sound perfect every time, you want to pay close attention to the size. Also, If the tempo of your track is quite fast, you will want a shorter reverb. Slow tempos, on the other hand, allow for much longer reverb times.
Let’s consider a snare for a moment. Let’s say you have a song at 120 BPM with a snare on the 2 and 4 of each bar. You want to time your reverb to the 120BPM track tempo so that your snare reverb on the 2 disappears just before your snare reverb on the four and so on.
Essentially, you don’t want your reverb to carry over into your other snare. Reverb that carries over can destroy the groove of a track and give it a washed-out sound.
One of the main exceptions to this rule of tempo is what we call pace. Let’s say you have a vocal in that same 120BPM track, though the vocal has long, sustained notes. In that case, you could add longer reverb times to that vocal because the part isn’t very busy. Of course, if that same vocal had shorter, more rhythmic parts, you might not want to keep the reverb on during them.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules here. Sometimes having a washed-out snare sound works. Just use the idea of timing your reverb as a starting point.
Is Plate Reverb Best For Vocals?
Plates help to add a bit of sheen and sparkle to dry signal, which is why we often use plate reverb on vocals, especially in the pop context. Of course, sometimes that added brightness is a bit too much. In that case, we might want to use something darker, such as a chamber reverb.
The reason many people like to use plate reverbs on vocals is that they have unique qualities. Plates are two-dimensional spaces, while most reverbs are three-dimensional spaces. Original plates were metal sheets suspended in the air with microphones on them, providing mix engineers with a one-of-a-kind sound. Rather than the discrete echoes in the front and back of reverb tails that we get with natural, three-dimensional reverbs, plate reverbs provide us with the same echo density from start to finish.
Secondly, plate reverb has a much higher echo density as well, which is what provides them with the smooth reverb tails that we all know and love.
Lastly, plate reverb provides us with higher frequency tones right off the bat, while low-frequency tones take a while to build up. Essentially, you get a shinier sound at the front of the reverb, thanks to this big sheet of metal.
If you are looking to add shimmer and space to your vocals without drowning them in hall or chamber reverbs, plate reverbs are best.
Nowadays, there are tons of different plate reverb plugins available to use in the box, so you don’t need to store a massive metal sheet in your house.
One of our absolute favorites is Abbey Road Plates by Waves:
How Do I Make Reverb Sound Better?
There are a few methods you can use to make your reverb effect sound better, including:
- Switching to Mono
Don’t use the “set it and forget it” mentality when using reverb in your mixes. Ride your reverbs to enforce or support the dynamics of your song. For example, you might want more reverb in your chorus than in your verse. By doing so, you can create a larger-than-life feeling in your chorus to make it feel bigger than your verses. This, in itself, is a dynamic change.
Also, don’t be afraid to cut out any other nasty frequencies that you don’t want in your reverb with your EQ as well.
We also recommend setting your reverb in mono sometimes. Some stereo reverb plug-ins come with mono counterparts, while some require a little mono panning with the pan knobs.
Mono reverbs are preferable in many situations. For starters, they take up a lot less space in the mix. Secondly, they help to pull signals back in the soundstage when placed behind them. Remember, the goal of reverb is to create the perception of depth by pulling some things back. If you can achieve that goal without clouding up your mix, then you get the best of both worlds.
Next time you have a vocal in a dense mix, see if you can use a mono reverb on it instead. Keep your mono reverb panned center and send your vocal into it.
You can also use mono reverb on electric guitars as well. If you have an electric guitar panned all the way to the left or right, send up a mono reverb panned the opposite way and send your guitar to it. This helps to create a sense of width for an otherwise narrow instrument.
For starters, it is incredibly important to shape your reverb return with EQ. Never accept the reverb as it is. The idea of shaping your reverb goes back to the old Abbey Road days, where engineers would filter out the lows and highs in reverb to create more space in the mix. This trick became known as the Abbey Road Reverb trick.
If you look at the photo below, you can see the EQ placed after the reverb with a high-pass at around 500Hz and low-pass at around 10kHz.
The idea with cutting out the lows is that you get rid of all of the unnecessary low-frequency information that can cloud up your mix. Getting rid of the high-frequency information can get rid of that spitty or sibilant sound that we rarely want, either.
Typically, what we are after is the smooth, mid-range sound in a reverb. That is what provides us with space, depth, and warmth. Try the Abbey Road Reverb trick on your next mix.
Another thing that you want to keep in mind is the idea of keeping your sound dynamic.
One last thing that we recommend is sidechaining your reverb. Let’s say that you decide to use reverb on your vocals, though it’s getting in the way of some of the words in the vocal phrases. Rather than trying to EQ out frequencies to make your vocal fit, you can set up a compressor so that it is side-chained to the vocals.
What this does is bring the level of the reverb down whenever the vocals are playing before returning it to full volume when they are not. In doing this, you can achieve a massive sense of space while keeping your vocal clear.
Does Reverb Make Your Sound Better?
Reverb is used in about 95% of great mixes. It is something that you simply cannot forget about. Of course, getting reverb right is half the battle. You could potentially create one of the best mixes of your life, only to have it squandered by amateur reverb.
Reverb evens the voice out and creates a more pleasant sound right off the bat. If done correctly, reverb can bring out the full potential of the human voice. Reverb can mask a lot of flaws found in the human voice. These flaws include misplaced vowels, sharp or flat notes, mispronunciation, bad tone or timbre, lack of breath support, and so on.
Understanding which types of reverbs work best in specific mixes, how to utilize reverb parameters such as decay time, pre-delay, early reflections, and diffusion, and having a bag of tricks to make your reverbs sound better, are all part of creating great mixes.
However, if used improperly, it can make your voice sound worse. Bad reverb (think about the kind you tend to hear in karaoke machines) can sound harsh and brittle or muddy and muffled.
For this reason, we recommend delay in place of reverb a fair amount of the time. Slap delays are often used on vocals to create a sense of space without the overwhelming characteristics of reverb.
Make sure to follow all of the steps in our reverb guide, and you’ll be on your way to crafting professional mixes in no time.
Tyler Connaghan is a producer, composer, and engineer based in Los Angeles, CA. He studied music for two years at the University of Southern California before landing a job at Killingsworth Recording Company, where he currently produces music for television and film.