In a session, it’s common parlance that you shouldn’t load up all your tracks with reverb, because doing so can turn your mix into a muddy, CPU-hogging mess. This is great advice, and we should generally adhere to it—but not at the expense of creating a dull, lifeless product.
Yes, multiple reverbs can be employed in one mix, and now we’re going to take a look at various situations where multiple reverbs in one mix might just be the ticket.
1. A duplicate reverb for a vocal
Oftentimes when mixing music we’re presented with the problem of how to “clear out the middle” for a lead vocal’s reverb. We might want the reverb to have a warm sound, a sizeable stereo feel, and not to interfere with the lead vocal’s centered presence. One way to accomplish this is by using multiple reverbs—multiple in that there will be two of them, but almost identical.
Here’s how the setup works: send your vocal to an aux track, and set up a stereo reverb as you normally would. When you get it how you like, pan the input of the reverb hard left. Don’t pan the reverb itself hard left—we do want a little crossover into the right channel here. Instead, pan the input itself, which you can do with a utility plug-in in your DAW, or with something like iZotope’s Visual Mixer.
Now, set up a second auxiliary channel and copy everything over—the panning agent, the reverb—but this time, move the vocal hard right. In this duplicated channel, change something about the reverb ever so slightly—maybe the decay, maybe the amount of diffusion. Something should be just different enough for the sake of variety, but only subtly so.
For a final bit of excitement, take the channel outputs of both reverbs—the hard left and hard right verb—and run a tape-emulation of some kind in a gentle manner. Here you can use Ozone or Neutron’s Exciter, or even something like Trash 2 at subtle settings. This last bit of processing is meant to cohere the reverb and suffuse it with a bit of mojo, for lack of a better word.
The result should be a reverb that stays out of the vocal’s way, yet sounds like a traditional stereo reverb. Alternatively, you could set up a normal reverb and duck the center midrange down with a dynamic EQ in M/S mode, curtailing the mids whenever the vocal sings, but often this sounds less natural.
2. Dedicated Reverbs for Different Drums
In many situations, you may want a different reverb for the snare than you’d have for the rest of the drum kit. We’re talking about a reverb melded to the very sound of the drum, becoming one with it, allowing it to cut through the mix more.
In this situation, you can send the snare to its own auxiliary channel and put on an appropriate reverb. For an added bonus, you can try the following technique: take the bottom snare mic, feed that to an auxiliary channel, delay this auxiliary channel by 7–21 milliseconds, feed the delayed aux into a reverb bus, and mix the original snare into this final, reverberated bus. The delayed, high-frequency slap of the bottom snare will help the overall sound crack a bit more.
If creating a dedicated reverb holds water for snare drums, then it holds buckets of water for toms. I don’t know about you, but I frequently need an individual tom verb to spice up the sound of those dry, close mics. Here I may send the outputs of all the toms to their own submix and apply a reverb directly on that bus, with plenty of early reflections, some tamped-down late reflections, and a mix on the drier side (10% and below). This reverb will usually differ from my drum reverb, which has its own treatment described in the next section…
3. Dedicated Drum Bus Reverb
Naturalistic drums are a complicated instrument to reproduce in a mix: that huge, room-filling sound starts with a great capture, sure, but it must be tailored to the vibe of the mix. Usually, this requires calling fourth drum conventions of a given era (gated toms anyone?) as well as approximations of a desired environment. These require different uses of reverb, and thus, multiple reverbs.
The snare and the toms are pieces of this puzzle, but frequently I employ a trick I pulled from Jayme Silverstein (whom I interviewed in this article). The trick involves applying reverb directly to the drum bus—not as an auxiliary channel, but married to the sound itself, imprinted on the timbre.
As with the toms, early reflections are favored, late reflections are tucked down, but here I set very conservative mix ratios of about 3–5%, and frequently lower! The secret here lies in finding the appropriate reverb. It can be quite hard to do, but it’s worth it.
The combination of multiple reverbs on a single drum kit, explained in these two tips, anchor the sound in a realistic way. In a drum set, different elements trigger unique responses from their environment, because they have unique sonic signatures.
You’d think a single reverb would accomplish a sonic congruity, because a drum set is played in a single space, but often a lone digital verb creates a uniformity that feels fake, a wash that heralds the use of artificial reverberation. You see, in mixing, we are engaged in a verisimilitude—in using trickery to recreate reality.
Think of it like effectual Foley: A naturalistic film shouldn’t need recreated footsteps, but it does, if it wants to sound natural. The same principle frequently applies to using multiple reverbs on drums.
4. Reverb as sound design architecture
Sometimes a reverb is necessary to establish the foreground of a sound. It’s the signature of that element. I’m thinking here of an electric guitar, whose spring tank or octavized shimmer indicates its genre. I’m also considering synthetic elements that use early reflections to beef up their character. These kinds of reverbs are often short, frequently mono, and are always used to denote character.
They can be lo-fi, spring, or plate emulations, but in general, it’s better to think of them as part of the initial sound—as elements to be mixed, rather than mixing devices for the big picture. Thus, even a mix with a dedicated reverb for tying many elements together may still require separate reverbs to sweeten the authenticity of their individual elements. Keep this in mind when you have a guitar, a piano, or a synth that just isn’t playing right.
Duets among vocalists or instrumentalists are handled on a case by case basis, sure. But songs often call for different reverbs on different vocalists.
For one, there’s the issue of unique timbres: one vocalist might harbor a nasal overtone that doesn’t flatter the reverb of the other. There’s also the matter of changing up the vibe of a song for a specific section; if a feature vocalist is taking over the bridge, it’s entirely reasonable to utilize a different reverb for the sake of establishing a new, emotional headspace for the song.
Indeed, never forget that a mix is an emotional journey, and to that end, multiple reverbs for multiple vocalists can help the gestalt. This brings us to our third point:
Depending on the subject matter of a song, a duet may require different reverbs to tell the story. If our two main characters aren’t in the same physical (or emotional) location, and we want to depict their mutual isolation, different reverbs establishing different locales can be a good shorthand for that effect.
Talking about character leads me into our next scenario:
6. Post Production
You’d think that in any given scene, you’d only need one bit of ambiance, right? Say it’s two people in a room—you’d only need the sound of one room, correct?
Perhaps not. What about the sounds outside the scene? The construction in the background behind the plate glass window? The cat moving around the kitchen? These are the elements which establish the reality of the scene, and just as we mentioned before, realities require verisimilitude to translate to the medium of mixed sound.
So don’t be surprised if you need to use multiple reverbs in post-production scenarios.
As with many of my closing salvos, I’m going to make a plea for context and balance in all that you do. These tips exist to serve a purpose—to impart an emotional journey upon your mix, one that better serves the material. If that goal is subverted by any of the tips above, then abandon the tip, and do so posthaste! But if any of the situations listed above are found in the objectives of your project, then it’s worth giving them a go for a layered, emotionally satisfying mix.