If panning determines the side-to-side distribution of your mix, EQ oversees the frequency distribution of your mix, and compression manages the volume distribution of your mix — then reverb controls the front-to-back space of your mix.
In other words, reverb is used to turn a 2-dimensional piece of music into a 3D mix. Reverb complements your arrangement by giving your instruments compelling-sounding spaces to work in.
But it also allows you to add different spaces to different instruments — and the different sections of your composition.
Build your space . . .
If you were to record a vocal in a typical home studio (i.e. a small room), your vocal would sound fine — assuming you had a decent mic placement, space to record, and volume level) — but there wouldn’t likely be much sense of a space around it.
In other words, you wouldn’t hear your singing happening in a SPACE.
Instead, it would sound like you were singing in not much space at all. Which would be right — most home studios are pretty lifeless when it comes to creating a sense of space around vocal recordings.
That is no bad thing — but what it does mean is you will probably need to add reverb to your vocal takes to build a more interesting space around them.
Once you’ve added reverb, your vocal will sound like it was recorded in a resplendent room — somewhere where the space ADDS to your voice to give it a richer character.
But not too much
But here’s the thing — the reverb that you will likely add is quite minimal. Why? Because too much reverb will drown your vocal in space.
You don’t want to do that, because you want all your instruments to sound like they were recorded in similar size rooms.
You don’t want some tracks to sound like they were recorded in a grand hall, and other tracks to sound like they were tracked in a small club.
If you did, your listeners would rightly not believe what they were hearing in your music. And you NEVER want to break the spell that your music might have on your listeners.
Use buses to send
The way to make the reverb minimal is to BUS your vocal track — via a SEND — to an auxilliary track with a reverb plug-in instantiated (or — if you were using a hardware reverb unit, THAT would be inserted on your auxilliary track).
Your aux track would then be sent to your mix output (also known as your ‘two bus’ or ‘mix bus’).
By bussing your vocal to a reverb instead of adding a reverb on to the vocal track itself, you’ll have scope to determine HOW MUCH of the vocal signal you want to send to your reverb.
The thing to remember is: a little amount of reverb goes a LONG way. Not much is needed.
Always mix to taste
Think of reverb like salt on your food. Salt transforms the taste of food for the better (it brings out — if you will — extra dimenstions in your dishes — just like reverb does for your mixes).
But you DON’T add too much of it to have the desired effect.
So, bussing your reverb allows you to control how much of the vocal signal will be mixed in with your reverb effect.
In the above (vocal) example, you might choose a small hall setting for your reverb because — remember — you want the space around your vocal to sound realistic and believable.
A small hall is more believable that a giant cathedral-like reverb because, after all, what are the chances you recorded your track in a cathedral.
And the result? A beautiful-sounding vocal, one that not only sounds great in solo (playing back without hearing any other instruments), but also, more importantly, works in the context of the entire mix.
Because that’s how you determine how much reverb to add to your vocals and other tracks — by whether the track in question is enhanced in the context of the complete arrangement.
If the reverb makes your vocal (or any other audio track) sound more 3D, then you have effectively created a new and realistic space for your track — where one didn’t exist before.
And that’s what mixing is all about — making improvements.
More food for thought
Here is some more ‘food for thought’ related to using reverbs:
- Think about the space you want your instruments to inhabit in the sound field. I think of the sound field as a concert stage. That means not all instruments are given reverb; some (the most important instruments) are dry or relatively dry (just a little reverb) because those tracks are nearer the listener’s ear
- Think about how further-away instruments interrelate with each other; which should be behind which?
- Just as with using EQ and compression, reverb adds tonal ‘colours’ to your instruments. Some verbs are bright-sounding, whereas others are sonically dark
- Use an EQ before and/or after your reverb to further manage the reverb’s tone
- Think about automating your reverb sends throughout your track
- Think about using different reverb spaces throughout your track
- When you like a reverb setting, save it as a channel strip setting so you can import into future sessions
- The pre-delay function on a reverb allows more of the original sound to come through before the reverb hits. Time your pre-delays to the bpm of your song
- Don’t think you have to be an expert to use reverbs. Experiment — but always save the settings on new discoveries!
If you’d like more information on the technical lowdown on how to bus audio, check out my signal flow article.