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How to Add Reverb

Bobby Owsinski • Audio TechMay 2021 • May 4, 2021

Just about every DAW, mixer or PA head now has built-in reverb and while it’s amazing that you can change the ambience in your mix with the flick of a wrist, it’s very common to get less than stellar results. The problem is that many users think that all they have to do is select a preset and dial it in. While that might work sometimes, usually good sounding reverb that enhances a mix takes just a little bit of knowledge and a little work to create first.

The Problem

The biggest problem that I’ve encountered with my student’s mixes over the years has been too much reverb, which results in a washed-out effect where all the mix elements sound like they’re in a cave. That’s usually because the reverb preset that was chosen didn’t sound that good to begin with, but it’s something we can fix.

In this case, the reverb may be too bright, or it may have too much low end, or both. That means that not only will it fill up the mix and make it sound woofy, but it will call attention to itself because of the high end as well. Great sounding reverb has neither of these traits.

Assuming that you’re using a DAW and a native reverb plugin (we’ll get to built-in mixer reverb in a minute), the first thing you’re going to look for is to see if the plugin has high and low pass filters. If it does, you’re in luck because the next part is then easier. The first thing to do is go to the low-pass and set it to around 8kHz, cutting off the highs. Then take the high-pass and set it to 500Hz, cutting off the lows.

Will the reverb sound as big or as full? No, but that’s exactly what you want – something that fits in the mix well yet doesn’t call attention to itself. You’ll find that when you dial it in on a mix element now, you’ll be able to add a lot more without it being swamped with verb.

Just to show you how widespread this practice is, this technique is something that I call the “Abbey Road Reverb” because it’s what the famous studio has been doing to its famous reverb chambers and plates since the 1950s. You’ve heard tons of hits come from that studio and I’ll bet you never thought once, “Boy, that reverb is sure washing out that vocal!”

What if you don’t have filters on your reverb, or maybe only one or the other? No problem, do what most mixing engineers do. Place an EQ before the reverb in the signal path and roll off the highs and lows there. Why before the reverb? It activates the reverb algorithm differently and sounds a little better, in my opinion. No problem if you can only insert it behind the reverb plugin though, as it will still accomplish the task.

Time for Pre-Delay

What will really make your reverb sing is pre-delay though. This delays the entrance of the reverb until a pre-determined time after the instrument or vocal. It provides a little separation between the dry sound and the reverb, which makes the mix element sound clearer in the mix.

The rule of thumb is that you want at least 20 milliseconds (ms) of pre-delay, but I think you’ll like it a lot better a lot higher. In fact, it’s common to have pre-delay settings as high as 120 to 150ms, so don’t be afraid to go there and see if it works for your mix. Be careful not to crank it higher than that though, since it won’t sound like reverb anymore and will actually make the mix more confusing.

As for Those Hardware Mixers. . .

Sometimes you’re dealing with a hardware mixer that just has a number of reverb presets that you have to dial through. There’s no adjustments available like above so the best you can do is find a verb setting that’s dark and thin. You’re stuck with the whims and ears of the manufacturer, but at least you know what to shoot for.

Ideally, reverb should add glue to the track. It rarely needs to call attention to itself, yet you want it to tie the mix together and add a veneer of professionalism to the sound. Even if you want to push something back in the mix by adding more reverb, it should just make the mix element sound further away from you yet still distinguishable, not stuck at the back of a cathedral.

Follow these simple steps outlined above, and you’ll find that your mix has just the final sheen that you were hoping for.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the bestselling authors in the music industry. His latest, The Music Mixing Workbook, provides exercises to help you learn how to mix on any DAW. Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.

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