Vocal production includes creating a sonic home for your voice – a church, stage, chamber or club that feels intentional. Learn to use reverb and delay to achieve precise ambience for your vocal recordings.
By Craig Anderton
This is the seventh and final chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can find the full series.
Singing occurs in an acoustic space, and our brains are wired to expect that. Part of great vocal production is providing a sonic home for those vocals—and reverb, along with delay, are the tools that can place your vocals in anything from a club to a cathedral.
In pro studios, vocals are usually recorded fairly dry—because if a room’s acoustics are “baked into” the recorded sound, there’s little you can do to change those characteristics. However, a totally dry sound isn’t like what we’ve heard from vocals all our lives. Fortunately, reverb and delay processors can put some of the “live” element back into vocals recorded in the studio.
Vocal Reverb Strategies
Some engineers obsess over reverb settings when processing complex instruments like drums, which produce highly dynamic sounds over a wide frequency range. Vocals are a different matter. Because they’re a song’s focus, they need to get the first choice for a great reverb sound. Once you have ambiance that flatters the voice, then you can concern yourself with how to apply reverb to other instruments so that they don’t overpower the voice.
Of course, different engineers have different workflows. For those starting out, I recommend adding reverb to the vocals first, getting that right, and then making sure everything about the other tracks complements the vocals. You’ll almost certainly need to tweak the vocal reverb as the mix develops, but you’ll have established a direction.
Aux Bus Effect, or Insert Effect?
To emulate the sound of a physical acoustic space, many engineers place reverb in a bus and process the instrument tracks, to varying degrees, through that reverb. For example, if you want all the instruments to sound like they’re playing in a studio, the Abbey Road Chambers reverbs are great. They re-create the sound of the reverb rooms in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. For a concert hall, which is a different kind of sound, the H-Reverb gets the nod.
However, some engineers like to dedicate a separate reverb to vocals. In this case, there’s no need to use a bus for the vocals. The reverb simply inserts into the vocal track, and the reverb’s wet/dry (or mix) control sets the reverb blend compared to the dry voice.
If you need to integrate the vocal more with a reverb bus that processes the other instruments, use a send from the vocal track to feed a little audio into the main reverb bus. If the vocal track has a mix of dry and wet sounds, then not only will the voice mesh more with the main reverb bus, so will the vocal’s reverb effect.
With background vocals, you may have each vocal on its own track. In that case, you would probably use a reverb bus for the vocals. This could be a separate reverb, like the one for the main vocal if you wanted the background vocals to have characteristics similar to the lead vocal. If you wanted the background vocals to feel more like instruments, then you might want to send them through the same reverb bus as other instruments.
Note that these are traditional ways of implementing reverb. While they’re a good starting point, go ahead and experiment—you might discover a process that works better for your music.
Waves’ OneKnob Wetter (Fig. 1) is an insert effect and the quickest possible reverb solution.
However, the knob is much more than a wet/dry mix control. Think of it as a gateway to dozens of presets, which have varying amounts of delay, reverb and brightness. The effect is more pronounced with higher numbers. Settings between 0 and 5 are well-suited to lead vocals; somewhat higher settings give a wetter ambiance for background vocals. OneKnob Wetter is ideal for those who want to avoid option overload and just get on with making music.
- Example 1 – OneKnob Wetter
Example 1: The phrase starts with the Wetter setting 2. Starting with the word “buddy,” the setting goes to 3. The phrase that starts with “fall in love once” uses a setting of 4. The phrase starting with “falling in love again” uses 5. Also, note that there are finer gradations in between these settings.
Another way to start simple is with the Waves Signature Series insert plugins. These combine many of the processors we’ve covered so far into a single plugin and may include reverb and delay. Some of these plugins are even designed specifically for vocals. For example, CLA Vocals (Fig. 2) has EQ and compression, along with three reverb “colors”: Tight, Large and Chamber, and a fader that controls the reverb wet/dry mix. Three delay colors include Slap (a very short echo), Eight (eighth-note delay) and Quarter (quarter-note echo). Delay also has a dry/wet balance fader.
- Example 2 – CLA Vocals reverb
Example 2: The CLA reverb colors change as different phrases change. “Don’t laugh when I say…” uses Tight, “don’t care if…” uses Large, and “don’t get in your own way” uses Chamber. The phrase that starts with “you can believe…” adds an eighth-note dotted delay to the Chamber sound.
