Disclaimer: I’m old. I grew up in the 1980s listening to music produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In addition to being some of the greatest music ever, the vocals were often swimming in deep pools of reverb. It was amazing.
Now, the trend today is to keep the vocals as dry as Lake Meade in 2022. If that’s your jam, you do you. But if you’d like to upgrade from the dry toast sound to a nice juicy ribeye with a compound butter topping, read on.
The first trick in making vocal reverbs sound great is to time them to the music. Too often people will stick a reverb on a vocal, set the decay time to two seconds, listen to it and decide it doesn’t sound good.
What you have is a very unnatural-sounding reverb. Instead, timing the decay to the tempo of the song will let the reverb tail fall off in time with the music.
I started doing this over a decade ago after listening to a Dave Pensado podcast. He talked about putting a delay on the vocal that was around 100 msec (milliseconds). But instead of just picking 100 msec, he chose a note value that got him close to 100. That could be a 1/16th note, a 1/32nd note or a dotted variation of those. I tried that technique and found it worked quite well. Give this a shot to fatten up your lead vocal—that’s a freebie.
Realizing timing was important, I started applying the same technique to my reverb times. Depending on the tempo of the song, I might have a half, whole or even a dotted-whole note worth of decay time on the reverb. What I found amazing was how much reverb I could add into the mix without it sounding like an effect.
At the time, I was in a church that wanted the dry toast sound and prior to timing my reverbs, I often got called out for too much reverb. Timing the reverb let me have my steak and eat it, too, while keeping the toast people happy. In fact, they said the mixes were sounding better than ever, not realizing that I was putting anywhere from two to four seconds of reverb on their vocals.
To get the timing, just download an app such as Tap Delay & Tempo Calculator, plug in your song’s BPM (beats per minute) and start trying out various decay times. Of course, you need to know the tempo of the song, and it works best if the band is playing to a click. I asked our worship leader if the BPM could be placed in Planning Center so I didn’t have to go looking for it or guess. I changed the times for each song with a snapshot.
That’s the level one upgrade – it’s steak fries, not ribeye. Work on it for a while and see how it goes. When you’re ready for ribeye, try this on for size.
This concept came about from two disparate sources. One day, I was auditioning some new in-ear monitors and cued up Bach’s Tocata & Fugue in D Minor played by Daniel Chorzempa. (Check it out on YouTube here.)
Anyway, I noticed the decay signature of the organ sound in the cathedral where it was recorded. I heard the higher frequencies dying out fairly quickly while the lower registers wrapped around me like a warm sweater.
A few months later, I found myself hanging out with my dear friend, the late, great Andrew Stone. We were several hours into a deep discussion on sound, music and mixing when I shared with him my findings from Bach. He said it was funny I mentioned that because he’d recently started playing around with the idea of frequency-splitting his reverbs. A few hours later, I was looking forward to trying it out.
The idea is this: to mimic how sound naturally decays in a space, we’re going to split the task of generating reverb tails up to two processors, each suited for the range of frequencies we’re asking of it.
What Andrew and I both settled on was a Hall reverb up to about 400 to 600 Hz, and a plate above that. I think he sometimes used a room for the high-frequency region, but on my console, I liked the sound of the plate better. Your mileage may vary.
The way we handled the frequency split was to send the vocal to two FX units and use the high-pass filter (HPF) and low-pass filter (LPF) in the FX units themselves to let the Hall reverb work up to that 400 to 600 Hz range and the plate above that. Depending on how you patch the FX, you could also do it on the sends. I found it didn’t work as well to HPF and LPF the returns; I really wanted to let the processors only work on the frequencies I’m assigning them.
Finishing It Off
With the processing now frequency split, I would apply roughly a half note worth of decay time to the Plate, and anywhere from a whole to dotted-whole or even a double-whole note to the Hall. If I was going that long on the Hall, I sometimes went to a whole note on the Plate.
There needs to be some time to experiment, so I suggest spending an afternoon with virtual soundcheck trying it out. After listening to it on just the vocal, pull up the whole mix and see just how nice all that reverb just chills out in the mix and makes the vocals sound rich, warm and almost perfectly done.
I’d done a ton of experimentation with the FX units, so I landed on that combination pretty quickly; if you’re just learning about reverb, spend some time listening to what your console/plu-ins sound like and hear what works best.
To be sure, this is an advanced technique. The goal is to be able to get a really nice vocal reverb sound without it sounding like an effect. If you can hear it standing out in the mix, you’re not doing it right.
But when it’s right, you can layer in the delay, the high and low reverb along with the main vocal and it will just sound amazing. Mute the FX and the mix should change noticeably, but in a way that you can’t quite describe; perhaps like watching a movie in color then switching to black and white.
In my experience, few ever noticed that their vocals were swimming in a sea of eight seconds of reverb; they just noticed the mix sounded increasingly better as I stretched this concept out.
In fact, one day the dry-toast-loving associate worship leader came up and asked, “Do you have reverb on Mark’s voice?” I winked and said, “A little bit.” She smiled and said, “It sounds great!” Man, that ribeye tasted good!