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Reverb - Echoes, Sustains, and Placement of Instruments
“Wider, wetter, bigger, more distant, more spacious. Reverb is the art of controlling the environment your instruments are played in, as well as the 3-dimensional placement of everything within your sound landscape.”
What Is Reverb?
By definition, reverb is defined as an electronic effect that is used to mimic artificial acoustic environments. More specifically, reverb (reverberation) is the act of sound reflecting off of a surface like a glass window or a canyon wall. This essentially causes the sound to reach the human ear twice (or perhaps any number of times depending on the environment). The resulting effect we are left with are all types of echoes and elongated sustains that can dramatically change the nature of what you’re listening to.
The Sound Landscape
Many people think of music as just thing a simple ‘thing’ that sounds cool. Sometimes it sounds really cool, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s important to think a little deeper than that. It’s not just a flat or simple sound that comes out of a speaker or instrument. Instead, try imagining your music as a 3-dimensional landscape.
In this landscape, you can ‘place’ elements of your mix in any way you see fit. While panning is usually your staple for placing sounds to the left or right, reverb can help place your instruments to the front or to the back. By shifting your paradigm and viewing music in this 3-dimensional way, you have now opened up a whole new world of possibilities. All of a sudden, composing and producing music has turned into a 3-dimensional play area that is only limited by your own personal creative imagination.
Reverb can be used on vocals or instruments for any number of reasons that are limited only by your creative expression. However, here are some common applications of reverb you should definitely consider.
- To affect the placement of an instrument in your mix.
- To make an instrument sound as if it were recorded in a specific environment.
- To add some excitement or personality to a sound.
- To make an instrument sound bigger, wider, wetter, or more spacious.
- To achieve a certain emotional effect such as sadness or thoughtfulness.
- To make something sound ethereal.
Type of Reverb
The type of reverb indicates what kind of environment you’re looking to simulate. For instance, a ‘hall’ is a large space with a long decay time, whereas a ‘room’ is much smaller and dampening. A ‘plate’ is a big hanging piece of metal that was designed to reflect sound dynamic ways. It was often used in studios before the age of affordable electronic effect machines. Using your ear and experimenting with different options is usually the best way to find what styles of reverbs you like.
The decay time represents the amount of time it takes for the sustain of a reverb to fade away into silence. Typically speaking, a decay of 2 seconds or greater will place an instrument far back in the mix and make it sound very wet and distant. Decay times between 0.1 and 1 second makes the instrument sound bigger and wider.
Pre-delay refers to the amount of time it takes for the decay to actually kick in. In a sense, it is the entrance of the decay. Longer pre-delay times will often make an instrument sound bigger.
HPF and LPF (High Pass Filter, Low Pass Filter)
These parameters affect the sound of the sustain or echo that comes from the reverb by modifying its frequency. HPF will allow the high frequencies to pass therefore making the reverb brighter and easier to cut through your mix. Increasing the LPF will allow the low frequencies to pass making the reverb sound much darker.
This controls the balance of the dry sound mixed with the reverb. Dry usually means ‘unaffected’, whereas wet usually refers to whatever process is being applied to the audio, which in this case, is reverb. Essentially, it is how much reverb you are applying.
Adding Reverb to Instruments
Remember; these are general rules that work for many common situations but not all situations. Always use your ear as the deciding factor, and never be afraid to try something unorthodox.
“Good producers know all the rules. Great producers know when to break them.”
Your vocal track is probably the most important element to your song, and therefore the reverb setting is critical. Most often, because the vocal is the focal point of the song, you generally wouldn’t want to place it too far back in the mix. However, having the right amount of reverb can give the vocal a sparkle and polish that almost all hit records have. Adding too much reverb will wash away the vocal and it will get lost in the mix.
With background vocals however, the opposite is often the goal. Generally speaking you want the background vocals to be placed further back in the mix so it acts to pad the vocal. Therefore, a generous decay time might not be a bad idea.
Try a smaller decay time on acoustic guitars to get them to sound big. If you’re using power chords from an electric guitar as a pad (like with many rock songs), apply a generous amount of reverb. Pad sounding instruments often benefit from copious amounts of reverb because their natural purpose is to ‘pad’ and support the mix. Therefore washing them deep in the mix usually is a good strategy.
Drums are tricky because each drum and cymbal sounds so dramatically different! Bass drums often sound great totally dry, while snare drums can benefit from a nice sustain. Try adding more reverb on the cymbals, and toms generally work best if they are sounding big and slightly more distant than the snare.
Typically speaking, bass guitars are usually given very conservative amounts of reverb. Sometimes, they sound perfectly fine with none at all. The reason being is because you want the bass to drive the song and therefore it should be placed pretty close to the speaker. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. However more often than not, you’ll find the bass really finds a nice home in your mix with a short decay time and a small reverb, if any.
Strings almost always sound great with huge amounts of reverb. This places them in a large hall, which is exactly where we’re used to hearing them. It also places the strings further back in your mix and lets them pad your song more effectively with a nice underlay.
Tips and Tricks
- Careful not to overuse reverb. It can be a useful tool to add personality to an instrument, however if you start using large amounts of reverb on everything, the mix will start to get very messy.
- A great way to find the right amount of reverb to add is to first add way too much. Then gradually start pulling back the reverb until you hit a sweet spot. It is usually the area just before the reverb starts to audibly disappear, or any area that jumps out at you as sounding pleasant.
- Try timing the decay and pre-delay to the beat of the song you are using it on. This can add a tremendous amount of depth to your mixes.
- Try using different reverbs on different instruments. Using the same one on everything isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, but it can sometimes create reverb stacking that causes a messy mix.
- As always, it is extremely important to let your ear be your ultimate boss. Experiment and discover reverb sounds that work well with the setup you have. Always adjust knobs and tweak the default settings. Listen to how the sound changes. It will go a long way towards developing your ear.
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