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Using Hardware And Software Reverbs In The Studio

Reverb is something that can be overused very easily in a mix, but when done tastefully, it can add depth and vibe. There are so many options for reverb available these days in the hardware and software domains, it’s pretty easy to find a setting that can fit just right in every mix and on any source.

Digital Reverbs
Universal Audio is a great place to start in terms of reverb plug-ins. They have an excellent recreation of the Lexicon 224, which was has been a staple for many engineers over the years. They also make an emulation that sounds like you recorded in the world famous Ocean Way studios, allowing you to choose from both of their live rooms and select up to three vintage mic models to capture the sound of the room. Their EMT 140 and 250 plates are almost identical to the original hardware units and are becoming a go-to plug-in. UA also offers a model of one of the best sounding spring reverbs ever made, the AKG BX 20.

Native Instruments RC-24 and RC-48 (both featured in the Komplete 11 package), model the aforementioned vintage Lexicon units. These are some of my favorites because you have so many options to custom shape the reverb and each instance of the plug-in doesn’t bog down the CPU too much.

Trueverb from Waves offers an array of different reverbs with many options to customize the sound. The IR1, which is an impulse response reverb, can mimic any room you wish to capture, including the Grand Ole Opry, Sydney Opera House and CBGBs. Their Abbey Roads Reverb Plates features recreations of the world-famous studio's plate reverbs, which are pretty spot on to the original hardware units.

Slate Digital has been expanding their reverb collection through the VerbSuite. They created the first software model of the Bricasti M7 and also offer a recreation of the Lexicon 224 and other top hardware units.

Hardware Reverbs
In the hardware realm, the Bricasti M7 has become a huge staple for just about every professional mix engineer on the planet. The M7 offers a huge range of reverbs with 100 presets, including halls, plates, rooms, chambers and ambient spaces.

If you’ve geeked out and searched for pictures of world famous control rooms, I’m sure you’ve seen a Lexicon unit sitting on the console. The Lexicon 224 is still used in many studios across the globe, but they also have some other newer models like the MX400 and PCM92 that sound amazing. 

In addition to these classics, there are a number of newer reverbs that would make excellent additions to any studio. The IGS Springtime Reverb is a 4-channel analog studio reverb with a pair of springs inside that can really pull together a track with a lovely warm sound. The Demeter RV-1D is another choice selection as it features two channels with their own reverb tanks, one that offers shorter decay and one that features longer. Looking for a 500 Series reverb module? The Meris Mercury7 fits into a handy to-go rack and takes design cues from the Lexicon 224.

Now that we've covered some of our favorite reverbs, let's talk about using them in the studio. In this blog, I’m going to go over a few common types of reverb and how to apply them in a mix to add some space and ambiance to a couple different sources.

Room Verb
A room effect is something that is commonly overlooked when applying reverb, as mixers will often go for something much larger to add space. In reality, sometimes all you need is a little depth to the source.

Room verb typically has a very short decay time and adds the appearance that something was recorded in a more ambient space than an isolation booth or treated live room. The decay time usually falls around .5 seconds or below. Adjusting the pre-delay can allow the transients to come through without being instantly affected by reverb, then having a small tail at the end of the signal to give the element of space.

Vocals
When tracking vocals in an isolation booth, often times you are left with a pure performance, but lack the acoustics you’re used to hearing when in front of a live performer. Adding a touch of room verb to an isolated vocal will add some depth to the performance and help it sit better in the final mix.

If the rest of the band was tracked in a live room and the vocalist was in isolation, the singer can sound like they’re in a completely different space than the rest of the band and the final mix will sound disconnected.

A little goes a long way when adding this effect, I tend to find it best to apply this effect with the full mix playing, rather than having the vocal soloed. This is typically meant to connect the vocal to the rest of the band, not often as an ambient effect.

Sometimes a cool way to dial this in is to have a send and return setup just for the vocal. On the return track, insert your room verb. On the source vocal track, set the send to pre fader with the level at unity gain. Then while automating in the mixing phase, ride the return track throughout the song to create different spaces for the singer, smaller room in the verse, bigger room in the chorus, etc.

