Music Industry

How To Use Reverb – Part One – The Basics

Reverb. It’s a tool that no producer can live without, but it sure as hell can give you a headache or two. Reverb is incredibly hard to master as there are a lot of things that you have to keep in mind. In Part One of our ‘How To Use Reverb’ series, we’re going to tell you all about the basics of reverb, what it does and how it should be used.


What Is Reverb?

Reverb is short for reverberation. A lot of people seem to think that it is the same thing as an echo (or delay), but this is not the case. While both refer to the way sound waves bounce off of various surfaces before making their way back to your ears, reverb is different from echo or delay in the sense that it is actually made up of a huge amount of tiny echoes, all occurring within 30 milliseconds after the original sound wave. Because of this, it is more like a smear of sound instead of a distinct pattern of repetitions.

What Does Reverb Do?

Firstly, it is worth noting that a record without reverb sounds unnatural. If you have ever been in a room where no natural reverb is present, you’ll know what we mean. Everything seems off. This is because there’s reverb all around us in the real world. We just aren’t consciously aware of it.

Yes, there’s a point to all this. Without reverb, our ears can’t determine how big the room is we’re in or how far away we are from the source of the sound, whether that’s the speakers near the DJ booth or the band on stage. If you use no reverb at all in your record, it will not only sound off and unnatural, but also flat and depthless.

In addition to its use as a tool to create depth, reverb can also be used as an effect to create or enhance a certain atmosphere. This is especially the case in music genres such as Trance or Ambient, where long and heavy reverbs are much more common.

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How Should I Use Reverb?

You use reverb when you want to create a sense of space in your song. By applying more, you can push certain elements or partitions to the background. The opposite applies as well. If you put a lot of it on all sounds but one, that one sound will have a more prominent place in the mix. There are a lot of different settings that define how your reverb will sound. Below, we’ll explain what the most common parameters do. The rest will be dealt with in Part Two of this series.

Reverb Types

Although there are tons of different reverb types, the majority of them can be divided into five main categories: Room, Hall, Chamber, Plate and Spring. The first three (Room, Hall, Chamber) speak for themselves. A Room reverb tends to give off a sense of a small space (much like a room), whereas a Hall reverb is often long and big, like the one you’d hear when shouting in an empty cathedral. The example given is a bit of an exaggeration, but we’re sure you understand what we’re getting at. Chamber can be either big or small, but despite sharing a lot of traits with Room, it doesn’t have as much early reflections.

The Plate and Spring reverbs are a bit different. They don’t sound as natural as the other three, but that’s because they aren’t intended to sound that way. Instead of giving a (natural) sense of space, Plate and Spring reverbs are used to add character to a specific sound. A Plate reverb is an electro-mechanical plate that vibrates with the music. Its sound is dense, has a lot of early reflections and is often used on vocals to give it a bit of extra character. It also works well on drums, particularly on snares.

Spring reverb is also a man-made reverb and mostly used on guitars. It also works well on woodwinds and vocals, especially if you’re aiming for a ’60s vibe.

Pre-Delay

Pre-Delay translates to the time it takes before you hear the first (early) reflections of the sound. When you set a higher (or longer) Pre-Delay, it takes longer for those reflections to pop up. This will give you the idea that the sound is played in a big hall. When you’re not trying to create a sense of space (with Plate and Spring reverbs for example), the pre-delay is much shorter or even non-existent.

Early Reflections/Size

Often referred to as Size, Early Reflections are the first bounce-backs of the original sound. Our ears use these bounce-backs to determine how large the space is we’re in. If they occur (almost) instantaneously, the room we’re in is pretty darn tiny. If it takes longer for us to hear the early reflections, chances are the space we’re in is considerably larger.

Density

Density regulates how dense the reverb is. In other words, how much (or how little) space there is between the early reflections themselves. At a higher density, the sound of the reverb is thicker. With a lower density, it sounds more natural.

Decay

Decay determines how long it takes for the reverb to die away. This is why you often see it labeled as Reverb Time. The trick with Decay is to set the time so that it has just stopped being audible when the sound hits again. If the reverb starts overlapping the next tone, you should consider decreasing the Decay. Otherwise, the sound (and possibly the entire mix) could become muddy and messy.

What Are The Pitfalls Of Using Reverb?

It may be so that you’re inclined to use a lot of reverb all the time, but we would like to advise against it. As with pretty much all things in life, you have to use it sparingly and with restraint.

