When it comes to mixing down a track, one of the most common causes of muddiness is the use (or overuse) of reverb. A reverb’s primary role is to emulate a space for the elements of your mix to interact with. When this effect is used in excess, it can feel as though elements of your song are “drowning” in the background of your mix. Typically, a reverb is placed on an aux track, and a little bit of signal from each instrument/vocal track is sent to the reverb. The more signal you send to the aux with the reverb, the more of the effect you’ll hear.
Sounds with a light amount of reverb, and high volume (like lead vocals), will get pushed to the foreground of your mix. Inversely, sounds with a heavier amount of reverb and low volume will get pushed to the background of your mix. For example, an ambient song might use a hall reverb with a long decay time to provide a song with an open and ethereal feel, while a pop song might use a plate reverb with a short decay time to keep all the elements feeling present, and in-your-face.
Some reverbs are better suited for specific tasks than others, which makes it essential to choose the right reverb for the job. The following list includes four of the best reverbs I’ve used, along with the main application in which they excel. I’ll be walking you through their features, and including an overview of how I incorporate each reverb into my productions.
A convolution reverb (also known as an Impulse Response or IR reverb) is modeled after a real-world space. By applying a convolution reverb to your song, you can recreate how elements will sound in coveted spaces like the Sydney Opera Hall. One of the great benefits of convolution reverbs is that they give you access to spaces that you may not otherwise have access to.
There are several different ways that a room can be modeled. However, a popular method involves firing off a sine wave throughout a space, and recording how it interacts with the room using many different microphones. During post-processing, the sine wave is removed to leave a waveform that represents the reverb. This is the technique that Audio Ease used to design Altiverb, which is one of the most popular convolution reverbs on the market.
What makes Altiverb so unique is the accuracy with which the spaces have been recorded, and how alive every space feels. Whether you’re looking to place a rather dull grand piano directly onstage at the famous Disney Hall, or take a live drum recording and make it sound like it was recorded in the center of a church, Altiverb can do that for you. Audio Ease provides a large selection of IR’s within Altiverb, and they continue to release new IR’s every month. Also, Altiverb gives you the option to upload your own IR’s, so gear up and head to your nearest abandoned warehouse.
Convolution reverbs likely won’t cover every single one of your mixing needs. Altiverb is not your everyday vocal reverb plugin. In fact, I’m unlikely to put this on a vocal, unless it happens to be a choir that I want to put into a chapel or performance hall. One of Altiverb’s most robust features is the “positioner” option that allows you to move the reverb left, right, forward, and backward in your mix, as if you are moving an instrument to a different position on stage.
Altiverb is also a great sound design tool for post-production engineers. It provides IR’s for all sorts of spaces, such as bathrooms, cars, attics, airplanes, etc. Post-production houses rely heavily on convolution reverbs to simulate the reverb of spaces portrayed on-screen.
Altiverb’s biggest con is that it's costly. If you’re someone who is looking for an all-purpose reverb, I probably would not suggest this unit, especially at the $595 price point. For the average user, it's hard to justify spending this much on a reverb you might only use once every so often. However, if you’re looking to upgrade an already strong reverb library, Altiverb is an excellent choice.
Valhalla is known for making incredibly lush and versatile reverbs for all sorts of projects. They have a great line of plugins focusing on time-based effects, specializing specifically in reverb. Out of all of the reverbs that ValhallaDSP has released, Room is by far the most versatile and is my suggestion for anyone looking for an all-purpose reverb at a low cost.
Although it has it’s specialties, Room is capable of many different applications. ValhallaDSP describes it as a “versatile, true stereo algorithmic reverb.” With the choice to select between one of 12 different reverb algorithms (or “Reverb Mode[s]”), Room has a very natural feel to it. It won’t replicate the sound of a famous concert hall, in the way that Altiverb will, but that’s not what Room was built to do. When it comes to digital reverbs, Room sounds very organic and can fit a wide variety of material.
