Reverb is one of the most difficult to understand topics for many musicians. Setting up reverbs, especially when using different reverbs for different reasons and then getting all the reverbs to work together and make a picture that makes sense – takes time and practice to learn.
Mixing with Reverb
Chapter “The Art and Science of Reverb” from the upcoming book
“Ultimate Mixing Handbook” by Daniel Wyatt
Reverb and compression, for most people, are the two most difficult realms of mixing and mastering — and for me — those were the hardest two for sure. Getting comfortable with the compressor so that it behaved the way I expected to, setting up reverbs (and using different types for different reasons), making the reverbs more focused made and then getting all the various reverbs to work together and make an entertaining picture, were all things that took me a long time to finally get a systematic approach to and feel comfortable with.
What is reverb? Reverb is space. It is space for sure, but it’s sound in space. I always convey that reverb is the accurate reflections of a sound. Reverb is like taking a big plastic bag filled with ping-pong balls and throwing it against the back wall of a room. That bag breaks open, and all the ping-pong balls come out and start bouncing off the walls, off the floor, off the ceiling and colliding with each other. And the sound of all of those ping-pong balls colliding with each other is reverb. Reverb is a delay-based phenomenon. It’s a fog of multiple delays all happening at different frequencies and all in accordance with the shape, materials, and size of the room.
I lived in New York City for many years, and I used to see blind people walking down the street, sometimes with people helping them, sometimes with a guide dog and sometimes with a cane. One of the things about being blind in a city is you use reverb to locate yourself. It tells you where you are. All of us as humans are always locating ourselves, not consciously, but subconsciously with reverb. It tells us where we are. Reverb is a natural phenomenon, and the absence of reverb is unnatural.
Do you know what an anechoic chamber is? Anechoic chambers have almost no reflections; they look sort of like fetish rooms or something. If you were in an anechoic chamber, you would lose your mind and go crazy. Why? Because like I was saying, like blind people, or like us, we locate ourselves with reverb. And when there is no reverb, it freaks people out.
So when I hear a mix with no reverb, it freaks me out. I hear my heartbeat and my blood flowing, and I don’t like it. It’s too much information. I feel like I’m inside one of these torture chambers when I hear a mix with no reverb. Reverb, even though it’s an effect, it’s an effect that we use to make things sound normal or natural. The absence of reverb is a very special effect. The presence of reverb is normal. I just want to make that super clear. No reverb is weird. Using the effect of reverb to make something sound like it’s in an ambient space is normal.
There are two kinds of movies. There are movies that actually could have happened, and movies that never could have happened. Movies that really could have happened: a guy meets a girl in the supermarket, she invites him to dinner, he sits on her cat, he hides the cat, says that the cat ran away, he finds a new cat, she knows it’s not the same cat, she’s sad, but she likes that he got a new cat and so they get married. That’s a real movie. That could have happened. There’s another kind of movie, a science fiction movie: you wake up, and you’re in a spaceship by yourself, and you have a chip embedded in your forehead, and you’re going to have to save the world or go back through time blah blah blah. Both movies are entertaining. Both movies sell tickets.
In the world of audio engineering, we have the same two kinds of philosophies when it comes to reverb. One is that, at any given time, we’re only in one space. So to use reverb to recreate a natural experience from a situation or a recording that was not recorded in that actual space, you would use one reverb, or if you’re classical or jazz, you use no reverb. All of the reverb has to be captured with room mics, ambient room mics from an ambient recording. That is a real movie that really could have happened. Or, you take one really realistic reverb, like a convolution reverb, and you put everything in that space. For very organic projects, that’s cool. But in the world of electronic music, which often, a lot of us live in, it’s more like a science fiction movie. There are different kinds of reverbs going on. How do you make them work together to make a cool science fiction movie?
