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How Much Reverb Should I Use? Five Creative Tips for Reverb On Vocals

Headliner CEO gives his five top tips for getting creative with reverb on vocals. How much reverb is too much? That depends...

Reverb has a funny reputation - bad singers try to hide behind it (which is mad, because you can’t, really), and good singers sometimes don’t want any of it. So how much is too much, and when we use it on vocals, how can we get creative with it and make it sound great?

I think often a good compromise with reverb is to use it in moderation, and only where necessary - not as a default. For example, if I take a couple of my personal favourite songs, one is dry and in your face: John Lennon’s Working Class Hero; another is beautifully ambient sounding: Radiohead’s Exit Music For A Film. It’s what fits the song. Look at the Red Hot Chili Peppers - their vocals are so often bang in your face and dry as a bone, you simply can’t imagine layers of echo on those songs, can you? So how much is enough, and when and, more importantly, how should we use it?

Rule number one: Before we get started, you must put your chosen reverb on its own buss. That way, you can bring as much in or out as you like, and you can treat it as an instrument in its own right. And while we’re on that, let’s break down some of the ways you can manipulate your reverb to make it sit just right, whether you’re looking for fast and wide, sharp and short, or something completely different.

Tip One: Listen with EQ for Harsh Resonant Frequencies

First off, try dropping in an EQ to your reverb buss and have a listen for any harsh or resonant frequencies. Often when working with a female voice, 6 kHz is a rogue area, so I tend to drop a few dB out there, and it tends to soften and smooth it out nicely. It all depends on the voice, sibilance, and various other factors. Have a play with this and see how it affects your sound.

Tip Two: Try Compressing the Reverb Signal

Second, compress the signal. You don’t want to get rid of the whole vibe, but you want to control it: you may be surprised how effective this can be, particularly as you increase the ratio and play with the threshold. Try 10:1, and at first tickle the signal, then squash to your liking. It really does the job.

Tip Three: Experiment with gates on The Reverb Track

Third, try gating the reverb. Another Radiohead song actually where this is evident and done magnificently is Man Of War from the seminal OK Not OK album, the special edition of the 1997 classic OK Computer

I haven’t ever quite been able to nail that exact sound, but I can assure you I have tried..! It’s hearing reverbs like this that inspires us to be more creative, and when we try to emulate such effects or find out how they were achieved, we can find ourselves stumbling across our own little gems, by happy accident.

Tip Four: Use Pre-Delay

Fourth, use pre-delay - this is the amount of time before the onset of the reverberant field. Again, if you listen to Man Of War you’ll be able to hear the pre-delay within that reverb. It’s an excellent effect for thickening and fattening, and the longer settings will get you a lot more depth when the dry signal is up front in the mix. Many reverb plugins have pre-delay settings built in, some even have diffusion or filtering options within the plugin so you can carve your sound, accentuating or subtracting the levels of pre-delay/delay within the reverb. It’s complex in terms of the algorithms, but wonderfully simple to use - it’s just a fine art getting it exactly right..!

Tip Five: Experiment with Mono & Stereo

And finally, experiment with mono and stereo: a reverb right down the middle is normally better in stereo, but sometimes a stereo enhancer on a mono reverb will work nicely, or panning two different mono reverbs L/R can be effective. Equally, widening the stereo image of an already wide stereo reverb can create a really expansive sound, at the risk of becoming overkill(!)

The Bottom Line

The difference between a great mix and an outstanding one is often in the little tricks and techniques developed by the engineer over many years. Take the time to experiment; don't be afraid to bend (or even break) the rules in pursuit of something unique and special. Almost every extraordinary production craze that's ever graced the world of music materialised either because a producer or engineer took a chance and threw caution to the wind or because of a happy accident.

Yes, understand the fundamentals, but don't be afraid to push the boundaries and question the status quo. If it sounds good, it is good.

For more reverb tip and tricks, check out our top ten tips for reverb on vocals