How To Produce Dream-Like Vocal Swells

While there’s always going to be an appeal to a well-tracked clean & intelligible vocal, sometimes you need to step outside of the box a bit. Vocal performance styles vary greatly between different singers, but there are certain techniques that are universal in creating lush soundscapes; none more relevant to production than the reverse delay swell.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying out this trick on your own, you’re probably more familiar with it than you think. Reversed delays and reverbs are used in tons of pro-level productions to create consistency and add coherence to a mix. By adding a reversed delay, you can add a lot of ambiance and character to a particular element of the mix. And for us, this comes through best when used on a main vocal.

Achieving Reverse Delay Swells

The actual process of applying the technique to a track is pretty straightforward and easy to follow:

1. Make a copy of your track (or section you’d like to apply the effect to) and reverse it
2. Apply your favorite delay plugin to the reversed track (tape delays work great for this)
3. Adjust your delay settings to taste: a good starting point is short delays & long tails
4. Print your reversed track with the delay applied
5. Reverse the printed track and mix to taste with the original track

To hear what each step of the reverse delay process does to your sound, check out Fluff’s in-depth walkthrough:

Being The Best

Finding the best vocal swell sound is as much about creating depth and space as it is about remaining subtle.

Nobody wants to listen to an unintelligible vocal track that’s only flaw is that the reversed vocal is too loud or overlaps too much with the source vocal. The goal should be to create some glue to tie your track in with the rest of the mix surrounding it.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be able to hear the swell either. If you’re taking the time to make it, you don’t want it to go completely unnoticed.

Creative or unique approaches to reverse swells can inspire others, but only if they’re present enough to spark the curiosity of a listener. One of the greatest feelings is having another engineer like your mix enough to ask, “How did you get that sound?” Don’t miss out on the opportunity to leave your competition scratching their heads by burying your swells in the mix.

Avoiding Pitfalls

I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t share the most common issue producers and engineers run into working with reverse swells – not just on vocals but other common instruments as well.

The most common issue has to be alignment.

If you shift your vocal or effect track anywhere in the process, you’ll likely want to start over from scratch. Why?

Nudging your tracks around can be useful when pocketing elements of the mix, but unlike using a plugin on a track or bus in real-time, copying your track and reversing it (step #1) commits you to very specific timing.

If you choose to (or accidentally) move either track without it being locked to the other, you risk breaking that coherency. The easiest way to identify this problem is to listen for a “flam” around the attack of each word. If you start to hear doubling (which is especially noticeable on cymbals) you may need to check your alignment.

Experiment With Reversed Processing

While this technique isn’t especially new, engineers and producers are finding all kinds of ways to process reversed audio for effect. There’s plenty of room for experimentation, whether changing the pitch or finding new plugins to process their sound differently.

Try your own reversed processing and let us know if any of our plugins were able to add character in ways you haven’t heard before over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.