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4 Famous Vocal Mixing Tricks Using Reverb and Delay

May 15, 2024

Vocals are considered to be paramount in many contemporary styles of music, so how do the greats use reverb and delay to make vocals stand out to the masses?

Famous vocal mixing tricks using reverb and delay

In the world of vocal processing, reverb and delay are two of the most useful tools you have at your disposal. Whether you want to add some subtle space to your lead vocals, place your backing vocals further back in the mix or create wild vocal effects with a single word or syllable, you can do all of this and more with a reverb or delay plugin

For generations, leading music producers and engineers have been harnessing the power of reverb and delay when mixing the vocals of influential artists across a range of styles and musical eras. In this article, we’re unpicking some famous vocal mixing tricks that use reverb and delay, and how you can apply those tricks yourself using Waves plugins.

David Bowie’s Ping Pong Delay on Let’s Dance

Up first is an artist who was a champion of innovation throughout his career, so much so that he’s still considered to be one of the most exciting artists of the past half a century. Let’s Dance by David Bowie was produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and released in 1983. If you’ve been to a wedding or turned on the radio in the last 40 years, you’ve almost certainly heard Let’s Dance.

The song is characterized by the call and response between the uplifting rhythm guitar riff and funky bassline, along with the vocal hook chants. Throughout the song, a ping pong delay is applied to a range of elements including the guitars, drums and of course the vocals. In each case, the delay has been synced to the tempo of the track, so it adds to the rhythm and groove of the composition.

One consideration to make when applying time-based effects such as reverb and delay to vocals, is that processing can muddy the clarity of the element. In the case of Let’s Dance, the delayed vocal seems to duck out of the way of the dry vocal which helps to maintain the focus on the original signal. Similarly, the delayed vocal is EQ’d or filtered, so the dry vocal remains prominent in the mix. At the time of production, this would have taken some complex mixing skills and routing. Today, we can achieve all of this and more with an all-in-one space effect such as Space Rider.

Start by placing Space Rider on a return channel and turning off the Chorus and Reverb sections of the plugin by toggling their respective On/Off buttons. By default, Space Rider’s delay is set to a synced dotted 1/8th note, which is coincidentally the timing we want for this effect. To get the width and rhythm of the delay in Let’s Dance, we need to put the delay in Ping Pong mode.

Using ping pong with vocal delays

Once you send your vocal to the return channel, you have the basis of the vocal ping pong delay effect. Currently, the delay tails are getting in the way of the dry signal which causes it to lose clarity. We can address this with the Morphing functionality at the bottom of Space Rider. The Morphing section allows you to set two different plugin states, and seamlessly morph between them or automatically morph between them according to the plugin’s input.

Select the β state then hover your cursor in front of where the Delay’s In dial is set. A blue line will appear, which you can drag down to zero to set the In dial’s value during the plugin’s β state. Now, toggle the Auto mode on and the plugin will automatically reduce the In amount whenever it is triggered by the dry signal.

Morph between different vocal effect styles

You can now fine-tune the In, Sens, Attack and Release amount until you achieve the desired amount and speed of ducking. You can also use the inbuilt Low Pass and High Pass Filters to shape the tone of the delay. In this case, we want to remove some of the low frequencies from the delayed signal, leaving the high frequencies intact.

Fine tuning vocal effects

Take a look at these six tips for using space when mixing vocals for more inspiration.

Phil Collins’ Vocal Delay Masterclass on In the Air Tonight

Another hugely popular hit that makes solid use of reverb and delay is In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins. Aside from the famous gated drum reverb that we’ve covered in another article, the vocals have undergone a number of reverb and delay processes that set them apart from other productions of the time.

Slapback Vocal Delay

The most notable vocal effect throughout the track is the slapback-style delay. While the slapback delay is a common technique used to give guitars some space in the mix, it’s not as frequently used on vocals due to the way that it alters their relative clarity compared to other elements in the mix.

Because In the Air Tonight is a relatively sparse production, applying this kind of processing works particularly well to add some more space and interest to the mix. It’s also an easy effect to apply using a delay plugin such as H-Delay.

Place H-Delay directly on your vocal channel as an insert, and set the Delay Time Mode to MS. The appropriate delay time will depend on the tempo and delivery of your vocal, but in this case, around 100ms works well. We’ve also reduced the Feedback value to around 20.

Waves H-Delay plugin

Now dial back the Dry/Wet amount to reintroduce some of the dry effect, and you’ll begin to hear the contrast between the dry and delayed signals. You can take this contrast a step further using the Filters. For example, cutting some of the high end from the delayed signal allows more of the presence and clarity of the dry signal to shine through.

For more vocal delay technique ideas, check out these 10 delay tips for mixing vocals.

Vocal Delay Throws

As well as the short slapback delay on the vocal, Collins and his co-producer Hugh Padgham sent certain words or syllables of the pre-chorus to a separate delay on a return channel. This emphasizes those words and creates more space, thus building the energy of the arrangement.

In terms of the technique, it’s very similar to the processing used in David Bowie’s example discussed above. Instead of using a synced delay though, it sounds as though In the Air Tonight uses an unsynced delay with a time that slightly varies between throws. Additionally, it uses a standard delay as opposed to a ping pong delay.

To achieve the sound, place Space Rider on a return channel once again, and switch off the Chorus and Reverb sections as well as the Delay’s Sync mode. You’ll now need to manually sync the delay time to a beat division of approximately 3/4 of a bar. For a tempo of 117BPM, this is around 380ms. We’ll want to increase the Feedback amount for this effect, to ensure that the delay repeats as many times as we need.

Waves Space Rider plugin

You can now automate the delay send amount for certain words or syllables on your vocal channel. This works particularly well at the end of phrases, as the delay then fills in the gaps between sections.

Automate your vocal effects

Using Reverb to Create Huge Pads

The final vocal mixing trick on this list has many variations and is actually more of a sound design technique. In some ways though, it is a mixing trick as it’s commonly layered with other elements within a track to reinforce them, as is the case in the intro to Grimes’ 2012 track Genesis.

To achieve these giant cavernous pad sounds, chop a vowel sound out of a word from your vocal recording and place it on its own track, then load your chosen reverb plugin onto that channel as an insert. We’ve chosen H-Reverb due to its inbuilt equalization section and the ability to set an extremely long decay time.

Waves H-Reverb plugin

We’ve selected the Huge Verb preset from the Big Spaces folder, and increased the Decay Time to around 12 seconds. We’ve also cut some of the low end and boosted the high end to make the verb sound brighter. It’s also important to keep the Dry/Wet control at 100%, as we don’t want any of the dry signal to come through.

Setting up H-Reverb

Once you’re happy with how the vocal reverb sounds, you can resample it onto a new channel ready to take further with more processing including chorus, delay or distortion. You can also reverse the resampled audio to create a kind of otherworldly swelling that is commonly used as a riser before a section change.

Vocal pad resample

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