Digital reverb plays two key roles in music production: giving specific sounds sonic character and helping individual parts sit better in the mix.
Used in these ways, reverb is an incredibly powerful tool, and using reverb to create depth in a mix is a skill in itself. But reverb can also be used as a creative effect, bringing life and interest to a mix.
The tools at our disposal for the walkthroughs below will be delay plugins (even a simple mono delay will work, but one with a few filtering and modulation options makes things more interesting) and reverbs (the algorithmic rather than impulse response variety tends to be more flexible, but start with one you are familiar with).
The other essential tool for many of the examples is the DAW’s in-built parameter automation, so if you aren’t already familiar with this side of music production then now’s the time to dive in.
The examples below were created using Cubase but the techniques are applicable to nearly every DAW out there.
Automated reverb build
One of the simplest and most effective reverb effects is the now near-ubiquitous reverb build. The effect is easily achieved using a quality reverb plugin and your DAW’s native automation capabilities.
To achieve the effect start by opening a new reverb on a group / bus track. The reverb needs to have a a long (slowly decaying) tail; try chamber or hall settings or even long plates. Adjust the low frequency decay to remove the lows (if available) to minimise muddiness. If this isn’t possible then insert a high-pass filter before (or even after) the reverb. The TC Classic Reverb, below, offers beautifully smooth tails.
When you’ve got a verb setting that you like, start adding reverb using the synth track’s FX ‘send’ control. Using a track’s send allows you to control how much of the synth audio is sent to the reverb processor.
The final step, and the one which creates the ever building reverb wall, is to draw in an automation curve – or diagonal line – on the synth track from 0 to maximum (or near maximum) send. Once this is in place ensure that the automation plays-back OK (it will usually need to be write or read-enabled).
The result is a synth part that gets ever more swamped in reverb. When the synth part drops out the reverb creates an ambient halo as the tail fades away.
This effect works best on mid and higher frequency sounds as they do not clutter the mix as much as reverb-drenched bass elements, but it’s worth experimenting with anything from vocals to percussive elements, pads to synth toplines.
Percussive reverb hits
A second trick, which has gained popularity among minimal and tech-house producers, is to use subtle and occasionally not-so-subtle reverb splashes to pick out selected drum and percussive hits to add interest and variation to a groove.
The trick works by using automation in a similar way to above, but only on select single hits. The classic example is on the first kick drum of a breakdown.
A more subtle refinement of this technique is to use it on snare or clap hits on the last downbeat of a bar. Mid-length reverb treatments work better here.
The same technique is equally useful during rolling grooves to introduce subtle shades of sonic colour: just pick out individual hits, feed them to the send and then let the verb tail roll into the groove. Try sidechaning the tail to make it breathe in time with the wider rhythm.
You may find that automating the reverb send on/off status (rather than the level) makes things a little when handling short hits.
Vocal Delay and Reverb Spin FX
Spot FX work as well using delays as reverb. If you’re looking to make different sections of a track flow together then delay spot FX are a useful tool to throw into the mix.
Vocal sections can be neatly rounded-off with an automated feedback delay effect. Add a delay plugin to a bus as in the reverb example above. 1/8th or 1/4 note delays work well, as do triplet settings. The feedback should be pushed up to give a noticeable series of repeats. If there is a filter section in the feedback chain then roll away the low (and high) frequencies to avoid audio clutter.
Here’s the vocal delay spin effect in action:
There’s nothing stopping you from automating the feedback tail as well:
Anything in the tail can be automated, from repeat amounts, to delay time (try changing this for some seriously messy builds) to low and high-pass frequency values. Here’s what the above vocal delay automation looks like in Cubase:
Another classic reverb effect – perhaps THE classic – is the time-honoured ‘reverse reverb’. You know the sound, most commonly heard as a spooky reversed reverb leading into a vocal: the classic ‘Poltergeist’ effect. Dating back to the days of multitrack tape, the effect is relatively easy to achieve. Here’s how you get it:
1. Take the audio that you want to process.
2. Make a copy of it and move it to another track.
3. Reverse the copied audio.
4. Set up a reverb plugin as an insert effect across the reversed track. Set it to 100% effect.
5. Bounce/export the result to a third track.
6. Reverse this newly bounced reverbed audio.
7. Tweak the start position of the new audio file so that it ‘rises’ into the original unprocessed audio.
8. Job done.
This technique isn’t just for vocals. It sounds great on synth parts (it’s very popular among deep house producers), drums, percussive layers – even basslines if used sparingly.
Here’s an unprocessed synth line:
Here’s the same line with the reverse reverb effect:
Here’s an even more extreme setting:
And here’s how it looks in the DAW:
As with reverb spot FX, you can use delay to create interesting reversed delays. Here’s an example using reverse delay on our original synth line:
Try experimenting with different delay times, feedback values and filter settings for a wide variety of effects:
Cause and effect
The above techniques are great for getting you out of a creative rut, especially when trying to find something to make your arrangement work more seamlessly, or add interest to any kind of hook line.
Remember that the reverb or delay parameter settings you use will have a dramatic effect on the success (or otherwise) of all of these tips, so spend time experimenting with values before committing to them.