Essential Tips for Using Reverb on Vocals
Reverb is a common effect for vocals, but can often cause masking issues. In this article, we discuss how to add vocal reverb while maintaining vocal clarity.
The vocal is often the most important element in a track and the presence you hear is a result of vocal mixing techniques used to make a vocal sound professional. Listen to any professionally made song, and focus on the vocals. Do you hear how present they are? How cleanly they cut through the mix?
Reverb is a common effect used on vocals but can sometimes harm the clarity of the mix if used the wrong way. In this article, we’ll discuss steps you can take to get the benefits of reverb without the drawbacks.
We will be covering vocal reverb techniques using iZotope
We will be applying reverb techniques with some audio examples from Florence Wiley’s latest record I mixed, titled My Next New Low.
Looking for even more ways to use reverb on vocals? Watch as Brian Fisher shares how to use
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Why use vocal reverb?
Vocal reverb adds audible space, distance, and dimension to a vocal, whereas a vocal without reverb sounds like it’s in a void. Reverb sounds great on vocals because it smears a vocal with reflections, masking subtle imperfections in a performance. It also simulates reflections and resonances our ears expect when hearing sound; it's an acoustic phenomenon that provides cues about the position of sounds in our environment. Let’s listen to a vocal with and without reverb, for context.
Vocals Before & After Reverb
Can you hear the difference? A good sounding vocal can be made better with some extra smoothness and richness from the reverb. The decay makes the voice sound like it’s singing into a space, even though it was recorded in an apartment living room. More often than not, we are using artificial reverb to create a sense of space—placing the listener in a new environment from which they hear a composition.
How much reverb on vocals?
The amount of reverb on vocals depends largely on genre, how much ambience you want, and whether the reverb is masking other elements in your mix. Keep in mind that reverb pushes vocals further back in the stereo image and introduces sound reflections into the mix that can mask other sounds, including your vocals.
Can you have too much reverb vocals?
If your vocals start losing clarity, sound too distant, or are masking other elements in your mix, then you may have too much reverb on your vocals. If you're still wondering whether you have too vocal reverb, try comparing them to a reference track in your genre. How much vocal reverb are your favorite songs using in comparison to yours?
How to use reverb on vocals
What are the best vocal reverb settings? Typically, you want to set a 100% wet reverb on an aux channel using a reverb type that works for your song, a pre-delay time that allows the dry vocal to cut through, and decay time that aligns with your song's tempo. You then want to raise the level of the reverb aux channel to taste, EQing out frequencies that mask the main vocal. Let's dive into the details:
1. Add vocal reverb on an aux channel
While you can add reverb directly on vocals as an insert effect, the recommended method is to add reverb on an aux channel and route the vocals there for mix bus processing. Sending the vocals to an aux channel is the recommended method for adding reverb to vocals because it allows you to process the wet and dry signal separately, giving you greater control of the mix.
With reverb, you’re essentially adding another signal to the mix, like if you added another instrument. Therefore, reverb should be treated as its own element, and you should have the ability to process and affect it as such. Doing so allows you to treat the reverb signal as its own distinct element in the mix. This technique is called mix bus processing and we have a whole tutorial on it if you want to dive in.
To do add reverb on an aux track, make a new aux/bus track with a 100% wet instance of Neoverb, and send your dry vocal channel to that effects bus channel. This gives the reverb it's own fader. Then simply raise the level to taste. This is what it looks like in Pro Tools:
I rarely insert a reverb directly on a vocal—perhaps as a quick placeholder, or maybe when I’m really dedicating myself to a very wet and affected signal with perhaps even more processing. Utilizing a send and return will give you much more level control for balancing, and for automating your vocal and its corresponding reverb.
2. Choose a reverb type for vocals that works for the mix
What reverb type is best for vocals? You can use any kind of reverb for vocals, but depending on the intended effect, certain reverb types might work best with the mix and the vibe you're going for. For instance, use the brightness of plate reverb to help vocals cut through a busy mix, room reverb for vocals to sound close and intimate, or hall reverb for dreamy or large sounding vocals.
Let's take a look at some different spaces in Neoverb and why you might use them for your vocals.
Plate: A classic go-to for vocal reverb. Easy to make noticeable in a mix due to its often bright but smooth character with a bit of natural modulation. It’s metallic attack gives it a bit of extra pop that can be good or bad if you’re wanting it to blend in more.
Hall: Simulating a concert hall, it performs well with long tails because of its smooth decay and low modulation. A good choice if you want to make something sound at a distance, dreamy, or epic.
Room: This type of reverb creates spaces that often sound natural to the walls of the “room” you’re simulating. Given that room reverb creates the perception of a smaller space, room reverb is best for a vocal sound that is upfront, close, or intimate. If you’re just trying to find a “space” for your vocal, this might be a good starting point. Try using a very short length room when you want to add width and depth without adding a noticeable reverb trail.
Chamber: One of the earliest styles of artificial reverb, created by placing a speaker and microphone in a room capturing the characteristics of the room's exaggerated reflections by playing the audio back into the room. Oftentimes the chamber has an “echo-y” effect that places it somewhere in between the aforementioned reverb types.
If you’re still feeling stuck on deciding between reverb types, try some presets, or use Neoverb's Reverb Assistant and follow the prompts to help find something that suits your needs.
How many reverbs on vocals?
