How To Use Reverb To Make Your Vocals Sound Pro (Simple Mixing Tips)
Now, before we get started, I put together a free vocal mixing cheatsheet that’s packed with additional tips and tricks for making your vocals sound professional. Click the link the description below or up there on the video to download this free vocal mixing cheatsheet right now.
So, the first vocal reverb tip I have for you today is to use pre-delay. Pre-delay is a little-known parameter on most reverb plugins that basically allows you to separate the sound of the dry vocal from the reverb with a short delay. And the reason why this is helpful is because reverb usually pushes things back in a mix, so it makes them sound further away from us. Sometimes, this is what you want. You don’t want something to be front and center, so you add a little bit of reverb to it, and the reverb kinda pulls it back in the soundstage, but with vocals, a lot of the time, you want that vocal to be front and center. You want it to be the thing that feels like it’s the closest to you in the mix.
If you wanna add reverb to a vocal, but you still want that vocal to remain front and center, by adding a little pre-delay to that reverb, the dry vocal separates from the reverb, and so your brain no longer perceives them as one single sound. The reverb gets pushed back in the mix, but the vocal remains up front. It’s a great way to keep your vocals front and center, but still get all the benefits of the sound of the reverb in your mixes.
Next, I wanna jump into my DAW and show you the difference between a vocal with and without pre-delay, so you can get a sense for what this effect can do for your vocals.
This is a track called “Joshua” by Leah Capelle. Let me play you a little bit of the bridge.
Cool, so you can hear it’s kind of an ethereal breakdown kinda section, and I wanted the vocal to be drowned in reverb, I wanted it to feel like we were ascending to heaven, but what I found was, when I added that much reverb, the vocal just kept getting pulled back in the soundstage, and it just felt like it was sitting behind the other instruments.
So, what I ended up doing, you can see, I’m gonna pull up the reverb that I used. All I did, there’s a parameter on this UAD EMT 140 reverb, pre-delay, and I just dialed in a little bit of that pre-delay, so it’s probably around 30 milliseconds or so. The exact number doesn’t matter so much, but essentially, this allowed me to keep the vocal up front in the mix, while adding a lot of reverb, so I got the benefit of both.
Now, what I wanna do is compare the sound of this reverb, with the pre-delay and without the pre-delay. So, I’ve gone ahead and duplicated this plug-in, and the only thing that I’ve done, I haven’t changed any of the other settings, except pulled down this pre-delay, back to zero where it is by default when you pull up the plug-in. So, this is gonna allow us to compare the reverb, both with and without pre-delay.
So, first I wanna play it with pre-delay, and I want you to listen to where the vocal is sitting in the soundstage. So almost close your eyes, and imagine whether the vocal is sitting right in front of you, or maybe a couple feet back, or far back in the mix. Just try to place that vocal in space. So, let me play you with the pre-delay first.
And now, I’m gonna play you without the pre-delay.
Again, with pre-delay.
And without pre-delay.
Now, it’s a really subtle change, so it might be a little bit difficult to hear, but to me, the vocal sounds like it takes a step back without the pre-delay. It almost feels like it just gets pushed a foot back in the mix. And this might be okay. I mean, it’s not always a bad thing. In this circumstance, since I really want that vocal to be front and center, the pre-delay allows me to just bring the vocal forward a little bit.
So, it’s a subtle shift, and if you’re listening on headphones, you might not get that sense of switch, because headphones are not gonna give you that same representation of the soundstage, so I would recommend listening to this on speakers if you can, but go ahead and go back and play this again, and just listen for the difference and try to place the vocal in space, and you’ll find that with that pre-delay engaged, the vocal takes a step forward in the mix. It sounds like it’s just a little bit closer to us.
This is something that can make a big impact, particularly if you’re working with a mix that’s really busy, where there are a lot of tracks competing for space. This can just allow you to move the vocal forward, and just make it cut through just a little bit more in the mixing process.
The second tip is to time the tail. Now, when I say tail, I’m referring to how long the reverb rings out over time. So, does it decay very quickly and cut off right away, or does it ring out over an extended period of time?
