Beginners Guide To Reverb

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Contents

Getting Started

Here at Sound Sauce, we have been mixing and mastering tracks for over a decade. We are always learning, and our processes are continually evolving. We can remember just how daunting it all seemed when we first started out. So, we decided to start a brand new series of articles, especially for the novice producer and musician. Whether you are a musician, looking to use live effects with an instrument, or a producer looking to use effects within a virtual studio; Sound Sauce 101 will build into a comprehensive guide. 

Sound Sauce 101 Beginners Guides cover each of the most popular effects used in music performance and production:

  • What is reverb in music?
  • What is delay in music?
  • What is compression in music?
  • What is EQ in music?
  • What is a phaser in music?
  • What is a flanger in music?

Each effect is broken down into its essential components and will show you how to start getting great results. In this first article, we will tackle one of the most frequently used, and very often abused, effects; Reverb.

What is reverb? 

It happens all around us, all of the time. It is happening to you right now…for a simple demonstration of what reverb, you need only clap your hands. The room you are in is the ultimate analogue reverb effect. So, go ahead. Close your eyes, and clap your hands, really hard. Repeat the process a couple of times. Try to hear the sound of the clap itself and the after-sound of the clap in the room.

OK, it can be hard to hear without a comparison, especially if you are in a 'dry' room. By dry, we mean less reverb. Let's go again, but this time go to another 'wetter' room. You might try your bathroom. Another useful place would be your stairwell. Go and repeat the process.

Now you hear it, right? The second clap sounds radically different from the first, and yet, it is the same hands making the noise. So what is different? Obviously, it is the space you are in that changes the sound. Your first clap was likely quite 'tight'. By that, we mean the aftereffect of the clap in the room was short and muted. You may have heard people talking of a tight reverb. Primarily, they are talking about an effect such as if in a small, or dead space. What about the second clap? If you managed to get to a hallway or bathroom, there would most likely have been a much more spacious sound to your clap, right? 

Feel free to experiment around your home. Notice how the sound of the clap changes radically depending on where you are positioned. It will most likely change, even if you stay in the same room and move position within that room. 

The sound of your clap changes in each place because of reverb. Reverb is short for reverberation. Reverberation is the sound of your clap (instrument, voice or whatever your sound source is), bouncing off the walls, and other surfaces in the room. 

How does reverb change according to the space I am in?

The size of the room and where you are positioned in it will affect your perception of the sound. A larger room will lead to a longer reverberation, and a smaller room gives short reverb. 

The reflective quality of the room also come into play; A lot of glass, and bright shiny surfaces, will make the sound 'wetter', (more reverb, less clap). Furnishings and dense cushions will lead you to perceive the sound as 'drier', or mainly the sound of the clap, with little aftereffect.

How does this relate to plug-ins and pedals?

Reverb plug-ins and effects pedals are efficient ways of recreating a "space". When we are making music within a virtual studio environment (or DAW), we don't have natural reverb within the computer. A plug-in reverb will provide you with a way of putting your source sound into the required "space".

When playing an instrument live, musicians will add a reverb by using an effects pedal, rack effect or by using the settings on some amplifiers and mixing desks. These methods will add a specific space to a live sound. Imagine, for example, adding the reverb of a large stadium to your voice or instrument, while performing in a tiny cellar bar. The cellar bar won't give you the right reverb for your huge stadium sound naturally. The effect does that for you.

What do the knobs and settings on a reverb effect do?

No matter which effect, plug-in or DSP unit you use, the knobs and effects provide various ways for you to adjust the size, shape and even construction of a room. Grab your effects pedal, or open up your favourite DAW and look at the reverb settings. Whether you use the standard Ableton reverb plug-in, garage band, logic, or Fruityloops, you will find similar basic settings. You will find the same familiar settings on a hardware reverb effect pedal.

