What does reverb mean in music

The 10 biggest mistakes when using reverb and delay effects

... and tips on how to use the effects correctly in the mix

The Reverb and Delay Compendium - Adjusting Effects Correctly

Reverb and delay aren't that important when mixing? Well, there are pieces of music that we recognize straight away. We hear a single line, maybe even just a few notes, and immediately know which title it is. The effects used in the mix often play a decisive role in this high recognition value. The special reverb on the voice or the delay on the guitar turn the good composition into a cult hit that digs into the ear canals.

In this tutorial we will show you how to avoid the 10 biggest mistakes when using reverb, delay and the like. Which reverb fits the vocals without making the mix muddy? Which delay is suitable for a rhythmic background to the beat? The small crash course should help you to use the effects sensibly so that your mix sounds professional and as "expensive" as possible.

Error 1: You are using an inappropriate reverb preset

Beginners in particular are often a little impatient when looking for the right effect for the vocals, the snare or an acoustic guitar. The next best reverb preset is packed on the vocals, according to the motto: The main thing is that there is some kind of reverb on the voice. Unfortunately, the result is often correspondingly sobering. Even if the singer has made every effort and the hookline of the song certainly has potential - the spark that the song is supposed to ignite in the listener does not jump over. Another reverb program, for example, can completely change the character of a song. Therefore, you should take your time to choose the right effect!

To make yourself aware of the effect of the appropriate effect preset, you can do the following little exercise: You take a dry vocal track and first apply a long cathedral reverb with 3 to 5 seconds reverberation time to the voice. It now looks solemn and conveys a certain size and breadth. Then you take the same voice passage and add an early reflection pattern with short delays (presets with names like "Small Room" or "Tiled Room" are good) - suddenly the voice seems much smaller and narrower! Room or ambience presets are also mostly suitable, as they emulate the reverb structure of small rooms. This little example shows how much influence the choice of effect has on the mood that the song develops at the end. Of course, the choice of the right effect depends very much on the taste and genre of the respective song. A rockabilly song needs a completely different space on the vocals than a pop ballad. But there is one basic rule that you should always keep in mind: If you give the voice a reverb preset with a long reverb tail, then it disappears in the room. If the reverb tail becomes shorter or the reverb component becomes smaller, the voice comes forward and speech intelligibility improves.

The reverb plug-in Platinum Verb from the Logic Pro X music production software from Apple: With the balance control "ER / Reverb" (above the "Room Shape" symbol) you can create a mixture of early reflections and diffuse reverberation. In listening example 2, this control was set to 100% reverb and a long reverb was applied to the vocals - with the result that they were given a certain size and width.

Parameter settings in the Platinum Reverb:

Balance ER / Reverb: 100% Reverb

Reverb Section:

  • Initial delay: 39 ms
  • Spread: 124%
  • Crossover: 220 Hz
  • Low ratio: 78%
  • Low frequency level: -4 dB
  • High level: 6100 Hz
  • Density: 50%
  • Diffusion: 58%
  • Reverb Time: 3.35 sec

Fig. 2: In audio sample 3, the same plug-in was used - the Platinum Verb by Logic. This time, however, only the early reflections were used as the reverb pattern.

Parameter settings in the Platinum Reverb:

Balance ER / Reverb: 100% early reflections

Early Reflections Section:

  • Predelay: 35 ms
  • Room Shape: 5
  • Stereo base: 2.0 m
  • Room size: 34 m

Plate reverb programs such as Vocal Plate or Gold Plate are also good for the vocals, as they create a dense reflection pattern. These programs are based on the plate reverb from the 1970s. At that time, the reverb was generated with the help of a steel plate, in which a signal with a tone generator was played on the plate and then removed again. The reflections in the steel plate develop significantly faster than in the air due to the higher speed of sound. For this reason, the plate reverb appears very dense and full, so that you can give the voice a nice spatial character even without a long reverb tail.

Fig. 3: In audio sample 4, the same voice passage as in the first two examples was provided with a plate reverb, which comes from Logic's Space Designer convolution reverb.

The snare, on the other hand, can often use a pattern with a little more reflection. This makes it appear crisp and does not blur in the hall soup. In order to find the ultimate preset for your signals, the only thing that helps in the end is trying it out and searching. Especially if you use convolution reverb programs like Logic's Space Designer, you should first try out all the presets that are suitable for your purpose. There are often one or more programs that fit quite well. There is a good method to find out which program works best in the mix: You insert all the presets in question on the track whose signal you want to process. Then, one after the other, you mute all the effects that you don't want to hear at the moment. In this way you can listen to the various options one after the other and pick out your favorite. However, it is necessary that you carry out the wet-dry mix in the plug-in and listen to all effects with the same amount of reverb.

