Avoiding Crimes Against Reverb: 5 Ways to Avoid the Most Common Reverb Mixing Mistakes

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A Danish concert hall, designed with memorable reverb in mind. Image by seier+seier.

Reverb is an incredible resource. It’s a staple in sound design and mixing. Producers, musicians, and mixers alike use reverb not just as an effect—but as a tool.

Since the dawn of the recording age, engineers have gone to great lengths to fight bad reverb, while desirable reverb has been sought after.

But despite the best of intentions—and a wealth of powerful processors—many new mixers do not understand how to use reverb effectively.

Mixes across the board are often riddled with errors and counter-productive use of reverb. Fortunately, many of these mistakes are easily remedied. It just requires that you know what to look and listen for.

Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common issues when it comes to employing reverb, and a few strategies on how to avoid each of them. Take note, and happy mixing!

1) “Washing Out” Your Tracks

Reverb can be beautiful. The spatial resonance and stereo image that a good reverb provides can make a mix come to life, adding a sense of space that allows a track to breathe across the stereo field.

However, reverb, when used in excess, can give diminishing returns. The phrase, “too much of a good thing” certainly rings true here.

The term “washed out” refers to a sound that is too heavily-saturated with reverb, often to the point where the reverb’s influence is greater than that of the underlying track.

When reverb is caked on to a track like this, one of two things will often happen:

1) In a dry mix, the washed-out track will stick out like a sore thumb.

If the rest of your mix is relatively dry, and you decide to wash out, say, a vocal track, it will sound unnatural and disconnected from the rest of arrangement.

Yes, reverb is an “effect”, and it can be used in ways that are wacky and creative. Yet in most instances, reverb should be used as a tasteful effect that makes sense in the sonic environment you are creating.

2) When paired with other “wet” tracks, the entire mix will become muddy.

Unfortunately, adding reverb to all the other elements in the mix is not the fix for this issue. If many tracks in a mix get slushed up with a washed-out sounding reverb, then the entire mix will become nothing but a maelstrom of swampy sound.

Proper reverb use—even when it’s prominent—should sonically enhance the presentation of an instrument rather than dominate it. And when used well, reverb can actually improve clarity. But whenever you “wash out” a track, that sonic clarity is compromised.

This compromise in audio clarity occurs when reverb reflections overlap with one another too much. You may already know that reverb is created when a sound wave is reflected off of a surface. When those reflections are loud or intense enough, they will induce more reflections, creating reflections of those reflections, and so on, until they are so numerous that they blend into the effect we know as “reverb”.

If we let things get out-of-control, then this chaotic feedback loop of reflections can cover up all the detail and the most articulate components of the audio source (especially in the all-important midrange frequencies), leaving it sounding muddy and blurred.

Fortunately, there are a few surefire ways to help you avoid “washing out” your tracks, even when a heavy dose of reverb is just what the mix needs.

How to Avoid It:

–Try adding “pre-delay” to your reverbs as a matter of habit. 30ms is often a good place to start. This delays the reverb from kicking in until the selected time has passed.

Pre-delay effectively allows the initial transients, attack, impact, and articulation of the instrument to shine on its own before the reverb tail swells up behind it to add depth, weight and interest to the note’s sustain. This is also how reverb tends to work in large spaces in real life.

Since pre-delay effectively separates the reverb tail from the dry track, it can be even more apparent to the ear at a lower overall level, allowing you to reduce the amount of reverb and sonic clutter you add to the mix while still achieving the same sense of ambience and space.

In some genres, timing a quick pre-delay to the tempo of the track can feel appropriate, giving it purposeful rhythmic feel at longer settings, and helping it blend into the track less intrusively at shorter settings.

–Add an EQ to your reverb bus. If you use just a touch of reverb to create a sense of space and enhancement in the high-end, the track will cut through a mix without things sounding cluttered.

This may require EQ on your reverb sends or returns. Many modern reverb plugins allow you to EQ your reverb sends and returns. If yours doesn’t, you can always add an EQ before or after your reverb on the reverb bus.

Try cutting lows and low mids using a shelving or highpass filter to reduce the weight and space that a reverb takes up in the mix. Alternately, try reducing the high end with a shelf or a high pass filter to create a dedicated reverb that adds some weight and body to thin, higher-frequency instruments.

–Try delays instead of reverbs to get a similar sense of space with less clutter. Sometimes, simple is better.

2. Inappropriate Reverb Placement

Many beginners will put reverb on everything. Reverb makes things sound better right?

Well, not necessarily.

Reverb is a powerful effect that has an appropriate place for use. But some tracks simply do not need additional reverb.

Most of the time, and on most instruments in a mix, any reverb should feel natural and balanced. In many cases, there will already be enough natural ambience on many of your recorded tracks to do just that. So don’t just go adding reverb to elements because you think you’re “supposed” to.

If you’re unfamiliar with how a natural and balanced reverb should sound, there are many ways you can train your auditory palate:

First, attend good live shows. Make a point to listen to the sonic response of different rooms and spaces.

Second, try recording an playing instruments in a variety of rooms. Get to know how frequencies react in their respective environments. Experiment with putting up a room mic on a variety of sources to get a feel for what natural reverb sounds like.

Third, listen to hit records—especially older ones where the production has stood the test of time. Forty years ago, it was commonplace for engineers to incorporate natural reverbs through both mic techniques and post-processing, and the best of them crafted mixes that still sound great and timeless today.

How to Avoid It:

–Before applying reverb, ask yourself whether the track really needs it. What are you trying to accomplish? And is reverb necessarily the best tool to do it?

If a track sounds too “close”, then softening the high end or adding a touch of subtle delay can push it back in the speakers slightly without adding clutter.

If a track sounds lifeless or uninteresting, then you might try brightening it up, or adding saturation, delay or modulation to impart some intrigue and character without the mess.

–If you absolutely must apply a little bit of reverb to lend a sense of “space” or depth-of-field to an inappropriately dry track, try starting with very short room reverbs or plates, under 1 second in length.

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