When it comes to reverb, there are four types. There’s organic reverb, which is captured with room mics that are positioned away from the sound source. Some are placed in the corners of the ceilings or whatever, and they capture the real reverb in the room. That’s organic reverb. The second kind of reverb is analog reverb, like the EMT plate, and this was man’s first attempt at creating artificial reverb. If you were recording in the 1950s and Elvis came to town, and you wanted to get more reverb on his vocal, what did you do? Elvis is in town for one day, and you’re the engineer recording him. You put him in a big room. That’s what you do. And then what would you do with the mic if you wanted more reverb on the recording? Position it further away from him, and what if you wanted some extra reverb to blend in later to the mix? Put up room mics. It would sound like what it sounds like to you if you were standing far away from him, and you could blend him in. So those were your choices; you only had organic reverb.
Ultimately, engineers and producers wanted more control, and they didn’t want to be limited to organic reverb, so they started creating artificial reverbs. The first artificial reverb was the EMT plate out of Austria in the 60s. These are huge things, two big sheets of metal in a box that are really heavy with a speaker and a microphone. However, they do not sound like a real room, rather a metallic wash that sounds really nice. Analog plates; the beginning of artificial reverb. I love plates, and we still use them all the time but now in their algorithmic form.
Engineers complained they didn’t sound real, and then the 70s and 80s came along, and the world of the digital delay was born. People created these very dense randomized digital delay algorithms that simulated reverb. These didn’t sound like real rooms. They sounded like ideal rooms, and they came in all kinds of shapes and sizes. This is called digital algorithmic reverb. These were digital delay boxes, with very fancy algorithms to mimic what reverb is. And some of them sounded natural, some of them sounded bright and trashy. We have all heard the reverbs from the 80s, they have a vibe and they were cool. They were very editable but sometimes they missed the nuances of a truly real room.
Then, some very smart guys from Amsterdam figured out that they could sample the ambience of a physical space. They would conduct experiments where they would play a sine wave sweep into a room; they played it out with speakers and re-recorded it with microphones and then, they would subtract the sine wave out of the recording and be left with just the ambience of the room. The reverb itself is a sample; the sample is called an impulse response. This technology is called convolution reverb. Digital algorithmic rooms are ideal rooms, and convolution rooms are real rooms. However, convolution reverbs can also sample analog and digital algorithmic reverbs.
What industry embraced convolution reverb immediately and uses it every day? Film, because now, when Tom Cruise is in a Ferrari, they use a Ferrari impulse response. When Tom Cruise is in the elevator, they use an elevator response. When Tom Cruise is in a helicopter, they use a helicopter impulse response. Film people love convolution reverb since there are impulse responses for a myriad of acoustical spaces and the library is updated all the time.
So those are the four kinds of reverb. I think as producer/mixers, you want to have one of each: organic, analog, digital algorithmic, and convolution. and most of your DAW’s have at least one of each. In logic, for example, they have a convolution reverb called Space Designer. Cubase’s is called REVerance, Studio One’s is called Open Air. Ableton also has some really good Max for Live convolution reverbs. For digital algorithmic, you can use the ones in your DAW. But ValhallaDSP reverbs are really good, especially for the price! He makes a beautiful plate like that analog plate, but it’s a digital algorithmic version. He also has a really nice sounding VintageVerb inspired by the early Lexicon boxes and a modern digital reverb. A lot of electronic producers use these reverbs because they are excellent and very affordable.
When mixing, we are going to use a combination of rooms, plates, and halls, and maybe even some weird stuff like stairwells – sound great on snares! We’re going to create movies with lots of different ambiences depending on where you are in the movie. Some of them may be real like convolution, some of them might be ideal like digital algorithmic and some of them may be analog, like a plate or spring reverb, it all depends on what we’re trying to achieve.
We can put reverb on the insert of an individual sound. Let’s say, a lead synth, I could go to VintageVerb and load a plate, and then go to the wet dry mix and dial in a blend that is completely legal. What’s the problem with having a reverb directly on the insert with a wet dry mix? C.P.U. for sure, what else? You lose additional control. You can’t use another plug-in, and a big part of our reverb processing game is that we use lots of plug-ins to enhance the reverb, and if you put it on the insert, you can’t modify it with the plug-in. But let’s say I have a plate on a return track. Now, I can take decapitator and I can saturate just the reverb. Or if I just want to E.Q. my Reverb, I can go here to Pro-Q 2 and I can EQ my reverb with a separate EQ, can I do this if I have it directly on the insert? No!
