Unless you’ve gotten the chance to check out an anechoic chamber in person – everything you’ve ever heard has had some type of reverb or delay to it. Even your day-to-day conversations are loaded with reverb and delay. There’s no avoiding them.
In the real world, they do so much for us that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without them. Imagine how disorienting it would be if you couldn’t sense the space around you correctly.
Don’t believe me?
Try closing your eyes in a large room and speaking. Then get close to a wall and do the same thing. While your eyes provide some sensory benefits in this regard, your ears are doing a lot more “sonar” style work than most people think.
Use It To Your Advantage
The best audio engineers recognize that people use reverb and delay to recognize spaces around them, and take advantage of that when mixing.
In film, it’d be very obvious that dialogue was recorded in a booth if the audio post team didn’t pump in the right space around it. For the person watching the final video, all sense of immersion could be lost. It could ruin a movie experience completely.For music engineers, we need to take the same level of attention and apply it to our mixes. Even a small 3-piece band can sound like they’re playing a massive stadium if you build that space around them. Similarly, intimacy can be pumped into a performance by using shorter delays and reverb times.
Whether you’re looking to have an in-your-face vocal or a distant, droning piano melody, here are the 5 types of time-based elements that should be in every mix:
5. A Long Reverb
We might as well start big, right? Long reverbs can add to the musicality of a song, making melodies intertwine and overlap. A several second delay gives you the ability to have the tails of a melody spill out through the next line. It can give you a smooth transition from verse to chorus and back.
The most common use for a reverb isn’t always going to be something you leave on though.
Most often, you’re going to find engineers using a long reverb with some level of automation. Because of the long tail, engineers have been “automating” throws to their long delays since before automation was even a thing.Back in the day, this meant all hands on deck as the engineer would either have to time an unmute/mute perfectly for the effect, or turn up the knob for the word or phrase they wanted to affect before quickly turning it back down. Now, we achieve the same thing with a pencil tool in our DAW (thank goodness).
4. A Hall Reverb
There’s a reason nearly every reverb on the market is set to a hall setting straight out of the box – they sound the most natural in modern music.
A hall is going to give you slightly more ambience than a smaller room would, and definitely adds more to your sound than you’re going to be able to capture in most home studios and smaller booths.Hall reverbs will still range from small to large, and have plenty of options to go along with them, but they’re some of the easiest reverbs to work with. Throw one on it’s own Aux track on your next session, and just play around with sending different instruments (or groups) to it.
You’ll quickly find there’s a sweet spot for almost everything when using a Hall reverb.
3. A Long Delay
Similar to the long reverb, a longer delay can be used for effect (and even in conjunction with the reverb if you route it just right). You’re most commonly going to hear about these delays when engineers use the term “delay throw” and they’re executed the same way you’d enable a “reverb throw”.
Long delays afford engineers a unique opportunity to fill out sections of a song that feel empty without actually adding any instrumentation. By using what’s there at the end of the last section, repeats can be increased and spread out over a long time to fill the song out in a very natural way.,/p>
2. Tempo-Synced Delays
We’re cheating a bit in this one, since we’re really talking about a whole slew of delays. Depending on the mix, you’ll probably end up with more or less of them, but delays synced to the tempo of your song just feel right.Most engineers start out with a quarter- or eighth-note delay before getting a bit more experimental, but the delay(s) you choose will be entirely based on the needs of the song.
If you’re looking for a way to add complexity or less obvious tempo-based delays, try messing around with dotted notes. They’ll stagger your delays just a bit and get rid of that “locked to the grid” feeling you can sometimes get with straight quarters or eighths.
1. A Slapback Delay
Slapback delays are essential to giving you an up-front lead vocal. By simulating the presence of a quick delay with a nearby reflection, the sound is literally “slapping back” to your ears.
They’re quick & easy, and can even be used to fake doubling when you’re short on a real double in a session.Best of all, you’re not just limited to vocals with slapback delays. They can be used on everything from lead guitars to the occasional snare drum to force presence into an instrument.
Depending on the speed of your slapback, you may want to be conscious of phase issues or flamming on percussive instruments, but anything between 40-120 milliseconds should be a sweet spot.
Add Some Variation
Once you’ve got the basics down with your time-based effects, try out different methods of tweaking your settings for stranger or more creative sounds.
These tweaks can be as simple as rolling of the high end for a darker reverb, to messing with the health and contour of a tape delay to add some harmonic distortion.
Get weird with them! These tools are made for creativity, so experimentation is a must.
Got another must-have delay or reverb setting?
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