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? And in some extreme cases, just how loud they are?
The vocal is often (nearly always) the most important element in a track. The presence that you hear in a professional vocal helps the listener understand the lyrics and connect with the song. This human element is accessible to the listener and should be clear to hear.
Reverb is a common technique for affecting vocals, but can cause sometimes prevent this necessary vocal clarity. In this article, we’ll discuss some ways to apply reverb to vocals in a way that allows them to still cut through the mix.
For demonstration purposes, we’ll be using this short track and these vocals:
Using return channels
When I began producing music, I often approached reverb as if it were just an effect applied to a sound, as you would with processors like compressors or distortion units. However, with reverb, you’re essentially adding another signal into your 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.
Chances are that you already use return channels when adding reverb, but doing so is especially important when working with vocals.
The vocal in your track should clearly cut through its associated reverb, which is much more difficult to achieve when using reverb as an insert effect. With only one channel for both the dry vocal and reverb, we cannot easily affect each so that they play well together.
Using a return channel for reverb allows you to treat the reverb signal as its own distinct element in the mix. With the option to process the dry vocal and reverb independently, the two can more easily coexist without causing you to sacrifice vocal clarity.
In the following example, I’ve placed a reverb plug-in (Exponential Audio’s R4) on my vocal channel as an insert effect. I’m using the “Med Plate” preset, which is a great option for a vocal reverb. The reverb itself sounds great, but masks the dry vocal and reduces clarity.
In this next audio clip, I’ve moved that same instance of R4 to a return channel and turned the dry / wet up to 100% wet. This allows me to keep all of my dry signal on the vocal channel, with all of my wet signal coming from the return channel.
While this sounds very similar to the previous example, the dry vocal now stays at a consistent level and I have the ability to bring in as much reverb signal as I’d like. With an insert reverb, the dry signal becomes quieter as you add wet signal, so this method is much more easy to deal with.
Prevent overlap with the dry vocal
Now that our reverb signal is isolated, we can process it in several ways to let the dry vocal cut through the reverb more clearly.
EQing the reverb signal
One common technique is to use an EQ to attenuate key vocal frequencies in the reverb signal.
Using a spectrum analyzer (you can always use an analyzer found in most EQs), I find that the fundamental frequencies of notes in the vocal are around 150 Hz, with the next most prominent harmonic being around 300 Hz.
I load an EQ onto the reverb return channel and attenuate these frequencies.
The dry vocal is now able to have command over these frequencies, allowing it to cut through the reverb much better. We don’t really “miss” these frequencies in the reverb signal itself, so this gives us added vocal clarity without any drawbacks.
If you’d like these frequencies to still be audible in the reverb signal, you can also make use of mid / side EQ in this situation. Your main vocal layer should be mono, so we can just attenuate these frequencies in the center of the reverb’s stereo image.
This keeps our key vocal frequencies in the sides of the reverb signal, but attenuates them in the center where the dry vocal will play.
This causes the reverb to duck when the vocal plays, allowing the vocal to cut through the mix more clearly. Reverb signal will swell back in when the vocal stops playing, filling the spaces and keeping the effect of reverb intact.
Compression, in general, has a very particular sound, so you may want to perform this “ducking” using pure level changes. Manual gain automation, sidechained gain movement, or rendering the reverb to audio and completely cutting it while the vocal is playing will have a similar effect to sidechain compression without the characteristic sound of compression.
Personally, I prefer to use sidechain compression in these situations for its convenience. In the following example, I’ve performed some light sidechain compression to the vocal reverb keyed off of the dry vocal signal.
In the first audio clip, I’ve solo’d the vocal and its reverb so you can hear exactly what’s happening to the reverb signal. Listen to the reverb signal swell back during gaps in the vocal performance:
In the second audio clip, I’ve included the entire track so you can hear that this sidechaining effect becomes less noticeable in a full mix. Listen for the increased clarity when the vocal is playing.
Minimize the number of different reverb spaces
This tip goes for entire productions in general, as well as for processing multiple vocals in the same project.
Reverb is meant to create the effect of physical space. Having a ton of different spaces makes it tough to identify which is the “real” space in your track’s environment. Minimizing the number of reverb spaces also 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.
In the following example, I’ve sent the main vocal layer to a large reverb space. I’ve used Nectar 3’s Harmony module to create background vocals from this main layer. For demonstration purposes, I’ve sent those background vocals to a very small reverb space on another return channel. The effect sounds interesting but doesn’t sound very natural.
In this audio clip, I’ve sent the background vocals to the same space as the main layer, which sounds much more natural than the previous example.
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.