Following last month's introduction to reverb , we take you through the tips and tricks of some of the world's best producers — many of whom are thinking about the reverb sound they want long before they get to the mix.
"The ultimate feeling of a good record [is] having various spaces that you feel you're in." Whether or not you agree with Phil Ramone here, there's no denying the importance of a sense of acoustic depth, and the reverb that primarily delivers it, in music production. Most articles on reverb, however, tend to deal simply with applying digital reverbs at mixdown, but while this is clearly an important technique, many of the most successful albums have created their reverb sound by other means, and sometimes without any artificial reverb at all. So for this feature I've brought together the techniques and opinions of more than 70 of the world's top engineers and producers, to try to give a more wide-ranging and realistic view of how reverb is used at all the different stages of the record-making process.
One of the fundamental questions that every producer needs to answer is: at what stage is this record going to acquire whatever reverb it needs? At one extreme you have this approach from Butch Vig: "[I'd] started getting more and more into recording everything very dry, and getting away from ambient mics... Everything would be really in your face, and then if you wanted to add reverb or echo later you could. You could put it farther back in the mix, but if we wanted something to be way up front in the mix you could also do that."
Despite this obvious practical advantage of keeping recordings dry, most producers acknowledge that natural reverb still has a lot to offer a production in terms of a sense of realism and size, even in these days of convolution processing. As a result, the practice of recording additional ambient mics to separate tracks during tracking has become widespread, because it give a sort of 'best of both worlds' option — real reverb over which you still have some separate control at mixdown. And by far the most common context within which ambient mics are mentioned is that of recording drums — despite his comments above, even Butch Vig admits being partial: "I will put ambient mics on the drums, but I also like to have tight mics."
Although the default drum ambience setup certainly seems to be a stereo pair of some description, variations are many and various. While recording the Pixies, for example, Gil Norton kept things simple with a single high mic over the kit, and the band Athlete took a similar approach. Going in the other direction, Joe Barresi, Dave Eringa, Eddie Kramer and Dave Tickle have all stated a preference for a third mono mic in addition to the pair: "I love to use a combination of a stereo and a mono room mic," enthuses Barresi, "so nine out of 10 times I'll have three tracks of ambience." Chris Thomas, Bill Price and Ian Little go a step further, using two ambient pairs in different positions, but Roy Thomas Baker leaves them all in the dust: "One set of drums was set up in the Coach House live room, on top of the stage that the band [the Darkness] uses on the road. So the bass drum was halfway between the floor and the ceiling, equidistant to all eight corners of the room, and we had ambient microphones in each of the eight corners, plus close microphones and overhead mics. Typically we would use 36 microphones to record the drums, but we would have nearly double that amount set up."
Using ambient mics for drums may be old news for some readers, but the same kinds of techniques also appear to be fairly common currency for other instruments too. Ken Nelson, for instance, uses a separate ambient mic for acoustic guitar: "What I tend to do sometimes is have something like a KM84 cardioid mic, and I'll have, say, a 414 set on figure-of-eight as a room mic. That way you get a bit of the room sound." As I discussed in greater detail back in my SOS August 2007 feature (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug07/articles/guitaramprecording.htm), electric guitars are also routinely recorded with an additional room mic by luminaries such as Al Schmitt, Chris Tsangarides and Tony Visconti. "I always record [the room sound] if it's a real heavy rock guitar with power chords and crunches and all," remarks Visconti. "I'll go around the room and clap my hands and I say, 'Put the mics there, that's it.' Quite often, I'll turn the room mic towards the studio window, and I'll get a reflection of the guitar sound — not directly facing it, because you're looking for reflections."
Electronic instruments are by no means exempt, either. Both Gareth Jones and Joe Chiccarelli have recorded amplified synths with ambient mics, while Andy Grassi adopted a similar ruse for MPC-programmed tracks when working with Wyclef Jean — in his words, "I always want to try to have things that actually move air on the tracks."
For some projects, though, ambience is so important to the desired sonics that it makes sense to leave several sets of room mics set up at all times, a time-saver that has been described by both Roy Thomas Baker and Joe Chiccarelli. "[The White Stripes] work extremely quickly," said Chiccarelli, "and expected me to be ready to record at any time, so I had several sets of room ambience microphones set up in the studio. When they began to play a song, I could quickly push up the faders and choose which microphones best suited the songs."
Even if you don't use it at all in the final stereo mix, recording an ambient mic during your tracking sessions can pay dividends, as Tony Visconti discovered when revisiting his recordings for T Rex's Electric Warrior: "Back in the '60s, my mentor Denny Cordell told me that it would always be useful to keep an open mic in the room, but I don't think he realised how useful this would be in the year 2003 when you're doing a 5.1 mix and you have an ambient mic that gives you a kind of time delay. It makes you go 'Aha, so this was the size of the studio that the band was in.' You get more reality that way."
