We’ve all been there. Your band is tracking some cool new song you just wrote, and it’s coming together great: perfect groove, killer tones, clever ear–candy. Then you add those vocals tracks.
Suddenly, all you notice is that the voice sounds dull, lifeless, and strangely disconnected from the rest of the music. It’s not that the lyrics aren’t working or that your intonation is off. It’s just that, for some reason, those vocals don’t sound well–placed in the mix.
That’s usually right around the time your bandmate or co–producer turns to you and says something like, “It’s all good! Just needs a bunch of reverb!” That’s, well, half–right.
When deployed deftly, good old reverb is the perfect tool for gluing harmonies together or putting the vocal track in a simulated acoustic context.
But, there are very few times when you’ll want to soak your vocal tracks with the effect. Discretion is the name of the game with reverb. Your production will really benefit from understanding a few things about one of the oldest studio effects and how it remains so useful in today’s DAW–dominated world.
The Basics: What Reverb Does and Doesn’t Do
A lot of people will tell you that reverb makes vocals sound bigger, but that’s not really the case. Like natural reverb in a cave or warehouse, a reverb plugin makes a vocal sound like it’s in a space. The reason why reverb is so great on a sterile, dry voice recording is because it helps that vocal track sound like it wasn’t recorded in an isolation booth.
If anything, heavy reverb doesn’t make a vocal sound bigger, but farther away. After all, you’d hear more reverberation from someone farther down in a cave than someone standing right next to you.
So, if your issue is that the vocals you recorded sound oddly out in front of the band — a very common problem when the vocal is tracked in a different space, on a different day — then break out some basic reverb.
For that kind of issue, a simple plugin like Waves’ Renaissance Reverb or Metric Halo’s HaloVerb will do the job. Choose a size for the room you want to emulate, set a decay time that matches the sound of the other instruments in the mix, and slowly dial a wetter and wetter signal until the voice seems to meet the rest of the band in that imagined space.
If you’re looking to add more presence and power to a vocal performance however, go the opposite route and dial back the reverb.
Reverb has a law of diminishing returns. A little bit is usually called for, but adding more and more will eventually just cause your voice to sound overly glassy, getting swallowed up by the rest of the mix. Ergo, if your reverberated vocal part is sounding weak or unintelligible, dial back your room size, decay, and dry/wet settings to taste.
Types of Reverb
While the guiding conceptual principles I outlined apply to any type of reverb you choose to use, different types do have different characteristics. You’ll see these types of reverbs all over the plugin–verse, and knowing what to use and when to use it will lead to the best production decisions.
Plate reverb emulates one of the earliest techniques used to get the effect: shooting a recorded signal into an actual steel plate via a transducer and then re–recording the resulting metallic vibrations with a contact microphone. This generates a pleasantly dark, dense, and diffused timbre. The intensity and decay of the reverb directly relate to the size of the plate.
This makes them an excellent choice if you’re going for a thick, vintage tone with your vocals, or if you’re looking for that warmth–and–glue factor but aren’t particularly concerned about adding brightness. You want to be careful with plate reverbs since they add low–end frequencies and can muddy up your mix.
Spring reverb — based on a similarly old–school electro–mechanical technology — offers a much brighter and snappier tone. Like plate reverb emulating reverberation on a metal plate, spring reverb emulates reverberation across metal springs.
On most plugins, you can typically adjust the “tension” and “number” of springs being emulated, with very loose springs offering a messier sound and sloppier decay, and tighter springs offering that classic, higher–pitched “splash.”
Because they sound somewhat smaller than their plate cousins, spring reverbs are awesome for scenarios where you don’t want much pre–delay.
Spring reverbs play really well with delay effects. For the best of both worlds, try sending your lead vocal through a tight spring reverb and then into a longer delay. But, once again, be careful. That spring sound is very noticeable, and it can easily distract from the original dry signal if not implemented cautiously.
Room reverbs, as you likely guessed, simulate rooms. Digital room reverbs will give you control over various room sizes and building materials, ranging from a symphony house to a narrow hall.
Plugins such as the Eventide Reverb typically have settings for various tiled rooms, concrete halls, wooden gymnasiums, and so on. Each preset will make pre–delay time, amount of diffusion, and early reflections present in your reverb signal, and every other setting conform to the spatial and acoustic logic of the room selected.
These verbs will usually impart a more modern sound to your vocal than springs or plates, and they offer far and away the most control over every little parameter you might care to mess with.
Say your band tracked basics to your song in a wooden room that was roughly 20 by 25 feet area with a 12–foot ceiling that you don’t have access to anymore. Using your room simulator, you can basically “dial in” a simulation of that space for your vocal track, creating reflections that will match those produced by the band, thus unifying the performances.
You can also go the opposite route and take your vocal track in some surreal directions by tweaking the parameters to create tiny rooms with inordinately huge decay times. Experiment! That’s the beauty of the digital reverb in the DAW era: you can always play around and re–adjust those knobs again later.
Vox Verb in Practice
Once you play around with reverb enough, you’ll start to get a sense of how to use it functionally. A big part of the joy of reverb, at least once you understand how to use your favorite plugins, is using it creatively.
Try sending all of your vocal harmonies to a track with reverb wetness turned up high while putting a short, crisp reverb on the lead. This will help the harmonies blend and the main vocal pop.
Or maybe use almost no reverb at all during sparse, intimate verses of your song to get a more confessional tone, and then crank it up for a particularly psychedelic bridge or chorus. Suddenly, you’re making real choices about where the singer exists in relation to a song and its listener.
Appendix: A Few General Reverb Functions Explained
Wet/Dry or Reverb Level: Controls the ratio of original signal to processed signal.
Pre–delay: Controls the total elapsed time between the sounding of the dry and wet signals.
Decay Time: Controls the total time until that last reverb tail dies away.
Early Reflections: Controls the amount of discrete echoes present in your wet signal.
Diffusion: Pushes those discrete echoes closer together (smearing them) or farther apart (separating them).
Room Size: Controls the dimensions of a the room being simulated, which automatically adjusts the boominess and decay of your reverb sound on a more global level.
Modulation Depth: Varies the pitch of reverberated signal relative to the dry signal.
Modulation Rate: Varies how quickly those pitches oscillate in time.