Of course, the best way of learning is to experiment with the settings in your studio or room. Open your DAW, load a sample and add your chosen reverb. For the best effect, try to use a sample that has very little reverb on it. This is what is known as a 'dry' sample. The more reverb is applied to a sample, the 'wetter' it gets.

Basic reverb settings to play with:

Reverb Size:

This one should now make total sense. By adjusting this, you change the size of the room you are recreating. This really only effects the "Tail" of the reverb. In Ableton, the size setting does colour the sound in various ways, so it is not a faithful recreation of a room getting bigger. To add realism, you will use "size" in conjunction with "Pre-Delay" in Ableton. 

Some pedals or plug-ins will not have size, by may have the name of a specific space. A Drum room will be smaller, and drier than a stadium, or hall reverb for example. 

Reverb Pre Delay:

When pre-delay is used in conjunction with the size setting, the ears and brain will tune into the space a lot more accurately. This setting will adjust the way the brain perceives the "bounce back" of the sound off of the virtual walls. Low pre-delay makes an intimate space, and high a more expansive one.

Reverb Decay:

This is the third basic setting that will change the perception of size. When you adjust the decay, it will control the length of time that it takes for the reverb tail to drop to inaudible.

All reverb effects will have a variation of the three settings mentioned above. Experiment with them to adjust the size of the virtual room and see how your source sound changes.

Types of reverb setting:

Room Reverb: Adding the reverb of a generic space or room.

Plate reverb: This setting mimics the effect of a physical plate reverb, which consists of a sheet of metal, two pickups, and a little speaker. Plate reverb effects were the earliest form of artificial effect. A popular choice for vocals due to their bright and punchy impact.

Halls: Think vast spaces like the Royal Albert Hall, or the Sydney Opera House. Superb for strings, orchestral stabs, and powerful vocals.

Advanced Reverb Settings:

At this stage, you don't want to overload your mind with too many variables. As a rule of thumb though, you will also find settings to control the EQ of the reverb, allowing you to cut or boost frequencies out of the after effect. 

Reverb is one effect that can get out of hand very quickly. Listen to some 70s psychedelic rock and compare it to an old blues record. Likely the psychedelic rock will be far wetter, with long reverbs and epic sounds. Blues and Jazz tend to use intimate and tighter reverbs. You will start to be able to pick out reverb on sounds quite easily. 

As you delve further into your reverb plug-in, you may also find controls for stereo, and a whole host of niche parameters. Experimentation is the key. Objective listening sessions, where you focus on critical elements of your chosen genre, are beneficial. What type of reverb identifies your genre's music?

Reverb can be used subtly to add a really professional sheen to a recording or sample. It can also be layered on mercilessly to make some really crazy sounds. It really depends on your aim with your project. Hopefully, by understanding the basics, you can progress to finding your own reverb settings and a signature sound.

Tips for adding reverb 

When adding reverb to a recording of an instrument, a sample, or a voice, there are a few simple techniques that will help you to remain objective.

  1. Always reference before and after at regular intervals. 
  2. Imagine the type of sound you are aiming for before you start flicking through settings. Aim for pre-sets that describe the sound you are looking for.
  3. Once you have found a pre-set you like, then adjust some of the parameters to make it your own, and help your sound sit in the mix.
  4. Be wary of bass frequencies when adding extreme reverb effects. You may do well to EQ out the lower frequencies with a high pass filter. This can be done in the effect if it has an EQ, or you can use the reverb in a send/return channel, and add an EQ there. 
  5. Remember that there are no rules. Only shared best practice. Experiment, and have fun with the results, while always keeping one ear on your reference track! 

Don't forget:

You can add reverb to a live recording without a pedal or effect. By moving from room to room and changing where you and the microphone(s) are placed, you will be able to add reverb naturally. 

This phenomenon is the reason why bands and musicians will seek out specific spaces to record in. Abbey Road is just one example of a studio that has rooms that are legendary for their "sound". Who knows, maybe your bedroom has that unique sound that will set you apart from the rest. 

We will be back with more beginners tips soon!

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