Reverb can put a vocal in a myriad of different spaces, but your choice of space and how you set the parameters will dramatically affect the mood of the track. Learn how to tweak your vocal reverb to make your mix sing.
By Mike Levine
Professional mix engineers will often tell you that they build their mixes around the lead vocal. Because it's literally front and center, the reverb treatment you choose for the lead vocal is not only going to have a significant impact on the sound of the voice, but also on the mix as a whole.
Most contemporary reverb plugins, whether they're emulations of hardware units or not, offer a choice of algorithms along with a ton of adjustable parameters. Given those options, and the numerous ways you can modify reverb with compression, EQ, delay and saturation (whether built into the reverb or applied from a separate plugin), you have a broad palette of choices available to you for creating a compelling space for the vocal to sit in.
Which Way to Go?
It's useful to evolve your thinking beyond, "Do I want a plate or a hall?" and instead ask yourself what would be the reverb configuration that enhances the vibe you're going for with the mix as a whole. Do you want an effect that subtly adds space, gluing the vocal to the instrumental, or do you want to transform the vocal sound with it? Are you going for drama or intimacy? Do you want it to be aggressive or natural? Over-the-top, massive or uptight?
The choices you make will be dictated to some extent by the nature of the song and the genre. The tempo is another key factor. As a general rule, you don't want your reverb tails ringing over into the singer's next phrase. Excess reverb "wash," as it's referred to, can cause your mix to sound muddy and the lyrics indistinct. The faster the tempo, the shorter you'll need your reverb time to avoid cluttering up the sonic space. Even with those limitations in mind, you still have a lot of creative freedom to shape your vocal reverb.
Keys to the Sound
Whichever type of reverb you end up choosing for a given situation, how you set it is critical and can have a considerable impact on the results. Perhaps the most crucial parameter in any reverb is its decay time (aka "reverb time" or "RT60"). It will dictate whether the simulated space will feel massive, intimate, or something in between.
Adding pre-delay is also vital for keeping your vocal from receding to the back of the mix when the reverb is added. Without it, the reverb reflections will begin immediately. Postponing them slightly with pre-delay allows the transients of the lyrics to poke through, which not only keeps the vocal upfront but also more intelligible.
- Example: Here's a vocal line repeated three times. The first time it's dry, the second time it has reverb with no pre-delay (Manny Marroquin Reverb with a Hall setting), and the third time has the same reverb with pre-delay. It repeats again with an acoustic guitar track to show you how the pre-delay helps the words cut through.
- 01 - Vocal with MM Reverb - Hall
Pre-delay also has an impact on the perception of space. The longer the delay before the reverb kicks in, the larger the simulated space will sound. This makes sense when you consider that big rooms are more reverberant because of the distance the reflected sound must travel. It's also important to listen to how your pre-delay works with the song tempo. Play around with some different settings to find the one that has the best feel. Some reverbs, like Waves H-Reverb, allow you to set the pre-delay based on rhythmic values from the song's tempo. This can be a useful way to come up with a setting.
Obvious as it sounds, another key to what your reverb will sound like is how high you turn up the reverb send. The more reverb in the signal, the more its characteristics will be magnified.
How you EQ the reverb, whether from its own built-in controls or an external EQ inserted afterward, is also significant. Without equalization, the reverberated signal has low end and lower-midrange information that can clutter up your mix. It can also be too bright and may exaggerate sibilance in the vocals.
Combining reverb with other effects can also be useful for creating unique FX tones. For example, saturation placed after the reverb in the signal chain can provide a pleasant character change that doesn't sound distorted per se but adds texture to the reverb that can be really cool.
Putting a compressor after the reverb can smooth it out, alter its character and make it sound bigger. Depending on how you set it, you can also use it to "duck" the reverb which allows a bit of un-reverberated signal through first, helping with intelligibility. For more on compressing and EQing reverb, check out this Waves blog article.
4 Ways to Treat the Vocal Reverb
The following are examples of some different reverb treatments to give you ideas for creating your own. These tips will focus on lead vocals, but many can also work with background vocals, depending on the situation.
1. Organic and Subtle
If you’re looking for an organic or natural vibe, one approach is to go for a reverb that subtly puts the vocal in a space but doesn't make itself too apparent. You sense the space without hearing reverb tails.
