5 BIG Reverb Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

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Do your mixes sound flat or muddy? If so, you may be making one of these five reverb mistakes. Keep watching to learn what they are and how to avoid them.

Hey, this is Jason Moss from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today we’re gonna talk all about reverb. So if you’re struggling with reverb, if you don’t know how to use it properly, avoiding these five mistakes is a great place to start.

Mistake number one is you put it on everything.

I want you to take a look at this image of this chess piece. Notice that the chess piece looks like it’s very sharply in focus, but the background behind it is kind of blurred, right? And so it feels like it’s far away, and we have this contrast here. So certain things feel like they’re close to us and certain things feel like they’re far away, and that’s what’s giving this image depth.

Now the same concept applies in the mixing process. So if we want our mixes to have depth, to feel like they’re three-dimensional and we can kind of reach inside them, we need certain things to feel close and other things to feel far away. So the key really is to create this contrast.

Reverb is actually gonna be one of the tools we can use to do this, because reverb will push tracks back in a mix, it’ll make them sound like they’re farther away from us. If you use reverb selectively and add reverb to certain tracks so those tracks feel far away, and then leave other tracks dry or just put a little bit of reverb on other tracks so maybe they feel closer, then we have this kind of hierarchy, right, where certain things feel close, certain things feel far, and that’s when our mixes sound like they have depth and they really feel three-dimensional.

If you add reverb to everything, there’s no contrast and so there is no depth when there’s no contrast. So the key really is to add reverb selectively. Don’t put it on everything, but just put it on a few tracks and make those tracks feel far away, and then leave it off other tracks so they feel close, and when you do this right, your mix is gonna feel larger than life and three-dimensional, and you’re gonna really feel like you can reach inside it, and that’s one of the things that makes mixes sound great.

Mistake number two is you use reverb to mask problems.

Now since reverb makes tracks sound farther away, a lot of people will use it to cover up tracks that don’t sound so good in their mixes. So they’ll add a ton of reverb to a vocal if it’s kinda out of tune, or they’ll add a ton of reverb to a guitar if it isn’t played so well. This is a crutch. Your mix ends up sounding kinda murky and unclear.

Instead, deal with the problem head on. If there’s a problem track in your mix, either replay it or re-record it or just mute it entirely. Don’t use reverb to cover it up, and if you can do this your mixes are gonna sound a whole lot better.

Mistake number three is you don’t time the decay.

Now the decay time on a reverb is how long that reverb rings out, and this is one of the most important parameters you can set. Now a decay time that’s too long is gonna trample over the groove of a track, it’s gonna make the mix sound muddy and murky. But a decay time that’s too short, on the other hand, isn’t gonna adequately cover up the spaces between the notes, so you end up making the mix sound kind of thin and just anemic. It sounds kinda amateur.

Your tempo is actually gonna have a large impact on what the appropriate decay time is. Longer reverbs usually work better on slower tracks and the faster your tracks are, the shorter your reverbs are gonna need to be.

So I want to jump into my DAW real quick and show you an approach that you can use to set the decay time in your mixes.

Okay, so I have a song here called “Heroes of Hope” by Clean Green Music Machine, and I want to show you a little trick that I use to help me set my reverb decay times. Let me play you the track first.

♫ Ready to fly ♫ We are strong together ♫ We are– ♫

So you can hear we have that big backbeat on the snare on two and four. It’s really defining the groove of the track, and when you have a snare like that that’s really playing consistently on two and four, you can use it to help you set your reverb decay time.

So I’m gonna go ahead and pull this reverb up here.

Now this snare track that I have here is being fed into this reverb on this aux track, and we have the EMT 140 reverb pulled up. And I’m just gonna solo this snare, and I’m gonna play these two together so you hear the reverb coming off the snare, and I want you to listen to the way that reverb tail is interacting with the snare. So how long does it ring out? Is it trampling over the snare? Is it getting out of the way of the snare? How is it interacting with the snare? So take a listen.

So you can hear that that reverb tail is timed so it gets out of the way, it kinda fades out right before that next snare hits. So it’s not ringing out so long that it’s getting in the way of the next hit. It’s covering the space between the snare hits but it gets out of the way right before that next snare hits.

