The Ultimate Guide to Dialing In A Reverb
Getting familiar with the controls on a reverb plugin and the sounds and shapes they help you create is one of the biggest advantages an engineer, producer, or mixer can give themselves. Reverbs are the most common time-based effects in the studio, and it’s easy to understand why. They help create a space around your audio tracks – especially those that were recorded in isolation or those that were created digitally. It’s extremely cool to see how sounds morph into something new once they’re placed in a space and that’s exactly what your reverb should do.
But that brings us to the actual process of dialing in a reverb – what shape and size should that room be? What characteristics should it have? And how much of a difference is it really going to make?
Today, we’ll touch on all of that and hopefully you’ll take away something new, even if you’ve been using reverb in your sessions for years.
Choosing a Room
What kind of space should your mix occupy? A radio rock anthem is expected to sound a lot larger than an intimate acoustic songwriter track. Most of the reason for that comes down to reverb.
Picking the right room for any given sound is a key part of dialing in your reverb settings and it sets the stage for all the other parameters you control. The size and depth knobs are going to be proportionate to the size of the room you start from. The room can even guide you to make decisions differently when it comes to how much reverb gets applied.
With digital reverbs, “rooms” are analogous to “algorithms”. Each room setting in a digital reverb usually comes with its own algorithm that sets the standard for all your other inputs. Think of it like a general guideline for the sound you’re after, applying a minimum and maximum value for all the other settings. This is how reverbs can easily get users started with various room sizes ranging from small rooms, plates & springs to arenas to more ambient options.
Reverb Tails & Decay
As sounds get processed through a reverb, they always have a trailing off sound to them – the tail of the waveform that dies out slowly (and sometimes not so slowly). Naturally, this occurs all the time. You make a loud noise in a large space, and you hear the reverberations trail off as they bounce around the walls. This characteristic is also known as decay.
In your plugins, you can usually set the length of that decay with a single knob. Turning it clockwise will give you longer tails that fade out slower and counterclockwise will make the sounds trail off more abruptly.
Usually, the best settings are somewhere in between – especially when you can find something that works well with the tempo of your song.
On many reverbs, you’ll find that you’ll be able to control the pre-delay of your reverb as well. This setting allows you to adjust the amount of time after your original/dry track plays before you hear any of the reverb tail (or in some cases, early reflections of the signal).
This setting may not sound like it’s got much real-world use at first – after all, it’s extremely difficult to manipulate something like this in an actual room and wouldn’t you want to mimic the real deal?
In practice, it can be extremely useful though – pre-delay can create separation that creates a clearer sounding mix. By pushing back your pre-delay a bit, you can make your instrument more pronounced and intelligible. Go ahead and give it a try the next time you add delay to a vocal!
Dark vs Bright Reverbs
The tonal characteristics of your reverb also make a huge difference in your results, so any reverb that enables you to shape the tone can help streamline your workflow. For those without a built-in Tone control or those looking for even more granular control, adding an EQ plugin right after your reverb can also achieve similar results.
Just like the room and decay shape the size and space of the reverb, the tone of the reverb is going to add to those qualities and make them feel different. It’s completely possible to have a bright, shimmery reverb with a long tail giving your track an ethereal feeling but take that same reverb with less top end and more bass; suddenly you’ve got something far darker and cavernous.
Nuanced EQ isn’t always required to shape these sounds but going from a bright to dark sound is almost literally a night and day change.
Finding the right combination of reverb and dry signal in your mix is quite possibly the most important aspect of this entire list. Whereas all of the other parameters have to do with the sound of the reverb itself, the blend of your reverb with the source audio is going to be the biggest differentiator between a quality job and an amateur one.
A lot of the time, amateurs will use way more reverb than is needed because they think it needs to be “heard” in the mix. In practice, it’s more about the amount needed to sit the sound just right than it is about having a pronounced effect (with a few exceptions).
Professionals will often take the same time and care as amateurs when dialing in their reverbs, but they’ll stop short of highlighting it in the mix. They’ll include just enough to get by – whether through the Mix knob in the plugin itself or by blending fader levels between source audio and dedicated aux tracks.
The next time you’ve got a killer reverb in your mix – go ahead and try the “less is more” approach. You might be surprised by just how low that reverb’s level can be while still having a massive impact on the overall mix.
Want More Mixing Tips?
Reverb is just one aspect of an overall mix strategy and should live toward the end of your workflow. It only really works when it’s being fed with quality source audio – that means EQs tweaked, compression applied, and all editing done in advance.
If you’re still working on your perfect workflow – it can seem like a lot to consider, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out the Learn section of our site for all kinds of great courses, resources & blog posts to help you address whatever issue you’re facing OR join our mailing list below to get notified as new resources become available!