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Again, here’s the phrase that has, by now, become boilerplate: if you find yourself guilty of any of these, don’t worry—so have I; so have we all. Also, keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. These represent only the most glaring misuses I’ve come across.
And now, without further ado, let’s get to it!
This is a rookie move that many of us outgrow quickly. Nevertheless, it bears repeating here: if you’re going to be processing every track in a group (say the drums, for example) don’t slap a reverb plug-in on each track. Instead, send each track to a bus and put the reverb there.
Why do we do this? Because slapping reverb on every track is the quickest way to overloading CPU and rendering your session unworkable.
It often seems as though the manufacturers of DAWs want us to fall into this trap, as they frequently put reverb in their track presets—which even seasoned pros might call upon when perusing soft-synth choices on the quick. If you work in this way, always check to see if there’s a reverb on that preset. Also, see if the sound can work without reverb, or, conversely, if the sound can be bussed to a reverb you’ve already set up. You’ll prolong the CPU headache for just that much longer.
Individual reverbs on every channel: mistake!
If ambiance needs to be glued to the sound, track-based reverb might actually be better. For years, I struggled with toms, as the raw tracks never sound quite like a record. I would set up a reverb on an aux and send the toms there. Still, the blend never felt right; it always sounded like a dry tom plus reverb—never a coherent, single sound.
One day, against the advice proffered above, I decided to put a Lexicon emulation directly on the toms themselves (I bussed them to their own group, putting the reverb on this bus as an insert). I worked with early reflections and a mix knob heavily favoring the dry signal. The result was much closer to what I wanted—and it took far less time to get there.
The lesson here is to recognize when the sound in your head would be better served by placing the reverb on a track. There is no hard and fast rule, but toms, background vocals, and sometimes the entire drum bus tend to get this treatment in my mixes.
A lot of times, I’ll see students hate the verb they’ve chosen, and then reach for an EQ to compensate. Don’t do that. Why? Because you’ll still working against the fundamental characteristic of the reverb.
Mixing, in its most pleasurable state, ought to feel more like a flow than a battle, so don’t make it hard for yourself in this initial stage. Instead, blast reverb loud and clear. Cycle through plugs, plates, and rooms till you find a character that fits. Then manipulate every parameter of the reverb till it sits as well as it can. Only after you’ve exhausted the plug-in’s tonal capabilities would I advise moving on to other processes.
Note that some reverbs have built-in options for EQ. Nectar's reverb filter, for example, lets you control the amount of low and high-frequency material that is sent through it. Some reverbs provide EQ options for the output stage. These EQs are designed specifically around the character of the reverb and maybe a better choice than adding a separate EQ plug-in.
Every reverb has its own parameters, some of which are intelligible to the common user, some of which require a very deep dive. Taking the time to learn your reverb plug-ins inevitably pays off, as you’ll wind up with a finer degree of control over the processor. Still, it’s a daunting enterprise—and I know this from experience: many are the reverbs whose interfaces I’ve given perhaps a passing glance. Even so, I delude myself into thinking I’m getting the most out of them!
Slapping a new reverb onto a sound and seeing what happens might be a way to force a creative choice. It may even work two times out of seven. But I maintain that it pays off to do a bit of homework: grab a guitar, a vocal, a mixed drum track, a snare, a synth part, and set them aside in their own session. When you have some free time, open that session, and take out your handy pen and paper (or open a text document if you’re so inclined). Spend an hour or so investigating your new reverb as you would a new instrument, learning its intricacies and taking notes as you do.
If there’s a common theme to my articles (other than note-taking), it’s this: engineers need to practice as much as musicians do. There is nothing wrong with setting aside time to hone new techniques on new pieces of gear. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself exercises and routines to ensure results. A track that exists solely for experimentation is a good thing to have on hand, and this use-case highlights why.
Let me also address inevitable questions regarding when to use a room, a plate, a chamber, a hall, or a spring-tank. Such qualifications are indeed important; if you’re in a new space with unfamiliar tools, knowledge of these classifications will give you your starting point. But once you’ve made your own personal connections with these archetypes, they are not nearly as important as understanding the specific processors in your arsenal. You might find, when you do so, that one brand’s plate gives you the same mileage as another company’s hall, even though they are not remotely the same. This will help you work more efficiently, and prepare you for situations where you’re in unfamiliar terrain.
Like EQ and compression, reverb is a tool many beginners slap on just because they think they should. But remember what reverb is supposed to do in the first place:
In its most conservative implementation, reverb communicates a sense of space and a feeling of depth. In its most liberal employment, ‘verb is meant to transport you to places you’ve never been.
The panacea for “slapping on reverb just ’cuz” is to take a moment, close your eyes, and ask yourself the following question: “Where am I trying to put this sound?” The answer could be “in a church.” The answer could also be “further back into the mix” or “the planet Zebulon.” These answers necessitate different approaches to reverberation. So always ask yourself the question!
