How to use reverb in music mixing: your complete guide

How to use reverb in music mixing your complete guideUsing reverb can really enhance your mixes, giving them depth and taking your tracks to a whole other level. In this lesson, you’ll learn all you need to know about using reverb in your songs. From what reverb can be used to achieve, the different reverb types, and how to use a reverb plugin… all the way through to how to set up reverb in your mixes, and how much reverb you should use.

Before we go any further, be sure to download your free home studio bundle here (EQ cheat sheet, compression cheat sheet, & vocal guide).

What is reverb?

So first of all, what is reverb? Well, although you’ll almost certainly be applying reverb to your mixes using a plugin, the easiest way to understand what reverb is, is by knowing what happens when it occurs naturally in a room.

When an instrument makes a sound in a room, it sends sound waves out in all directions. Someone standing in that room will hear two sounds. The ‘direct sound’ and the ‘reverb’. The direct sound is the sound that travels directly from the instrument to the listener. This arrives first. Then comes the reverb. This is sound that has travelled from the instrument to surfaces in the room like the walls, ceiling, and floor, and has reflected off them before arriving to the listener.

The reverb actually occurs in two parts. There are the ‘early reflections’, which are individual reflections that have bounced off one or more surfaces before arriving to the listener. Then there is the ‘reverberant sound’, which is a collection of reflections that have bounced between multiple surfaces multiple times before arriving to the listener. With the reverberant sound, there are so many reflections, which are spaced so closely together, that the listener perceives a single merged sound.

When it comes to mixing, we can use plugins to simulate this reverb. But why exactly do we add reverb to mixes?

Uses of reverb in mixing

Reverb can be used to achieve lots of different things in mixing. Its most common uses are:

Creating depth

Reverb is great for creating depth in a mix. The more reverb you add to an instrument, the further away it sounds. The less reverb an instrument has, the closer it sounds. So you can use it to place instruments in the front or back of a mix to create depth.

Making tracks sound more natural with reverb

Often, a dry sound can feel unnatural and sometimes even uncomfortable to listen to. That’s because, although we may not always notice it, there are very few occasions when reverb is not present in enclosed spaces. Because we are exposed to reverb so frequently, we are accustomed to its presence. Accordingly, completely dry recordings can sound unnatural to us. As such, the addition of reverb can make a track sound natural and turn it into something that we are more used to.

Simulating a space with reverb

Another thing you can use reverb for is to create the impression that your music was recorded in a particular space. By sending all of the tracks in your mix to a hall reverb, for example, you can make it sound like the recording was made in a hall.

Unifying elements

Reverb can also be a great way of creating unity between different elements. In your mix, it’s not uncommon to have different instruments recorded in different places, with different mics. So by using reverb, we can give each of these different elements something in common and create some unity between them.

Increasing variation

Or alternatively, you can do the opposite. By using different reverbs on instruments that already sound quite similar, you can make each instrument more unique and make it easier to perceive each track more distinctly. So you could use one type of reverb for an electric guitar, and a different one for an acoustic guitar, for example. This is especially useful if the two instruments are playing the same part and you want each to be perceived individually.

When you load up a reverb plugin, you’ll probably see different settings like Hall, Room, Chamber, etc. Each of these settings is designed to emulate the kind of reverb that you’d hear in these kinds of spaces. Let’s have a look at what you can expect to hear when selecting different reverb types, and what they might be best suited to.

What are the types of reverb?

Hall Reverb

Hall reverbs generally have a large, thick, natural, smooth, and luscious sound with a long decay, just like you’d get in a concert hall. They are great for strings and orchestras. They can also work well on things like vocals and drums when they’re used in very controlled amounts. But be careful not to overdo it, or they can make your track sound muddy and washed out.

Room Reverb

Room reverbs emulate normal natural-sounding rooms, perhaps like the living room in your home. They generally create a neutral, tight reverb, which usually has a short decay. They work well for most instruments.

Church Reverb

Church reverbs give the impressive and immersive sound of large, highly reflective spaces with a very long decay time. They are great for things like organs, choirs and strings.

Ambience Reverb

Rather than trying to recreate any particular kind of real space, ambience reverbs generally offer a very short and indistinct sound. These are great for adding a sense of space to an instrument in a transparent way.

Chamber Reverb

Chamber reverbs are used to emulate echo chambers, which were used in the days of analogue recording long before we had the ability to add reverb to tracks digitally. This kind of reverb is less natural than something like a hall or room, but they have a lot of colour, texture and character. They work great for vocals, drums, strings, and acoustic guitar.

