When Should You Add Reverb to a Track?
Learn a few guidelines that will let you make better decisions around when to add reverb in a song vs. when you leave your track dry.
Choosing what kind of reverb you're going to use on a track can be a daunting task. But what can prove to be even more challenging is deciding when to add reverb in the first place, and when not to.
In this article, we’ll share four essential considerations so you can make wiser decisions around whether or not to add reverb to your tracks.
One of the basic rules that will allow you to decide if adding reverb is the right choice, are the emotions you're going for. You may find hints in the song's lyrics. Songs on positive topics (like Pharell William's "Happy") will have a higher percentage of dry(-ish) tracks vs. power ballads about loneliness (like Celine Dion's "All By Myself").
And this makes sense. If you think about it, there's nothing more poetically lonely than a single person alone in a huge empty space. Consider the emotions you’re trying to impart when deciding if you want to add reverb to a track or not.
The style you're going for may also dictate certain guides around the usage of reverb. Jazz, for example, is all about the "live" and "real" experience. So if you didn't record in an actual jazz club, then you'll probably want to recreate one using reverb.
On the other hand, if you're going for a more unrealistic sound, then a raw dry sound may be just what you need. After all, in the real world, there aren't many places that sound so dry like a studio setting, so it will create an uncomfortable and unfamiliar sound.
In the famous words of superstar music producer David Foster, "the three most important things in a song are the vocal, the vocal, and the vocal." If you've done your job well, your arrangement is written in such a way that leaves your lead vocal crystal clear and in the center. For arrangement tips, check out our article on writing better arrangements around vocals. Plus, take a listen to the David Foster produced Seal song below, a great example of prioritizing the lead vocal.
Reverb is a beautiful effect that can fill up a lot of empty space and transport us to a concert hall or a jazz club setting. However, you should never let that mission take away from the clarity of the lead vocal. If the clarity is being compromised, try skipping the reverb. Or use one with a shorter tail, or use less of it altogether.
Start dry and add reverb to only a few important tracks. Once you are happy with how those tracks sound, you can add reverb to additional tracks one at a time. Be selective, as you don't want to drown everything in reverb, otherwise, your mix will become muddy and messy. Again, clarity should be your driving force, so less really can be more.
Sometimes you know you want to use reverb on certain key phrases, but using it everywhere would make the song/instrument/vocal sound too wet and messy. This is when you'll want to turn to mix automation.
Automate the send to send only the key phrases to the reverb bus. This way, you're only hearing it when you need it, whereas the rest of the song remains dry and crisp.
Listen to Trisha Yearwood's "I Won't Give Up." It features fantastic usage of automation on the lead vocal's reverb in the verses. Notice how overall the phrases are dry, but each one ends with a nice long reverb on the last word of every line. It's a great way to accentuate the important words. Plus, it also plays the role of filling in the empty space between phrases with some interesting sonic motion.
There really is no right or wrong way when deciding whether you want to use reverb on a track or not. Ultimately, it's a personal and artistic choice. Sometimes, you won't know if it's a good one or not until you try it. So add reverb to a track and see if it improves the track's sonic quality or not. If not, you can always remove it. Although for some styles (particularly Top 40), too much reverb will create a mess that will not be received too well, other styles may find that to be an artistic choice that works perfectly for the emotions of the song. And remember, once you decide that you want to use reverb, spend the time deciding on which type of reverb you want to use.