This is one of the most important parameters you can set, and it can really make the difference between a vocal that sounds clear and intelligible, and a vocal that sounds muddy and murky, where we really can’t understand the words or phrases. In general, you wanna set the reverb time so that the reverb covers the space in between the words, but kind of cuts off right before the next word or phrase hits, so you don’t want it to be so long that the reverb is ringing out over the next phrase or the next word. You just wanna make it long enough so it’s covering that space.
Now, if you do this right, you can add a sense of space and depth to a vocal, while retaining the clarity and the intelligibility that’s so important within a vocal performance.
I wanna jump into my DAW real quick and show you how I set the reverb time when I’m applying reverb to the vocals in my mixes.
Okay, so we’re back in Pro Tools, I have this song here, “Joshua” again, by Leah Capelle, and I wanna just show you the way that I think about setting reverb decay times in my mixing process.
So, let me play you this vocal. Now, I’ve just solo’d it, so we’re just hearing the vocal alone, and I wanna pull up this reverb here.
So, this is the only reverb that I have on this lead vocal, and I want you to listen to the way that the reverb kinda fills in the spaces between the notes, but it doesn’t kind of hang over the next notes, so it kind of gets out of the way right before the next note hits in the vocal performance. So let’s take a listen.
So, the reverb is kinda filling in those spaces, right? But it’s not hanging over too long and kind of blurring the notes.
So, I wanna just show you the difference between this decay time, and a decay time that I think is too long, so let’s crank this decay time up. Now, this is the EMT 140 reverb again, and this parameter here is basically just controlling how long that reverb kind of rings out over time. So, in your reverb plug-in, this might be called RT-60, or decay time, or tail, or something like that, but they all basically do the same thing, so I’ve cranked this up from around two seconds to maybe around five seconds. So let’s take a listen to this now.
So, see how the reverb kind of rings out, and kind of blurs the next note in the singer’s performance? So this is a great example of a reverb time that’s too long, and if you’re hearing this, you generally wanna back up on the decay time and make things decay a little bit more quickly.
So, on the other hand, let me show you a reverb time that’s too fast. Let’s take this down, and I’ll play this again. So, you can hear the reverb, but it’s not ringing out long enough where it’s covering the space in between the notes.
Now, in some circumstances, a short reverb time like this might actually be appropriate if you’re trying to recreate the sound of a small room, where you really don’t wanna hear the tail of the reverb, so this isn’t always a bad thing, but in general, especially for a ballad like this, I’m looking for the reverb to fill in those spaces. I wanna hear something that kind of rings out a little bit longer, and kind of covers those spaces between the notes. So, right around two seconds here, I’m just gonna play this one more time again, and I want you to listen again to how that reverb is filling up the spaces between the notes, but just getting out of the way right before the next note hits.
So, again, and you saw me adjusting this reverb time while the vocal was playing, and I’m really trying to find that spot where, again, the reverb fills in the spaces, but just gets out of the way right before the next note or phrase in the vocalist’s performance.
And the third tip is to EQ the return. A lot of people don’t think about the fact that reverb is really just another track in your mix. You can add effects to your reverb returns, and process them, and do just about anything you do to a normal track.
For example, one of the things that I commonly do within my mixing process is high-pass my reverb returns. A lot of the times, that low end on the bottom end of the reverb just gets in the way. It obscures the kick in the bass, and a lot of times, you don’t really need it. Getting rid of that excess low end energy can allow you to hear the sound of the reverb without obscuring the clarity on the low end of your tracks.
The other thing that you may wanna consider doing is actually rolling off some of the top end. A lot of the times, that top end kind of gives the sound of the reverb away. It makes it sound artificial and unnatural. By rolling off a little bit of the top end on your reverb returns, you can create a more natural sense of space and depth in a mix, without drawing attention to the reverb, and without kind of making it sound artificial and unnatural.
The moral of the story here is, don’t be afraid to process, especially EQ, your reverb returns, and by shaping them to fit better within the context of your mix, you’ll end up with a sense of depth and space that just fits a lot better and sounds more natural within the context of your track.
So, I hope you enjoyed these three tips, and if you’re looking to dive a little bit deeper, I put together a free vocal mixing cheatsheet that’s packed with additional tips and tricks that I didn’t have time to cover here. You can click the link in the description below or in the video, and you’ll get instant access right now. And if you want more vocal mixing tips like these, check out my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.
Video features music by Leah Capelle.