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6 Tips for Adding Depth to a Mix

Feb 08, 2018

Does your mix suffer from a lack of definition? Is it too flat and upfront, or has so much depth that it's an indistinct wash of sound? If so, chances are you’re misusing or overusing reverb. In this article, we’ll take a look at six vital pointers for working with reverb in your mix.

6 Tips for Adding Depth to a Mix

1. DO use the right kind of reverb

Some new mixers are surprised to learn that there are actually several different types of reverb. In fact, “reverb” is just a generic term for any dense series of tightly spaced echoes, whether they are naturally occurring (as in any acoustic space) or artificially created (as in a plate or spring specially designed to vibrate sympathetically with incoming signal).

Reverb adds space—that is, ambience—to a sound. It gives the listener a sense of front to back, adding a “near-far” dimension to the left-right stereo plane. The more ‘verb you apply to a sound—that is, the “wetter” you make it—the further back it appears. In contrast, “dry” sounds with little or no reverb appear to come from directly in front of the listener. The amount and degree of reverb you apply—as well as which sounds you apply it to—can have a big impact on the quality of your mix, so the choices you make can be critical.

The most natural-sounding reverbs are the ones that occur in a room, and you can capture them simply by placing microphones near reflective surfaces such as walls or the ceiling—a technique that’s often employed when recording drums. However, not all rooms have suitable ambience. Some are too echoey, and others are too “dead” … and, of course, if you’re working with samples or other direct sources, there’s no room at all!

The good news is that you can always turn to convolution plugins such as the Waves IR1 and IR-L Convolution Reverb, H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb, and Manny Marroquin Reverb, which create reverbs based on digital models of actual acoustic spaces. Not just any acoustic spaces, mind you. We’re talking places like Wembley Arena, Grand Ole Opry, the Sydney Opera House, and Birdland, among others. In essence, these kinds of plugins allow you to place your recorded sounds right inside some of the world’s greatest venues.

The Abbey Road Chambers plugin involves this same concept but taken a few steps further: It provides not only 3 distinct and well-known studio echo chamber reverbs, but includes exact models of the gear used at Abbey Road Studios to create the reverb effect in a controlled environment. This includes the speakers used to project the sound within the chamber, the mics used to capture the sound, mic and speaker placement and direction, and the filters used to shape the sound signal before it reaches the chamber. Moreover, it provides S.T.E.E.D, a unique feedback and tape delay signal path used to extend the reverb tail, recognizable from Beatles recordings and beyond.

In this video excerpt, Mirek Stiles from Abbey Road Studios explains how engineers capture echo chamber sounds, and what makes each chamber and process unique:

Of course, in certain circumstances you may be better off applying unnatural-sounding reverbs such as emulations of plates, springs, or “algorithmic” digital devices. A good example of this is Waves' Abbey Road Reverb Plates, modeled on the four legendary reverb plates housed at Abbey Road Studios and used on recordings by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Plugins such as these tend to offer more scope and control for the creative enhancement of instruments and vocals.

In this in-depth video, mixer/producer Billy Bush (Garbage, Neon Trees) explores the Abbey Road Reverb Plates plugin on various elements in a song he mixed by The Boxer Rebellion, at times pushing the settings to the extreme for creative effects:

Know too that, like other effects, each reverb plugin will have its own distinct sonic character. TrueVerb, for example, has a different sound than OneKnob Wetter. Always experiment and use the plugin that best complements the signal source.

2. DON’T lay it on too thick, or in too many places

Probably the biggest mistake mixing newbies make is to slather thick swathes of reverb on a sound—or worse yet, on everything—as if using a trowel rather than a fine brush. To some degree, it’s understandable. After all, that lush reverb just sounds so good! But if you think that adding a lot of reverb to a mix is a great way to make it sound bigger, you’re quite mistaken. It’s just a great way to make it sound muddier.

Instead, start by adding ‘verb to only those sources which are crying out for it—a lead vocal or a sax solo, for example—and raise the return level slowly while listening carefully, stopping at just the point where the reverb best blends and glues the sonics together. If you’re adding reverb to drums or percussion, don’t add it to all the components of the kit—just select ones like the snare and maybe just a touch on the kick. Toms should rarely be reverbed (unless you’re doing so at just select moments, like an iconic drum fill or in a sonic space like in “A Day In the Life”), nor should overhead mics / cymbals. In many cases, especially within a dense production, bass, keyboards, hi-hats, and acoustic or electric rhythm guitars shouldn’t receive reverb at all. The same basic rule for other kinds of effects applies here, too: If you find yourself adding reverb to more than 5 or 6 tracks, you’re probably overdoing things.

