Unlocking the Potential of Your Delays & Reverbs

Time-based effects are one of the most common tools in the studio to take an underwhelming production and turn it into something much more massive sounding than it is.

In recording sessions, an engineer might choose to capture the natural reverb of the room they’re working in to add size to a performance. This is most noticeable on drums, where room mics are frequently placed far away from the kit to capture the sound of the room and the way the drums reverberate in it.

Delays can be used in a similar manner to create width and depth (or lack of it). A singer’s vocal performance can be changed instantly with a slapback delay tucked in for a thicker sounding vocal without double tracking.

All of these tricks and tools of the trade are becoming commonplace in the studio, but for some, the time-based effects in their collection just don’t seem to be getting the results they’re after. Worse – for some people these effects work the way they expect them to some of the time, but they’re not able to replicate that success from session to session.

The good news is that a lot of this inconsistency is completely within our control as engineers and producers. Here’s what you can be doing differently with your delays and reverbs to get the sound you’re after each and every time.

Set Your Session Tempo

Tempo is one of the core elements of your session that affects the way your plugins are working, especially when it comes to delay. Most commonly, delays have a tempo based on the session’s BPM. If you just leave the default tempo at 120 BPM, your delay is going to start basing delay time off of that.

Things like quarter note delays and eighth note delays will be the most noticeable since they’ll essentially be counting at a different speed than the rest of the song, but the issue gets compounded with multi-delay settings such as what you might set on a multi-head tape delay. By combining various repeats at different delay times, you’re taking something calculated and precise (even if it seems random) and throwing it off.

Rather than going into each plugin and trying to set the tempo by hand, get the timing locked down early by putting your tempo into the session itself and getting your tracks locked to the grid (or at least in the ballpark). From there, all you’ll need to do is link your plugin to the session tempo and you’re good to go. Any changes in speed throughout the song will be accurately reflected in your delays as long as your tempo map is up-to-date.

Taking The Same Care with Reverb

Reverb rarely has the same defined link between session tempo and timing, so it can be a bit more difficult to dial in than a delay. The core concept is the same though: find a time setting that fits well with the song.

The tail of your reverb is the most musical part and should decay naturally with the music. One of the most iconic reverb sounds is the gated reverb – the one that instantly sounds like and 80’s snare drum when you hear it. The gated reverb effect works best when the decay of the reverb “breathes” with the drums. It snaps shut quickly, but in time with the music.

Other, longer reverbs should be dialed in with similar amounts of musicality. Tweak the length of your reverb so that its timing fits the song well and you’ll spend less time dialing in other parameters and EQing it to get it to fit in the mix. Timing is everything with these effects to get them to sit right – there are no one-size-fits-all solutions that you can just pull up with a preset. 

Don’t Overdo It

The most common issue plaguing new producers and engineers is the overabundance of options at their disposal. Yes, you can use a dozen reverbs in your session, but isn’t that overkill if you can get radio-ready results with just two or three options?

Once you’ve narrowed down your effect selection to something more manageable, be cautious with how much signal you’re actually sending those plugins. For most applications, a 50/50 split between your source track and reverb is making your reverb way too loud in the mix. Unless you’re going for an obvious effect, these plugins are made to enhance the quality of your original audio, not overpower it.

This is never more apparent than when someone drowns a vocal in reverb. It can sound better in the short term, but often you’ll only perceive it as “better” because it’s masking some issues that are present in your source. Use reverbs and delays to add space and size to your vocal instead of using it to hide imperfections. Once you get in this mindset, it almost becomes second nature.

More on Time-Based Effects

Time-based effects, like any other plugins we use on a daily basis, require a little bit of experience and a lot of experimentation to get the results we want. It can be great to get insights from experienced mixers and producers, but getting creative with these tools is the best way to learn what works for you and your process.

JST VIP members start with the roadmap laid out for them – eBooks, guides & more all intended to show how these plugins can be used. From there, we encourage them to get creative – dive into their mix with everything they’ve got. Once they’re finished, they can submit a mix for critique from yours truly.

It’s a continuous process of growth and revision, which is why the groundwork is so essential. Come see what JST VIP has to offer you.