Mixing with reverb
The aim of this article or tutorial is to give you a better understanding of reverb, the types of reverbs available, controls to shape the reverb and a troubleshooting guide to ensure you have the correct reverb settings to maximize and enhance your sound or mix. If you are experiencing issues with reverb, such as loss of clarity to your mix, muddiness, or added noise, then this troubleshooting guide is for you!
What is reverb?
I understand this may sound like a basic question, but to fully understand how to use reverb it's important to understand the fundamentals on how reverb works and to familiarize yourself the terminology.
Reverb is the reflections of sounds from the surfaces in your surrounding environment. These reflections come from different directions at varying time intervals and in different colors and tones, depending on the size, shape and the material the sounds is reflecting from.
Different environments have different characters. Large environments allow lower frequency sounds to echo wider and for longer, where as smaller and more reflective environments can add shorter and brighter slap back reverb which can increase the perceived dynamics of short sound bursts, like a drum. The materials in the room can dampen a range of frequencies, like bass traps or a sofa, or reflect selected higher frequencies, such as a plate, or a tiled chamber. Reverb is the sound of the natural environment, without it, sound wouldn’t sound natural.
Reverb settings and controls
Before we discuss the best settings for each instrument and situation, it's important to understand what each control does. This section aims to take you through the most common controls found on reverb units and reverb VST's. Your preferred reverb may have variations of these controls, or more, or less, options to shape the reverb sound.
The controls you will typically see are;
This is a virtual or simulated environment, the reverb type changes the size, decay time, early reflection time, the width and the tone of the reverb sound.
Medium size reverb
- Room reverb (The size or length of a room reverb can vary from small to medium)
- Chamber Reverb
Small size reverbs
- Room Reverb
Other reverb emulations and technologies
- Slap back delay
- Spring Reverb
- Plate Reverb
Reverb Size or Time
Reverb Size relates to your virtual environment, or reverb type, such as a Hall or Room. Although the reverb type you select will change the size and time of the reverb, some reverb units allow you to also fine tune these settings. You can think of these control as a reverb volume sustain and release. A greater reverb time, or size, would mean a greater sustain volume. Most reverb units have a controllable decay setting which allows you to change your release times and shape the volume, and length of the reverb tail.
Early reflections is the sound of the initial slap back you get from the dry sound reflecting from the nearest object or surface. You can think of this as an attack and decay before the sustain of the reverb body. This early reflection information gives the listener an idea of the acoustic environment before the main body of the reverb is triggered.
Filter and EQ
A filter and EQ can be used before or after the reverb in an effects chain, however most reverb units will have these control built in. These controls are used to shape the tone and enhance or reduce the low end or the brightness of the reverb. Applying EQ before or after the reverb depends on the situation, however I would advise to EQ before the effects chain as general practice.
Pre delay is used for added depth. This will extend the difference in time from when you hear the original dry sound, to the start of the reverb sound or early reflection. Using slightly different pre delay settings on each instrument will place that instrument forward or further back in the mix. For example, an instrument with a short pre delay will sound close to you, as you'll hear the reverb very shortly after the dry sound. With a longer pre delay, the instrument will sound further away, as the reverb sound will be delayed for longer after the original dry sound is triggered.
Pre delay can also increase your perception in the size of the space, a longer pre delay can be used to mimic the instrument in a larger environment. In a smaller space you will hear the reverb quickly after the initial dry sound. using longer pre delays can also add back clarity to the original dry sound if your getting that washed out feel.
This controls the amount of absorption in the room, changing the tone and brightness of the reverb as it decays.
Think about the difference between the sound of a bathroom to the sound of an acoustically treated studio. A studio will have lots of dampening such as bass traps or a sofa, the reflections will be less bright and the reverb sound will appear tail off quicker, where a bathroom will reflect higher pitches for a longer amount of time as the sound reverberates around the room for a sustain period.
This control the density of your reverb, the higher the diffusion setting the richer your reverb tone will be, lower settings will thin your reverb out. This is especially useful if the reverb is making your mix sound muddy.
Like most VST's or effects units, the Mix control will change the volume ratio of your dry sound vs the reverb sound. 100% wet would mean the output would be the reverb sound only, where as 0% would be the dry sound only. Running at 100% wet is recommended when setting the reverb up as a send or bus effect.
Which reverb to use and when
When deciding on the best reverb to use for an instrument or mix, your decision will depend on multiple factors, such as needing a warm or brighter/aggressive mix, the tempo of the track, the genre, how dense the mix is and how fast or aggressive the instruments are playing. An aggressive fast playing punk style guitar would not benefit for a large and dark cathedral reverb as this would reduce clarity, muddy the mix, take away to punch and aggression and would be an odd environment to replicate for that genre. Generally the faster the tempo and the more dense the mix, the shorter and possibly brighter you’ll want the reverb.
The opposite would work for a sparse mix and a slow song, I’m sure you can imagine a slow played violin with a huge warm reverb, or a slow played guitar solo and a smooth slow Jazz trumpet, compared with short bright reverbs which would work with trumpets and guitars played in a Ska track. Much like anything in music, one size does not fit all but I hope this give you clarity to your decision making when selecting a reverb type.