Of course, if you're confident that you can judge the ambience levels right while recording, a quicker method of incorporating ambience into your recordings is simply to move a single mic further away from the source. Bob Bullock takes this tack with fiddle players, for example ("You want the room, not the rosin!"), while Ben Hillier and Alan Parsons apply the same principle to electric guitars. "I've always thought that most people mic amps too closely," says Parsons. "They supposedly make it up with an ambient mic, but I much prefer to find a mic position that works and process that, rather than mix in too much ambience."
If you're going to go for the single-mic approach, though, you'd be wise to err on the dry side if you're in any doubt. "The same thing applies as with compression," says Scott Kieklak. "You can always put more ambience on later, but you can't take off what you've already recorded." The way Johnny Dollar went about fitting the live parts around the Bob Dylan loop in Gabrielle's hit song 'Rise' also provides a good psychological strategy for the less experienced recordist when it comes to gauging the correct ambience levels. For those sessions "it was a case of setting the musicians up in the room and then wandering around with the mics until whatever we were recording sounded like it was in the record."
Reverb can also be captured when miking up ensembles. While many multi-room studios are specifically set up to record groups of musicians playing together without any spill occurring between their different mics, many high-profile producers eschew this approach in favour of using spill creatively as a kind of reverb. Al Schmitt's mastery of this recording style has netted him multiple Grammys: "You know, a lot of guys are afraid of the leakage problems in the studio, and I try to explain that if you use good microphones and you get this leakage, sometimes it's your best friend in the studio, helping to make something sound much bigger than it really is."
"You just have to keep your wits about you and your ears open," adds Mike Thorne, "so that when [spill] does happen you can use this extra ambience which wasn't calculated... We've recorded up to seven people with no separation whatsoever. Various instrumental-type arrangements, quite odd sections such as bassoon, gong and upright bass, so you can't put screens up, but with careful mic and personnel placement you optimise the bleed and the amount of it, so you get to the point where it sounds pretty realistic without using artificial reverb at all."
Tony Platt also recommends similar ideas, and details how you go about making the concept work: "Most important is that the nature of the bleed from one instrument to another is in context with the instrument that is receiving it. If you've got guitar sound going down the drum microphones, you don't want it to be a guitar sound that's going to compromise the guitar sound that you eventually want. If you have a nasal guitar sound coming down the drum mic but you want the guitar to sound big and warm, then one could compromise the other so it's necessary to be aware of the fact that you don't just have to blend the primary sounds, you also have to blend the ambience of those sounds."
"I'll go and move things around quite a bit to make the spill work," adds S Husky Hoskulds. "For example, if I'm recording drums, piano, and acoustic guitar, I'll often run out while people are getting sounds and move the piano mic further away to match the ambience in the acoustic guitar mic, and then pan them left and right. That way the piano and guitar mics actually include half of the drum sound. A lot of the organ stuff that you hear on [Solomon Burke's] Don't Give Up On Me is well set back in the mix, and I got that sound by using the spill from the acoustic guitar mic in the next room. With the mics panned in a certain way you get a kind of 'stretch' across the stereo field. There's no reverb on the track except for what was going on in the room."
Before anyone comes away with the idea that this approach might lead to a washy, over-reverberant sound, Steve Hodges' recordings for the Wild Magnolias debut album demonstrate how tight a sound can be achieved without separation as long as you use a suitably damped acoustic environment. "[The live room] was super-dead," says Hodge. "What ambience there is comes from the fact that there were so many open microphones. The walls were very non-reflective and that meant no standing waves or bass node build-up. The sound is incredibly tight and punchy. So much so that we used that same way of recording with Lou Rawls when he demanded that he be able to sing the 'keeper' lead vocals in the same room with and at the same time as the band. We set up a C12 for him and let him rip and you'd never know there was no isolation between him and the band."
One potential problem with recording room ambience is that of achieving the correct character — after all, real rooms don't come with the adjustable parameters you find on digital reverberators. Craig Leon puts it succinctly: "If you're trying to get an organic [drum] sound, the room means so much more than which specific mic you're using."
For this reason, those people who like their reverb real tend to be pretty proactive in capitalising on all the different acoustic spaces available to them, seeking out the best sound to suit each track. Here's Ben Hillier talking about recording Blur's album Think Tank, for example: "[The reverb in the main live room] was mental and we wanted to get a much drier sound. The only place to do that was outside, which is about as dry as you can get. Those were the options — either completely dry or completely roomy. There were some smaller rooms there as well, including a derelict bathroom that was great for vocals."
