So what is reverb? Well, reverberation is all around us all the time.
It’s the natural result of sound waves interacting with every surface—hard, soft, tall, short and everything in between.
Every sound we hear is informed by the space it is heard in. In fact, our ears are used to it… Without that sense of space sounds often seem unnatural, thin, or hollow.
However, when recording in a studio environment, you use specific techniques and tools to reduce as much of the external acoustics as possible in order to capture the purest sound.
It’s good practice because you want your mixes clean to maximize your ability to edit and enhance them during the mixing phase. Cleaner sounds mean a better mix, and a better mix means a better master, so it all counts.
But if our ears are accustomed to sounds in space, don’t you want some room sound on your tracks? Great question…
The simple answer is yes! After you’ve cleaned your tracks, balanced the levels, and assembled your mix, you need that sense of space.
That’s where your reverbs comes in.
Why do you need reverb?
A strong understanding of reverb will help you become a better mix engineer and get better mixes.
Reverb is one of the most versatile effects in mixing because it’s applicable as a utility and creative tool. It provides that intangible sense of depth, fatness, and intrigue that immerses listeners and glues your mixes together.
Reverb provides that intangible sense of depth, fatness, and intrigue that immerses listeners and glues your mixes together.
But reverb is a huge subject, so there’s a lot to learn. In this guide I’ll show you how to control this powerful effect and use it to get your best possible mix.
What is reverb?
Reverberation is the effect where millions decaying reflections of sounds off of multiple surfaces heard after the initial sound source.
What does reverb do?
How reverb works can get into a whole bunch of math that’s super fascinating but I won’t cover it here.
What is important to know right now is what reverb can do for you!
Reverb provides space and depth to your mix, but it also gives the listener important clues about where the sound is taking place and where the listener is in relation to the sound.
Reverb lets you transport a listener to a concert hall, a cave, a cathedral, or an intimate performance space.
It also allows for natural (or added) harmonics of a sound source to shine through and gives your mix extra warmth and space.
Here’s a simple loop without and reverb reverb (dry):
Now listen to the same loop with reverb (wet):
As you can hear, the wet loop has overall better feel and texture than the dry loop. The synth line is smoother and flows together better and the overall mix gives off a nice sense of space. This is all thanks to reverb!
Nowadays, we almost exclusively use digital audio effects and VSTs to process sound. But the classic aesthetics of analog reverb are still what our digital versions try to recreate, so understanding analog and digital techniques are vital!
Reverb types and how to mix with them
Below are a list of common reverb types with audio examples. I’ll use the same sample of a conga drum to show you how each reverb type works:
Here’s a dry (no reverb) conga sample:
Now let’s apply each different type of reverb to our conga sample to hear how it reacts.
Hall reverb simulates the acoustics of a concert hall or other large reverberant space. This is the most classic reverb. It’s great for classical, pop, and more traditional musical genres.
Use it on an entire mix or buss to glue tracks together or put a grouping of instruments in the same sound space.
Chamber reverb simulates the acoustics of an echo chamber or physical space made for analog reverb recordings.
It can also sound very neutral while still filling out the frequency range of a mix. Chamber reverb works best with small ensembles, classical music, and pop music. It’s useful in other mix situations as well, so trust your ears and experiment.
Trust your ears and experiment.
Room reverb simulates the acoustics of a mid-to-large-sized room and gives your tracks clarity.
Room works well for solo instruments—especially drums, acoustic guitars, piano, strings, and vocals.
Overall, room reverb lets you make individual instruments stand out in the mix making it great for any genre.
Live or Stage Reverb:
Live reverb simulates the acoustics of a performance stage. It’s a classic choice for rock and pop music or any mix that needs to keep some of that live feel to it.
Stage or live reverb works well for individual instruments or for gluing an entire mix together.
Church or Cathedral Reverb:
Cathedral reverb simulates the acoustics of a large, stone space with high ceilings.
It’s a fantastic choice for choirs, string ensembles, organs, epic leads or any other sound you want to put in a large, reflective space.
Spring reverb simulates the acoustics of an analog spring reverb device still commonly found in guitar amps.
It sounds great on rock, jazz, blues, and metal as well as electric guitar and rock organs. Spring reverb is one of the most common types of reverb because of its many applications across genres.
Spring reverb gives instruments that signature metallic “boingyness” that brings tracks to life.
Spring reverb gives instruments that signature metallic “boingyness” that brings tracks to life.