What makes this plugin stand out is its simplicity. ValhallaRoom comes loaded with lots of excellent presets, and even the default patch sounds great. The plugin’s GUI is organized and easy to understand, even for a beginner. On the left side of the interface are five vertical sliders that provide the most commonly used reverb parameters, which include Mix, Predelay, Decay, High Cut, and Depth. On the right side of the interface is a plethora of knobs that allow you to control other parameters for the late and early reflections of the reverb. This section also includes a modulation parameter that allows you to add a chorus effect.
The right-hand section may be a bit overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with more advanced reverb concepts. However, ValhallaDSP has provided a description of each parameter at the bottom of the plugin window, which appears whenever you are controlling a knob/slider. Room’s newest update also adds the ability to choose between their old school red and a new electric blue GUI color scheme.
When it comes to deciding on which reverb to use in my own projects, this reverb is often my first choice. It sounds great when used in so many different ways and also uses minimal CPU; even when you have many instances of the plugin running within your project at once.
When I’m designing incredibly large, lush pads and atmospheres, I’ll slap Room directly onto an insert. Then, I’ll set the Mix to 75-100% and the Decay to above 3 seconds. Pretty much any sound can be instantly turned into a pad or atmosphere using this technique. Although I most commonly use Room for sound design purposes, I often find myself using it in many different ways thanks to how versatile it is.
ValhallaRoom does not give the option to lock the mix percentage, and every preset defaults to 100%. This means that when you are switching from plugin to plugin, even if you want the mix amount to lock to a certain percentage, you have to change it from 100% every time. This is a minor annoyance, but it’s also something that I don’t have to deal with when using other reverbs. There is also no animated display of the reverb's energy over time, which is a nice visual feature that other plugins sometimes provide. This is not a make it or break it feature, but it does make Room slightly less visually appealing.
As previously mentioned, ValhallaDSP has several unique reverb plugins, each with their own capabilities and selling points. While not quite as versatile as ValhallaDSP’s Room, ValhallaDSP’s VintageVerb definitely has its stake in the reverb game. It is listed on their website as a “postmodern reverb plugin, inspired by the classic hardware digital reverbs of the 1970s and 1980s.”
VintageVerb comes with 17 different reverb algorithms, or modes to choose from, each inspired by classic algorithms from hardware reverbs of the past. It also gives you the option to choose between 3 different color modes that emulate the tone and artifacts commonly heard in reverb units from the 1970s, 1980s, and present day.
The 1970 mode downsamples the reverb, reducing the bandwidth to 10 kHz, which produces random artifacts and gives the reverb a darker feel. With the 1980 color selected, you get the full bandwidth and sample rate. Finally, there is the NOW color mode, which also has the full bandwidth and sample rate, but provides a cleaner, brighter sound, heard more commonly in today's radio hits.
ValhallaDSP plugins rely on a two-dimensional interface and avoid the 3D knobs and sliders found on many other devices. What makes VintageVerb stand out to me visually, when compared to ValhallaDSP’s other plugins, is its use of different colors. VintageVerb changes its color scheme depending on which Color Mode is selected, each one representing the vibe of the era the Color Mode is emulating.
VintageVerb’s GUI is intuitive, making it quick to get up and running with the plugin. On the left of the interface are 3 knobs that control Mix, Predelay, and Decay, allowing for quick adjustments. On the right side of the interface, there are separate boxes for Damping, Shape, Diffusion, Modulation, and EQ controls. Like ValhallaRoom, there is a description of each knob at the bottom of VintageVerb’s window, which appears when the parameter is being edited. To top it all off, VintageVerb comes packed with many excellent presets.
When it comes to deciding on whether or not to use VintageVerb, there is really only one question I need to ask. Is it a vocal? If the answer is yes, then this is my go-to reverb. If it’s not a vocal, I’m much more likely to choose a different reverb that may potentially be more well-suited for the task. That being said, this reverb is not just for vocals, and if this is the only reverb you have, it is an excellent reverb for many other purposes. The reason that I gravitate towards VintageVerb strictly for vocals is that it has a classic tone found on the vocals of many older records. This is by no means a subtle reverb, but it provides a tonally balanced lushness that is not overpowering, and still vibrantly cuts through the mix.