A tried and trusted technique is to record close mics in one space while simultaneously recording ambient mics in a more acoustically reflective adjacent area. Corridors are a firm favourite, with Rich Costey, Simon Dawson and Ben Hillier all taking advantage. In the last case, this trick enabled Hillier to record the drums for a Tom McRae album in his small programming room: "If I needed more ambience, I'd just open the door to the corridor and stick a mic down the end. It makes for a more colourful sound." Stairwells have also served faithfully on hit albums from engineers such as Bob Clearmountain (Roxy Music's Avalon), Jason Corsaro (Madonna's Like A Virgin), Don Smith (The Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge), and Al Stone (Jamiroquai's Supersonic).
Bathrooms are a similarly frequent choice, the unique live character imparted by the typical hard tiled surfaces getting the thumbs up from people like Joe Barresi, Jason Corsaro, Jack Douglas and Ben Hillier. A recurring refrain here is that they're particularly good for vocal recording, a finding corroborated by Steve Bush's experiences recording the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones in the small stone room at Real World studios: "The vocals had a really rich enhanced sound... All the best singing went down in this particular room, because of its sound... The ambience helped the vocals sit in the mix well, because the tone of the space is just right."
Even if the right ambience isn't immediately on hand, though, that doesn't stand between real professionals and the sound they're after — they just roll their sleeves up and set about altering acoustics with whatever comes to hand. For example, Bob Clearmountain got creative to achieve the rock drum sound of Brian Adams' Reckless despite a dead-sounding live room: "I walked around and found a door off to the side of the studio that led into a loading bay [which] had this incredible sound... We decided it would be kind of awkward to have Mickey the drummer in a whole different room, so I set up the kit right in front of the door, got these gobos on which one side was a real hard wood surface, and made a big funnel-shaped device that focused the sound through the door into the loading bay. I put a couple of room mics in there, and that's how we got our big rock drum sound. Then I found these big 4' x 8' pieces of sheet metal [which we put up] on the walls around where the drums were set up, just to try to get some ambience... It was interesting, to say the least, and was further proof that you can pretty much achieve anything anywhere."
This is by no means an isolated example. Chris Tsangarides was using screens to simulate a bass bin when he came up with his 'vortex' technique for guitar recording, while Hugh Padgham turned to a variety of impromptu and commercial acoustic treatments when keeping reverb under control for The Police: "Apart from the old thing of closing curtains, putting rugs on the floor, and gaffer-taping bits of carpet onto the walls, we also used studio screens, as well as things called Tube Traps. If, for instance, someone is playing an acoustic guitar in a quite reverberant room, you can surround the microphone, the player, and the instrument with some of these Tube Traps and they'll radically change the reverberant characteristic of the sound."
The search facility on the SOS web site is an easy way to access a huge archive of interviews with many of the world's top producers. Mike Senior's research for this article was based on published interviews with 70 of the world's top producers, and if his article leaves you wanting to read more about their recording and mixing techniques, you can find the interviews either in Howard Massey's Behind The Glass (details elsewhere in this article) or in the Sound On Sound online article archive at www.soundonsound.com. Just enter the producer's name in the search box and click on the link to the relevant interview, as indicated in the screen below.
There are lots of examples of engineers using electrical means to tailor the room sound as well. For example, when Chris Kimsey had decided to record The Rolling Stones all together in one room for their hit 'Start Me Up', he used a PA fed from the close mics to boost the level of ambience on Charlie Watts' snare drum, helping it match the ambience from several cranked guitar amps. And this technique is used by a number of different producers, even when there are no other instruments set up: Steve Churchyard fed some snare signal through a small Yamaha PA when engineering the Pretenders, while Chris Fogel and Jack Douglas both describe using powered subwoofers to fill out the bottom end of the kick.
Dynamics processing can mould the recorded ambience by adjusting its decay characteristics. "Nine out of 10 times, the room sound will be compressed to some extent," says Joe Barresi. "Sometimes it may be severely compressed on what I call 'Full Canadian' setting, with all buttons pressed in and to the right. I like the EMI compressor for its fast attack. I often use the room mics for reverb, rather than adding reverb from a digital box."
The other time-honoured dynamics process here is gating, typically with the gate's side-chain keyed from one of the close-miked tracks in the arrangement. Few SOS readers will be unaware of the most famous example of this, created by Hugh Padgham for Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight', but this kind of processing can be found on many other albums in a less upfront role. Bill Price used the drum close mics to key different sets of ambience mics for the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, for instance, while the amplified synths on Depeche Mode's Some Great Reward were treated in similar ways by their engineer Gareth Jones: "I was enjoying how omni mics and boundary-layer mics captured the rooms, and that was so much a part of moving on from the '80s gated snare to having ambiences layered onto all the synths... There were also lots of gates, of course, because we were obsessed with getting rid of tape hiss, as well as closing down the rooms, even if they weren't gated abruptly along the lines of that classic gated reverb sound. All of the ambiences were tailored, so when the instruments or vocals stopped, the ambience would have a controlled shut-down."