In addition to the reverb types that we’ve discussed so far, which are designed to create the reverb that you’d find in real spaces, your plugin will also likely give you options like spring reverb and plate reverb. These emulate the sound of equipment that was designed to produce a reverberant sound mechanically in the days of analogue recording.

Spring Reverb

Spring reverb emulates the sound of the units that were used to produce a reverberant sound by feeding a signal into coiled metal springs. This reverb type doesn’t sound particularly natural, but it still sounds great and is still very effective. Plus, due to spring reverb’s continued use, it’s a sound that we’re used to hearing on records. It’s great for vocals and guitar. But it’s not really suitable for things like percussion or any instrument with sharp transients.

Plate Reverb

Another means of creating a reverberant sound mechanically was plate reverb, in which a signal was fed to a pair of metal plates. Again, it doesn’t create the sound of a real space, but it does produce a bright, smooth sound which is great for vocals, acoustic guitars, drums, and most other instruments too.

Effects

There are also reverbs that are designed purely as effects, like reverse reverb, for example.

So, with the main reverb types that you’ll see on your reverb plugins covered, what about the rest of the reverb plugin? Well, your reverb plugin will let you tailor your chosen reverb using a number of other parameters…

Using a reverb plugin

Pre Delay

The first parameter on reverb plugins that we’ll look at is ‘pre delay’. Pre-delay controls the amount of time between the dry sound and the reverb. Adding a small delay between the dry signal, and the reverb can be really useful for a couple of reasons…

As we’ve already established, adding reverb to something places it further back in the mix. But what if you want something to stay at the front of the mix, but also to have reverb? Well, adding a delay between the dry signal and the reverb using pre-delay allows you to keep the instrument towards the front of the mix, whilst also having reverb. Introducing a delay with pre-delay can also help to maintain a signal’s clarity and presence which can sometimes suffer if the dry signal is masked by the reverb.

Decay Time

Next is ‘decay time’, which controls how long it takes for the reverb to fade to silence. Longer decay times are generally more atmospheric, whilst shorter decay times are more controlled. Be sure that your decay isn’t so long that it causes things to lack clarity or sound washed out.

Diffusion

Diffusion usually controls the dispersion of the reflections and their density. High diffusion levels sound thick, warm, smooth, and washy. Low levels sound thinner and more sparse.

Whilst high diffusion levels can sound impressive, they can also make thing sound washed out and unclear. So lowering the diffusion level can help to retain definition. That said, if the diffusion is too low, then things can sound grainy, metallic and chattery.

In general, lower diffusion settings are best for sustained sounds like strings and vocals, as it helps prevent them from sounding washed out. Whereas drums and percussive instruments sound big and thick with higher diffusion settings, with lower settings making them sound thin and metallic.

Damping

On your reverb plugin, the ‘damping’ parameter controls the absorption of the reverb’s high-frequency content over time.

Reverb’s high frequencies generally decay faster than its low frequencies. That’s because high frequencies are more easily absorbed than low frequencies.

High damping values create more high-frequency absorption and so a darker reverb. Whilst lower damping values provide less high-frequency absorption and so a brighter reverb. High-frequency damping can help to prevent things from sounding harsh. But too little high-end can make things sound muddy and lack definition.

In addition to damping controls, your plugin may have other EQ control parameters…

EQ

EQ controls on a reverb plugin may be there to EQ the signal that is going into the reverb plugin. Or they may be there to EQ the reverb that’s coming out of the plugin. Some plugins offer both. And these could be there instead of, or as well as damping parameters.

The key difference between damping parameters and EQ parameters on your reverb plugin is that damping parameters affect frequency content over time.

Wet/Dry

Finally, your reverb plugin will offer a ‘wet/dry’ parameter. This controls how much of the dry signal is mixed with the reverb. Usually, 50% means that you’ll hear an equal amount of dry signal and reverb coming out of the plugin. 0% means that you’ll only hear the dry signal. 100% means that you’ll only hear the reverb.

So, with how to control a reverb plugin covered, what are some of the factors that we need to consider when adding reverb to our mixes? Let’s start with how much reverb to use…

How much reverb to use?

Some of your favourite mixes might feature a pretty hefty amount of reverb. With others, there might be so little that you can barely tell that it’s there. But it pays to keep in mind that too much reverb can quickly make your mixes sound washed out, muddy, and lacking in clarity. With that in mind, I have a few general rules that I stick to that I find help me to keep my reverbs under control.