Mistake 2: You choose a reverberation time that is too long

Usually the vocals, but also other instruments, are recorded absolutely dry. If the natural surround sound is not included in the recording, you have the freedom to give the signals the effects that they optimally embed in the mix. Unfortunately, this freedom also carries the risk of doing too much of a good thing. If the reverb tail on the vocals is too long, it usually seems rather unnatural - after all, long reverb tails or delays are rarely heard in a natural room. Sure - if you record Gregorian chants in a large church with a reverberation time of eight seconds, then it reverberates properly. But if the musical accompaniment and the tempo of the piece of music are not coordinated with such a long reverb time, then the arrangement sounds muddy and undifferentiated. The result is that you can no longer hear the individual instruments exactly and the groove becomes blurred in the reverberation pulp. And that's exactly the problem if you give the vocals too long a reverb tail.

The reverberation time is the time it takes for the reverberation to decay by 60 dB compared to the direct signal.

That is why it often makes sense to give the voice a rather small room with a short reverberation time. A reverberation time in the range of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds usually makes sense to give the voice three-dimensionality without the reverb muddling the mix. To find the right reverberation time, let the song run and bring the vocals into the mix at the right volume together with the reverb signal. Now you slowly turn up the reverberation time until you can perceive the room well. A little tip: If you can hardly perceive the reverb tail in the overall mix, then just press the stop button while the song is playing. Now the reverb tail remains for a short moment while the direct signals stop immediately. You can tend to work with longer reverb tails for slower and more atmospheric tracks, faster numbers usually require a short reverberation time.

Mistake 3: You are not using the spatial effect of the early reflections

The early reflections are the first reflections thrown back by the room boundaries. They reach the listener before the room reflections merge into a diffuse reverberation. Especially in rooms with smooth, hard walls, you can hear these first reflections very clearly as a kind of echo with a very short delay time. All walls, as well as the ceiling and the floor, generate early reflections, which reproduce the geometric and acoustic properties of the room very well. For this reason, you should not ignore the mode of action of the early reflections. They give the signal a spatial and three-dimensional effect without the spatial component being perceived as an independent effect. Since the sound conditions of a small room are reproduced, the signal does not disappear in the diffuse reverberation. On the contrary: if you use the early reflections skillfully, the signal will even be brought forward. An effect occurs like doubling voices: the original signal is doubled and the voice appears louder, although the delay time may not exceed 20 ms. If you then arrange the reflections differently in the panorama, you can "build" your own small room and place the voice or other instruments in a virtual environment that the listener perceives as an interesting sound nuance.

Mistake 4: You give all instruments the same reverb

A common mistake is to give all signals the same reverberation, resulting in a muddy, opaque sound image that makes it difficult to locate the individual signals. For this reason, it always makes sense to work in the mix with at least two different sized reverberation rooms in order to put the instruments on different levels. In a typical pop production, vocals and drums often have different reverberations, which means that these signals are clearly different from each other. For example, you can give the snare a crisp gated reverb - a reverb program in which the reverberation is abruptly cut off by a noise gate. It often makes sense to give the toms a similar effect as the snare in order to fuse the drum set into one unit. With the kick drum, however, you should be very careful with effects, as the punch is quickly lost. Cymbals and hi-hats usually get by with little spatial effects, otherwise the sound will be smeared quickly.

Mistake 5: You are pushing the main vocals back with too much reverb

Most of the time, the main vocals should appear relatively far ahead in the mix, but this creates a problem with the reverb: If the voice gets a thick reverb, it inevitably moves backwards. One way to solve this problem is to choose a short reverb program for the vocals. Programs like "Small Room" or "Chamber" are ideal here. If you now increase the predelay time to 30 to 80 milliseconds, there is a small time gap between the original signal and the reverberation flag. This means that the dry vocals are first perceived without the reverberation before the reflections set in. Another possibility is to work with early reflection programs, as these create a space, but do not create a hall soup.

Fig. 6: With a long reverberation, like here with the Waves IR-L, you tend to move the main vocals into the background - heard in audio sample 6.