If you're still reluctant to try using real room sounds on your own recordings because you feel that your acoustics aren't up to scratch, bear in mind Jack Douglas' insistence that this is actually a good reason to go for it. "Try to find some kind of analogue reverb in your house. Just the characteristics of that will make it stand out in your mix, simply because it's not going to sound like anything else... If you go down to your garage and you set up in a corner that has cement walls, there's going to be a very interesting standing wave there. Any place that has a strange standing wave is a good place to do a vocal, because it has such a different sound."
This great book of interviews is, in my opinion, one of only a handful of truly essential record-production books, and is packed with down-to-earth recording advice as well as discussions of the art of production. In addition to the interviews I've referred to in this article, the book also features such greats as Brian Wilson, George Martin, and Geoff Emerick, and one of the strengths of Massey's approach is that he often asks them similar questions, which makes for interesting comparisons. There are also two interesting panel discussions where several of the featured producers discuss their trade head to head.
£ Behind The Glass by Howard Massey (ISBN 0879306149), £16.95.
Before we leave the idea of recorded reverb to look more closely at mix-room tricks, it's as well to touch on one other fairly common situation where reverb is captured during tracking, and that's when a unique reverb device is vital to the sound of the track, but may be unavailable to the mix engineer. Analogue reverb devices such as chambers, plates and springs are all frequently recorded by the pros for exactly this reason. Our recent interview with Tom Elmhirst about his mixing for Amy Winehouse gives a good practical demonstration: Mark Ronson's recordings of different collectable springs and plates during tracking on both sides of the Atlantic gave Elmhirst a range of retro reverb sounds to supplement his own in-house effects options.
A tricky situation arises, though, when an instrument's built-in spring reverb turns out to be an indispensable ingredient of the sound, and it's not possible to record the spring separately. While Jim Abbiss used compression to pull up the tail of an undercooked recorded spring reverb while recording guitars for The Arctic Monkeys, dealing with too much printed reverb of any kind is usually nigh on impossible.
Fortunately, though, there's an ingenious workaround, which Ken Nelson used to great effect while recording Coldplay's guitarist Johnny Buckland: "Johnny has a Fender Twin Reverb, and he has all these [effects] going into it... I was thinking 'How am I going to get around that?' I just wanted to have the option of a bit more dryness. They had another Twin Reverb, a slightly different version, and I said 'What would be great would be if you could use both amps, one having all your [effects] going into it, and one that's completely dry.' All his effected sounds would come out of one amp, so we'd mic that up, and mic the dry one as well, so every time, we'd record both amps. I think that worked really well — both were used in the mix, and we just balanced it."
Although most SOS readers associate capturing real reverb with the tracking stage, in reality a surprising number of high-profile practitioners continue to reap the benefits of this kind of organic ambience by miking up rooms and then sending sounds from the mixer to them via some kind of loudspeaker. "I like to use the [live] rooms while I'm mixing," says S Husky Hoskulds. "I'll usually have two small PAs going and usually a couple of speakers as well, so I often have all three rooms at the [studio] miked up. All that stuff will come back into the mix through a small submixer at the side of the main console so I have a choice of different sounds: [a stereo mic] in the main room, or a couple of close mics, or a couple of stranger mics on another PA in another room... People will ask me how I get my room sound, and the simple answer is: by using the room! There's a lot more character to real rooms, and they don't have that flag on them that shouts 'Reverb!'. Room sound has dimension to it, because a real room has real dimensions."
Tony Visconti used room sound at the mix when working on David Bowie's Reality, to recreate some of the ambient sound from the artist's previous album, recorded at a different studio: "We put the monitors exactly where we'd put the drum kit two years ago and we pointed them slightly upwards at a 45-degree angle so that they were shooting upwards and outwards. We also had a pair of Earthworks mics hanging from the rafters, about 25 feet above the monitors, which is exactly where they were above Matt Chamberlain's drum kit during the Heathen sessions. We put them through the same preamp and the sound was there automatically. We then recorded this on a pair of tracks in Logic and brought it back to Looking Glass [Studios] to use in the mix. The result is that there might be a slight difference, but overall it sounds as if the drum kit was [in that room]... It's got a nice one-second decay in there, which is ideal for drums."
For engineers who regularly mix using real room sounds (people like Bob Clearmountain, Jason Corsaro, Simon Dawson and John Fry) it clearly makes sense to set up dedicated reverb chambers, thereby saving on setup time and allowing them to tweak the acoustic characteristics of the sound without endlessly moving soft furnishings around their recording spaces! Of course, this is exactly what the top recording studios did before the advent of decent artificial reverb devices, and some of the most celebrated studio reverb chambers still draw the punters to these establishments even today.