Plate reverb simulates the acoustics of an analog plate reverb device. It’s a great choice for pop music, especially for instrument sections like percussion, brass, reeds, and vocals.
Like spring reverb, plate has been in use for decades because of its many applications across mixing styles.
The classic plate reverb was the massive model 140 from electronics manufacturer EMT. At four feet tall, eight feet long and nearly 600 pounds, 140 Plates were almost never seen outside high-end studios.
Luckily, plugins like the Arturia Rev PLATE-140 can recreate its sound accurately in your DAW.
Gated reverb cuts off the decay trail of a reverb using a noise gate. Gated reverb was especially popular in the 80’s in rock and pop ballads.
It gives a distinct “explosive” echo, providing powerful emphasis to any sound. Use gated reverb on drums, bass, guitar, synths, and vocals to get that distinct reverb pop.
Convolution reverb uses a digital file of a recording in an actual space to simulate that specific space’s acoustic properties.
It lets you approach your reverbs with a DIY attitude—record any space’s reverberation qualities and apply them to your track!
For example: Here’s what my congas would sound like in my bathroom:
So now that you understand how each reverb types sounds, it’s time to put them to use. Applying reverb properly starts with understanding your reverb parameters.
Here’s a breakdown of what to tweak on your ‘verbs.
Understanding your parameters is vital for applying reverb correctly in your mix. In most cases ‘parameters’ is just a fancy word for knobs.
This list will breakdown some of the more common reverb parameters, but if you don’t see a certain parameter here, check your manual!
Common Reverb Parameters:
Type refers to the previously mentioned types of digital reverb, but there are many more as well.
Type can normally be found on multi-effects processors or reverbs that include different types of reverb on one unit.
Often referred to as depth or room size, size indicates the size of the room you’ll be putting your sound in with your reverb effect. The larger the size, the longer your reverb reflections will get.
Also known as reverb time or RT60, Decay refers to the amount of time it takes for the reflections of your signal to run out of energy and stop.
Remember: Reverb tails are often amplified during the mastering phase. Make a quick master with LANDR to test your tails and see how mastering will affect them in your final version. If your tails are a bit too muddy, head back to your mix and fix.
Understanding your parameters is vital for applying reverb correctly in your mix.
The distance, or time, between your initial sound source and the first early reflections.
Sometimes called initial reflections or pre-echoes, Early Reflections settings determine the level of the very first reverb reflections you’ll hear.
Early Reflections act independently of the rest of your reverb, so being able to distinguish between the two is important.
Here’s what early reflection sound like on our conga loop:
Diffusion, also known as shape, represents the complexity of the room the reverb takes place in.
More complex rooms mean more surfaces to bounce off of and thus more diffusion. Diffusion also controls the density of the amount of reverbs, allowing you to create a more washy effect or have many distinct echoes.
Mix, also known as wet/dry mix, controls how much of your wet signal (signal with reverb) is mixed into your dry signal (without reverb).
The mix parameter is necessary because reverbs will be patched side-chained.
How to use Reverb to make your mixes soar
There are few hard rules for using reverbs, but the execution is ultimately up to you and what your mix needs. A good rule of thumb for reverb is always: less is more.
Too much reverb will give you a muddy and unintelligible mix, especially through loss of contrast in your low-end frequencies.
Hot Tip: never record with reverb—always add it later. Removing reverb is a tough process, but adding more is always an option.
If you ever need to remove reverb from a recording, read our guide on using noise gates to get started.
Ultimately, finding the sweet spot in the type of reverb that suits your track is key: Reverb will give your tracks the warmth, depth, and immersive character that will instantly add a professional-level quality and coherence to your mix.
Here’s how to setup a reverb in 8 simple steps:
A good rule of thumb for reverb is always: less is more.
How to use reverb in 8 steps
1: Patch sidechain
Create a separate return track and patch your reverb inline on this track. Use the sends from the track that you want reverb on, to send the dry, un-effected signal to the track that has the reverb patched inline.
You should now hear your reverb! If you need a quick refresher on sends and returns, read our sends and returns guide.
2: Select your reverb type
If your particular reverb has preset types, test all of them that it has available—It could be one, none, or it could be several depending on your reverb—and get a feel for their unique characteristics.
Ask yourself: where is the ideal space I want my sound in?
Select the type that best suits the general needs of your mix or individual instrument. Ask yourself: where is the ideal space I want my sound in? What extra quality will make this instrument/mix gel in a cohesive way?