Reverb is meant to create the effect of physical space. Having a too many reverbs and different spaces makes it tough to identify what the “real” space is in your track’s environment. Minimizing the number of reverb spaces sounds much more natural, as the acoustic effects of multiple spaces would not occur simultaneously in the real world.
If you have multiple vocals in the same project (i.e. background vocals), it can be helpful to send them all to one reverb space. This prevents the sound of multiple spaces clashing with each other, maintaining a consistent space in which all of the vocals are played.
Using Neoverb’s blend pad, you can even combine different kinds of reverb to create the space you’d like your vocals to live in instead of blending multiple reverb plug-ins.
3. EQ the vocal reverb signal
As mentioned previously, reverb should be treated as its own instrument because it adds frequencies to the mix that can potentially prevent other sounds from being heard clearly. In this case, vocal reverb can mask the vocals themselves, making them feel less prominent and clear.
Now that our reverb signal is isolated in it's own aux channel, we can process it in several ways to let the dry vocal cut through the reverb more clearly. One common technique is to use EQ to attenuate key vocal frequencies from the reverb so it doesn't mask the dry vocal.
EQ is great for overall bright to dark tone shaping, but it’s also crucial for cutting unwanted conflicting and swelling frequencies between your dry vocal and reverb.
Neoverb EQ: Masking meter
Try using the masking meter in Neoverb's EQ section to easily keep track of reverb build-up with an intuitive meter that highlights areas you may want to cut from your reverb. Masking Meter also communicates with other iZotope plug-ins (via Inter-Plugin Communication) to show you where your reverb is masking other tracks in your session.
Neoverb has both a Pre EQ for cutting out sound before it gets to the reverb (try putting in a high pass filter from 100-200hz to cut out plosives and rumble), and Reverb EQ that helps keep your reverb clean and under control at the bottom of the window.
For starters, watch out for low frequencies, low mids between 200-600hz, as well as high frequencies spiked by vocal sibilance.
Here’s a before and after of an isolated vocal I cleared up with some low and high shelf EQ:
Vocal Reverb Before & After EQ
Just east of space, time and size, you’ll find some more advanced tonal controls that will be helpful in dialing in your vocal tone. I’ll highlight a couple important ones.
Diffusion is how dense the reflections of the reverb is —a higher value will make the reverb sound thicker, and a lower value will make individual reflections stick out.
The Crossover slider controls the dividing frequency between low and high-frequency reverb engines, and the Balance graphic allows you to set which is more prominent, with 0.5 being equal.
4. Adjust vocal reverb length to fit your song's tempo
The length of your vocal reverb is the most noticable characteristic and it should align with your song's tempo. Try a shorter decay time to avoid reverb bleeding into the next vocal phrase or downbeat. If the vocal reverb lingers for too long, it can build up and cause vocals to feel less prominent in the mix. You can adjust the length of your vocal reverb with the Time parameter (also called decay time).
Longer reverb decay times will be more atmospheric and create the perception of a larger space while shorter decay times will create the perception of a smaller room. You can dial in the reverb's decay by ear, with a reverb calculator, or use Neoverb's tempo sync feature to automatically align the decay time to your song's BPM.
Another vocal reverb setting to pay attention to is the Pre-delay parameter. Reverb pre-delay refers to the time it takes for the reverb to kick in after the onset of the original dry signal. Carefully adjusting the pre-delay parameter makes a huge difference in the “clarity” of a mix. For example, a delaying the reverb signal before it engages can give the vocal space and time to cut through the mix before the reverb tail comes in.
To put it all together, check out this next example. I’m working on a dramatic verse that has long spaces between the vocals. I’m going to let the reverb decay just about until the next phrase starts to really let each line hang. I’ve also decided to add 20ms of pre-delay to help the reverb separate slightly from the dry vocal.
Here’s a stripped down version of my mix to illustrate.
Stripped Down Mix with Reverb Decay on Vocals
Selecting the rhythm note next to the time on Neoverb can also be useful to time your reverb to the track. Experiment with different options depending on the mood and space you’re going for.
5. Decide: mono or stereo reverb on vocals?
Whether you use mono or stereo reverb on vocals depends on how much space you want the vocals to take up and where you want them positioned in the mix. Use a mono reverb on vocals if you want them to be upfront and focused. But if you want the vocals to sound large or like they're in the background, use a stereo reverb.
A tip I often share with folks is to experiment with panning your reverb. For a lead vocal, I’m almost always tucking in the stereo image in to 75-50% to keep it wide but also more focused towards the center. A completely mono vocal reverb can also be cool for a retro vibe, or just for creating a lot of useful negative space in your mix.
6. Add high pass filter on background vocal reverb
A lot of ooo’s, aah’s, and vocal harmonies are almost sung with the intent to put reverb on them–they’re asking for sustain! And sometimes, a lot of it. That vocal stack might sound pretty cool with a lot of long plate or hall to give it an ethereal, dreamy, and larger than life quality.
If I’m sending lots of background vocals to a reverb, I’ll high pass the reverb substantially to remove frequencies that may mask the main vocal and make them sound nice and airy.
Let’s check out how that sounds in another stripped down version of my mix.
Background Vocals with Reverb
Start using reverb on your vocals
Adding reverb to vocals can be an interesting effect and help create a convincing sonic environment in a track. Using the above tips, you should be able to take advantage of these benefits while maintaining the clarity and presence that a vocal should have.
And if you haven’t already, demo iZotope Neoverb for free to experiment with all of the different reverb effects on your vocals.