If you only have $50 in your pocket and need to choose a desert island reverb, you’re better off going with ValhallaRoom. Once you start including more vocals in your productions, you may consider adding VintageVerb as a dedicated vocal reverb.
FabFilter is known for their high-quality plugins, widely used across the digital production world. One of their newer plugins is the Pro-R, which came out in late 2016. An all-around useful reverb for many purposes, the Pro-R takes the cake on best natural sounding digitally generated reverb. With a simple left to right knob layout at the top of the interface and a Post EQ/Decay Rate EQ below, the Pro-R delivers powerful processing through a clean interface.
The placement of the Pro-R’s knobs, the color layout, and EQ visualizer (which represents the output signal) makes this plugin exceptionally visually appealing. The EQ visualizer is consistent with other FabFIlter plugins, so for those of you who already use a lot of FabFilter products, the Pro-R should feel very familiar.
One of the major selling points of the Pro-R is the Decay Rate EQ. It provides you with a full 6-band EQ to control decay percentage at specific frequencies. This reverb also features a lock on the Mix knob, as well as an A/B switch that allows you to test new patches without losing your previous settings. Finally, as a nice little bonus, the Pro-R displays parameter tooltips when you hover your cursor over different knobs and functions.
For a digital reverb, the Pro-R does a great job of creating a very natural texture, which makes it an excellent choice for vocals and creating a space in your track. That being said, it’s not quite as realistic as a convolution reverb, and still maintains an excellent electronic lushness that is often desired in today’s productions. The presets are abundant and organized by room size, making it easy to cycle between different similarly sized spaces. Using the Distance knob as well as the Stereo Width knob to control the size and shape of the reverb, you can go from a massive soundscape to a small ambient space with ease.
Another unique feature that I often find myself using is the tempo synced pre-delay functions. Choosing between 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, and 1/32 note pre-delay values lets you manipulate the distance your elements sit from the walls of the room they're placed in. The great thing about the pre-delay being tempo synced is that the reverb will activate in time with the tempo of your song. A lot of reverbs offer a tempo-synced pre-delay function, but Pro-R’s has a very unique texture to it, adding a gated/slapback reverb to the sound.
Unfortunately, one of the primary reasons I sometimes steer away from the Pro-R is due to how much CPU it uses. It’s usually pretty stable in a project that doesn’t have a ton going on, but as soon as the project becomes a little bigger, the Pro-R becomes much more taxing on my CPU. This might have something to do with the fancy interface, but maybe in the future, they will give the option to lower the reverb quality while you are working on a project.
Shimmer is an excellent choice when it comes to selecting a creative reverb. It features a simple design and doesn’t require much understanding to use. I often find myself placing it on a track and turning the knobs randomly (while also resampling to another track) to see what unique textures it can create.
Shimmer is a decent choice for an everyday reverb, but where it really shines is when creating unique atmospheres and textures. With a huge sound, a simple GUI, and a low CPU strain, this reverb is great for putting that extra polish on sounds needing a sizeable reverb.
The reason this is a runner up is that it would not be my first choice of reverb if you are in the market for a new all-purpose reverb. However, if you are just looking for a creative/sound design reverb, this is a great choice!
Soundtoys has some amazing plugins, and Little Plate is amongst one of their best. Their “Little” plugin line is an excellent addition to their main plugin lineup; the "Little" plugins provide much of the same processing power, but without the extra fluff and confusion. Inspired by the EMT 140 plate reverb, Little Plate packs a big punch.
With only 3 knobs (Decay, Mix, and Low Cut) plus a Mod switch which introduces slight modulation, you certainly do not have unlimited control over the sound. Although with the control you do have, you can still get many great sounds from this unit.
The reason this is a runner up, is that for the $99 price point, it’s not a very versatile reverb. It is excellent at what it does do, but there are other similarly priced reverbs that can do a whole lot more.
To learn more about effectively applying reverb to your productions, check out The Ultimate Guide to Reverb.
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