My Ableton reverb doesn’t have preset types, so I’ll be setting the parameters manually! I’m going to add some reverb to my conga drums to help thicken them up and give a sense of space.
3: Set your size
The Size parameter (selected above) allows you to control the size of the space the listener will perceive your sound in.
The bigger the size, the longer the reverb will take to occur, and vice versa for smaller size.
The bigger the size, the longer the reverb will take to occur.
Size also affects the stereo image, with larger rooms usually giving a wider stereo image. Thus, the size parameter allows you to scale from longer, more expansive sounding reverb down to shorter, more intimate, and narrow reflections.
Setting your Size parameter in relation to your Decay (see Step 6) is the key combo with reverb, so prepare to fiddle with these two steps a bit.
4: Set your decay
Decay is the most important part of your reverb because it sets the amount of time it takes your reverb to return to silence.
Setting it too long leads to most of the problems associated with reverb and muddy mixes. When the reverb continues for too long, all the many iterations blend together and you can’t tell one sound from another—this is when you’ll know your reverb has gone too far.
As I mentioned before, Decay is traditionally scaled in relation to Size: larger rooms tend to have longer decays, so setting a large size with a long decay or a small size with a short decay is typical.
Most presets will likely do this automatically. But adjusting the two independently can create some really cool effects. So don’t be shy to go against conventional wisdom.
Set your decay time inversely to the amount of wet reverb signal you’ll add to your mix.
Reverbs with shorter decays have more freedom to be very loud because they will end quickly and not stick around muddying your mix. Reverbs with longer decays should be kept at a lower volume, otherwise your mix can sound like it’s lost in the grand canyon.
Reverbs with longer decays should be kept at a lower volume, otherwise your mix can sound like it’s lost in the grand canyon.
Hot Tip: For busy arrangements, use reverbs with shorter decays on individual instruments in order to keep their unique qualities crisp and clear.
5: Set your pre-delay
Pre-Delay gives you some space between your dry signal and the wet reverb signal.
A lower pre-delay time will give little or no time between dry signal and your reverb—thus simulating a small room—but can make your reverb messier.
Be careful, echoes can interfere with the rhythm, tempo or groove of a musical piece.
Mid-sized pre-delays will give a slight delay to your reverb, simulating a larger space and keeping the dry signal and reverb clear of each other, removing muddiness.
6: Set your early reflections level
Early reflections (represented above as the yellow circle in the Spin section) tend to sound more like echoes than normal reverb so treat them as such—if you want to create an echo or doubling effect, louder early reflections are excellent for this.
But be careful, echoes can interfere with the rhythm, tempo or groove of a musical piece. Stick to a lower volume to allow for easier blending.
7: Set your diffusion level
Diffusion allows you to add (or remove) texture from your reverb. In the example above, diffusion levels are represented in the diffusion network section of the reverb.
Higher diffusion levels simulate a more complex space with many obstructions (think of a packed concert venue). It also creates a smoother, warmer, more coloured sound.
Reverb gives a soul to your mix,
Lower diffusion levels simulate a basic shape with unobstructed, flat, reflective surfaces (think of an empty garage).
Lower levels create a clear, bright, less coloured sound. Diffusion can also affect the Decay time of the reverb, so this gives you another option to smooth out your reverb tails.
Hot Tip: Use a high diffusion settings to remove metallic clangs from percussion instruments.
8: Set your mix level
Your mix level (wet/dry) is overall your most important parameter.
It determines how your reverb is going to interact with the other elements of your mix and how much of your effect you’re folding back into your session.
Adjust the wet/dry mix level to add a little more or a little less reverb until it suits your mix perfectly. Always let your mix guide you for how much effected signal.
Because your reverb is patched side-chain, you can have multiple different instruments sending different amount of dry signal to your reverb return.
And here it is back in the mix!
Wrap it up
Reverb gives a soul to your mix. It takes your sound out of the vacuum and into the real world while still finding the perfect fit in your mix.
Reverb is easily and often overdone, but with the strong understanding you now have, reverb will allow you to bring your fans inside your mixes, and tell the sound story you were dreaming about when you first sat down in the studio.
In the end, applying reverb is always all about what sound best to you! So trust your ears!
J'vlyn is a DJ, audio engineer, and A/V artist, with a passion for empowering queer and feminist narratives through audio/visual experiences.
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