All the same techniques that producers use while tracking to tailor the sound of ambience mics are equally applicable in the context of chamber reverb. John Fry, for example, talks about shortening the reverb time of one of his reverb chambers with rolls of fibreglass, while Tony Platt gated the sound of the massive recording room at Galaxy Studios to alter its apparent size for different tracks when working with industrial band Die Krupps. While there are those who argue that convolution processing can now perfectly replicate chamber sounds, reproducing these kinds of real-world tactics is a lot more complex, so I don't expect the concept of using PAs and mics at mixdown to start pushing up the daisies for a good few years yet.
To run a reverb chamber during the mix, you obviously need to have spare mics, speakers, and floor space, but you may also need understanding neighbours if you're going to drive the system loud enough to minimise background noise, so this can limit the viability of this technique for owners of smaller studios. In this case, there is no choice but to create any required additional reverb by more artificial means.
Before digital technology came along, the two main technologies that first allowed us to create fake reverb were the spring and plate units, all-analogue devices that created vibrations within bits of metal and then recorded the internal reflections via transducers. Although none of these devices can be said to have what you might call a natural sound, they were used a tremendous amount by record producers of the '60s and '70s, during which time their designs were refined to deliver results which were, in musical rather than technical terms, extremely successful.
Springs, in particular, seem to be prized for the unique colour they bring to a recording, typically some prominent upper mid-range presence combined with a bottom-heavy reverb decay and a lot of strong resonant peaks. Although there is inevitably some retro appeal to their use in some cases, some producers find them useful beyond this, because their distinctive tone can actually make individual effected tracks more prominent in the mix — on the face of it, exactly the opposite of what you'd expect from a reverb. "You can make [the reverb] short and tight with a gate and it adds tone and depth to the sound without washing it out," explains Manny Marroquin. "When you have one thing in a crowded mix you really want to bring out, but adding EQ would make it sound too harsh, put it through a spring reverb."
As regards specific units, Ben Hillier and Flood both like the spring built into the EMS VCS3 suitcase synth, while Steve Albini and Dave Fridmann rave about AKG's rare BX20 spring tower. "In its day it was the bee's knees for long reverbs," explains Albini. "It was a $5000-10,000 device when it was made, in the late '60s and early '70s. It's about six feet tall and has two spiral reverb springs and it sounds lovely." Other dedicated commercial models turned up in my research too, such as the Furman RV1, Great British Spring, and units by Master Room and Touched By Sound. However, there was also evidence of people re-amping parts during mixing specifically to take advantage of their guitar amp's internal spring, and some producers had even flexed their soldering irons to cobble one together for themselves.
Although plate reverbs in many cases improved upon the design shortcomings of springs by offering much smoother frequency-response and reverb-decay characteristics, their dense reverb tails, lack of discernible early reflections and generally bright sound still gave them a unique unnatural character that many engineers fell in love with during their '60s and '70s heyday. What I found surprising, though, while trawling the interview archives, was the extent to which this love affair has continued into the digital age, with producers such as Gil Norton, Eddie Kramer, Phil Ramone, Elliot Scheiner and Stephen Harris still actively seeking them out for recent projects.
The stereo EMT140 is widely considered to be the king of plate reverbs, and most of the people mentioning plate reverb seem to refer to the EMT marque in the same breath. "I won't use anything but EMT plates," said Stephen Harris, when we interviewed him about his work on some of U2's more recent hits. "If a studio hasn't got an EMT plate, I won't use it!" Hugh Padgham is equally appreciative: "When I'm mixing, I love using EMT140s. I realise that a lot of young engineers today would rarely use an echo plate — the EMTs at The Townhouse [were] always free whenever I want[ed] to use one there — but I'm not a massive fan of digital reverbs. The plates have a real warmth and spread of sound."
Of all the digital reverb processors I encountered in my research, none are name-checked more frequently than Lexicon's one-time flagship 480L, a unit which for many years had as great a claim to the moniker 'industry standard' as any piece of studio hardware. Needless to say, the list of users includes many of the most in-demand mix engineers on the planet — names such as Tom Lord-Alge, Elliot Scheiner, Spike Stent, Tony Maserati and Manny Marroquin. However, a large number of Lexicon's other units also appear to be in regular use at the highest level, not least the company's preceding and current top-of-the-line machines, the 224XL and 960L. "I tell you one thing," comments Serge Tsai, "I have not heard a plug-in sound as good as the 960L. It's a crazy box."
