The Role of Reverb in Sound Design

Sound design is one of those topics where you can ask a dozen different people what it is, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. To musicians, sound design may be as simple as creating new sounds with effects. There’s a whole market of pedals available to guitarists that can make an electric guitar sound like just about anything they want.

Move into electronic genres and the synthesizer community and the concept starts to shift a bit – you get a description much more in line with how a mixer or audio engineer might describe their work. They start to talk about transients and formants – things that have to do with how sound is articulated and the dynamic impact each sound has.

Then there’s the film and video game sound designers – the people who are actively working on creating new sounds that fit a specific purpose day in and day out. They might describe their workflow as involving sourcing audio from sound libraries, recording their own audio, then manipulating those sounds in a way that fit their use case.

While these all may sound drastically different, they’re not. At the end of the day, we’re ALL manipulating sounds to get them to fit a certain mold – we just might have different processes and procedures in place to get from Point A to Point B.

Despite some of our differences, we’re all generally using the same tools to help achieve our goals. Today, I want to look at one of my favorite sound design tools: reverb. 

Why Reverb?

Reverb is the perfect introduction to sound design if you’re a beginner or you’ve potentially been doing sound design for a while without even realizing it (most producers and engineers fall into this category). It’s an easy enough concept to understand and one you should be familiar with if you’ve ever mixed a song.

At its most basic level reverb is a form of sound design. It manipulates the audio we hear or at least our perception of it. It puts the listener in a room or space with an instrument, rather than the raw, isolated nature of most close mic placements used in modern recording.

By changing reverb settings, we change the design of our sound. Not as aggressively as something like bitcrushing, but noticeably enough that a listener would be able to tell you that one room sounds larger than the other when listening back to both versions. 

With this concept in mind, let’s look at the role this plays in a couple different scenarios.

Example #1: The Concert Experience

Perhaps the biggest overlap between the studio experience and the filmmaking experience comes in the form of concert footage. When done right, a recording of a concert can be incredible. It gives some music a medium that it deserves to be heard on. There’s a reason why arena rock is a genre – the music sounds like it should be played in an arena!

But what if I told you that most of the things you love about that concert DVD are a bit less natural than you thought?

Big budget concert films have a lot riding on the studio and filmmakers getting it right, and while I won’t claim your favorite concert is all pre-recorded, there’s plenty that can be done to make it sound realistic if that’s a choice the team behind the film decided to make.

Crowd noise is the perfect example of this. If you’ve watched enough concert films, you may have noticed that the dull roar is always just that – a constantly present sound without any real words or voices to cling on to. This is by design.

Rather than letting you get distracted by someone’s conversation, sound designers and mixers will take this type of audio and often seek out the least characterized portion of audio to use, then loop it or process it other ways to keep it from sounding too much like a loop. From time to time, they’ve even been known to use audio from a different venue on a different stop of the tour due to quality issues, budget restraints, and sometimes creative preference.

In those scenarios, reverb is the key to the puzzle. The reverb matches whatever audio you create back to the environment that you’re placing it in. Big or small, hall or room – it’s all about creating a clear and believable space for whoever is watching/listening.

Example #2: Speech & Perspective 

One of the more interesting obstacles that a sound designer for film must overcome is movement and change of perspective – especially as it pertains to speech and the human voice.

Mixing music is easier by comparison – we assume that our listener is in one static position and we make the best sounding mix we can with our setup (usually a stereo configuration, though some mixers do prefer to work in surround sound). But what would you do if you had to modify your mix to chase an instrument as it moves around the room?

Even the most basic film scenes today must deal with this obstacle. Take, for example, a college lecture. You’re usually going to have a multi-shot scene with a wide shot of the room, a close shot of the lecturer, and possibly some shots of the students participating in the course.

Each of those camera angles need to sound different because they’re in different parts of the room. In one angle, the lecturer is going to be the featured sound in the scene, but if the camera pans to an individual in the room, suddenly the perspective flips and the sound around it should keep pace. Zoom out to the wide shot and everyone should sound distant.

Then take it a step further to an epic space battle with lots of CGI and special effects. You’re no longer working with a real space with the confines of 4 walls and a relatively static position for each noise – things are flying all over the place! It’s no wonder these audio teams often have high headcounts and individuals who specialize in very specific types of audio work.

Regardless of the environment, reverb plays a crucial role in bringing those scenes to life. The college lecture might just have one or two tracks of dialog with their own reverb settings while the space battle could have dozens of reverbs being automated to really shape the sound and make movement. It takes a bit of intuition and experience to find the right configuration, but that’s the beauty of it – you’re able to create a space where there isn’t one. Once you’ve found it, everything in your scene from dialogue to sound FX can make use of those reverb settings consistently.

Get Involved with Sound Design

If sound design is something that interests you and you’d like to learn more about how you can start to incorporate it into your workflow more regularly, make sure you check out our eBook, The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners.

Inside, you’ll find over 50 pages of great content about synthesis, sample layering, and sound design that’s invaluable to anyone looking to craft their own sounds. Find out first-hand how producers are using these techniques in the studio today!

Check it out.