Our resident soundboy Chris Lyth has some tips on how to give your productions a deeper, richer sound
Reverb is essentially the manipulation of space within your mix. It defines the atmosphere, gives depth and brings instruments to life. Electronic music, not unsurprisingly, needs more reverb than acoustic music, as when acoustic music is recorded the microphone picks up reverb from the room, which builds depth naturally.
Have a look at some common reverb parameters and experiment with some of the ideas below…
Pre-delay helps to bring separation and clarity to a mix. This parameter controls how long it takes, in milliseconds, for the reverb to sound after the trigger.
Imagine someone shouting in a large hall far away. This sound would have a short pre-delay, as the reverb of the hall and voice will reach you at around the same time. Conversely, if (annoyingly) they shouted very near, you would hear the voice quickly and then the reverb as it bounced around the room and then to your ear. This would be a long pre-delay. Longer pre-delays are better for keeping a sound closer and shorter pre-delays create the impression of large distance. Experiment until you find the right setting. To match the pre-delay to the room size, try 0-10ms for a living room size, 10-20ms for medium sized space and over 30ms for halls.
The decay time gives the listener a clue as to how big an acoustic space you are attempting to convey. As you increase the decay, the reverb tail carries for longer, implying that your sound is in a bigger room.
High frequency roll-off
In the real world, distant sounds don’t have much high frequency content. For example, if a lightning strike occurs very close by it has a loud, high frequency crack, but if it’s further away it’s perceived as a low frequency rumble. This tells us that high frequencies dampen much more quickly than low frequencies. So if you're looking to create realistic-sounding spaces, use HF roll off appropriately.
In short, to create realistic dimensions for distance choose longer, duller reverbs. For proximity use shorter, brighter reverbs.
Automate your space
With automation facilities so widely available, there’s no reason your reverb should be static. Use fader rides to adjust the reverb levels: this creates more drama than having the same effect running throughout the track. By automating room size and decay parameters, you can give the impression of altering space.
Timing is everything
One technique which top mix engineers use that elevates their mixes above others is timing the reverb to the tempo of the track. It’s important to do this, especially with music that is rhythmically precise, as overhangs can make your percussion blurry. A simple way to do this is by adding reverb to your snare and adjusting the decay parameter so that the decay dies away just before the next snare hit. Next, set an appropriate pre-delay.
It’s a good idea to use headphones alongside your speakers to help you find the sweet spot, and in general the faster the music, the shorter the reverb. Once the reverb is timed you can then of course use it on any instrument.
Space bass: the sweetest taboo
Many producers avoid adding reverb to kick and bass entirely, in a bid to steer clear of low-end mush and undesirable low-end overhang. Reverb diffusion can indeed cloud up the frequency spectrum pretty quickly, so it’s no surprise that heavy reverb on the low-end works better on sparser productions.
In fact, reverb on kick and bass can be very effective, but it will require good monitoring and a correctly timed reverb (see above). Experiment with low and high frequency roll-off. As with many techniques in audio production, there’s no 'one size fits all' rule here - it’s very much dependent on the program material and the atmosphere you wish to create.
Check your listening environment
The room that you mix in will have a huge effect on how you hear reverb in your mix. For instance, if your room is very small and has been dampened down, you will tend to add more reverb than you need to compensate for your dull listening environment. If this track is then played on a large system in a warehouse, there’s a good chance it will sound washed out. A good set of headphones and some solid reference tracks will keep you on the right track.
Keep it tight
There are times that you want to add a little depth and liveliness to a sound, but don’t want the reverb to be obvious. Try a more inconspicuous approach by finding a level where you don’t hear the reverb as an effect, but when it’s muted you feel that something is missing. Keep the size short, for example 0.5ms with short decay times. This is especially true with upbeat, more percussive music. One method is to turn up your reverb aux send just enough for you to hear the reverb, then back it off a touch.
EQ your reverb
In a busy mix, it’s a good idea to carve out some space by EQing your reverb channels. Cutting the low-end is a good place to start, as it can cloud your kick and bass, leaving them sounding indistinct and your mix in general muddy.
Pan your reverbs
Using mono reverbs and panning them is a powerful way to manipulate the stereo field. This works well on brighter sounds, but as always, do experiment! Try panning your dry part -40 to the left side and then your reverb aux return +40 to the right. This trick helps create a widescreen soundscape without making your mix too wet-sounding.
Keep it real
Why not step out of the studio and record some of your own sounds in real acoustic environments? With your sound card and a microphone it’s easy to set yourself up in many interesting spaces. Take a battery powered amp or similar, play your individual parts through it and capture the space reverb through your mic. Experiment with distance from sound source to mic.
Words: Chris Lyth