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Tech Tip Of The Day: Vocal Reverb Tails

How can I make my vocal tracks have that "breathy" sound?

By PSW Staff July 15, 2010

Provided by Sweetwater.

Q: I’m somewhat new to recording and I’ve been working with a new reverb trying to get a specific sounding reverb that tail off of vocals.

When I use a lot of reverb it tends to get kind of muddy and cluttered sounding, and I’d like it to have a “breathy” sound.

Is there anything I can do?”

A: Without knowing exactly what unit you’re using we’ll have to speak in generalities.

However, there are several things you can look at to improve this. These tips should apply equally to all reverbs.

1. You first have to always consider the raw material you are working with. What is the nature of the vocal track?

If it’s a big (gruff) male voice you will find it very difficult to get anything resembling “breathy” no matter what you do electronically. There is definitely a skill to singing in such a way that helps create these nice reverb tails.

2. What is the tonality of the track? Is the microphone and any equalization applied conducive to getting some emphasis on the higher frequencies?

This can really help. A mic with good clear top end will work better for this than a mic designed to “cut through the mix,” which tends to involve more midrange.

Now we get to the reverb itself.

3. If you are going to use a lot of reverb you’re going to need to set it up in such a way that it doesn’t stomp all over your tracks and clutter everything up. One parameter that can help with this is pre delay.

By making this longer you will tend to disconnect the reverb signal from the voice, thereby making it easier to have the reverb take on a life of its own. Obviously you have to be moderate here and adjust to taste.

Go too far and the reverb becomes too disconnected and can even mess up the rhythmic feel. An adjustment of 10 to 20 milliseconds can make a big difference here.

4. Another trick that help to keep the reverb out of the way is to lower the diffusion parameter. Higher diffusion is nice on drum tracks because it keeps the reverb smooth, and it can be great on vocal tracks, but if you intend to use a lot of reverb you’re generally going to have more success by turning this down. Just pay attention to any graininess or distortion that may appear if you set it too low.

5. Most naturally occurring reverb has very little high frequency energy in it. This is mostly due to the fact that high frequencies tend to diffuse and be lost much more quickly as sound waves travel through the air.

Most of your presets are probably set up to mimic this behavior. But by adjusting the hi cut filter or high end roll off parameter you can allow the higher frequencies to stay around a lot longer as the reverb decays. This is a key to getting what you describe you want.

6. Finally, engineers have been known to boost very high frequency signals before they go into the reverb just to maximize their ability to get this type of effect.

As always, we welcome input from the PSW community and would love to know how you would handle this situation. Feel free to let us know in the comments below.

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