Drums
Drums are most often recorded in a live room, but sometimes you either don’t have enough inputs or mics available to capture the ambience of the room. In a home recording, the room can sound really dead or untreated making the drums seem flat.

Adding a touch of room verb to the close mics will give the appearance that they were recorded in a bigger room. You want to make sure not to add too much though or else the bleed from every mic will begin to amplify and make it sound unnatural. A longer pre delay time is usually ideal for drums so the natural sound of them cuts through but a small tail is at the end of the hit to add depth.

It’s common to trigger effects on the close mics through the use of a sample. With the Steven Slate Trigger 2 software, you can trigger samples from the close mics transient response and retain all the natural feel of the live drummer.

You then send from the sample track rather than the live close mic to the reverb return. The result is that no bleed from the other drum parts will affect your reverb. You can then gate the sample to fit the right timing of the song and apply EQ, so the reverb generates the perfect frequency to compliment your track.

Guitars
If you track an electric guitar with one microphone right up against the cabinet, more than likely you won’t have any depth in the signal, unless the player already has some reverb coming from their amp.

Apply a touch of room reverb to give more weight and space to the electric guitar. If you recorded the guitar in mono, try panning the send to the reverb return to the opposite side that the dry guitar is on. This will add some stereo ambience to the track but won’t cloud up the area where the dry guitar is sitting.

With an acoustic guitar, it is almost always ideal to add some room reverb, especially if it was recorded in an isolation booth. Recording acoustic in an isolation booth is a great way to get all the early reflections back into the microphone as well as capture the most low end and body of the instrument. With that being said, it can still leave it sounding dull in a mix.

If the acoustic was recorded in mono, adding some room verb can add stereo space to the track and still sound natural. You can also do the trick mentioned before on the electric guitar, where you pan the reverb send to the return opposite to where the dry acoustic is sitting.

Keyboards
Keyboards are often left out when applying effects to the mix because they’re usually treated with something from the module. But if you want them to fit with the rest of the band and not sound sterile, you’ll need to treat them with some of the same effects.

Sending the keyboard to the same room reverb as the guitars and vocals will make them more cohesive in the mix and less likely to sound disconnected from the band. If they’re already treated with some kind of reverb from the module, make sure you don’t apply too much room verb, which will cause an unnatural exaggerated sound of the initial recorded effect.

Plate Reverb
Plate reverb plays a huge part in why vintage records sound so amazing. Almost everything you hear from the classic modern era has a plate somewhere in the mix. The “Wall of Sound” made famous by Phil Specter is loaded with plate reverb on just about every source. Famous studios like Abbey Road and Electric Lady used these as secret weapons as soon as they became available.

Vocals
Plate Reverb is one of the best ways to add that magical quality to a vocal. It can be used very subtlety to add a bit of vibe or drastically to add an ethereal ambience to the performance.

This style of reverb has the ability to adjust the decay so you can make it fit just right in the track. If used heavily on a vocal, try a shorter decay time to thicken up the performance without making the singer sound like they’re on another planet. If an exaggerated effect is desired, you can expand the decay to over five seconds on some units, which can take the mix to a whole different dimension not possible in a live setting.

With plug-ins like the EMT 140 from Universal Audio, you have the ability to adjust the input filter so certain frequencies can pass through without triggering the verb. If you’re looking for an ethereal type of sound and don’t want to cloud up the mix, try setting the filter to 180Hz or above.

On hardware units, you need to use an additional delay to set the pre-delay time. Setting the pre-delay time to an interval of the song will allow the dry signal to pass through and only have a tail on the end of the line. A formula for finding the perfect pre-delay to match the tempo of the track is 60,000 / the BPM = the delay time in ms for quarter-note beats.

Drum Kit
Adding some plate reverb to drums can give them more life inside the track. You don’t always need to add a lot to get big results. Just a touch on the close mics (usually leaving out the kick drum), adds a bit of space and stereo spread. Adding just a touch to the overheads and room mics can give them a little more decay and sparkle.

