5 Pro Tips For Using Reverb & Delays On Vocals

Simon Gogerly

He's worked with everyone from U2, Paloma Faith, New Order and even on the London 2012 Olympics with Underworld, now Simon Gogerly shares some of his pro tips on using reverb and delay on lead vocals.

Recording Studio

1. Get Real

‘Real’ reverb is around us all the time. Every space has its own sound. Wherever possible I like to record a vocal in a live space using a screen to keep the close mic dry while recording the room at the same time. If, as is more often the case, I receive a dry vocal to mix I may re-amp it into a room, hall or stairwell to give it a unique ambience. I’ve even recorded vocal ambience outside, complete with distant traffic and birds! It’s not always possible to find a space to re-amp into so another trick for adding a bit of something special is to send the vocal into a small guitar amp (like one of the mini Marshall stacks you see in guitar shops), drive the input a bit and record it from a distance. Mixing a little of the result back in with the original can sound great.

2. Eq the Send, Compress the Return.

This tip applies as much to delays as to reverbs. The dry vocal can contain a lot of frequencies right across the range and when it’s sent to an effect there can be a lot of unwanted boom and fizz generated, creating mix clutter. I’ll eq the effect send on the way to the reverb and/or delay, usually reducing the lows and highs and maybe dipping the low mids too until the effect sits well with the original, even when it’s level is high. Then I’ll often compress the effect return using the original vocal signal as a sidechain key input so that the effects ‘open up’ in the gaps. This can really help vocal clarity while retaining the level of the effect.

3. Delay Timings

It makes musical sense to set vocal delays to be in time with the track. However, straight delays such as quarter and eighth notes can get easily masked within the track. I usually start with an offbeat delay like three sixteenths which I find tends to naturally find the musical gaps. Then I’ll vary the delay slightly until it feels good. Stereo delays are also useful for movement. A quarter note on one side and three sixteenths on the other bounce off each other nicely. A slap delay can be useful, often sounding like a tight reverb when mixed low. I’ll use 80-90ms for those depending on the speed of the track. I’ll also use very short delays of 10-20ms with a bit of pitch change on each side to add thickness and width.

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4. Effects Variation

I often change the sounds and levels of effects on the lead vocal throughout a song. This can really help the dynamics of a track and keep it interesting. For instance, I may use a fairly dry sound with just a touch of plate & slap delay in a verse then introduce a longer delay and bigger reverb in the chorus.

5. Get Dubwise

As a finishing touch I’ll do lots of little bits of automation on effects sends, returns & eqs. Sending the occasional word or key phrase off into an unusual delay or reverb can reinforce a particular lyric and add a lot of extra interest to the vocal. I’ll also sometimes automate the panning and eq of delay returns so that they change and move as they decay. As long as these touches aren’t overdone or out of context they can lift the mix considerably.