Add too much, then take it away

The first method I use is to start by adding a ton of reverb, and then dial it back until it sounds like there’s just the right amount of reverb to complement the dry signal. I find that if I do it the other way around, and keep increasing the reverb until I feel like there’s the right amount, I always add substantially more reverb. So this is a great way of making sure that you don’t unintentionally add too much reverb to the mix and make it sound washed out or lacking in clarity.

Dialling in the decay

Something else I like to do when dialling in the reverb is to tailor the reverb’s decay time to suit the mix. In general, I don’t want the reverb from one note, or chord, or vocal line, to spill over onto the next. So I like each snare hit’s reverb to have finished before the next snare hit comes along, for example. That way, it ensures that things don’t get washed out.

Serving the song

It also pays to think about what amount of reverb would best serve the song. For example, a long, thick, luscious reverb will often be a really welcome addition to a track made up of just vocals and acoustic guitar. But that same reverb in a mix with tons of tracks will quickly start to make the mix feel washed out and lacking in clarity. So it’s important to approach reverb in a way which will complement the kind of session you’re working on.

Next, let’s think about how many different reverb types you should use in your mix.

How many reverbs should you use?

There are no hard and fast rules here, and what works well for one song won’t necessarily work for another. But here are some of the things I keep in mind when making this decision.

Placing the performance in a space with reverb

If you want to use reverb to make it sound as if the performance took place in a particular space, like a choir singing in a church for example, then it’s best to use just one reverb type.

Creative reverb

If however, you’re not trying to emulate the sound of a performance taking place in a specific space, then you are free to mix and match as many reverbs as you think is appropriate. You could use one reverb type for the vocals. A different one for the guitars. Something else for the drums. In fact, you might even use different reverbs for different parts of the drum kit, like a healthy amount of plate on the snare, but just a touch of room on the kick.

That said, there are no prizes for using as many reverbs as you can in a mix. By using tons of different reverb types, you run the risk of your reverb becoming disjointed and distracting. So do what makes sense in the context of the song. Feel free to use a variety of reverbs if doing so achieves the effect that you’re looking for, but make sure that the variety doesn’t sound unnatural or unappealing.

With that said, let’s turn our attention to another consideration with regard to using reverb in our mixes. That is, when to use a mono reverb and when to use a stereo reverb…

Mono vs stereo

Stereo reverbs

Stereo reverbs are generally more immersive, spacious, and realistic than mono reverbs. But, this can sometimes cause problems. Stereo reverbs have a tendency to take up a lot of room in the mix. This can potentially reduce the intelligibility of dry signals, make the localisation of instruments less distinct, or make the reverb sound detached from their dry signal. But you have a couple of options…

Panning stereo reverbs

The first thing you can do is pan the position that your stereo reverb emanates from. Most reverb plugins now are ‘true stereo’, meaning that they can reflect the position of the signal being sent to them. So the reverb doesn’t have to emanate from the centre. You can pan it to emanate from the same position as the dry signal and then fill out the stereo field, which helps to improve the localisation of the instrument and prevent it from sounding detached.

Additionally, if a stereo reverb is taking up too much space in the mix by filling the whole stereo field, then you can reduce the width of the stereo reverb to make it sound narrower. You do this via the pan pots on your reverb aux channel to reduce its width. You can also use the pan pots to position it around the dry signal to maintain or improve localisation.

Mono reverbs

Although stereo reverbs can sound really impressive and immersive, mono reverbs are still really useful and often used in mixing. I really like using them for things like electric guitars. I find that sending each electric guitar to a mono reverb and panning the reverb to the same position as the dry signal makes the reverb more cohesive with its dry signal than if each was sent to a stereo reverb. It also gives each guitar a stronger position in the stereo field. And it reduces the amount of space that the reverbs take up in the mix aswell.

The next thing to consider when adding reverb to your mixes is how to EQ your reverb.