Particular favourites appear to be the PCM series, counting Steve Albini, Flood, Tom Lord-Alge, Pierre Marchand and Tony Maserati amongst their fans. Not only are the more well-known PCM80 and PCM90 studio workhorses singled out, though, but also the earlier PCM60 (John Leckie: "very rich and clear") and PCM70 ("It sounds dirty and ties things together," says Jason Goldstein. "A little bit of PCM70 used to go on about everything I did, on a tiled room setting, which is a very small room."). Honourable mention must also be made of the Lexicon M300, which Chris Lord-Alge credits with "a really nice, distinct and clean long reverb" and Chuck Ainlay considers one of his default mix effects for "a sound that shimmers more. It's a brighter reverb with a bit more sheen to it, more like a plate."
Yamaha also make a good showing in the league tables, with the REV7 finding admirers in Craig Bauer, Marius DeVries, Tom Lord-Alge and Al Stone ("I'll usually have one long reverb, like a Lexicon 480, and perhaps a short one-second reverb from a Yamaha REV7, a good old 12-bit reverb"), while the SPX-series multi-effects crop up all over the place. Little is said, though, about specific patches used with the latter, so we're none the wiser as to whether it's reverb or auto-panning that people are actually using. The same applies to the Eventide Harmonizer series of multi-effects processors, which seem to appear in everyone's rack without any comment on what patches are used.
Eventide's vintage SP2016 reverb, on the other hand, is a clear hit with David Pensado: "My all-time favourite hardware reverb is probably the Eventide 2016. I love its darkness. I have both old and new versions, and I manage to sneak them in on almost every mix. I use the stereo room preset... It's the reverb on those original Mariah Carey records, and I just love the sound of it." Jack Joseph Puig is also a fan of this reverb on strings: "I used an Eventide 2016 reverb set at stereo room, 3.2 seconds decay time, fronted by a 92-110ms pre-delay. I almost always use this setting on strings. Set it to this and let it rock, there's nothing better."
Another venerable digital reverb that still appears to be in regular use is the AMS RMX16, Humberto Gatica's nomination for best vocal reverb. "The AMS still has that non-linear setting and the classic long reverb that you can't change and that nothing else can duplicate," adds Chris Lord-Alge. The EMT250, a unit that looks like a small robot and has a strong claim to being the first commercial digital reverb, also has friends in high places, turning up in Tom Lord Alge's mix room and being another of Chuck Ainlay's default mixdown send effects. "Basically, it was a very, very short reverb," explains David Tickle. "You could barely hear it, but it was just enough to lift the voice and the snare."
In recent years, Sony have led the way in hardware convolution technology with their monster DRES777 box, but amongst fans like the Lord-Alge brothers, it's their earlier DRE2000 which has the greatest cachet. "I use the Sony DRE2000 on drums and percussion," say Chris, "and they have never improved on that sound." Pierre Marchand also likes another of their pre-convolution boxes, the R7. Roland have also come a long way since the SRV330 and SRV2000, but these units still seem to get more press (from the likes of Chuck Ainlay, Glen Ballard, and Craig Bauer) than their newer models.
What is particularly interesting, though, is that even with racks of the most collectable and cutting-edge gear, a large number of mix engineers deliberately seek out old consumer-level boxes from companies such as Alesis, Boss, Digitech, Ensoniq, and Zoom. The undisputed champion in this arena has to be the Alesis Quadraverb, which holds its head high in the studios of Jerry Boys, Glen Ballard, Marius DeVries, Spike Stent ("highly recommended"), and many others. "It's not a Lexicon 480L," admits Ballard, "but there's a couple of things in here which I really like, and I hate to throw stuff out if I have to go find it again on eBay five years later."
But what about reverb plug-ins? Well, what I found is that, despite rooting through every SOS interview until the end of 2007, I only found about a dozen mentions of specific software reverbs, and most of the top pros still seem to prefer the hardware options. Jason Goldstein offered a possible explanation in SOS April 2007: "Only during the last year have the plug-in manufacturers finally come up with good-quality in-the-box reverbs. If your reverb is not of good enough quality, it muddies the whole record up, and you may not realise it until it is too late... I felt that a lot of plug-in reverbs sound like an effect. But you can now throw tons of TC [Electronic] VSS3 plug-in reverbs on things, and it will just feel bigger."
This can only be part of the explanation, though, because there's also a definite preference amonst many of the top names for specific vintage reverbs. Justin Niebank isolates another factor at work: "When you use reverb and effects like that, you want to stay out of the way of the vocal. The vintage gear actually helps you achieve this goal because the older stuff doesn't have the same degree of frequency response as some of the newer high-end signal processors. Thus, the reverb doesn't cover the entire spectrum of the track."
