Barring distortion, few effects are as essential to mixing guitars as reverb and delay. From reggae strokes to stadium rock epicness and blissful tape echo soundscapes, we’ve relied heavily on ambience processors to shape some of the most distinctive guitar sounds in contemporary music.
Learn to recreate these sounds with seven tips for using reverb and delay on guitars with Exponential Audio plug-ins.
1. Treat ambiences before and after
Early on, I never considered the option to effect reverbs and delays with further processing. Since I was self-taught—like many of you—I was simply stuck in my own ways. It was through using return channels in a mixing capacity that my eyes (and ears) were opened to a myriad of musical possibilities. I suspect many newcomers may not even realize they can treat ambiences with EQ, dynamics processors, and automation.
To manage the wide frequency range of guitars, subtractive EQ is essential to remove unnecessary lows and highs that will otherwise muck up the mix when amplified and spread around. EQ also has a creative capacity, like making a reverb output brighter or darker to match the tone of the song. To generate clean, natural-sounding guitar reverbs, Nimbus has three filters to control input frequency, early reflections, and reverb frequency.
In a particularly groovy tune, compressing reverb tails on a guitar track can enhance the rhythmic feel. You may also want to increase send levels to indicate the transition from verse to chorus or to emphasize a single note in a riff. For these last points, mix automation is your most reliable tool.
2. Delay, then reverb for classic emotion
Ask the internet whether reverb or delay should come first in your effects chain and you will get a flurry of responses, sometimes with detailed reasoning but often without. Really, it’s down to personal preference. The order of these effects produces different results, which lends to some songs better than others. Let’s start with delay into reverb:
In this scenario, reverb only processes the delay return, allowing for a satisfying set of repeats and a clean reverb that preserves the intelligibility of the original signal. This might be the ticket for those who want lush, rhythmic ambience (Tycho comes to mind) to linger long after a guitar note ends, or an emotional pop depth from a generic guitar pattern.
To demonstrate the latter, I dialed in a dotted eighth note delay with multi-effects unit Excalibur, then sent this signal to R4 for reverb. Like using salt to bring out flavour, this setup enhances the character already in the guitar signal for a better first impression.
A more conservative option is to start with a tight slapback echo and feed this into a modest reverb, which will add a pleasant room-like ambience. Raise and lower the sends of each to move through different spaces until your find the right one for your guitar.
3. Reverb, then delay for atmosphere
Send reverb into delay for a more atmospheric sound that moves away from traditional guitar timbres. This configuration is ideal if you want to layer guitars into synth-like pads or need to fill out the empty space in your mix with airy soundscapes.
To achieve a mellow reverb, make the attack time as slow as possible. If you’re still at the recording stage, you might want to use your guitar’s volume knobs to achieve some of this movement naturally, at the same time eliminating the clicks and slides that come from touching strings. Automating level fades or using something like Transient Shaper in your DAW to reduce the attack of your guitar (like I did here) can give you a similar feel.
4. Use reverb pre-delay for perceived distance
Guitar reverb is primarily used to create a sense of space. To expand the perceived size of a space, a newcomer might turn up the dry/wet of a reverb. But this is just washing away more of the original signal and, in many cases, muddying up the mix.
If you want to give the impression of a larger room, increase the pre-delay on a reverb, which determines the amount of time before the early reflections are heard following the dry signal. Let’s listen to a few audio examples below to compare—the first has no pre-delay, the second has 80 ms, the third has 600 ms, and the fourth has 1000 ms.
With a slight delay in the onset of reverb, the second clip gives us a better impression of a recording space than the first. In the third and fourth examples, there is a more obvious lag between guitar and reverb, which is useful for another reason. Though you rarely want total separation, leaving some time between the dry signal and its ‘verbed copy allows us to get that spacious and warm feel while preserving the clarity of the original.
5. Pan sends for cohesion
Ignoring the pan dials on your reverb buss is one of the fastest ways to wreck an otherwise solid guitar mix. But where do you pan guitar reverb? There are no hard and fast rules here. Grammy-nominated mixer Greg Wurth (Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, Mary J Blige) prefers to pan sends in the same location as the guitar, whereas other engineers might pan ambience effects around guitars.
To keep the middle of the mix open for vocals and other lead elements, many rock songs keep guitars hard panned to the sides. Depending on the guitar sound, if you pan their reverbs to match, you may find the sides become too dense and distracting, especially with headphones on. So try this instead: pan reverb sends opposite the source, so the ‘verb processing the left channel is panned to the right and vice-versa.
You’ll lose that feeling of two different signals tugging at your ears and contribute a unique detail for attentive listeners to enjoy. The results get particularly interesting when the guitars exist in different frequency ranges. If you’re curious about panning, here are some tips on panning with intention.
6. Pitch modulations on delay
If you’re more focused on production than mixing, try out some guitar delays that integrate pitch modulation effects. Slightly shifting the pitch of repeats can impart a wobbly home recording charm, whereas more extreme settings tend to produce unexpected results that don’t sound much like guitars at all. There’s plenty to explore between these extremes as well.
Though I wouldn’t advise printing your guitar tracks with heavy effects, playing into a pitch-modulated delay will certainly help you come up with new ideas and sounds. Once you arrive at something you like, bypass the delay, record a DI version of your guitar, then turn the delay back on—this gives you the option to mix between the two signals later on.
To create these sounds, select a preset from the Pitch category in Excalibur or add a Vintage Shifter to a delay preset in the effects panel on the right.
7. Try a stereo delay instead of a reverb for space
When a guitar sounds too dry, we often reach for reverb to space it up. But this doesn’t always have the effect we want. Depending on the genre, the reverb tails might muddy the mix or get in the way of other instruments, especially if the tempo is high. Some styles of music, like punk, also favour a drier mix.
In these cases, use a tempo-synced stereo guitar delay that accentuates the groove. With different times on each side, you will find the repeats do a great job of providing the depth you originally sought out. Drop the delayed signal low in the mix so it is more a “feel” effect than an audible one.
With particularly short delay times, you can emulate the sound of room mic just as well as reverb. For many genres of rock that thrive on a “home-brewed” sound, this might be what you need to bring the listeners into the studio with you.
8. Use delay to connect the mix center to its sides
To widen a guitar signal, we might copy the track twice and pan each to the extremities of the mix. This is a good idea, but what about the space between the center and sides?
In a song intro where only an acoustic guitar is present, try filling in the open space with a heavily delayed duplicate that’s been autopanned (either with good ol’ fashioned automation or a DAW plug-in like Auto Pan) to move between the left and right channels. At low levels, this adds body and interest to the mix. Listen to the original, then processed version:
For the purpose of demonstration, the auto-panned signal is up a notch higher than I’d usually have it, but you should now be able to hear the ear candy this extra channel adds.
Bonus tip: Mix and match
If you struggle to find sensible reverb and delay presets for guitars, put the following tip into practice: contrast ambience types with the character of the performance. For example, if the guitar signal you’re working with has lots of personality and some room tone already in it, use a clean-sounding reverb (like Nimbus) to preserve the natural flavor. A less exciting signal will probably benefit from a more colorful gated delay or an unconventional reverse reverb.
Though there are many tips for using reverb and delay on guitars, the tips I outlined above will help you create classic sounds with your own unique spin. As you dive into delay and reverb, be sure to check out the articles below, which cover common reverb and delay mistakes and how to sidestep them.