Learn How to Space Out

Hard-panning tracks makes a mix sound wider, but not deeper. If you want your mix to sound three-dimensional, you’ve got to add reverb (or its kissing cousin, delay).
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BY MICHAEL COOPER

Hard-panning tracks makes a mix sound wider, but not deeper. If you want your mix to sound three-dimensional, you’ve got to add reverb (or its kissing cousin, delay). Here are six tips for creating a sense of space.

Tailor the Tail
Generally speaking, fast song tempos require short reverb tails. A long decay might work great on, say, one guitar track, but lots of tracks ringing forever will ruin a fast-paced groove. Conversely, the more spaces you have between the notes of a slow ballad, the more time you have for long reverbs to decay without mucking things up.

Diffuse the Situation
Percussive tracks such as trap drums usually sound the tightest when run through a plate reverb; that’s because plates are very dense and not inherently echoey. If your plate reverb has a diffusion control, cranking it higher will make your traps sound even tighter. Low diffusion results in discrete echoes being voiced within the reverb; the additional pitter-patter will rarely, if ever, be in time with your song’s tempo subdivisions and will be no friend to a tight groove.

You can get away with using reverbs that sport low diffusion, such as hall and cathedral algorithms, on drums playing at slower tempos. But step up to the plate (reverb) when you’re pushing the accelerator pedal.

Don’t Be Late
Sometimes the best strategy is to completely mute the reverb tail. What remains of the reverb are so-called early reflections. In a real hall, these are the relatively few discrete echoes that bounce off the walls, floor, and ceiling to arrive back at the listener’s position before and just as the reverb tail commences. The reverb tail, or late reflections, is composed of hundreds or thousands of late-arriving echoes spaced so closely together that none of them can be discerned separately.

If your production sounds overly dry but reverb just makes it sound too ghosty, try killing the reverb tail and using only the early reflections. Several reverb plug-ins—2CAudio Aether, Waves TrueVerb and Renaissance Reverb, and Lexicon PCM and LXP Native Reverb bundles—allow you to completely bypass late reflections. The remaining early reflections produce a fat automatic-double-tracking (ADT) effect that sounds awesome on melody tracks, such as vocals and guitar solos.

Enjoy the Ride
Keeping the reverb at the same level throughout your song isn’t always a great idea. You might need to ride the level lower during sparsely arranged intros and mid-song breakdowns, where the reverb is competing with fewer instruments and could become overbearing. Once all the other instruments and vocals pile on, however, they’ll mask the effect of any reverb in the mix; you may need to ride the reverb level higher in those busier sections to make sure it’s still heard as much as you’d like.

Become a Panhandler
Who says a reverb’s stereo outputs always need to be panned hard-left and hard-right? Boring! Try this instead: Pan your guitar, for example, hard left, and bus it to a reverb panned toward the right. Specifically, pan the reverb’s right-channel output all the way to the right and its left-channel output closer to center. That’ll give the reverb a nice stereo spread but keep its image skewed mostly to the right and opposite the guitar’s dry signal.

The effect is striking and suggests to the listener’s brain that the guitarist is playing in a vacuum on the left side and projecting his sound into a reverberant space on the right. A side benefit is that the dry left side of the mix can now better accommodate additional effects for vocals or other instruments without swimming in soup.

Hit the Wall
Increasing the reverb decay time doesn’t necessarily make the virtual space sound farther away. It just makes it sound bigger. Let’s make your guitar track bounce off a far-away canyon wall!

Bus a feed of your guitar track to an aux channel (that is, a mixer channel with no recorded audio). On the aux channel, program a delay timed to a quarter- or eighth-note for your song’s tempo. Route the aux track’s bus send pre-fader to a second aux channel, and raise the send’s level until you see a healthy level register on the second aux channel’s meters. Now lower the first aux channel’s fader all the way. (The levels should remain the same on the second aux channel’s meters because it’s getting its signal pre-fader.) Slap a long reverb on the second aux track, and roll off all high frequencies above roughly 10kHz. Bingo, you’re in the Grand Canyon!