Greg Wells VoiceCentric (Fig. 3) specializes in adding ambiance to vocals and is a solid option for pop vocals. It includes reverb, delay and doubling (delay and doubling are described later).
- Example 3 – Greg Wells VoiceCentric reverb
Example 3: The phrase that starts “I have no doubt…” is Doubler only. Reverb gets added with “got a personal angel,” and Delay gets added with “she treats me…”.
These types of plugins may seem simple, but they deserve a serious look. They result from Grammy-winning engineers quantifying the sounds they use in their own productions and distilling complex parameter adjustments into an easy-to-use set of controls. Even if you choose a sophisticated reverb and become an expert at programming its parameters, you may wind up with the same sound as a Signature Series plugin anyway.
However, there are plenty of opportunities if you want to dig deeper and create unique sounds. To do that, though, we need to understand the components that makeup reverb and the parameters that control them.
Digging Deeper: Reverb Components
H-Reverb is an excellent choice for making the transition from beginner to expert. It has a split personality—a compact interface that covers the most important and most-adjusted parameters. However, you can expand the interface to access the parameters needed for extreme customization.
The compact view shows the main reverb components (Fig. 4). The colored dots aren’t part of the interface but correspond to callouts in the text below.
When you sing your vocal, its journey through reverb goes through several stages. Each stage affects the vocal differently.
1. Pre-Delay (orange dot)
In a physical space, it takes a short amount of time for sound waves to travel from your voice to the room’s reflective surfaces. This time is the pre-delay. The optimum setting depends on the pre-delay time, but also on the vocal and the overall amount of reverb. If the reverb level is high, less pre-delay can make the vocals feel more upfront because you don’t have an additional “cue” for distance. However, you don’t want the pre-delay time to be so short that it “smears” the beginning of vocal lines, particularly if this obscures hard consonants.
With lower reverb levels, pre-delay can give the voice more focus because you hear the voice first, without any distractions, and then the reverb comes in slightly later to add depth. Although more pre-delay gives a sense of a bigger space, there’s a point of diminishing returns because too long a setting can distract from the main vocal. However, you can use this to your advantage with background vocals, where longer pre-delays can not only place the voices further in the back but also give the illusion of more singers.
H-Reverb can set a fixed amount of pre-delay in milliseconds or sync to a specific note value. Syncing the pre-delay time reinforces the rhythm.
2. Early Reflections
These reflections sound more like numerous discrete echoes rather than what we traditionally associate with the term “reverb.” They’re represented by the white area clustered around the orange dot. Note that below the main reverb time readout in the center, you can choose different shapes for the early reflections (up to 10 shapes are available; #5 is selected). They can start at high amplitudes and fade, build up over time, or have other shapes in between those two extremes.
Sparse early reflections create space for consonants at the beginnings of words, which can make vocals more intelligible. Thicker or longer early reflections create a “tail” that persists after the initial burst of vocal energy. My preference with most vocals is a limited number of early reflections that morph into a relatively fast decay.
3. Build Up (yellow dot)
It takes time for reverb to develop in a room. Few reflections occur initially. But as the sound continues reflecting around the room, the sound builds up. Typically, the build-up time is short, but (like pre-delay) it can open up a space at the beginning of words to make them more intelligible. Unlike pre-delay, the effect isn’t like an echo that suddenly appears, but one where the effect’s amplitude ramps up smoothly. Short build-up times are common, but longer times can give cool special effects.
4. Reverb decay (purple dot)
This sets the time for the reverb to decay and represents a complex wash of sound that emulates the myriad reflections that occur in a physical room, with multiple amplitude and frequency response variations. A longer decay evokes a feeling of space that has the same emotional pull as being in a cathedral or concert hall—the reverb turns the sound into something larger than life, as it melds with an acoustical environment. With a hall sound, a couple of seconds of decay is a typical starting point.
5. Reverb envelope (blue dot)
The reverb decay sustains longer in rooms with hard surfaces and drops off faster in rooms with softer surfaces. The frequency response can also change over time, where you lose high frequencies faster in rooms with soft surfaces. This effect is called damping and is one of the parameters you can adjust in the H-Delay’s expanded view. Generally, you want the envelope to be more concave with faster tempos, so the reverb from previous words doesn’t persist over newer words.
