Advanced effects: Reverb masterclass

MusicRadar's essential guide to using reverb

For a quality mix, reverb is essential. Get to grips with this effect and it'll transform your sounds. Below are MusicRadar's essential reverb tips and tricks, but be sure to also check out our in-depth look at reverb for a detailed introduction to the effect.

Step by step

Nature's way

1. Ambient mics are often used to capture the sound of a real room when recording drums, but a similar process can be used with any signal. Start by setting up a speaker in the space you want to capture, or perhaps even in an adjoining room with the door open. Then place a microphone in the space to be captured, facing away from the sound source.

2. Make sure the mic is a good distance away from the speaker and adjust the playback volume until you're fully aware of the natural reverberations. Be sure to mute the output of the microphone channel, so as to avoid any feedback. Then simply play back the source - be it a vocal track, instrumental part or complete mixdown - and record the reverberations.

3. Try recording a few different speaker and mic placements, then unmute the recordings and play them quietly behind your original source. For a nice stereo effect, feed one recording to the left channel and another to the right. And there you go: an easy, effective and natural reverb effect that's great for any occasion.

Reverb 3D

Tutorial reverb loop.mp3 (Right-click and then click 'Save as')

1. Reverb can be used to add more than just stereo width. Our ears can easily detect direction with sound, so there's no reason why we shouldn't use stereo reverb to equal effect. Start by placing our two-bar Reverb Loop (above) onto a new track, and a reverb unit (set to 100% wet) on a bus. Send the output of the track to the reverb bus.

2. Now, use automation to lower the volume of the reverb bus from a high point of your choice to a low point of your choice and back up again, with the lowest point exactly halfway through two bars. Next, automate the pan from centred to fully left and back to centre over one bar, then fully right and back to centre over the second bar.

3. If all is well, the reverb should sound like it's running in a large circle in front of you. So far this effect is pretty severe, so to moderate it slightly, simply ease back the extreme pan values, and lessen the volume range. To really add some dynamism, try applying the exact opposite automation to the audio loop.

Tips on adding reverb to drums

1. For a big room sound, try using a hall setting on your reverb and adding some pre-delay, but avoid adding too much of the effect to your kicks and toms, as pre-delay and long-reverb times will fill your mix much faster than an orchestra paid by the note...

2. Toms generally don't need much reverb as their natural envelope has a pretty extended sustain, but if you do want to add some presence and a sense of scale, try using quite short settings and be sure to remove the bass from the wet signal.

3. Snare drums are very bright and so can sound tasty with most types of reverb; it all depends on the effect you're after. For punch, try a plate style reverb, as this has a fast, clean envelope.

4. Applying reverb to kicks can be troublesome, as the low frequencies generated can really muddy your mix. Shorter, ambient settings are better for real kick drums, but for electronic kick drums it's best to avoid standard reverb.

5. If you absolutely must apply reverb to your electronic kicks, try playing around with some gated reverb settings or reverse reverb. Beware, though: these are both very bold effects.

6. Try to avoid long reverb tails on hi-hats unless you're doing it for specific effect, as these can sound quite distracting and unnatural, and will really muddy up the top-end of your track. For most purposes, shorter but bright reverbs add a sense of size and space without being overly intrusive.

7. For a realistic live sound, you can still apply different reverb settings to each drum sound, but try sending the individually processed sounds to a sub-mix and then applying some subtle ambience reverb to them as a complete drum kit.

Tips for adding reverb to vocals and guitars

1. When recording vocals be sure to add some reverb to the singer's monitoring channel (even if it's only a lower quality one) to ensure smooth playback. The reverb tail extends after the singer finishes singing, so many singers will use this to reference their pitch accuracy.

2. If your vocal line is suffering from too much sibilance, try adding a de-esser to the reverb rather than the original signal. De-essers can sound a little unnatural sometimes, and this technique can often provide less obtrusive but nonetheless highly effective results.

3. Use reverb to increase the separation between vocals. Backing vocals should be just that, so try adding plenty of early reflection and longer reverb tails to push them back in the mix. Conversely, lead vocals can sound a little distant with longer settings.

4. Early reflections can add a sense of intimacy to a signal, particularly with acoustic sounds like guitars and vocals - the bright, quick reflections sound like a small room or venue. For this effect try using nothing but ambience settings initially, and then add a more conventional reverb setting slowly afterwards (or not at all).

5. A good way to stop reverb dominating your vocal tracks is to use a ducking gate to lower the reverb signal by a few dB when the vocal's playing. If you don't have a gate with a ducker, try applying a compressor to the reverb signal and send the vocal signal to its sidechain.

6. Electric guitar parts (especially those of the chord-driven, wall-of-sound persuasion) are already very full, so be careful with your reverb lengths. Spring reverb patches are traditional and sound the part (bright and clean), but don't be afraid to try out something a little different.

7. Gated and reverse reverb can sound excellent on guitar parts, as they fill out the sound without swamping it, and won't result in the obvious and cliched sound that they can produce on drum parts.

General reverb tips

1. Try using different types of reverb on one track. In days gone by, reverb was expensive and limited, so it was placed on busses, but high quality plug-ins and fast processors let you use multiple reverbs as inserts for total control.

2. Remember that in most cases, slower, sparser tracks can accommodate longer reverb times than quicker and thicker mixes without making them messy.

3. For a realistic live sound, as you increase the reverb time you should also reduce the wet signal using the wet/ dry balance, and as you shorten the reverb time you should increase the wet signal.

4. Use reverb to impart a sense of three dimensional space rather than just width. For example, if a sound has a large amount of reverb, it gives a feeling of distance, just as the sound of somebody singing at the other end of a room is heavily mingled with the reverberations.

5. Try using different reverb effects on the left and right channels. This can be quite fiddly on individual tracks, but can be done much more easily for a global reverb send/receive setup.

6. It sounds obvious, but don't forget that all the flexibility of modern digital reverb is wasted if the source material is a reverberating mess to begin with. We're not saying you shouldn't take advantage of natural reverb, but if you plan to add any kind of processed reverberations, the cleaner and dryer the source material, the better.

7. Remember the blues Brothers scene where Jake says to Elwood, "How often does the train go by?", to which Elwood replies, "So often you won't even notice..."? Well, it's true - we humans notice change more than consistency, so don't be afraid to mess about with reverb lengths and parameters throughout a track.

8. When thickening sounds, try applying chorus or flanging to the reverb signal. Alternatively, if you're using your effects in an insert chain, try applying reverb before any modulation effects (though for a more natural and subtle effect, the first technique is probably the better option).

9. Don't overlook the power of compression on reverb, particularly reverb used as a track insert. For a spectacular pumping reverb effect, try running your kick drum into the compressor's sidechain.

10. If you place a gate in the signal path before a reverb, you can adjust it so that only the louder signals make it through and generate reverb. Or by still allowing a small amount of signal through when the gate is closed, you generate more reverb for louder sounds. This works especially well on vocals, but be sure not to over-compress the source signal or the effect will be lost.

11. If you're using heavily panned sounds, try applying mono reverbs panned to the same sides as the panned sounds to emphasise their positions in the mix.

12. To fill out a sparse mix, try using a combination of delay and reverb, but with one panned mostly (or completely) left and the other right. For even more of a sense of movement, trying sweeping these effects so that as the delays move right, the reverb moves left.

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