How to EQ your reverb

When you add reverb to your mix, you’re adding an entirely new signal. As such, it needs to be EQed just the same as it would if you added another instrument to your mix. A lot of reverbs allow you to EQ the signal either going into the plugin and/or coming out of the plugin. But if yours doesn’t, all you need to do is to add an EQ plugin before the reverb plugin on your reverb aux channel to EQ what goes into the plugin, or after it to EQ what comes out of the plugin. Usually, I do both…

Why EQ reverb

Reverb can often add a lot of low-end, which has the potential to make your track sound muddy and lack low-end clarity. Reverb can also really exaggerate high-frequency sounds, which can make things sound harsh and sibilant, and can prevent the dry signals from cutting through. There are a couple of ways to deal with this. The first is to EQ the signal on the way into the reverb plugin. To do this, I like to use the Abbey Road reverb trick…

The Abbey Road Reverb Trick

The Abbey Road reverb trick is achieved by adding an EQ plugin before the reverb plugin on your reverb aux channel. You then use the EQ to filter out some of the high and low-end that is sent to the reverb plugin. To do this, set a high pass filter at 600Hz and a low pass filter at 10kHz. Give both a slope of 12 – 18dB per octave and then adjust the frequencies and slopes to taste.

EQing your reverb’s output

Even when EQing the signal on its way into the reverb plugin, I also like to EQ the signal coming out of the plugin. That’s because I want the reverb to sit nicely in the mix and to sound the best that it can. So I EQ the signal coming out of the reverb plugin just as I would with any other instrument to make it fit in the mix and to sound its best.

So now, with many of the factors to consider when applying reverb in your mixes covered, let’s dive into how to actually set up the reverb in your sessions.

Insert vs aux channel

When it comes to adding reverb to your session, you can do so in one of two ways. The first way is simply to add it as an insert on a channel, just like you would when adding an EQ or compression plugin.

Alternatively, you can add reverb to your track using a reverb aux channel. Let’s have a look at both…

Inserting reverb plugins on a channel

One option for adding reverb to an instrument is simply to add the reverb as an insert directly on the instrument’s channel. You use the wet/dry parameter on the reverb plugin to control the blend of the dry signal and the reverb.

This can be useful if you only want to use that reverb for that one instrument, and you don’t want to EQ the reverb separately to the dry signal (unless it has its own EQ parameters). However, if you want more than one instrument to use that same reverb, or if you want to be able to EQ the reverb separately to the dry signal, or if you want to be able to pan the reverb separately to the dry signal, etc, then you’ll benefit from using a reverb aux channel.

Adding reverb via a reverb aux channel

When using a reverb aux channel, you create a single channel with a reverb plugin inserted on it. You then send any tracks that you want to add reverb to, to that aux channel. So you can process lots of different instruments through the same reverb plugin.

This means that you only have one reverb plugin to manage. This is usually a lot more manageable than adding the same plugin to lots of different instruments and then managing each reverb plugin individually. An additional benefit of this method is that it uses less processing power too, as you’re using just one plugin rather than multiple instances of the same plugin.

Doing this allows you to control the reverb’s EQ and panning independently of the dry signals being sent to it.

Also, this still works well even if you want to add multiple different reverbs to your mix. You simply create an aux channel for each reverb and then send your instruments to the desired reverb.

Setting up a reverb aux channel

So, how do you set up a reverb aux channel?

Begin by adding a new aux channel to your session. Aux channels are different to other channels, in that they don’t have any audio of their own. They are instead used to process and control any audio that is sent to them.

Add your chosen reverb plugin as an insert on the aux channel, and set the reverb’s wet/dry parameter to 100% wet, so that only the reverb and none of the dry signal is present on this channel.

In order for this channel to be able to receive signals, set its input to an available bus. Now, any signal that is sent on that bus will arrive to that channel and will be processed through the reverb plugin.

To send signals to the reverb aux channel, click on an available send on that signal’s channel, and select the same bus that you set the aux channel’s input to. Now, a copy of the signal from this channel will be sent to the reverb channel.

Your DAW will give you some means of controlling how much of the signal is being sent to the aux channel. Send just a little if you only want a touch of reverb. Send more if you want a greater amount of reverb.

It’s as simple as that.

Your guide to using reverb in your mixes

This lesson should act as a really good grounding on how to use reverb in your mixes. Now, all that’s left to do is to start putting what you’ve learned into action in your sessions! You can call on this lesson any time when you need to reference what reverb is used for in mixes, how the different reverb types sound, or what each of the parameters on reverb plugins do. You can also use this lesson any time for guidance on the considerations that you need to make when adding reverb to your tracks.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment box below.

Don’t forget to download your free home studio guides (EQ Cheat Sheet, Compression Cheat Sheet, Vocal Recording Guide) to use in your home studio.

And let me know, what tracks in your session do you like to add reverb to?

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