With this understanding you could try map out types of reverb which could work best for each instrument. The only problem with this is, if your track includes a guitar and strings, running the guitar through a short slap back reverb and the strings through a large hall reverb will sound like the instruments have been recorded in different environments and you will struggle to make the mix gel. I would use this as a loose guide, however I think its safe to say, if your track uses strings as the main instrument then a bigger reverb would be a great place to start, alternatively if your track is guitar led then I would start with smaller reverbs.
Large reverbs, such as Halls and cathedrals.
- Slow tempo music
- Low density mix
- Long sustained sounds such as Pads, Strings, Slow played Piano or sustained chords.
- Ambient music
Short Reverb, such as rooms or ,making use of early reflections
- Fast Tempos
- Aggressive vibe
- Dense Mix
- Rock guitar, Ragtime piano, Funk plucks
Keeping reverb simple
Most modern day producers have a huge selection of reverb effects to simulate all sorts of reverb technologies or simulated acoustic environments. Prior to creating this guide, for me, adding reverb meant setting up multiple reverbs and cycling through presets while randomly sending different instruments to the different reverbs in the hope of stumbling across something that works and enhances the sound and the mix. While this can work, its obviously a very chaotic approach which will give inconsistent results and drain valuable producing time.
Keeping things simple gave me quicker and more consistent results. Using just 1 or even 2 reverbs would mean each sound sounded like it was recorded in the same environment and the sounds would gel much better. A great way to approach to this is using the same reverb for every instrument but changing the pre delay time slightly for each instrument, this gives a greater depth to the mix and for me, this felt like a reverb breakthrough. This is a technique I will use time and time again.
To add to this technique, slight changes in eq and early reflections on each instrument can take this technique to a the next level.
Demonstrated below by Warren Huart from produce like a pro
Reverb troubleshooting guide
I decided to list the issues I have when applying reverbs to find out how or why applying reverb in certain situations gave me mix problems, and what I can do to fix them.
Common Reverb issues;
- Takes Away clarity and muddies the Mix
- Adds noise to my clean sounding mix
- Take punch away from the mix
- Doesn’t sound natural/sitting in a different environment
Troubleshooting reverb issues
Loss of clarity or a muddy mix
Reverb type and size
Using a smaller reverb or reducing the decay time to make more space for the other elements in the mix.
Lower diffusion can help clear up any muddiness by thinning out the reverb
Side chaining the reverb
side chaining the reverb to the original sound increases instrument and mix clarity as the reverb lowers in volume when the original sound is playing.
Reverb doesn’t sound natural
Using too many different reverb types
Try limiting the amount of different reverbs you using so the instruments sound like they are playing in the same environment. Using slight difference in pre delay with similar reverb setting on each instrument is an effective way of troubleshooting this issue, as explained in the keeping reverb simple section.
Reverb adds noise to my mix
Dampening higher frequencies can take away the brightness from a reverb body and tail.
Lowering the diffusion settings can also help to thin out the reverb
Filter and EQ
Using Filters and EQ’s can reduce the noise of the acoustic environment. Try taking out the higher frequencies prior to the signal hitting the reverb to reduce the noise in the reverb sound.
The size of the reverb can be a contributing factor also, a smaller reverb environment will have quicker decay times and reduce the amount you hear from the reverb
Of course you can turn the reverb volume down.
Benefits of using reverb
As we know, using reverb can bring problems to your mix, but it can also enhance the mix, otherwise what's the point in using it.
Benefits of using reverb
- Adds more depth to the mix
- Added Warmth
- Added excitement
- Sounds more Natural
How to enhance the mix using reverb
Adding more depth to the mix
Making use of different pre delay settings for each instrument is a great way to create depth in the mix.
For a slower track or sparse mix, larger reverb environments with longer reverb times and slow decay and release can really make sounds feel warm
Dampening higher frequencies can take away the brightness from a reverb body and tail.
Filter and Eq
Using Filters or EQ’s can the brightness of the acoustic environment. Try taking out the higher frequencies prior to the signal hitting the reverb to reduce the noise in the reverb sound.
Higher levels of diffusion can add more excitement to the mix, this works great with drums or where the desired reverb sound will include brightness and noise, this can make an impact sound, sound more impactful. Chambers are great for this where the reverb can be rich, dense and aggressive sounding.
Sound more Natural
Reverb in general is used to make dry, close mic’d recordings sound like its being heard in a natural environment and having full control over the environment is an extremely powerful thing. Using fewer reverbs styles and just changing the pre delay can work wonders to ensure a natural sound where all the instruments sound like they have been recorded in the same environment. Please see keeping reverb simple.
Other reverb FX
Reverbs are great for creating a realistic and natural sounding acoustic environment for your mix, however some genres of music benefit from a hyper real world. Electronic genres like Trance and Techno come to mind, but hyper real reverb can also be useful when sound designing for films.
Pumping side chain reverb
Side chaining the reverb to other elements in your track such as the kick can create a pumping and sucking effect, typically used in the Trance genre but also used in many other styles. Side chaining the reverb to the original dry source can add clarity to the instrument.
Pitched up reverb
Bouncing down just the reverb signal and pitching it up by an octave can add clarity to the mix, the reverb signal and the original sound, since the reverb is no longer fighting the original sound to occupier the same frequencies. Oscar from underdog demonstrates this in the video below
Exporting just the reverb signal and reversing can be great for creating atmospheric vibes, as well as enhancing build ups and break downs. Richie from Dirty Secrets covers this in more detail