As mentioned before in the room verb section, triggering the close mics through the use of samples can allow you to dial in more of this effect without added ambience from the other live mics. It will also allow you to dial in the perfect pitch and length you are looking to get from the reverb.

Toms
You can have a separate reverb return for the toms. Toms are something that can get lost in a mix if they aren’t treated properly. They can sound like they are cutting through the mix and have a lot of ambience when you’re mixing the kit in solo, but once everything else gets added in, they can sound dull, dry and flat.

When you add a lot of reverb to the toms and the drums are in solo, they can sound like an old Phil Collins tune or 80s arena rock. Once you start to add layers of electric guitars, bass, vocals, etc, the additional ambience of the reverb is getting eaten up by the frequencies of those instruments and make the toms sound full and natural in the final mix.

Chamber Reverb
For this type of reverb, engineers will capture the sound by playing back the source through speakers in an acoustically designed isolated room and use one or more microphones to capture the sound. It typically has a much warmer/natural haunting sound to it then any other reverb. A good example of chamber reverb would be the works of Brian Wilson, thanks to his use of Capitol Records studio and Gold Star Studios.

Vocals
If you’ve ever listened to anything mixed by Al Schmidt and wondered how the reverb always sounds so incredible, it’s because he’s using the world famous chamber number four in the basement of Capitol Records. If he’s in the building working (which is pretty much every day), no one else is allowed to use that chamber.

Thanks to the expansion of plug-ins, you don’t need a live chamber to achieve a similar effect. Chamber reverb is one of the best ways to add a natural live room sound to a vocal. In a more intimate song, a chamber verb is a go-to for me. It has a fullness that really can’t be matched by another style of reverb.

If you use the chamber as the dominant verb but still aren't getting enough ambience, try adding a small amount of plate verb afterward to extend the tail. Sometimes it’s a cool trick to send from the return of the chamber verb to the plate reverb rather than from the dry source. This can really expand the sound of the chamber to whole new depths. Experiment with fading in the plate reverb return to find the right balance between the two in the mix.

Horns
Chamber verb has a really great effect on horns. Since the instrument is already so bright, the dark quality of the chamber seems to compliment them perfectly. Since most horns are recorded in mono, the chamber is a way to add some stereo depth to a source.

A handy trick is to ride the send to the horn chamber verb in automation. Do a pass all the way through the song, keep the verb at a lower level as the horns begin to play a line, then slightly turn up the send as they play through the line. This will allow a bit of verb to come through at the top of the line, but extend the tail when they stop playing.

Drums
Chamber isn’t always the best option when working with rock or pop drums, but it is an excellent way to add some space to jazz drums. Most of the time in jazz music, the drums aren’t the primary instrument, they’re just there to keep time and add some sizzle to recording.

Since the drummer is usually playing pretty quiet, you can’t turn up the preamps too much without picking up some unwanted noise or rumble in the room. This can sometimes leave the overheads sounding a little dull or flat in the final mix.

If you add just a touch of chamber verb to this style of drums, it will still allow the dynamics of the playing to cut through the track, but add space around the kit and a touch of sparkle to the ride and hi-hat.

Final Thoughts on Using Reverb
Reverb is something that is subjective to every musician and engineer. Some musicians love insane amounts on their recordings to give them their signature sound. Some musicians hate when you add reverb to anything in a mix because it takes away the intimacy. Some engineers tend to be heavy on effects while some tend to not use any at all.

As you start to mix a record, you always want to ask the artist how they feel about additional effects. You could get done with a mix thinking it’s the best thing you’ve ever done, but the artist could hear it and completely hate it.

This blog is just some common examples of a few different reverbs on various sources. Hopefully, it will help open the door to trying out different styles of reverb that you weren’t used to using, and expand the amount of ambience and stereo spread in your mixes.

Always remember, there are no absolutes in the recording industry. Some of these examples could work great on one song and some might not work in any project you’re working on. Never be afraid to experiment with different styles of reverb or effects to find the perfect fit for the project.

If you have any question about reverb or want help in choosing the right gear for your studio spaceplease reach out to one of our Audio Consultants via email or by phone at 888.653.1184

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