So this is a good example of a proper reverb time. It’s covering the space but it’s not getting in the way. It’s not causing muddiness by ringing out too long and kind of trampling over the groove of the track.

So now I want to play this again and I’m gonna slow down the reverb time so you can get a sense for what a reverb time sounds like when it’s kind of getting in the way.

So you can hear that’s much slower, right? And it’s ringing out over the next hits, so it’s kind of smearing the groove.

And now on the other hand we can also set a reverb time that’s too slow, so let’s take a listen to that.

So you can hear that reverb is really short and it doesn’t adequately cover the space between those snare hits, so there’s kind of this empty space between the snare hits.

The trick is, you want to time the reverb so that it’s covering the space between those notes, but it doesn’t ring out so long that it’s getting in the way. And if you have a snare drum like this, because it’s defining the tempo of the song, it can really help you figure out what that reverb time looks like. So using the snare drum as a guide to time your reverbs can be really helpful, and whenever I have a snare drum like this that’s hitting consistently on two and four and really defining the groove of the track, this is what I use to help me set the perfect reverb decay time.

Mistake number four is you use too much.

Now you want to be very careful when you’re adding reverb, because too much can easily obscure the clarity of tracks in your mix and it can easily tank a track. You really want reverb to be something you feel more than you hear.

A good rule of thumb is if you’re adding reverb to a track, turn the fader up until you can start to hear the reverb and then back it off a little bit. By doing this, you’re gonna create a more subtle sense of depth in your mix. It’s not gonna be something you notice, but you’d miss it if you muted it. If you can do this, your mixes are gonna sound a whole lot better. You’re just gonna create a much more natural sense of space without kind of clouding your mixes up and making them sound kind of murky and muddy.

Mistake number five is you ignore pre-delay.

Now pre-delay is one of those parameters that a lot of people don’t really understand or maybe they ignore, but it’s really important and you can use it to help craft space and depth in your mixes while retaining clarity and really making sure that key tracks remain up front in your mixes.

Let’s say you’re adding reverb to a vocal. As you add reverb to a vocal, the vocal gets pulled back in the mix and it sounds like it’s farther away. But oftentimes you want the vocal to stay upfront and right in the center of the mix. You want it to kind of stick out in front of everything else, and so if you add a little bit of pre-delay, what happens is there’s a little bit of space between that vocal and when the reverb hits, and so our ear actually separates the sound of the reverb from the vocal instead of fusing them together. Now we hear the sound of the vocal and then we hear the reverb a couple milliseconds later, and our ear perceives them as two separate sounds. So the vocal is actually gonna remain up front and center and then the reverb gets pushed back. It’s kind of the best of both worlds. It will give you that sense of space and depth on the vocal while keeping the vocal up front in the mix.

So I want to show you exactly how this sounds, so let’s jump into my DAW and I’ll give you kind of a before/after example of pre-delay on a vocal.

So this is a track called “Joshua” by Leah Capelle. Let me play you a little bit of the bridge.

♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free ♫

Cool. So you can hear it’s kind of an ethereal breakdown kind of 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 going to 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, you know, 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 want to 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 plugin, and the only thing that I’ve done, I haven’t changed any of the other settings except pull down this pre-delay back to zero where it is by default when you pull up the plugin. So this is gonna allow us to compare the reverb both with and without pre-delay.

So first I want to play it with pre-delay, and I want you to listen to where the vocal is sitting in the soundstage, so almost close you 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.

♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will– ♫

And now I’m gonna play you without the pre-delay.

♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free, I– ♫

Again, with pre-delay.

♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free, I– ♫

And without pre-delay.

♫ I will be free, I will be free here ♫ I will be free– ♫

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, but 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.

So I hope you found this video helpful, and if you avoid these five mistakes your mixes are gonna sound a lot more three-dimensional, they’re gonna have a lot more depth, and they’re also gonna sound a lot clearer.

Now if you’re looking to dive deeper, I put together a free reverb cheatsheet with tips and tricks for adding reverb to common instruments, as well as my favorite reverb plugins. This is gonna help you approach reverb with clarity and confidence, so you can use it like a pro in your next mix.

You can download it by clicking the link in the description or in the video and you’ll get free instant access.

For more mixing tips, you can also check out my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com. Thanks so much.

Video features music by Clean Green Music Machine and Leah Capelle.