Master the use of reverb and your lifeless, flat mix will become a three dimensional vista, says Steve Hillier.
Things that people do wrong with their music:
1. Write a composition beginning with the beat. This is lunacy. Can you imagine Lennon and McCartney waiting for Ringo to set up his kit before writing their next Beatles hit? Of course not.
2. Compress everything. At least twice! Anyone doing this in their mixes should stop now. Modern DAWs have an interior dynamic range that’s comparable to a pin dropping versus the noise of the big bang. Try using it, rather than squashing your music to the flatness of a pancake being sucked into a black hole. Compressors are like guns…only the sane should ever pick one up.
3. Use reverb badly, or not at all…
Unlike compression, everybody likes reverb. How can I say this with such confidence? Because almost everything you have ever listened to has been covered with it. Reverberation is what you hear when the sound from an event, such as a explosion, rebounds off a reflective surface, such as a wall, and then into our ear. It is a elemental attribute of how we experience sound, and our brains have evolved to use the information enclosed in reverb to help us survive in our daily lives. If we’re hearing lots of sounds with long reverb tails on them, that suggests we’re in a large room, such as a church hall. Lots of short ‘early reflections’, we are probably in a compact room. Everything we hear has some reverb on it before it ends up in our ears (we’ll ignore scientists who work in anechoic chambers for today).
Too many novice producers don’t know how to use reverb, so they shy away from it, leaving their mixes dryer than Stewart Lee. Or they go the other way and use completely the wrong reverb sound, and get wetter than a Michael McIntyre show. Maybe producers are confusing acoustic size with acoustic impact? Imagine this text on your page is your tune:
This is your mix,
This is your mix with the correct use of reverb on it,
Here’s your mix with a little too much reverb on it,
And here it is with way too much!
The efficient use of reverb will make a component of a mix sound bigger, fuller and more comfortable for your listeners. Without it, the sound will be tiny and irrational; think about it, in real life when will you ever hear a big dry sound? The answer is never. Ever! On the other hand, too much reverb and the mix will be wet and flabby, too huge for anybody to comprehend.
How to use reverb:
So what should we do then? First, you need a decent reverb unit or plug-in, don’t use just any old reverb plug-in. I have a theory that the reason reverb went out of style was related to the fact everyone used way to much of it in the 1980s. Many of them were using horrible cheap digital units*. There’s no excuse for that today. Invest some money and buy one each of both of these:
A convolution reverb unit works by producing reverb tails based on impulse responses, recordings of reverberations from a real-world environment. They sound remarkable; the best are extremely realistic and open up a world of potential. But you’ll need a conventional digital reverb too, probably a plug-in based on classic hardware from the past. Since the late 70s and up until about 5 years ago pretty much all reverb on records was simulated in some way, often by a microprocessor delaying audio, feeding it back into itself, doing some smart filtering and sticking it out the other end. It sounds great, if a little artificial. But who cares? This is the sound of records, and they still sound great now…
Here’s how I use reverb in my own work. Your mileage may vary but most mix engineers I know use this approach or a variation on it:
1. Set up three reverb plug-ins as send effects on a bus, not as insert effects. The first will be short (less than 0.5 sec) and come from a convolution reverb using a room impulse response. The second will be a traditional digital reverb sound, such as a plate reverb, set to around 1.5 seconds decay. The last will be a ‘3rd option’, normally reserved for vocals and normally another plate or hall sound.
2. I then balance my sounds without reverb. Please note that I only use the bare minimum of compression at this point too!
3. When I’m happy with my mix, I then start placing my sounds in an imaginary 3D space. The shorter reverb sound places the drums and other high energy or rhythmical sound sources at the front of my stage, the larger reverbs put those sounds slightly further back and into a supporting role. The more reverb, the larger the sound but also how far away it is.
Thinking of your mix as a 3D illusion is crucial for a comfortable and exciting result. Without reverb, your mix will sound like it’s stuck inside the speakers. Reverb brings the sounds alive and gives them the opportunity to leap out of headphones!
Why do so many programmers get this bit wrong?
What this all comes down to, time and time again, is lack of connection that bad programmers have between their brains, their ears and their music. They get into the habit of searching for answers to why their work isn’t working with the same cognitive tools that they use to explain why their internet router isn’t connecting to their laptop. This is not how music works. Our ears and our hearts should guide 99% of our musical work, the remaining 1% comes from experience and knowing how to use our equipment. So, from here on, start to listen carefully to what is going on around you. Listen to the difference between the sound of talking voices in a car and in the street. That’s reverb. Listen to the difference between the sound of tune in a club or in your iPhone headphones. That’s reverb. Listen to the sound of you brushing your teeth in a tiled bathroom. That’s reverb. And then, listen very carefully to the difference between your lifeless, static, 2D mixes and 3D panoramas of the artists you most admire.
*Actually, the MIDIverb does have some great uses and you can probably pick one up for nothing at a jumble sale now if you look hard enough. Just don’t use it as your primary reverb tool.
Steve Hillier is a songwriter, DJ and record producer, who has worked with everyone from Keane to Gary Numan. Steve is also a journalist and music technology expert, writing for Future Music & BBC Worldwide. Steve teaches Music Business and Logic Music Production Online at Point Blank Music School.
For more inspiration on using reverb have a look at these videos:
Listen to Mike Koglin: Reverse Vocal FX in Ableton Tutorial:
Jonny Miller: Reverb – Dub FX Tutorial: