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Why Reverb Is the Most Essential Effect in Your Toolkit

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This post is part of a series called Masterful Reverb: Everything You Need to Know.
How The Hell Do I Use Reverb Anyway?!? Basix

In skilled hands, reverb brings music to life. In unskilled hands, it sinks it into mud. It's an essential element in any track, adding depth, giving a sense of distance, and making space for instruments. In this article we'll check it out in detail. What exactly is reverb?


1. What Is Reverb?


Logic Pro's Space Designer

Reverb is the most important effect you have access to. Understanding how it works will help you get the most out of it. But you'll learn it best not just by reading about it, but using it in creative ways.

The Encyclopedia of Home Recording (by Mark Garrison) defines reverb this way:

Reverberation, or reverb, is a series of acoustic reflections that occur within a space when sound is created. The timing, frequency, and volume of the reflections will vary depending on the size, shape, and contents of the space. Whether natural or artificial, reverberation provides depth to a recording and provides the listener with subconscious clues about the environment where the performance took place, or is being represented as taking place. Reverb should be used carefully, however, because excessive reverb can result in muddy or unintelligible recordings.

In some ways reverb is similar to delay, but the two should never be confused. Delay is one or more repetitions of the sound, like when you visit Echo Point. "Hello, hello, hello..."

With reverb, however, there are so many reflections and repetitions, that you can't identify them individually. They all merge together into a cohesive sound that continues for some time after the original sound.

And you don't have to drive to Echo Point to hear reverb. We're surrounded by it all day, everywhere we go.

Further Reading

  • Encyclopedia of Home Recording Acoustics

    Encyclopedia of Home Recording: Acoustics

    Understanding acoustics is helpful throughout the production process – from performing to recording, and even monitoring. This post is a clear explanation and helpful overview of the topic from Mark Garrison’s book Encyclopedia of Home Recording.

    Visit Article


2. Why Use Reverb?

Reverb Makes Music Sound More Natural

Have you ever walked into the dead room of a studio? A room in which all reflections have been dampened? It's the most unnatural feeling in the world. You feel disoriented. Your ears feel strange. You can almost feel the silence. And when you talk or sing the sound seems to go nowhere. You feel powerless.

Without reverb, music sounds unnatural.

In the real world we hear reverb all the time, but take it totally for granted. Our brains subconsciously process it, and extrapolate all sorts of information from it. How big is the room I'm in? How close am I to the sound? How empty is the room? We're usually not consciously aware of hearing it, but when it's not there, we notice it.

When we listen to music live, the reverb we hear from the room gives a sense of depth. The amount of total reverb gives a sense of the size of the room, of how far away we're sitting away from the band (or speakers), and even a sense of the distance between each instrument. Adding reverb to a recording puts back what our ears are expecting to hear, and raises all sorts of creating possibilities.

Reverb Can Be Used As An Effect

But that's not to say that reverb always needs to sound natural. You may decide to use reverb in a way that sounds totally unnatural. Just do it tastefully!

Examples include adding more than usual reverb to vocals or another track, using a reverb with a distinctive sound, using reverse reverb, and applying gated reverb to a snare drum. But more on that next time.

Further Reading

  • 3D Mixing Part 6 Depth

    3D Mixing Part 6: Depth

    In this segment of our mix down tutorial, we are going to begin to look in depth into depth. Depth within any mix and listening situation is paramount to proper sonic understanding. Much like we see in 3D, we hear in 3D and taking out any one of these dimensions only serves to create a flat and unnatural sound. As such, the most common tools which give the illusion of depth (reverb and delay) become an important and necessary part of mixing.

    Visit Article


3. What Reverb Options Are There?


O. C. Electronics, Inc., Folded Line spring reverberation device, by Grebe

Software Reverb

The Reverb Plug-in(s) That Came With Your DAW

Software reverb uses mathematical algorithms to model real reverb. It's used to add reverb to sounds you've already recorded, or to virtual instruments. Every DAW comes with at least one decent reverb plug-in. This is where you should start.

Besides just experimenting with the amount of reverb you add to each track, experiment with each parameter (see below) to learn how they affect the sound. If you have more than one reverb plug-in, try them all out, and learn which is your favorite.

It's best to get to know your DAW's native reverb before playing with others. It will give you a reference point to compare the others to.

Additional Reverb Plug-ins

There seems to be no end to reverb plug-ins. Once you're familiar with the reverb plug-ins that come with your DAW, it's time to experiment with more. You're bound to discover some favorites that will become part of your regular arsenal.

We asked our readers about their favorite plug-ins in a recent Open Mic, and received some great answers. Check out the list! And we summarize some of the favorites below.

Also check out Mo Volans' tutorial "The Ultimate Guide to Hardware and Software Reverb" for a clear explanation of the different types of methods and algorithms software reverb plug-ins use. Also check out 15 Totally Free Reverb Plug-ins That Rock for some decent plug-ins that you can pick up without spending money.

Hardware Reverb

Now that software reverb plug-ins are so good, we use hardware reverb units much less. And for most of us, software plug-ins are probably all we'll ever need.

But you may be able to get different sounds out of them than you can with software. If you like collecting gear - or you're a DIY type of person - hardware reverb units might play a part in your setup.

The two major ways of producing reverb via hardware is by use of a springs and metal plates that vibrate. Spring reverb is still quite common in guitar amps. You may have heard the spring rattling around when a gutarist moved his amp.

Mo Volans' article The Ultimate Guide to Hardware and Software Reverb goes into this in more detail.

If you're a do-it-yourself type of guy, Hack A Day have a page devoted to creating your own spring and plate hardware units. If you've created your own, please let us know about the experience in the comments, along with how you're using it.

Natural Reverb

Recording in a Live Room

With all this hardware, software and technology, it may be easy to forget the natural reverb of the room you're recording in. We often try to minimize this by close micing, but natural reverb can be amazingly beautiful.

It's a known fact that people sing in the shower more than anywhere else because of the improvement the natural reverb makes to their voice. And many a home recording fanatic has recorded quite a few tracks in the same room for the same reason.

Architects of opera houses, cathedrals and symphony halls all work very hard to create amazing natural reverb in their buildings. Albums have been recorded in castles with huge halls just to catch the amazing natural reverb.

So if you find yourself in a nice sounding room, consider capturing the reverb as you record instead of adding it later.

Re-amping

You can also capture natural reverb after you've recorded a track, using a technique called "re-amping". The principle is simple - play the previously recorded track through monitor speakers or similar in a live room, hall, or even garage, and record the result through a mic onto a new track.

By experimenting with levels and mic placement, you can add some awesome natural reverb to an otherwise dead-sounding track. The cost? It certainly takes a lot longer than twisting a reverb knob.

If you're interested in reamping, check out Bjorgvin Benediktsson's premium tutorial A Crash Course in Re-Amping.

Further Reading

  • The Ultimate Guide to Hardware and Software Reverb

    The Ultimate Guide to Hardware and Software Reverb

    Although most people have a pretty good idea what reverb is, some of you may still stick to pre-sets and shy away from programming your own virtual spaces. Only a small amount of work is needed to learn the basics and achieve a truly bespoke sound through controlling and tweaking your reverb.

    Visit Article

  • A Crash Course in Re-Amping  Tuts Premium

    A Crash Course in Re-Amping – Tuts+ Premium

    In this week’s Audio Premium content, Björgvin Benediktsson takes you on a crash course about re-amping.

    Visit Article


4. A Brief List of Reverb Plug-ins


Quantum Leap Spaces by EastWest

There are lots and lots of reverb plug-ins on the market - far more than I can cover here. Here are a few recommended by Audiotuts+ readers that are worth checking out.

These are additional reverb plug-ins you can experiment with, not plug-ins that come with a DAW, and are listed from least expensive to most expensive. Not all are compatible with all DAWs, so check carefully before downloading.

If your favorite isn't mentioned, please let us know about it in the comments.

Further Reading

  • Open Mic Which Reverb Plugins Do You Use

    Open Mic: Which Reverb Plugins Do You Use?

    Reverb can make or break the mix. It can bring it to life, or drown it. Getting it right is an art that you perfect over years. Which reverb plugins do you use and recommend? What’s more important – the plugin or the technique?

    Visit Article

  • 15 Totally Free Reverb Plug-ins That Rock

    15 Totally Free Reverb Plug-ins That Rock

    Reverb is an effect that you’ll find in any mix, and you can never have enough options when it comes to crafting the right reverberation for the sound. That’s why I’ve scoured the web to come up with this list of completely free plug-ins you can try.

    Visit Article


5. Important Reverb Parameters

Often all we do is decide on the amount of reverb to add to each track. But there is so much more that you can do to color your reverb. Become intimately familiar with the parameters of your reverb plug-in or hardware unit. Here are a few of the most important of them:

  • Type - are you emulating the reverb of a real space (like a room or a hall), or are you emulating a hardware reverb unit (like plate or spring reverb).
  • Room size - affects the length of the reverb time, and maybe the stereo image.
  • Early reflections level - the first group of reflections you hear are probably most significant. The lower the early reflection level, the further away from the instrument you feel.
  • Pre-delay - the length of time it takes before you start to hear the early reflections.
  • Decay time - the length of time it takes for the reverb to die down.

For a different way to visualize the components of reverb, study this image of the Elements of Reverb from the Encyclopedia of Home Recording:


Elements of Reverb

Further Reading

eMusician have a great cheat sheet of reverb parameters. Check it out.


6. Where to From Here?

All this is theory. You need to play around and experiment with reverb so you can understand in a practical way. Here is some homework.

  • Experiment with your DAW's reverb. Get to know the parameters. Try something new.
  • Download a couple of reverb plug-ins. Do they sound different to your usual reverb? Do they have extra options?
  • Try combining different reverb plug-ins on the one sound. What sorts of interesting effects can you achieve?
  • Get hold of or build a hardware reverb unit. How does it compare with software? When would you use it?
  • Become more aware of the way reverb is used in the music you listen to. How do you think they achieved the reverb you hear?

How do you normally use reverb? What are your favorite plug-ins? Do you agree it is the most important effect? Let us know in the comments.

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