Bear in mind this dictum: It’s the contrast between close-up and far-away that gives a mix depth. Too much close-up—that is, too many dry sounds—and it’s boring and clinical. But too much far-away—too many wet sounds—and you end up burying any semblance of detail and punch. Know also that there are other ways of achieving this contrast besides reverb. For example, heavy compression can bring a signal much further forward in a mix, and multitap delays can provide a more transparent substitute for reverb in a lot of cases. (For more information, see our “5 Compression Mistakes Mixers Make” and “Mixing with Effects: 6 Mistakes to Avoid” articles.) Either way, be sure that there’s a good blend of both dry elements and wet ones in your mix, just as there are left and right ones.

And remember, no amount of reverb will fix a bad vocal.

3. DO automate reverb levels

Always automate your reverb send levels. Experienced engineers know the value of riding faders constantly—a practice that animates and adds excitement to a mix. For example, raising the reverb level slightly during the chorus and backing off on it during the verses (or vice versa) can create a wonderful wet/dry contrast. Sometimes just a few dB up or down can make all the difference!

4. DO tweak reverb presets, with a focus on decay time and predelay

Reverb plugins often provide controls for altering presets and customizing them to fit your needs. The two most important are decay time and predelay. The former determines the length of time the ‘verb takes to fade away to nothingness (sometimes referred to as the reverb “tail”), while the latter allows you to set a lag between the onset of the arriving signal and the reverb it triggers.

Shorter reverbs—that is, those with lower decay times—disappear more quickly and therefore tend to interfere less with the source signal (and with other ‘verbs), something that’s particularly important when being applied to relatively lengthy sounds like held notes. On the other hand, longer reverb times tend to work better with short, percussive sounds like tambourine hits. Just be aware that the length of the tail and the return level are somewhat interdependent.

Adding a predelay is a great way to create depth without sacrificing detail, since it allows the listener to hear the dry signal before the reverb kicks in. (In the case of the Renaissance Reverb, which offers a unique negative predelay control, you can even delay the dry signal so that it comes after the reverb!)

In this video excerpt, mixer Yoad Nevo (Sia, Pet Shop Boys) adds early reflections with predelay to lead vocals using the Renaissance Reverb plugin:

Taken to an extreme, the application of predelay can create some very cool “ricochet” effects, especially when panning the source signal and reverb returns to different points in the soundstage.

Speaking of which…

5. DON’T just pan reverb returns hard left-right

Sending all stereo reverb returns hard left and right is not only sonically boring, it’s a sure sign of lazy engineering. Instead, try to give each reverb—and the source signal triggering it—its own defined space within the left-right soundstage. For example, if you’ve got a lead guitar panned to 10 o’clock, try panning its reverb returns to 9 o’clock and 11 o’clock so that the ‘verb closely surrounds the source. Panning reverb returns closer to the source also helps to better focus signals, thus adding overall clarity to your mix.

6. DO process and/or EQ your reverb

Cutting reverb frequencies below 200 Hz is one of the easiest ways to clean up a muddy mix. Be aware also that bright effects tend to sound more obvious at low listening levels, so it can be a good idea to roll off the high frequencies of a particular ‘verb if you want it to be less conspicuous.

Many reverb plugins provide extensive onboard controls that allow you to equalize or otherwise process the signal being returned. For example, Renaissance Reverb offers dual-band EQ, while H-Reverb provides not only an EQ module but also a module for compression, ducking and de-essing of the reverb signal. Taking things a step further, Manny Marroquin Reverb adds a “fun” section for adding phasing and distortion to the reverb tail.

In this in-depth tutorial, watch Yoad Nevo use H-Reverb's EQ module to completely alter the coloration and feel of the resulting 'verb:

By the way, EQing a reverb send can be equally effective, albeit a little more subtle. Try inserting an EQ plugin to scoop out some of the mids or low mids in a signal before it hits the reverb. The resultant ‘verb will have a pleasant hollowness that in many cases enables it to blend in better with the source signal.

Want to take your mix's space and depth a step further? See our guide to adding delay to lead vocals.