This method gives us so much more flexibility. Use the send and return. If you want more wet level, push the send. This is where we make things wetter or dryer with the send control.
Is it legal to send more than one thing to the same reverb? Yes, of course, you can have many sounds sharing a reverb, as long as they translate. It is actually desirable for a lot of elements to get in a similar space for relatedness and cohesiveness. This way we also save C.P.U., as we do not have a separate reverb for every single track.
When it comes to reverb, there needs to be a front, a middle, and a back. I want my mix to have depth; I want it to be like I’m really there in the venue. I want it to tell me, am I in a small club? A large club? A stadium? A concert hall? Did you come over and play guitar in my living room and it’s like you’re right there? Where am I? You as the mixer get to tell everyone where they are and it’s fun. You can make it claustrophobic, you can make it like you’re in outer space, it’s one of the most fun things that we do in mixing is create the sense of depth and space. The first thing you’re going to tell me is “Where am I?” Can you make a science fiction movie where I start in my living room and I end up in outer space? Sure, as long as it’s a conscious construction.
Just like in real life, in bigger spaces, there’s a back of the room. I want you to create a back of the room. How do you do that? How do you put something in the back of a mix? A large reverb and more send. Plates tend to keep things in the front. Plates don’t sound like a real room. They sound like plates. Usually, a plates for a lead vocal or a lead melody that lives in the center and lives in the front of the mix, or the front portion of the mix. Large halls and large rooms put things in the back. What do you think is better for putting things in the back, convolution reverb or digital algorithmic reverb? You could use either one, but actually, convolution reverbs, because they sound so real, and do a very good job of putting things in the back and creating depth because they have real depth to them.
What if I want to put something in the middle in a mix? How do I do that? A medium room puts things in the middle. It’s not 50-50 wet/dry. It’s whatever ambience makes sense for that mix, so it’s not like a numbers thing.
Let’s talk about room reverbs. What does a room reverb sound like? They sound like rooms. How good is the acoustics of an average room? Not good. No. Rooms sound like rooms. They sound boxy and that’s a bad word in reverb. They don’t sound sexy. What makes a room sound more interesting from a reverb perspective in terms of construction? People who did acoustic construction in small spaces, what do they do to make the reverb cooler? Height! Go to a chamber, a church, go to a temple, go to these places. They have a higher ceiling. The higher ceiling creates more reverb energy and more accumulation of energy. You start to notice that rooms kind of just sound boxy. But chambers can sound very beautiful. They don’t always have to be very big to have a wonderful sound. How about recording studio ambiences? Are they sexy or not sexy? The average recording studio? They’re not. They’re not sexy. Why aren’t they sexy? Somebody spent a lot of money building a nice live room. How come they’re not sexy? Is that on purpose? Yes, because you’re going to add more reverb later.
For things that are up front use plates, for things that are in the middle use a room or a chamber, and for things that are in the back use a large hall. Some things can share a reverb and some things can’t. How do you know when something can’t share a reverb?
I have some percussion, I don’t want it way in the back, I don’t want it in the front, I want it in the middle. What if I try out that sound on my medium hall that I have and it isn’t quite right? I want it in the middle. I have a reverb for the middle. I try it out and it’s not quite right. Is that a good enough reason to make a new reverb for that sound? Yes, you’re like all right, I want to stick this in the middle so you’re already thinking consciously of where this is going to go. You’re not haphazardly flipping the reverbs around. You’re constructing a movie, your movie, and you put it in with this other flute part and you’re like I don’t like it there. Then, you make a new reverb.
Everyone should know what a short plate sounds like, what a long plate sounds like, what a room sounds like, what a hall sounds like, and what a stadium sounds like. I want everyone to start training their ears about the different types of reverbs so that you can put things where you want to put them. The best way to practice is to do it on a mix.