6. Pre-Reverb EQ
In addition to shaping the sound of the reverb, we can shape the sound going into the reverb. The vocal range’s lower frequencies cover a similar range of the spectrum as several other instruments, so emphasizing higher frequencies in the vocal reverb prevents it from competing with other sounds. This gives a crisper, more intelligible effect. Fig. 5 shows a pre-reverb curve that works well with my voice, but you’ll end up optimizing the frequency depending on the singer, the arrangement and the mix.
- Example 4a – No Pre-Reverb EQ
- Example 4b – With Pre-Reverb EQ
Example 4a: The vocal doesn’t have pre-reverb EQ. Note the somewhat bassy, muddy sound quality. This can interfere with other instruments in a mix.
Example 4b: With pre-reverb EQ, the sound is tighter and emphasizes highs to increase intelligibility.
Adding delay (also called echo) to voice has been popular since the days when early rock music used “slapback” echo from a tape recorder. Even subtle amounts of delay can help fill out a vocal and give it a bigger sound.
Fig. 6 shows delay settings for the slapback echo sound made famous by Sun Studios and used in seminal rockabilly recordings by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and others.
The original delay effect was created by setting up a separate vocal mic and feeding it into a tape recorder. Recording at the tape recorder’s record head but playing back from the playback head while the tape was running produced the delay. The exact delay time is a matter of debate, but after measuring the delay between echoes with several songs, they all had a delay time of 135 ms.
- Example 5 – 135ms slapback delay
However, modern musical genres take delay to another level by automatically synchronizing echoes to tempo. In H-Delay, you enable this with the Host button in Fig. 6. When you select Host, the delay time readout shows rhythmic values (16th note, 8th note, etc.) instead of milliseconds. This creates a tight rhythmic feel between the voice’s echo and the music. Synced echoes are popular with EDM and other types of dance music.
Turning up Feedback sets the level of output echoes that are recirculated back to the input, which creates additional echoes. These have the same delay time as the main delay time. Generally, feedback recirculates a lower-level echo, so this process continues until the echoes fade out. Feedback produces a stream of echoes, all equally spaced in time, with higher feedback values creating more repeats.
The Filter controls change the frequency response of the recirculated echoes. For example, if you cut some of the highs, each echo will have fewer high frequencies than the previous echo. Altering the filter settings produces the type of “vintage” echo sounds associated with older, tape-based echo devices. The Modulation controls alter pitch somewhat, like chorusing, and the Dry/Wet control blends in the desired amount of echo.
Doubling (also called Automatic Double Tracking or ADT) isn’t really about ambiance. But it’s part of the delay family, so it’s probably worth mentioning in passing. Reel ADT (Fig. 7) duplicates a part you play and then adds subtle timing differences, so it sounds like you double-tracked the part.
Delay is a useful effect in its own right, but it can also enhance the effect of reverb—so let’s return to wrapping ambiance around the voice.
Combining Delay and Reverb
Although (as mentioned previously) reverbs usually have pre-delay parameters, engineers sometimes augment the reverb sound by preceding the reverb with stereo delay. This creates additional complexity by adding reverb to the echoes, which makes a big ambient sound. Fig. 8 shows the Delay and Reverb settings used in the next audio example, which turns background vocals into something that sounds more like a choir.
The reason for choosing the Manny Marroquin Delay is because it’s stereo, so the two channels can have slightly different delays. Adding a little feedback creates even more echoes, and the low frequencies are rolled off a bit with the HP (high pass) filter.
Both effects are placed in series, in a bus. Usually, bus effects are set to Wet sound only (which is the case with the H-Reverb). However, the Manny Marroquin delay lets some dry signal through, so both dry and wet signals enter the reverb.
Example 6: The overdubbed background vocals are going through delay and reverb. If you listen closely when the reverb fades out, you’ll hear some of the periodic echo effect.
Example 7: This plays the above background vocal sound in context with the rest of the song. The delay and reverb processing creates a diffused, big “wash” of sound behind the main vocal and other instruments.
Now Make Some Music!
In this series’ seven parts, we’ve explored various ways to enhance vocals and give them a more “professional” sound. But always remember that your vocals are not just waveforms on a screen waiting to be processed—they’re communicating who you are. I don’t think anyone has ever said someone like Bob Dylan has a “great” voice, but it was expressive and did what he needed it to do. And your voice can do what you need it to do. Be expressive, and above all, be yourself.
This is the seventh and final chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can find the full series.
Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.
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