What Is Reverb? A Beginner's Guide to Mixing Music
There are two main methods of applying reverb to your music. I’ll be going over the ups and downs of each method, as well as some different ways to control and shape your reverb so that your song doesn’t become a washed out mess. At the very end of this article, I’ll share what I consider to be the 3 best reverb plugins on the market!
What is Reverb?
You know when you scream really loud in a gym and your voice trails off when you stop screaming? That’s reverb. Reverb is the sound that lingers after a sound source has stopped producing a sound.
In the gym example, the sound waves from your voice reflect off the walls an extraordinary number of times, until they eventually diffuse into space. A reverb unit allows you to simulate different spaces by reproducing the sound reflections you would hear in those spaces. In the following video, Acoustic Geometry shows you how sound works in rooms with the use of Nerf guns.
Application Method #1: Audio/MIDI Tracks
The first method of applying reverb is directly onto an audio or MIDI track. If you aren’t using aux tracks yet, this is likely how you’ve been going about applying reverb to your songs. I use this method when I want a particular sound to have a different reverb than the rest of my sounds. It’s especially useful when creating huge trap leads because it gives them that dense reverb that can be heavily compressed afterward. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s great for atmospheric pads that require a heavy amount of reverb.
Something to keep in mind when adding reverb to your tracks in this way is that it can make them feel farther back (along the Z-axis) in your mix. Longer, denser reverb will make elements feel farther away.
Application Method #2: Aux (Return) Tracks
The second method of applying reverb is onto an aux track. Using reverb in this way will help create a space for all of your sounds to live in. By sending a small amount of signal from each track to the reverb on this aux track, you create a sense of shared space. When you listen to live bands play, they’re never playing in different rooms; so why would it make sense to put completely different reverbs on all your tracks?
When applying reverb in this way the key is to be very subtle with it. You’re not trying to drown everything in reverb. Increase the amount of signal you’re sending from each track until you can just begin to hear the reverb effect and then dial it back a bit. When you A/B your song with and without the reverb on the aux track, you’ll notice that it pulls all the elements of your song into the same space. It’s subtle but noticeable.
Another reason I love applying reverb in this way is that I can easily swap out reverb plugins. Let’s say I’m not feeling the reverb that I currently have loaded onto my aux track. I can switch it out for another one and it will change the reverb I have applied to all my tracks. Additionally, applying one reverb on an aux track compared to 15 reverbs on audio/MIDI tracks will save a significant amount of CPU.
I usually use two reverbs on return tracks. I’ll use one with a short decay time (under 1 second), and another with a longer decay time (3+ seconds). I use the shorter reverb, in moderation, to pull the elements of my song into the same space. I use the longer reverb to apply a heavier reverb on elements that need it. If this longer reverb doesn’t get me the effect I’m looking for, I’ll copy the long reverb from my aux track onto the track that needs more reverb and increase the decay time and/or dry/wet amount.
How to Control Your Reverb
There are various parameters found on a reverb that allow to control various characteristics of the space it's meant to emulate. It's essential that you understand how to manipulate these controls so that you're able to effectively sculpt the features of your soundscape.
Manipulating pre-delay changes how long it takes for the sound coming from the sound source to reflect off the walls, and make it back to your ears. Larger values will simulate a larger room, while smaller values will simulate a smaller room.
Manipulating decay changes how reflective the room is. Larger values simulate a more reflective room like one made of concrete, while smaller values simulate a less reflective room like one made of wood.
Decay time also plays an important role in simulating a room’s size. Higher values simulate larger rooms, while smaller values simulate smaller rooms.
This value controls the blend between your unprocessed and processed signal. Making your reverb too wet can wash out your sound. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re trying to achieve, but having too much reverb across your tracks is something to be cautious of.
I don’t usually use the EQs that come built into reverbs. I’ll apply a separate EQ after the reverb, which I can then use across my aux tracks. I’ll use the same EQ on my reverbs that I do on my delays. This helps give my aux tracks their own space.
A good starting point is low cutting at 200Hz and high cutting at 2500-3500Hz. You can manipulate the cutoff points to fit the vibe of your track. Cutting more low end and adding more high end will really open your track up. Doing the opposite will give it a darker, somber vibe.
Knowing how all of these different parameters affect the space they collectively simulate, allows you to carefully craft the exact environment you’d like your sounds to live in. Some reverb plugins will have extra parameters made specifically to give you finer control of the space you’re simulating. Make sure you read the user manual or enable tooltips (if the plugin offers this) in order to take full advantage of all the features available to you!
Tempo-Sync Your Reverbs to Avoid a Mess
You can make your reverbs more musical by adjusting their settings to fit the tempo of your song. Adjusting pre-delay to be the length of 16th notes, or adjusting decay time to be the length of whole notes can keep all of your reverbs in check.
If you’ve opened up your reverb to do this and realized every value is in ms (milliseconds) then you’ve discovered the main hurdle. You need to convert note values into time. A quarter note will have a different ms value depending on the tempo of your song. At 100 BPM a quarter note is 600 ms, but at 130 BPM a quarter note is 461.54 ms.
To make the conversion, you’ll want to go ahead and download an app called musicMath. This app lets you convert note values at different tempos into ms (milliseconds). It also has another essential feature that lets you view the frequency that different notes resonate at (this is great if you’re trying to musically saturate harmonics).
3 Great Versatile Reverbs
I’ve used countless reverb plugins, but these three are the ones I find myself using again and again.
This reverb is especially good on vocals. It has a nice warm tone that compliments most vocal performances. You can swap between three different modes that include 1970s, 1980s, and Modern. Each mode is meant to emulate a reverb unit from the time period, so this reverb can be quite versatile.
I love this reverb for EDM. You can get an enormous range of sounds from it, but its natural tendency is to produce brighter reflections. Using this reverb on your return tracks is a must if you’re writing huge EDM tracks.
The Blackhole is a bit of a wildcard. It can produce some really deep, atmospheric reverb effects. It comes stocked full of crazy presets and may very well change the way you approach sound design. The plugin is made specifically for Hollywood films but has a wide range of applications.
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