This, of course, is my opinion, but I’m going to state it anyway: there’s no quicker way to make an unfocused hodgepodge than to use a ton of reverbs on a mix. Indeed, it can be quite self-defeating: as the reverbs bounce around each other, they do so in ways that don’t make sonic or contextual sense, and thus, give away the fake.
Remember what we just said: the goal of reverb is either to create a sense of ambiance, a feeling of depth, or a means of transport to an entirely new locale. When you’re using multiple reverbs of various densities and times, you are pulling listeners into multiple spaces at the same time; the brain can often feel such chicanery. You could also be destroying any chance at depth by slathering on heaps of refracting, reflecting mud.
This isn’t to say you should never use different reverbs in one track; variety, after all, is the spice of life. On a 90’s-style ballad, there’s nothing wrong with putting the toms in a room, the snare in a hall, and the singer in a cathedral. It’s when every single guitar gets their own individuated space—with no sense of a congruent picture—that the fakes start to spring up.
One hallmark of an inferior mix is reverb that announces itself too early, or sticks around for too long. An example would be an overly-reverberated drum-set entering a sparse mix, Ringo Starr style; if you piled heaps of uncontrolled reverb on these drums, they might not blend with their surrounding. They might even shock the listener. Such mistakes can make a mix sound cheap, and rather like a demo. If you remember that balance and context are key, you’ll be able to avoid this pitfall.
The practical tool for avoiding uncontrolled verb is automation. That snare fill entering the arrangement? Automate its send lower than you’d like and see if that actually makes the mix sound cleaner and feel less cheap. Once all the elements have been around for a while, you can up the send. That vocal verb lingering too long after the chorus? Automate its level down in concert with the chorus’s ending for a tight transition back into the next section. These moves go a long way.
Yes, we previously said not to EQ reverbs automatically—and that advice still stands. However, once a reverb is balanced, you very well should treat it further for a variety of reasons.
Your vocal verb might sound great before the drums come in, but once they enter, all that ambiance might be masking the snare. Here, EQ is your friend, particularly one that helps detect masking such as Neutron. Similarly, if the sound is good, but still too pristine, a tape emulation could add some pleasant harmonic distortion to temper the clarity. Nectar includes options for saturation and other effects that can all be placed after the reverb in your signal chain!
If your vocal reverb sounds great in solo, but gets washed out in the mix, it might pay to duplicate the verb, change the timing ever so slightly on the duplicate, send your vocal to both reverbs, pan one hard right, and knock the other hard left. You’ll still have a unified sense of space because the verbs are almost the same. However, the middle will feel more clear, and the vocal will pop through more.
There’s a panoply of possibilities—and it's on you to experiment, within reason of course.
When creating an ambiance, we must always stop to think about what it’s appropriate. If we fail to do so, we can get ourselves into some annoying spots. Some of these annoying spots are better served with delay, and here’s an example:
Say we have a tight-sounding, fast punk record on our hands. Still, the drums feel too dry. The inclination is to put reverb on the drums, right?
Okay, sure. But what often happens in this scenario? No matter what you do, the reverb just doesn’t suit the timbre of the punk record. The tails of all those drum hits only muddy the waters, or worse, change the nature of the genre.
If this has happened to you, then perhaps delay was what you were looking for all along—delay that can be felt rather than heard.
The following is an oldie but a goodie, and I like it particularly for drums: put a stereo delay on a bus and sync its tempo to the track. Send your drums to this bus. Use subdivisions on the left and right side to create a rhythm that accentuates the groove of what’s happening on the drums. Now drop this delay down into the mix. Drop it down further. Are you done yet? No: drop it even further. It should be so low that when it’s in, you don’t hear it, but when it’s out, the track feels less vibrant. This might be all the ambiance you need. This tip works well with pianos and guitars as well.
As we said in the introduction, this is not a complete list. There are many stumbling blocks on the road to good reverb, and listing them all would take more space than we have, and more time than you’re willing spend reading (you’ve got mixing to do!).
I’ll leave you with this bit of advice, because I believe it’ll help: nearly every reverb mistake shares a common hallmark—a singular tell that gives away the problem. That hallmark is an indistinct and muddy soundstage, robbed of depth, and often quite cloudy in timbre.
If you hear anything like that in your mix, a good place to start troubleshooting is in your effects chain. Start muting your reverbs, and see if things get better (this is even easier if you route all your effects to one dedicated aux track). Then, start introducing your effects back into the mix one by one. Once you hear the offender, look to the mistakes above and see if the problem pertains. Even if it doesn’t—even if you’ve managed to create yourself an entirely new fiasco—thinking critically about your reverb choices in the manner laid out about will help you out of the jam. You’ll find your head won’t be swimming as much, and neither will your mix.