Michael White is a mix engineer and has worked for artists such as Whitney Houston, Talking Heads and The Rolling Stones, he is also the founder of the MPG Music Production School. In this free reverb pro tips article Michael gives tips for setting up reverb for any sound.
Reverb is one of the most powerful tools an engineer has to shape the tone, depth and separation between instruments. So why do so many have difficulty using reverb in their mixes? From my own professional experience, most of what I learned about reverb was shaped by the many tracking sessions I worked on in the early part of my career. It soon became apparent to me that all the greatest gear in the world had only a minimal impact unless I set my focus first on the acoustics of the room, where to place the instrument, and how to treat the immediate environment. So where do you begin? Below are my top 5 tips for setting up a reverb for any sound.
Tip 1: Size Up the Space with Early Reflections
After the arrival of the direct sound, Early Reflections are the first set of delays that define the size and shape of a space before the onset of reverb. The length, timing and frequency characteristics of these reflections create the most powerful binaural cues for depth and tonal shaping of any sound in a mix.
Start by setting up a Send/Return configuration in your DAW with the Mix at 100% Wet, The Reverb Level off and the Early Reflections Level maxed out. Adjust the Time, Attack and Slope to shape the space. If you struggle at first, go through extreme settings to get a sense of the range available before settling on a space that sounds natural for the sound you are treating.
Tip 2: Feel the Space
In our everyday lives, Early Reflections are felt more than heard. These Binaural cues allow us to quickly determine the size of a space even if we are unable to see it. When heard too loudly, they tend to interfere with the direct sound causing it to be less intelligible. When blended in subtly with proper tonal coloration, they stage a space that is deep, powerful and clear.
Start by bringing the Early Reflection Level all the way down to Off and slowly raise the level until you start to feel the sense of space. When the Early Reflections are muted, the dry sound will flatten out and the sense of depth and space will be lost. When un-muted, the sense of depth will reappear. I cannot overstate how important this step is! Early Reflections set the stage and environment that your reverb will reside in.
Tip 3: Setting Reverb Type
If the Early Reflections are set up effectively, the ability to use almost any reverb type should be natural and easy. While there are many types of reverbs, the best choice should be based on the needs or deficiencies of the dry sound. In my experience, the most effective choice usually contrasts the tonal characteristics of the original sound.
A bright harsh vocal, for example, can be greatly aided by a warm plate or hall. A warm or dull sounding drum kit can be brought to life with a bright room or chamber. Using a plate reverb to add sustain to a dead snare is a staple of rock and roll drum sounds. Not only do these contrasts greatly aid the character and imaging of the original sound, but they will also add to the audibility of the reverb in the mix.
Tip 4: Reverb Time, Damping and Width
Reverb Time is almost always based on how active the dry performance is. In general, the more active the performance, the shorter the reverb time will need to be. Tempo also plays a vital role as the reverb decay time and shape should be tailored to the rhythm of the music.
Remember, reverb time is calculated by how long it takes total reverberant field to decay by 60 dB. Depending on the density of the mix, more than half of that tail may be inaudible if improperly shaped. Use Damping and EQ Filters to control the reverb time at different frequencies so that the individual reverb settings on different instruments do not mask each other.
Use the Width control to further create separation between different reverbs. There is nothing wrong with mono reverbs that are localized to the same pan position as the instrument. A mono spring reverb on an electric guitar is a classic combination and quite often a necessity do to the complexity of the frequency content.
Tip 5: Pre-Delay and Staging
Pre-Delay is a very powerful tool for staging a performance to the front or back of a mix. When the Pre-Delay is at or near zero, the reverb will attach to the instrument and stage it back in the mix. When set to a medium delay time, the depth of the reverberant space will increase pulling the dry instrument forward while setting the reverberant space back in the mix. When long Pre-Delay times are used, the reverb separates entirely from the dry sound and takes on echo-like characteristics.
The secret to setting Pre-Delay times can be found in the tempo and a little bit of math. If you know the tempo of the song, divide it into 60 and you will get a ¼ note delay time. (60sec / 120bpm = .5sec or 500ms) If you continue to divide this number in half until you get into double and single digit millisecond numbers (63, 32, 16, 8 and 4 at 120bpm) you can start to plug in these numbers as Pre-Delay times for long, medium and short values. However improbable this may seem, it is surprisingly effective in most situations.
I hope you have found this information helpful. If you take these basic concepts and experiment with them, you will begin to open up a whole new world of depth and space in your mixes. These principles apply just as effectively to ‘dry’ mixes as they do to ‘wet’ ones. The perception of depth and imaging created by them is a huge component in getting your mixes to translate to different monitoring systems.