Our resident studio wizard Chris Lyth on how to make more effective use of reverb in your productions
Reverb is the most commonly used effect in music production. It’s a fundamental mixing tool and commonplace on just about every record ever made… with varying degrees of subtlety.
There are times, however, when no matter how pristine the reverb, we may need to go one step further to either fit it into the mix more transparently, or to create our own unique acoustic space. On many rock and pop records, the reverb is often set up on an Aux channel at the start of the mixing process and used in a linear fashion as various instruments are sent to it. While millions of great tracks have been made this way, there are times when you may want the spatial dimension of your track to be more evolving and 3D, or become an integral part of the music rather than simple background ambience.
In this article we’ll take a look at reverb processing and ways to make you a master of time and space. These tips will assume that you are sending to your reverb from an Aux send…
In a busy mix, reverb can often take up more room than is desirable, so it can sometimes help to sculpt the frequency content with a separate EQ to fit the track.
A good place to start is to filter out the low and high frequencies to leave space for kicks, bass, airy vocals and cymbals at the higher end. Cutting the low frequencies at 350Hz and the high at 10kHz is a decent place to start, but as always, tailor the frequencies to fit with the demands of your track.
Detailed sculpting of your reverb can improve the transparency of your midrange as well as clearing out the mud that can swamp your low end, leaving your kick and bass sounding unfocused and muggy. Try sweeping your EQ with a tight bell curve over your reverb to identify any ugly sounding resonances and surgically notch them out. A spectrum analyser can be useful to visualise any sharp peaks and resonances.
Gated reverb, like the ever present threat of nuclear war, is synonymous with the 80s. Big hair, big Thatcher and famously, big snares. It was used to death and is one of the defining production tropes of the decade. However, it remains a useful tool and can be used in ways that don’t necessarily make you sound like Phil Collins falling over some dustbins in a warehouse.
With high tempo music it can become difficult to use big reverbs such as large hall or cathedral, as the long decay swamps the mix with the overhang. Sometimes we want the big space but not the muggy swamp that comes afterwards, which can pull percussively driven music back. Step forward gated reverb, which as you may imagine uses a noise gate to shut off the reverb at our command.
A good way to do this is to place a noise gate after your reverb plug-in on your Aux channel. Then set the gate to be triggered by the sound you're looking to process – a synth lead, for example. Now adjust the gate’s threshold so that it only opens when the synth is playing and closes immediately afterwards. It will take a few minutes to tune settings correctly. Try starting by setting a fast attack (1ms), a short release around 150ms and a hold of around 250ms. Take care the gate doesn’t click when snapping shut. Now your synth will sound huge, but also razor-sharp at the same time and without a hint of the 80s.
Ducked reverb is a similar, but more subtle technique. It can help smooth and sustain a larger reverb, while creating space so that a vocal, for example, is not obscured and remains up front and intelligible.
We do this by placing a compressor behind the reverb and setting the compressor side chain to be triggered by the vocal. We then set the compressor to a fairly high ratio between 6:1 to 8:1, and aim for the gain reduction to be around -5dB. This will turn the reverb down whilst the vocal is triggering the compressor’s side chain, leaving the vocal to come through drier in the mix. Then when the vocal phrase ends, the reverb will swell up to fill the space.
Aim for a long-ish release time of around 300ms if you want to keep everything sounding smooth and natural, or experiment if you are looking to create a special effect.
When reverb is being used in a big and very obvious way, especially in a more minimal setting such as ambient music or very stripped down techno, it can be useful to think of the reverb as a separate track in itself. Reverb need not be a linear construct: it can ebb and flow over the timeline of your music.
When creating a chain of effects, you have to consider the best way to order the effects. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about this – it depends on your musical intentions. That said, it will have a significant impact on the sound you are looking to create. With EQ there’s not much difference, but with modulation effects like chorus, phasers and flangers, the difference with be fairly profound.
Chaining effects is a great way to create and modify unique textures. For example: adding a flanger before your reverb or a chorus and a compressor after the reverb. Adding modulation which can be automated over the length of your track can generate unique sections of atmosphere and texture which can be very dynamic and work well in electronic music. You could even have plug-ins only engaged for a certain section: for example, using distortion and heavy compression in a breakdown to create a dense wall of sound and texture. Rhythmic tools like tremolos can be deployed with varying degrees of subtlety and can make the reverb a rhythmic tool in itself, if tempo-matched.
As always, experiment with your own favourite plug-ins or effects and create your own unique space to work within.
Depth of field
Finally, a great way of creating some widescreen, panoramic width in your mix is to use various different mono reverbs and pan them across your stereo field on your Aux channels.
For example, you may have four different mono reverbs – two panned hard left and right, creating great width, and the other two panned left and right but with less width, perhaps 10 and 2 o’clock. It can be useful when panning an instrument fairly vigorously to send it to a reverb that is panned in the opposite direction. In doing this, you still gain the width, but the reverb stops it from feeling unnatural.
It’s essential to use headphones for this kind of work, but do check on normal speakers and listen in mono to see if your mix translates well. Try using stereo widening plug-ins on your master stereo bus to push it that little bit wider.
With just a little more attention, reverb can not just fit into your music more naturally, but can become a dynamic instrument in its own right. Electronic music is a playground for new spatial constructs, free from the real world acoustic constraints of rock and pop music. Experiment with these tips and don’t be afraid to push them further or cast them aside if they are not right for you!
Words: Chris Lyth