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4 Tips for Mixing Live with Reverb

Apr 05, 2015

Find how FOH engineer Ken “Pooch” Van Druten (Linkin Park) uses reverb to create a clear and exciting live mix in any venue, no matter how challenging.

Reverb is tricky. Creating the right artificial space in your mix without clouding instruments or masking vocals is an art form in itself. Then, in the live world, there’s the added problem of how reverb interacts with the reflective slapback of the acoustic space you are mixing in, causing unintelligibility and a mishmash of audio chaos.

Remember, most arenas and stadiums were NOT built to have rock shows in them. They were built (by acousticians) to get BIGGER when the room is energized. They WANT the room to go audio blitzkrieg when 15,000 people are cheering for their favorite sports team. But as soon as we show up and try to put a rock show in that environment, it gets messy. To be fair, most newer buildings are taking this into account by putting in acoustically treated panels that can be moved in or out, depending on what is in the venue that day, but even then it’s a battle of Plexiglas, plastic seats, and concrete floors.

FOH engineer Ken "Pooch" Van Druten

But the alternative of NOT using reverb will leave you with a dull, unexciting mix. Without the depth that artificial reverb provides in our mixes, we would actually LOSE intelligibility in our mix. WHY? Because the human ear is used to hearing the spatial reflections caused by a vocal (or drums, or guitars) in a room. Our world is not an anechoic chamber. A close-miked vocal without reverb is just that – unnatural.

So how do we use reverb on a vocal without making your high-energy mix sound awful and unintelligible within the acoustic space? It is a balancing act, for sure. Here are some general rules that I follow on most reverbs I use for my live mixes.

1. Pre-Delay Is Your Friend

Pre-delay is the delay time between the input of the signal and the FIRST occurrence of reverb. Pre-delay happens in nature, but not usually at the times that I am talking about here. I use longer pre-delay times in order to separate the signal and the reverb, to make sure that they remain two distinctly heard occurrences. I generally use from 40 to 80 milliseconds of pre-delay on every reverb that I use. I find that in an unintelligible space, this helps to keep the depth of the reverb without masking the original signal.

2. Shorter Reverb Time (Size) Is Your Friend

Sometimes we find ourselves in acoustical spaces that already have long reverb (1, 2, 4 seconds, or even longer). Adding to that is not gonna help. By using reverbs with relatively short reverb times, you can create depth without muddling your mix. I generally use 1-to-2-second reverb times. Now remember – we are using long pre-delay times here. So with the long pre-delay and a 2-second trail, we’re actually talking about almost 3 full seconds before we hear the reverb trail off. That’s an eternity in an upbeat song. So for something that is fast, I might use 800 milliseconds (0.8 seconds) of the parameter “reverb time” on an artificial reverb.

3. Types of Reverb Matter

The type of reverb I use depends on the instrument I am putting it on. I like the sound of hall programs on most artificial reverbs. H-Reverb has some amazing sounding halls. The hardest thing that a manufacturer has to do when making an artificial reverb is eliminate the “break up” that happens at the very tail end of a reverb. There are a lot of technical reasons (that I won’t bore you with here) for why that happens, but let’s just say that it ain’t easy to fix that. It’s also the first thing I notice when I am listening to an artificial reverb. Why? Because it doesn’t happen in reality. Acoustic reverb doesn’t break up at the tail end. It is smooth sailing all the way until it dissipates into the noise floor. Break up drives me nuts. Some artificial reverbs do it better than others. Luckily, H-Reverb handles it very well. It actually lets you shape and customize the reverb decay. But there are types of verbs where break up is more noticeable, just by virtue of what they are. I tend to shy away from plate reverbs, or even some convolution reverb acoustic space modeling. To me the break up is weird on some of those. In the end, the type of reverb is a personal preference, but it does matter which one you choose. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

4. Use More Than One Reverb on an Instrument to Create Space

A drum KIT is a complete instrument compiled of a bunch of single drums. It drives me crazy when engineers close-mike a drum kit and then overemphasize particular drums within the kit. Symphony for kick drum is not the preferred result. I prefer the drum kit to sound like I was standing in front of the kit. One of the things that I do when I am first working with a band is ask the drummer to play. Then I stand in front of the kit and pay attention to how he hits. Is the snare louder than the rest of the drums? When he beats the toms, are they overemphasized, or do they sit in the mix of the kit? Then I try to replicate this at front of house.

I worked with Van Halen a few years back (albeit briefly), and one of the things I had LOTS of respect for was when, on the first day of rehearsals, Eddie Van Halen listened intently to my mix of his brother Alex’s drum kit. After a while, he had me stop and walk up on stage with him. He had Alex play with us standing in front of the kit, and he said: “You hear that snare? You hear how it resonates when we are standing here? You are not getting that out at FOH.” He was right. He has amazing ears, and he knew right away what was wrong with my mix of the kit.

How did I fix it? I had originally used an overall reverb for the kit, to which I sent the kick, the snare and the toms to create an acoustical space. But after my time onstage with Alex and Eddie, I ADDED a second reverb to the snare only, with a 40 ms pre-delay and short (800 ms) reverb time. I EQed this reverb to have the same resonance characteristics that Eddie was hearing in the snare standing in front of the kit. As soon as I did that, he said, “THAT’S IT! You got it.”

I was pleased with the result I got. Later, I thought about why that worked. In an acoustical space, the snare drum is usually louder than the rest of the kit. It excites the room differently than the rest of the kit. Simply EQing the snare drum differently or sending more of the snare to the main drum reverb is not going to have the same effect. So from that point on, I’ve been using two different types of reverb on drums for every client I work for. It seems to work very well. I have tried doing this with other instruments, with mixed success. Try it and see what you think.

I hope that some of the things I’ve shared with you today strike a chord. When you get your hands on H-Reverb, check out some of my presets included in the plugin. And don’t forget to use reverb. It’s important, and when used well, it is the difference between an OK mix and a stellar mix that will wow everyone.