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Can Reverb Make Vocals and Guitars Sound Better?

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Reverb, it’s everywhere and we love it, most of the time. But for something so common to the human ear, it can sometimes be hard to place in the context of a mix, whether in the studio or live on stage. In this article, we’re going to explore some essential reverb parameters and some tried and true techniques. The examples covered here will focus on vocals and guitars but there’s no harm applying the same principles to other sound sources. Trying them on other acoustic and electronic instruments may yield some very pleasing results.

There are many ways to access different types of reverb, from plugins and pedals to spring-loaded boxes, plates or full acoustic spaces which are miked up and recorded. Each of these reverb types presents their own unique quirks and parameters to manipulate the sound which is sent into them. Whilst slathering reverb all over vocals and instruments can be fun, it can also very quickly get out of control and muddy up a mix, losing definition and clarity. Below is a quick summary of some of the more common reverb types. Plug-in algorithms can be found for all of these in the digital domain.

Type Description
Room

The sound of a room, ranging from small to large spaces. A variety of different surfaces can be used, from tiles through to wooden panelling or more absorbent material. These different reflective surfaces produce a variety of colourful timbres ranging from bright to dark. A classic example is in David Bowie’s song “Heroes” where the sound of the room really opens up on his vocal in the last verse, compared to the closer, more direct vocal sound of the previous verses.

Hall

A concert or symphony hall designed for the performance of live orchestral/acoustic music. Acoustically designed and treated with a mixture of reflective and absorbent materials to produce a particular frequency response. Thick and lush, natural response with longer decay times and a typically darker timbre. Can be found on classical/orchestral recordings, enjoying the acoustic benefits of hall reverb.

Chamber

A confined space whereby microphones are set up and record sound played back through speakers which are placed in the same space. They can create the illusion of being a small space through to quite big, depending on the relative mic and speaker placement. Less “splashy” than a hall or spring, lovely on vocals and drums. Can be found on Frank Sinatra records captured at Capitol Studios in LA in the 1960s, that have superbly designed echo chambers 30-feet beneath the building. Also a very distinctive part of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham’s drum sound from the 1970s.

Spring

Coiled springs using input and output transducers*, electromagnetic and mechanical elements. Audio signal drives these elements to simulate a delayed “reverberate” sound. Spring reverbs produce a distinctive “splashy” sound with a typically darker timbre. A classic reverb sound found on records by artists such as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.

Plate

Housed typically in a wooden box, consisting of a sheet of thinly rolled steel at held at high tension with transducers attached. Its timbre is thick, smooth and lush with a typically brighter timbre, a bit of a favourite on vocals and even drums. Can be found all over Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”.

* Transducer – A device that converts one form of energy to another

Capitol Studios in LA in the 1960s designed echo chambers 30-feet beneath the building

For the Love of Filters and EQ

Audio engineers will refer to the lack of clarity or an unpleasant mix of too many conflicting frequencies as ‘mud’. Reverb can very quickly introduce mud, whether mixing in the studio or live, thankfully filters and EQ can effectively assist in reducing the mud. Filtering out unnecessary low end out of reverbs will clean things up incredibly effectively. For example, applying a high pass filter (which allows higher frequencies to pass through) up to around 800Hz on a reverb can really help brighten up and define a vocal. This is in addition to any other filtering or EQ which has already been applied to the vocal directly on its channel. Conversely, applying a low pass filter (which allows lower frequencies to pass through) around 6kHz can bring some warmth, whilst helping the reverb sound more natural.

The famous Abbey Road Studios were known for having their echo chambers filtered on the low and high end, making them more mid-range focused and natural sounding. Applying a high pass filter on darker reverbs such as spring or chamber type reverbs can be the lifeline for clarity, whilst a gentle LPF on a brighter plate can help tame some of that brittle top end.

Pre Delay Saves the Day

The wondrous reverb parameter that saves the day more times than not is Pre-delay. This is the delay between the direct sound and the reverberant sound. Creating a little delay (around 30ms or less) between the direct signal before the reverb effect is heard by our ears, will bring a sound source forward, allowing its initial attack (or transient) to poke through the mix. What this parameter also does is help create the illusion of a space being bigger than it is, allowing for shorter decay times whilst still having the reverb sound thick and lush.

Can Reverb Make Vocals and Guitars Sound Better?

Spring Reverb Tank

Less is More

As mentioned earlier, it’s all too tempting to chuck reverb on everything, doing so and a mix can quickly lose focus. This isn’t to say a mix needs to be bone dry, but sometimes using reverb more sparingly will yield more pleasing results. Setting up a couple of the same or similar reverb types, one with a shorter decay time and the other with a longer decay time on two separate aux tracks (as opposed inserting on individual tracks) and sending individual tracks to these reverbs will help them sit in the mix nicely and glue them together. This can significantly lighten the load on your computer’s CPU when using software reverb plugins!

For a full, natural-sounding reverb the Universal Audio Capitol Chambers plugin is lush. For something a little brighter in character, Arturia’s new Rev PLATE-140 plugin is a superb recreation of the classic EMT-140 plate reverb, well worth checking out.

Can Reverb Make Vocals and Guitars Sound Better?

Arturia’s Rev PLATE-140 Plugin

Can Reverb Make Vocals and Guitars Sound Better?

EMT-140 Plate Reverb

It Doesn’t Have to be Stereo

Mono reverbs can be seriously underrated and underutilized. Spreading vocal or guitar parts out wide in the stereo field with reverb isn’t always desirable. A mono reverb tucked under a vocal straight up the middle can bring a depth and character which is particularly pleasing. A fun technique to give a mono sound source some extra dimension is setting up a mono reverb. If the mono source is panned to the left, pan that mono reverb to the right and voila, there’s a faux version of that mono part on the other side of the mix. This works great on mono guitar or synth parts for example. A personal favourite for a dark and splashy spring reverb is UAD’s exclusive faithful recreation of the classic AKG BX20 spring reverb, an absolute beauty. Alternatively, taking a guitar amp which has a built-in spring tank, turning the reverb up, then feeding an already recorded source through the amp which is then recaptured by a mic and blended back into the recording (commonly known as re-amping) can be bucket loads of fun!

The Classic AKG BX20 Spring Reverb

Record that Room

Professional recording studios are typically designed in a very specific way and acoustically treated as such for the space to sound very pleasing when recording acoustic instruments. This is achieved with acoustic baffling, foam and other such materials to help absorb, reflect and diffuse different frequencies. This is one of the major differences between the quality of a recording made in a professional studio and a bedroom studio. If this space is well recorded and blended into a mix it can be incredibly rewarding. Furthermore, if there’s a stairwell, hallway or bathroom in close vicinity, chucking up a mic and recording the ambience of these spaces whilst tracking instruments can yield surprisingly good results too. Recording the room or nearby spaces can bring a sense of realism and vibe that isn’t quite the same as recreating it in the digital domain.

Experimentation and Persistence

Experimenting with different reverb types, their unique timbres and parameters provide wonderful insight and endless amounts of fun when mixing. Will a bright sounding vocal benefit from perhaps a subtle chamber reverb for some warmth and character? Perhaps a guitar part might enjoy a touch of splashy spring to bounce it into place. At the end of the day creating a particular space for a track is informed by how we massage the spatial qualities for each sound we hear, whether it’s creating a sense of realism or something new and foreign. Reverb and equalization are key tools for doing this and some of the best results can be achieved through experimentation regardless of style or genre!

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