You can use a hall, plate, room or chamber algorithm, it's a matter of what flavor you want. Whichever reverb type you choose, keep the decay time and pre-delay relatively short and listen in the context of the rest of the tracks to check that you've got enough reverb to add space to the vocal without the tails being too audible. Experiment with different combinations of decay time, pre-delay and send level to make the effect more or less apparent until you find the appropriate setting.
One way to make reverb tails less obvious without reducing the decay time is to EQ the bottom and top ends of the reverb return (either using the reverb's own EQ or with a separate EQ inserted after it on the aux channel).
On this example, from a song called "House on Fire" by the band Big Mamou, Waves H-Reverb was used. You'll notice from the screenshot that the dynamics are set to the duck style and the pre-delay is relatively long, while the decay time is at 3.5 seconds. The built-in EQ is cutting the low and high end of the reverberated signal significantly, allowing the vocal to still feel natural and not overbearing in the context of the mix.
- 01 - Example 1a: The vocal and reverb soloed
- 02 - Example 1b: The vocal and reverb with instruments
2. Lush and Long
Because of their slower tempos, ballads are often good places to try more extended and involved reverbs. Halls, churches and plates can be great candidates for this task, but whichever type of reverb algorithm you choose, set a relatively long decay, maybe 4 or 5 seconds. Move the pre-delay to about 30-40% or so as a starting point and see how it sounds.
With your EQ, maybe set the high-pass around 200Hz and the low-pass at about 12kHz. In a situation like this, you may want to have more body in the reverb.
The following example shows a dual-reverb setup. You'll need to set up two returns for this, one stereo one mono: On the latter, insert a mono reverb with a short pre-delay and relatively short decay. On the stereo aux, insert a stereo version of the same reverb, with a longer decay and pre-delay.
The idea is that when the singer starts a line, you'll first hear the mono reverb in the middle, and then the stereo reverb will bloom on the sides. You want it to sound integrated like one effect, rather than being obviously two different reverbs. A suitable algorithm for such an effect—using the same one for both reverbs—would be a plate such as Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates.
The reverb in this example is Abbey Road Plates, which was used for both the longer stereo reverb and the shorter mono one. On both the short and long reverb a compressor (from Scheps Omni Channel) was placed afterward, which gives the tail a different character, almost a shimmery sound without being overly sibilant.
- 01 - Example 2a: Just the vocal and reverb
- 02 - Example 2b: Everything in
3. Intimate Ambiance
Especially if the instrumentation is lean, a reverb with a relatively short decay is a useful way to create a small-room, intimate feel. A plugin like Abbey Road Chambers offers lots of small spaces as does Abbey Road Plates, with the damper set low. You could also use a convolution reverb with a small space like a club as the IR. Adding a subtle slap delay to the vocal can help add interest in almost any reverb setting, and could be nice when you’re going for an intimate sound.
These examples feature Abbey Road Plates, with the A Plate setting and the damper down around 2 to create a short decay time. Waves H-Delay on a separate aux send is set to a slap delay.
- 01 - Example 3a: Just the vocal and effects
- 02 - Example 3b: With the instruments
4. Short and Not Sweet
Short decay times work well on songs with fast tempos, keeping the reverb wash to a minimum. With a short decay time, you can create a tighter, more squeezed sound. If you use a really small sampled space (like a car interior or closet), you could almost make it feel claustrophobic.
The following examples don’t feature quite that confined space but they use a small room from IR-1 Convolution Reverb. The reverb was shaped with a compressor from Scheps Omni Channel which made the reflections sound more present. However, the delay send level was significantly reduced in the second half of the segment ("Every hope, every dream," etc.) to avoid the delays washing over themselves. Because the reverb was so short, a 1/4-note delay was added to provide an additional feeling of space.
In examples 4a and 4b, the segment repeats three times. The first time without any treatment, the second time with the reverb added and the third time with the delay and compression added.
- 01 - Example 4a: Just the vocal and effects
- 02 - Example 4b: With the instruments
There are almost infinite ways you can create a reverb sound for a lead vocal track. The most important aspect of finding a good sound is to understand the impact of the reverb parameters and other effects, such as compression and saturation, on the sound of your reverb. Then, consider the mood of your track and the feeling you want the vocal to impart on the listener. With an understanding of how to manipulate reverb settings, you'll be able to finesse the reverb tone of the vocal in a way that creates a pleasing sound and enhances the feel and drama of the song.
Want more on mixing with reverb? Check out this article on how to create realistic room sounds with reverb.
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