Some styles of music call for more reverb than others. But piling on plug-ins without a gameplan can quickly turn your mix into a cloudy wash of sound. To keep those all-important details intact and still get a spacey feel, here are eight tips for managing a reverb-heavy mix.
1. Use your reverb’s high-pass filter
Though there is no specific order to this list, because it is both easy to do and very effective. This tip is arguably the most important for those who prefer their mixes drenched in ‘verb.
Many reverb plug-ins (like R4 from Exponential Audio) come with filters to shape the signal on the way in and out. Squeezing out some lows prevents a buildup of murky frequencies that take up unnecessary space in the mix. These buildups are particularly noticeable on low-end content like kick drums and basslines, but it can happen with all instruments. Listen to the difference between a reverberated signal before and after a high pass filter—notice the boominess each time the kick hits in the first clip? And the lack thereof in the second?
Beyond corrective cuts, a high-pass filter also allows you to shape reverb tone for aesthetic purposes. Without any low-end sculpting, a reverb-heavy mix will lose its contours and feel dragged down in an overly dark or dreamy state, depending on the source material. This may be your goal, but you can often achieve this style with more finesse—and through more than just effects—by picking out the lows.
2. Use your reverb’s low-pass filter
On sharp sounds, like vocal consonants and clicking percussion, reverb can amplify the sibilant frequencies and introduce an unwanted ringing or slapping sound that floats over the mix. Rolling off some highs on your favorite reverb plug-in prevents this from happening while preserving the overall reverb feel.
Low-pass filters are also handy for introducing a sense of mix depth, a topic I’ve covered in detail before. A bright reverb will sound up-front, whereas a darker verb seems to come from further back in the mix. This comes down to the way we perceive sound in real-life scenarios outside of a DAW. Things that are further away from us sound quieter, but they also sound more muted as the reflections are diffused and absorbed by things and people in the surrounding environment.
3. Automate reverb parameters
All too often, a new engineer will dial in a single reverb setting and leave it as is, only to find themselves frustrated with the overall static feel of their mix when listening back to it. To elevate a mix beyond the demo stage, you must match reverb settings to the context and intensity of the music using mix automation.
Need to start your song with a bigger bang? Automate a reverb swell that flings it into action. Are reverb tails from chorus guitars carrying over to the verse and sounding sloppy? Ride the decay time to ensure a tighter transition. Want the repeat of a lyric to sound like it's being shouted from behind the lead vocalist? Automate the pre-delay higher to see if it brings the desired effect. Considered together, these decisions have a major impact on the quality of a mix.
4. Pan verbs for width
Just as we pan individual sounds to enhance the stereo image of a mix, we can add some interest to the left-right space by panning reverb returns. There are many combinations, but here are a few that works quite well:
1. To more clearly reinforce the spatial location of a sound, pan its reverb to the same (or a similar) position. For some hard-panned sounds, it can be confusing if its reverb goes off in a different direction.
2. Leave the sound in the center, but automate its reverb bus to pan back and forth to create the impression of movement. This can make for a unique special effect in sparse mixes where small details are noticeable.
3. Send a lead vocal into two separate, but complementary reverbs, and pan them hard left and right. The center will stay clear for the vocal and the sides will provide the space. Listen to the before and after of a vocal with a stereo verb and the three channel setup described here (all from Nimbus):