Mitchell Froom also finds the stereo nature of modern reverbs distracting, preferring to use a plate or a spring very sparingly instead. "In general I don't like bright, sizzly digital reverbs, particularly if there's more than one going on at the same time. They're usually in stereo as well, and things start happening to music that you can't even anticipate. You get huge amounts of clatter and jitter with all these reverbs clashing with each other, and the tone of the instrument itself is lost."
Jimmy Douglass limits his use of digital reverbs for a different reason: "You spend a lot of time carving in analogue to make things poke out. But in digital everything is poking out and sticking in your face already, so the challenge is to smooth it out and stick it back there. In effect I'm trying to de-emphasise [when I mix]: smoothing things without muddying them up. I try to use less digital reverb for that reason, because everything in digital sounds the same, and digital reverb multiplies that emphasis. So instead I try to find wacky effects like I used in [Justin Timberlake's ' Sexyback'], that aren't just mirrors of the same frequencies that are already there."
Many productions of the '70s and '80s wore their reverb with pride, but it's fair to say that tastes since then have changed such that reverb is usually employed in a more background role. This shift has been acknowledged in print by numerous producers. "I was pretty happy with [Roxy Music's Avalon]," muses Bob Clearmountain, "but listening to it now I'd do it completely different. I used too much reverb on that." "I use maybe a quarter of the reverb I used to use," states Eddie Kramer.
An intriguing explanation for this trend is put forward for this by John Leckie, which also raises the important issue of how your monitoring affects your judgement of reverb levels: "Different control rooms in different studios will make the reverb sound different. For instance, if you listen in a really small, dead control room, you tend to add more reverb than you need. When you go to a more live mastering room, there may suddenly be too much reverb... But the trend now seems to be towards bigger, more live control rooms, so we've got deader records. People aren't putting as much reverb on records simply because they're hearing the reverb in the room, so they don't think they need it. But when you take it away, it sounds dry... As soon as I walk into a typical live-end dead-end control room with bare floors, I ask for some carpets on the floor. The studio manager inevitably asks me why, and my answer is simply that I listen to records in rooms with carpet on the floor."
A rule of thumb that is often suggested when applying reverb these days is to find a level where you don't hear it as an 'effect' in its own right, but you feel you're missing something if you mute the return completely, and many of the top producers seem to approach their reverb use in this kind of way. Jason Goldstein: "I like clarity. I don't want to actually hear reverbs." Elliot Scheiner: "If I'm going to use a reverb, I want it to be inconspicuous." Al Stone: " I hate the sound of something which appears to have something stuck on it, but if you can make [reverb] feel natural, then it's very effective."
It's also advisable to keep most of your reverbs fairly short these days. "If I'm using reverb," explains Eddie Kramer, "it's of the short kind, in deference to today's sounds — 1s, 0.5s, with short decay times." Another sensible tactic is suggested by Jack Douglas: "[The reverb time] depends on the instrument. I always go by the amount of sustain the instrument has, because you really don't hear much reverb until the instrument dies."
Certain short reverbs can even make a track sound drier, according to John Leckie: "Sometimes you can use effects to give the impression that there's even less reverb than no reverb! You can actually make something drier by adding something. For example, using the Lexicon 480 Small Room algorithm, or something with an early reflection, 40ms or so. Anything that's short and a little bit dark kind of makes the sound a little bigger and a little drier as well."
A handful of producers, however, are more ascetic when it comes to reverb — people like Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake (back in 1997 he said "I've only used reverb on maybe two records in the last 10 years".), and Steve Albini. "I don't think [reverb is] as necessary as most engineers and producers think it is," remarks Albini. "They use it almost as a reaction, an automatic reflex: when a singer starts singing, they put reverb on it. It's a thing that's done pro forma a lot of the time. They put it on because they feel they're supposed to. I've never had that response. I'll wait until someone says 'That sounds weird,' and then I'll try reverb."
There have been some very successful records where the producer has banished the reverb altogether, in order to distance the production from this hallmark of smooth studio production in pursuit of an edgier vibe. Craig Bauer recalls his work on Kanye West's Late Registration: "There is not an ounce of reverb. I [originally] put a lot of reverb on the vocals on the Brandy track to make it sound really lush, like an R&B track. Reverb on the strings, too. Very rich-sounding. He sent it back and said 'Take it all off.' So I go back and I'm listening to this dry, stark orchestration and I keep listening until it dawns on me — Kanye doesn't want this to sound like a brilliant, lush R&B mix; he wants it gritty and street and hip-hop, even though the song isn't what you'd normally consider in that vein."