How many reverbs should you use within a mix? What’s the ideal number of reverbs to finish a mix with? Quite simply, as many as needed! What kind of a production do you think you could get away with one or two reverbs? Jazz absolutely one reverb, Classical maybe two. How about Ed Sheeran unplugged, live, playing guitar and singing? Maybe. How about a progressive house track? Do you think you could get away with one reverb? No. What are you doing when you’re using two reverbs? Why would you do that? Two different ambiences, two different dimensions, is that a realistic movie or a science fiction movie? It’s science fiction. Is it legal to do that in science fiction? Yes, would you do that on a classical recording? Maybe but don’t tell anyone. I want you to conceptualize what you are doing here so that it’s not random and haphazard.
How about delay instead of reverb, is that legal? Yes. Why is delay instead of reverb legal? Because they’re cousins, reverb is a delay. It’s a dense delay. Other delays are less dense but they’re in the same family.
When do you add reverb? Is it cool to build a dry mix, to make it sound really good dry and then add all the reverbs? Is that a good idea? No, it’s not logical because reverb considerably changes the way we hear things, When we build a mix, every choice you make is relative to what you’re hearing at that point. Which mix do you think is going to be faster to construct, one where you’re hearing the reverbs as you go or one where you build a mix and then you have to rebuild it with all the reverbs? Hearing as you go, reverb as you go. No question, when you’re done, it sounds pretty good.
Here’s the workflow, you do it last in the channel strip. You channel strip something, you make your beautiful sound and then you send it to the reverb. Then you channel strip the next thing and then you add reverb and blend it in with what you have. Move on to the next sound, channel strip it, reverb it, and blend it in. You ask yourself after you channel strip the sound, can I use a reverb that exists or should I create a new one? That’s going to be your choice.
To summarize, we discussed how reverb makes things sound natural. The reverb you choose, a hall, a plate, a chamber, whatever, that’s up to you but the absence of any type of ambience is totally weird and makes people uncomfortable. The answer is unless you’re just doing something to make people feel uncomfortable, which we do that in music all the time, as a general rule, nothing is left dry.
Top 5 Reverb Plugins
The current world champion of reverb still reigns supreme — Altiverb! This Dutch convolution masterpiece changed the game early on and still continues to dominate music production, television and film. Not only do you get world-class impulse responses of The Great Pyramid in Egypt, Nortre Dame, top recording studios, and all kinds of real spaces, but you also get spring reverbs, EMT plates, 480Ls, 224, fish tanks, dungeons,…well you get the picture…you get everything. And, yes, the sound is HD heaven.
If you love reverb, you love plates. Valhalla Plate is a digital algorithmic reverb that is dedicated to recreating vintage analog plates — and creating cyber plates that never actually existed. Plates don’t sound like real spaces, but they do sound real cool. Their lack of depth is actually their charm, as they keep lead vocals and lead melodies in the front of the mix. Easy to edit, with lots of plate possiblities, this reverb is working on every mix these days.
UAD AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb
Unlike Valhalla Plate, this reverb is not working on every mix — but when its the right time, there is nothiing like it. Spring reverb, like plate reverb was a failed attempt at creating realistic artifical reverb that failed wonderfully. Spring reverbs often have a metallic twang, but this one has another side to it…a rich, dense mystical fog of reverb that can only be described as a dream. Its the dreamiest reverb I know. Great on vocals, guitars, synths and really anything you could dream of.
I am very impressed that all of Slate’s new products seem to be filling in holes in their collection — rather than redundant releases — so I was happy to see and hear Verbsuite — especially the Bricasti collection. Unlike so many traditional reverbs have old-school parameters that most people find confusing, Verbsuite is extremely easy to edit — which i love and really appreciate. And it sounds rich, with a great balance between clarity and density. I find the large spaces in the Bricasti collection especially good for productions that need to be big but realistic.
Valhalla Vintage Verb
Ok, just one more from Valhalla. What I love most about Vintage Verb is the concept — a very editable, great sounding digital algorithmic reverb with 3 personalities: warm vintage, noisey 80’s, and clean clear NOW. It’s 3 reverbs in-one and each one of the 3 choices is highly usable. I find the vintage setting is my favorite — it has a warm, classic sound that works well on drums, vocals, guitars — and just about everything. And Valhalla’s “nothing under the hood” editing design invites you to quickly focus your fine-tuning your selection. It is my go-to digital algorythmic reverb because of its flexibility and speed-of-use.
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