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The Studio Curmudgeon: The Use And Misuse Of Reverb
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What Do I Use With…..?

Among the most frequently-asked questions of first-year recording students is the question of what types of reverb work best with a specific instrument.

The first rule of thumb is always “trust your ears” – if it sounds right, it probably is.

Beyond that, here are a few general guidelines:

First and foremost, as stated earlier, less is almost always more. You’ll achieve a more natural sounding mix using fewer reverbs sparingly than you will by booting up every plug-in in your arsenal. One short, bright program (small room or plate) and a larger, warmer program (large room or hall) will often be enough to cover most of your mix.

For best results, insert reverbs into an effect or aux buss, rather than directly into a signal chain. This will enable you to use the same reverb for multiple tracks, while varying the amount of send for each source.

Drums and other percussive sounds typically sound more realistic with small to mid-sized rooms (shorter reverb tails, shorter pre-delay), or plate programs. Avoid longer pre-delay times, which can create the impression of a “phantom” doubled attack, as well as longer decay times, which can adversely affect directionality and clarity.

Too bright a reverb can result in a harsh, brittle sound, particularly on snares and cymbals. Lower density settings can also sound coarse and unnatural on drums. Higher densities and warmer reverbs will generally deliver better results.

Acoustic instruments like strings, woodwinds and backing vocals can typically benefit from larger room and hall settings and longer pre-delay times, which can help to smooth, blend, and add depth to these parts. Background vocals in particular can often benefit from a larger room setting, which can help to smooth and blend multiple parts.

These larger settings can also do wonders for widening a stereo field. Conversely, too much of this effect can blur and instrument’s attack and create a “swimmy” sounding mix with little definition or directionality. Unless you’re after a very lush, ethereal background, be careful not to overdo it.

Lead vocals are another story entirely. The general rule of thumb is that there are no rules; the song and the production dictate what’s right. That said, most producers will agree that short, relatively dry settings work best for rock, while longer, more dense reverbs are best saved for lush ballads. Using a longer pre-delay before the actual reverb kicks in allows the vocal’s clarity and impact to cut through, but gives it a natural “tail” that rings out without blurring.

One trick for helping to define, rather than blur, the imaging in your mix, is to use reverb in combination with delay. Pan the original sound slightly to one side. Delay the reverb return slightly (try anywhere from 3 to 10 ms) and pan it to the opposite side. This works particularly well to help separate sounds in similar frequency ranges, like multiple stacked guitar tracks.

Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

I’ve spent most of this column talking about using reverb in its most natural settings. And for the most part, the best use of reverb is a mix in which it’s pretty much indiscernible – the more easily you can hear it, the less natural it sounds.

But as I tend to say in most of my columns, don’t be afraid to break the rules. Experimentation is how most of the best ideas are born. Try combining a couple of different instances of the same reverb with slightly different parameters and panning them left and right. Or try adding a subtle chorus or distortion to a reverb.

One engineer I worked with frequently used to route the mix through a pair of Vox AC30 guitar amps, mic those in a small, bright room, and blend a tiny bit of it back into the final mix. The result was an ever-so-subtle bit of grunge that worked great for the rock bands I often brought to his studio.

Again, subtlety is key here – a little bit of something unusual, buried deeply in the mix, might be just the thing to give your mix that special “something.”

Daniel Keller, a.k.a., the Studio Curmudgeon, is a musician, engineer and producer. Since 2002 he has been president and CEO of Get It In Writing, a public relations and marketing firm focused on audio and multimedia professionals and their toys.. Despite being immersed in professional audio his entire adult life, he still refuses to grow up.


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