Let’s emphasize on the restraint part. Although reverb can work wonders for the atmosphere and fullness of your record, it can also destroy your mix if used incorrectly. If you were to use too much or excessive reverb times, it will clog up your mix. The individual sounds will not sound as clear as before or even get drowned out entirely. Instead, screw up the level of reverb until you think it’s good and then tone it down a few notches. That’s a great rule of thumb to go. Less is more.

In the end, the right use (and right amount) of reverb can glue your mix together and add that much-needed depth.


In Part Two, we’ll dig deeper into the different parameters and settings of Reverb and give you a variety of pointers as well, such as why you should not use it on sounds that provide the low end of your mix (kick drums, bass etc.). Until then, feel free to leave your comments below, including questions you’d like to see answered or subjects you’d like us to cover.

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Daniel
    April 10, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Great blogpost! I learned a lot of this, and hopefully it helps me start tweaking and understanding reverb- and avoid using presets all the time.

    Suggestions for future posts:
    – StepbyStep how to approach a mixdown
    – Use of delay
    – Types of distortion: distortion, saturation, overdrive, bitcrushing etc.
    – Music industry: role of a label, publisher, artist when it comes to music sales and touring

    Thanks a lot!

    • Reply
      Ruben Meijer
      April 10, 2017 at 8:59 am

      Hi Daniel,

      Good to hear you enjoyed the article. There’ll be plenty more subjects for us to cover and we’ll definitely takes your suggestions into consideration!
      Thanks!

  • Reply
    Sebastian Vega
    April 10, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks a lot for this!! Always good to review what reverb does and how it works!

  • Reply
    Luc Caeyers
    April 14, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Great article, always nice to have subjects like this explained. Maybe a good idea to give some exercises or downloadable tracks to practice on and leave an example how it should sound right so you can compare.

    Other topics that I think are interesting:
    *Headroom
    *Controlling low end: kick and bass should walk together, without disturbing
    *EQ and Compression explained
    *Kind of template approach on how a trance track should look like: structure of the song, sound building, layers…
    *Something very important but very difficult to find: getting feedback on a mix or master you made

    These are just some thoughts,
    Cheers
    Luc

    • Reply
      Ruben Meijer
      April 18, 2017 at 11:50 am

      Hi Luc,

      Thank you for the suggestions. Will definitely consider.

  • Reply
    Skiminok
    April 30, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    However, in addition to cutting high end and low end, it can also make a great deal of sense to sculpt the reverb return’s tonality even further if you find that it’s colouring the mix’s overall tone undesirably. Another reason for doing this is that the fashion these days is for reverb to be pretty inconspicuous, but it still needs to be high enough in level to get the instruments to gel properly. If your reverb has a prominent frequency-response peak where little else is happening in your mix, this will make the reverb effect too audible well before the overall reverb level is high enough. A few well-placed reverb-return EQ cuts once the mix is up and running can therefore really pay dividends if you’re after an up-front production sound that is nevertheless still cohesive.

  • Reply
    Daniel
    May 13, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Hey, I have a question for using reverb on different elements in a crowded section (typically the drop of a track):
    Are you supposed to use the same reverb on the different layers, but with more and less wet%? Or hall for one, room for another, plate for another one, and so on?

    Thank you for answering 🙂

    • Reply
      Ruben Meijer
      May 16, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      Hi Daniel,

      I wouldn’t recommend changing the sound of the reverb mid-track, as that could push the sense of depth completely off balance. As far as I’m concerned, there are two ways to go about this.

      For starters, you could indeed go with less reverb (in amount), maybe even controlled by automation to keep full control. But I think it would be even better to consider why the amount of reverb clashes in the first place. You could consider EQing your reverb, cutting some of the clashing frequencies to make space in your mix.

      We might just take this opportunity to devote a full article to this question. We’ll keep you in the loop when this happens. Hope this helps!

      • Reply
        Daniel
        May 21, 2017 at 10:58 am

        Hi Ruben,

        Many thanks for taking your time replying. What you write makes a lot of sense. I would indeed appreciate you going more into this in pt.2 or pt.3 of the Reverb-series.

        I also want to thank you (and others who are contributing) for writing these blog posts! They are great, and I’m constantly re-visiting this blog every week to check if there is something new posted or just to repeat what I don’t remember.

        • Reply
          Ruben Meijer
          May 22, 2017 at 11:35 am

          Hi Daniel,
          That’s great to hear, thank you. This week will see the launch of the first part of the EQ series, just in case you’re interested. It’s also worth mentioning that these blogs often get a spot in our weekly newsletter, so you might want to consider subscribing to it so you’ll know instantly when another one is available.. In any case, I’m glad these blogs are such a big help to you and please don’t refrain from sending subject suggestions or questions. We’re always glad to help out!

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