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As with all processing, genre needs to be considered when adding reverb to the various elements a mix. What’s appropriate in one style of music is not always appropriate in another, and if you pile on heaps of ‘verb without making this distinction, your mix is likely to suffer as a result. For this reason, I’ll provide you with six tips for choosing the appropriate reverb for your chosen genre.
When I was struggling to come up with music for my first-ever commercial job, a colleague of mine provided me with a great piece of advice: “don’t be afraid to make something that is very similar to the reference.” This colleague, who had far more experience than me, wasn’t advising I rip off the reference track I was given by the client, but rather tease out what made the reference great and use these variables as a blueprint. Tempo, timbre, and instrument choice are all major considerations here; so is reverb.
Before going all out with reverb and tweaking parameters, pull up some genre-specific references and study them closely. Are the reverbs natural-sounding? Are they long or short? How many instruments are being processed? Once you answer these questions, you will have a much easier time mixing with reverb for genre-specific projects, something common throughout music production history.
Though something of an oversimplification, we can divide reverb types into two main categories: those that emulate real-world spaces and those that do not.
If you mix music that falls into the former category, try using a single, natural-sounding reverb bus for all the sounds in your mix—a great option is Exponential Audio’s NIMBUS. Pull the bus level down, then push it back up gently until you get the warmth and glue you need. This allows you to more effectively establish a distinct space and protect the delicate balance that multiple conflicting plug-ins would destroy. If you find this setup too restrictive, create separate busses for separate instruments using the same ‘verb, then tailor the parameters ever so slightly to better serve their needs.
This is a common approach in jazz and folk, where musicians play their (mostly acoustic) instruments live together in a studio space. In these genres, reverb is not some blown out effect that swirls around and dazzles. Instead, it is used to bring a cohesiveness that reinforces the feel and recording space of the music.
To maintain the intimacy of smaller studio spaces, a room reverb with short times will make the instruments sound as though they were played right in front of you. For the expensive, sleek sound that comes from recording in a large space, use a hall or church setting.
While I don’t have an entire mix to work with, I’ll illustrate some of the points discussed here on an acoustic guitar track. The first part of the audio clip is just the dry signal. The second part has a short slap (courtesy of Exponential Audio’s NIMBUS) that adds depth and pleasant warmth. My ears tell me it suits the bluesy, intimate tone of the guitar, and though it’s more felt than heard, you’d miss it if you went back to the dry version.
A larger church verb is processing the third guitar. It's still a relatively light setting, but I find it takes the guitar just out of smaller space it’s supposed to be heard in and we start to lose some of the intricate details of the signal.
In pop and other genres that thrive in the digital age, there are few musical aspects that sound even remotely natural, reverb included. Vocalists don’t sound like they’re singing in basements but on top of the tallest buildings.
In these genres, reverb is less of a tool that emphasizes space and more a method of enhancing and manipulating the sounds in a mix in a creative way. After all, this is the music that gets played in busy clubs and loud cars, so we mixers and producers need to use everything at our disposal—within reason, of course—to capture and maintain our listener’s attention.
When mixing EDM, for example, a four-bar drum loop might have a bit of reverb on every second snare hit, and a bigger splash on the fourth hit to keep otherwise repetitive loops interesting. Little bits of ear candy like this is useful in all manner of drums sounds. On simple chord progressions that are great to dance to, but somewhat generic, try a flashy reverse reverb to spice things up. And if the mix features a sparse section with only melodic notes, why not turn up the decay time on a lush reverb to fill out the empty space?
You don’t need to recreate a natural studio environment here; you need to keep people dancing and singing along.
Whether you use simple stock plug-ins or busier algorithmic interfaces, taking the time to learn the parameters on your reverbs has its advantages. A great way to do this is through presets. The more you know, the more control you’ll be able to exercise over the feeling it brings to your music.
This holds particular importance if you are unfamiliar with the music you’re mixing. You may know how to get indie rock or bedroom pop to sound pleasantly airy, but what happens when a client decides to go in a new direction and presents an EP of dark, synth-heavy songs? How do you help them realize their intention now?
There’s nothing wrong with sifting through presets to find something that clicks, but this won’t teach you much about a reverb’s intricacies. And without a sufficient understanding of the plug-ins in your arsenal, you might have to settle for less-than-ideal results or spend a lot of time getting something worthwhile.
Effects for mixers are like instruments for musicians, so take an afternoon now and then to try out your favorite reverbs on a variety of material, saving settings (or favoriting in NIMBUS) that might help you later on.
With the tooltips feature enabled in Nimbus or R4, you can see what each knob is responsible for when you hover your mouse over it. Go from making subtle to drastic moves on the parameters you want to know more about and listen for the changes in the signal. This is one way to get familiar with your reverb.
Save for the rare successful throwback band, most modern pop music seems to be gravitating toward shorter decay times and subtler reverbs compared to a couple of decades ago.
Maybe it's because there are more tools to choose from and less of a need to use reverb to cover up mistakes. Maybe it's due to the popularity of hip-hop and the typically tight vocals in the genre. It could partly be down to the way we listen to music too; the perception of spatial sound on a proper stereo system is not nearly as impressive on earbuds, and in-your-face songs do a better job at jumping through laptop speakers than reverberant ones, which kind of just smear.
Reverb is still used, just with a certain sophistication in the way its executed, largely facilitated by mix automation. Why slap a guitar track with a single uncontrolled preset, when you can automate the pre-delay to emphasize specific notes? Why use a static reverb for the vocal when you can get more mileage out of well-timed throws? Why leave verse to chorus transitions subtle, when you can increase, then abruptly cut sends for drama? I don’t mention all this to flex some kind of technical mastery; I want you to know that automation is your ticket to enhance the musicality of a mix.
As an example, listen to the before and after reverb for the following chord sequence. In the wet version, you’ll notice a swirling sound in the reverb—this is because the output frequencies of the verb (R4) are being automated up and down the spectrum. It brings a lot of energy and pop feel to an otherwise simple loop.
While you can’t use every trick on every mix, modern pop music is made to sound equal parts calculated and over-the-top. For this reason, automation is your best friend.
Reverb is a key ingredient in nearly all music, but it's an easy effect to overcook. So, how do reverb-heavy genres like dub and shoegaze manage to sound coherent? What are producers and engineers doing to control the chaos?
There are many tricks, outlined in this article, like using EQ to sculpt the tone and weight of reverb, as well as compressing tails to avoid masking. One thing I didn’t dwell on, however, was the use reverb at just the crucial moments.
If you listen closely to this dub tune by The Scientist, you will find the drums and bass are quite dry. It's only the snare and rhythm guitar stabs that have significant reverb, and the setting is changing often to keep us interested. Even in the dream pop world of the Cocteau Twins, the ethereal quality of their music comes only in part from reverb. A considerable amount of chorusing, delay and a singing style that is unintelligible influence the floating feeling you get from their songs too.
So if your client asks for something that has dreamy or spacey qualities, know that you can achieve this effect from just a few elements in the mix. You don’t need to blast the whole thing with reverb. Additionally, it may be that lighter doses of reverb, combined together with other processors, like delay, modulation, and EQ does the trick for your mix.
Originally, I planned to provide specific reverb tips for various popular genres of music. While this may have been what you wanted all along, I think these bits of advice prove equally valuable, since what is trendy in hip-hop today might be different tomorrow, and what I consider hip-hop might not even line up with your expectations.
Knowing what to do with reverb when mixing in unfamiliar territory, on the other hand, will always be useful. So if you feel out of your reverb comfort zone, return to these for a sense of focus and you will certainly find your place again.