At its core, reverb is an emulation of sound in a physical space. Without it, instruments can seem dry and onedimensional. We hear reverb in the world around us—both indoors and outdoors— and it helps us define proximity and spatial depth. Reverb can be a great sonic lifesaver that transforms limp, boring sounds into elements of vibe and ear-catching interest.
But using reverb is much like risking a blowfish repast. Eating a little can taste exotic, but too much of the wrong stuff can kill you. Likewise, overuse of reverb can kill your mix by making it sound muddy, washy, and undefined. Reverb needs to be used tastefully, judiciously, and, most of all, playfully.
Obviously, personal choice is a huge factor in what is a “good” or “bad” use of reverb, but there are some pretty reasonable rules of thumb regarding the effect if you want your mixes to sound professional. For example, nothing says “newbie” like a nice vocal performance completely drenched in reverb. You may think the massive reverb covers up a few little vocal flaws, but the reverb tsunami may also be washing away the clarity and impact of the overall mix.
So if you’re feeling a bit unsure of your reverb levels and how they affect the other elements of the mix, here are some tips for turning down the spigot. You can always apply more reverb if you feel the subtle approach isn’t thrilling enough, but these suggestions should, at least, help you identify what “too much” is before you go overboard.
Subtle Is Sweet
If your ear is immediately drawn to the reverb effect itself, you may have used too much. It’s unlikely every instrument in your production was played in a church hall, for example, so you should seek a reverb that matches the environment of your mix. In other words, if your drums were recorded in a dry space, but the snare reverb you choose is bigger than the Grand Canyon, the snare is going to sound as if it was recorded in an entirely different universe than the kick, toms, and cymbals. (Whether that’s a good thing or not, is up to you, but just be aware that some listeners may think it sounds weird.) One option is using just enough reverb that you don’t even notice it unless it’s not there. Dial in an ambient environment that doesn’t call attention to itself, and then take a reasonable break. When you listen back to the mix, mute the reverb at some point and see if the soundstage collapses a bit. If not, you may have crafted a near-perfect dry mix that doesn’t need reverb at all, or your reverb levels are too subtle. If the soundstage does turn rather dull and grey, then your reverb choices and reverb levels are probably right on the money.
It’s Not Just the Size, It’s the Decay
If you want a fairly ambient environment, don’t automatically assume that a large reverb is the right tool for the job. Depending on the application, a small reverb with a long tail can sometimes sound better than a large reverb with a short tail. The “takeaway” here is not to default to assumptions or past experience. Experiment with different reverb options to make sure you’ve selected the best reverb for the track you’re working on now.
Avoid Frequency Gumbo
A dark-sounding instrument combined with a dark reverb can end up sounding like mud. A bright instrument mated with a bright reverb can punish your listener’s ears. Solo your source sound along with the reverb you’re auditioning to ensure unwanted frequencies aren’t accentuated. If so, pick another reverb, or use EQ to tweak the tone of the source sound— or the reverb—so that the two timbres are different. After all, you don’t want the reverb and the source sound fighting each other for EQ space.
Long Tails Get Caught Under Rocking Chairs
A long reverb tail (or decay) can step all over itself. For example, if the reverb tail on a snare hit is still decaying when the next snare hit occurs, the reverbs will overlap—which sometimes causes a ringy feedback that can wreck havoc in the mix. Using a noise gate to trim the reverb tail may seem like you’ve taken a trip back to the 1980s, but you’re just using the gate to ensure the reverb is done before the next attack, rather than making the “gated reverb” itself a prominent feature of the mix. If you don’t use gates, fading the reverb down via mix automation and/or setting a much shorter decay time can keep the effect from gumming up the works.
Watch Your Inputs
Sometimes, it’s the simple and dumb things that kill you—like not watching your input levels to the reverb processor. Depending on the reverb box (or plug-in), a little bit of input overload can mean nothing, or it can add a nasty frizzle to your reverb sound. Don’t let input distortion rob your reverbs of all the clean, shimmering sweetness they deserve. Watch those levels. If they’re kissing the red, solo the reverb so you can confirm the sound is pristine. Bring down the input level if it’s overcooking the reverb or adding any disagreeable artifacts.