Error 6: You are not creating depth gradation

Depth graduation means the arrangement of the instruments in depth and thus the location of the sound sources in relation to the distance to the listener. When mixing a song in stereo, a crucial problem arises: The three-dimensional arrangement of the instruments in real space has to be reduced to two levels. Recordings with a stereo microphone partly reflect the natural depth of the room, but when we are dealing with absolutely dry signals such as vocals, guitar or drums, we have to artificially create the depth effect. You can help one or the other instrument to attract more attention by using level and tone color differences, but you will not achieve an effect of depth in this way. As soon as you work with different reverberation rooms, a third dimension opens up - the mix gains in size and depth and begins to breathe. In audio sample 7, vocals and guitar were recorded without any natural space and also appear absolutely dry in the mix. In audio sample 8, a small room was placed on the vocals and the acoustic guitar was provided with a room program with around two seconds of reverberation time. You hear that the mix suddenly sounds much deeper and that the instruments are no longer perceived as being arranged on one level. This effect becomes particularly clear if you listen to the audio samples with headphones.

Mistake 7: You are not editing the reverberation sound

In a natural space, the reverberation time is very dependent on the frequency. In most cases, the room reverberation fades longer at low frequencies than at high frequencies - if this is different in your mix, you may get a sharp, sizzling sound. Therefore it often makes sense to edit the reverb again with an equalizer on the return path. Finds the annoying frequencies in the reverberation and attenuates them a little. The reverb tail already looks clearer and more transparent. Parameters such as High Damp or High Cut are also used to change the reverberation in the sound. While the High Damp parameter reduces the reverberation time of high frequencies in many reverb plug-ins, High Cut lowers the high frequencies in the reverberation. In general, if you want your reverberation to sound a little more natural and inconspicuous, it makes sense to dampen the high frequencies a little.

Mistake 8: You're not trying "crazy" parameter settings

Reverb and room effects do not necessarily always have to imitate the natural model. Of course, it is good if you know which parameters of a reverb plug-in should represent the respective component in the natural acoustics. However, it is much more important that you let your playful instinct run free and try everything that is possible. Perhaps it is precisely the combination of acoustic constellations that are impossible in nature that make the sound in your song unique. The best example is the backward reverb, in which the reverb tail is played with the wrong timing, or the gated reverb on the snare by Phil Collins in the song "Another Day in Paradise" (album: But Seriously, 1989). Dynamically controlled reverb parameters, which change through the use of automation while the song is running, can give the production that kick that makes it stand out from the crowd. You can also achieve a striking effect if you give the snare a different space in particularly emphasized places than in the rest of the song.

Mistake 9: You are not taking advantage of the atmospheric effects of echo and delay

The effect of delay effects is often greatly underestimated. While the typical reverberation tends to muddle the mix, echo and delay can loosen up the sound image enormously and expand it. We usually speak of an echo when the repetitions of the original signal can be clearly heard. In the case of very short delay times of less than 20 to 30 ms, the hearing is unable to identify the repetition as a separate signal. In this case, we only perceive a single sound event, since the original signal and delay merge together. We only perceive the repetition as an echo from a delay time of significantly more than 50 milliseconds. Just try it out by taking a delay plug-in like the Multi Delay from AIR and slowly increasing the delay time. If you give the signal several individual delays with different delay times, you will hear how the signal slowly appears larger and more spatial, but the sound image remains transparent.

Fig. 7: With a Multi Delay from AIR you can give the signal space and size.

Mistake 10: You choose an echo that doesn't match the tempo of the song

What you have to remember when using echo effects, however, is that you synchronize the delay times with the song tempo - otherwise there is rhythm salad and the groove of the song inevitably goes down the drain. If the delay is matched to the beat, then the echo can give the arrangement a relaxing effect - as can be heard in audio example 9, in which the vocals are provided with a stereo delay. To synchronize the delay time with the song tempo, you can, for example, press the "Beat Sync" button in Logic's Stereo Delay. This function sets the delay time to the set song tempo - depending on the choice you make, a delay is played for every quarter, eighth or sixteenth note. If your delay plug-in does not offer automatic tempo adjustment, you can determine the delay time of your stereo delay yourself using the following formula: Delaytime (ms) = 60,000 / tempo (bpm). With this formula you get the delay time that you have to set for a quarter echo - an echo that sounds with every quarter note of the song.

Fig. 8: With the Stereo Delay from Logic you can create a nice echo effect that is adapted to the song tempo - heard in sample 9.