Artists are also becoming more tech-savvy these days, and many of them are becoming uncomfortable with the sound of reverb too, presenting a significant challenge to the mix engineer, who still needs to create a sense of blend at the mix. "Artists say they want drier-sounding vocals," confirms Michael Brauer, "but what they really mean is that they want something other than reverb. When you hear the vocal truly dry, it loses its life. So you go in search of other types of effect." Everyone seems to have their own tricks to solve this problem, but I came across compression, delay, distortion, chorusing, double-tracking, re-amping, pitch-shifting, and even Auto-Tune being used in lieu of reverb.
One question that I've frequently been asked by SOS readers is how many different reverbs they should use on their mix. This is not an easy question to answer, because different mix engineers take quite different approaches. The most straightforward, though, is probably to have two or three global reverbs set up as send effects, to which you feed signals from the different tracks so that you get the impression they're all in the same kind of acoustic space. "A lot of times people add so many different reverbs that they compete with each other, and it sounds incongruous," comments Mike Clink. "It doesn't seem to gel together. I think reverb has to be the glue that makes everything sound like it was recorded in one setting, so I'll feed multiple instruments into one or two reverbs."
Of course, the next question is how each of those reverbs should be set up. Irrespective of the specific gear you use, the key thing that the pros tend to be looking for is contrast, so that each reverb offers different useful characteristics. Reverb time is, of course, one important variable, as in this example from the age of analogue reverbs. "The way I would normally configure the [three EMT plates]... was to have one set very short, one set medium, and one set somewhat longer," describes John Fry. "We frequently set up our [three] chambers that way, too."
Elliott Scheiner and Chuck Ainlay go for the global reverbs approach too, but supplement these in certain circumstances. Scheiner: "I'll use other reverbs for more specific things — those things that weren't tracked at the same time or need to have some other kind of thing happening." Says Ainlay, "There are three or four reverbs that will work for the general mix. And then I'll have specific reverbs for specific instruments, like the [gated Lexicon PCM70] will be on percussion instruments; I may also use inverse reverbs and things like that, small room sounds."
An alternative approach is to have individual reverbs for separate instruments, a tactic once the preserve of the big studios, but which the rise of the plug-in has now brought within reach of small studios too. "Each instrument will have its own effect," explains Eddie Kramer. "I'll use eight or 10 effects, multiple layers of reverbs. They're subtle, some of them are absolutely down in level, but usually very short now."
Taking the approach to something of an extreme, though, is Jon Gass, who uses them as much for their tonal qualities as their spatial ones: "I might use 10 or 15 different reverb delays in the mix, but I don't really use 'long hall' or any of those types of reverbs. They're all either really short or a chorus, and I use them to create space without destroying the track with EQ. That would be the last thing I'd do. I'd rather create a little vibe, and that's not down to training but just a musical way of mixing."
I'm always surprised how few SOS readers take the time to EQ their reverb returns, as this is one of the most common processing tips offered in producer interviews. There are two main reasons given for this, the first of which is summed up nicely by Phil Tan: "Sometimes you have to carve out a space for a reverb with EQ and by shaping the reverb characteristics — attack, release time, length, and so on — so that it does not interfere with the other frequencies in the song."
The other reason why engineers seem to be EQ'ing their reverbs is to deal with the vagaries of more characterful options such as springs and plates. "One of the hardest things to teach somebody is to listen to the device itself," complains Phil Ramone. "Take out the source and listen to the device. You'd be amazed how crummy some of these things sound! They flange, they phase, there's cancellation all over the place." All's not lost, however. "Sometimes the weirdest things — like old spring reverbs — can sound really phenomenal in a mix." reveals Jack Douglas. "By itself, it's going to sound awful... but use it right — colour it a little bit, filter it, EQ it — and it's going to sound cool in your mix." And how do you know where to EQ? Manny Marroquin shares another tip: "I listen for the frequency where the reverb matches the input signal and tweak that."
The most widely discussed reverb parameter is certainly the decay time, but pre-delay coasts easily into second place — engineers were pre-delaying chamber reverbs using tape delay a half a century ago, and the technique comes up in interviews with such legends as Eddie Kramer, Alan Parsons and Tony Visconti. A good reason for using pre-delay is explained by Glen Ballard: "I'm always interested in hearing the vocalist's words... so I like to have the dry signal a little bit clear of the effect, just for the articulation. If it's a really slow song, say a ballad, then the pre-delay will probably be longer." In other cases engineers are using pre-delay to tempo-sync the onset of the reverb envelope, supporting the track's rhythm. "I don't normally pay a lot of attention to exact reverb time," comments Phil Tan. "It's only with delays or reverb pre-delays that you want them exactly in time."
Ex-SOS Reviews Editor and regular contributor Mike Senior has worked professionally with artists such as the Charlatans, Nigel Kennedy, Therapy and Wet Wet Wet. He now runs Cambridge Music Technology, delivering courses based on the studio techniques of the world's most famous producers.
Where possible, almost everyone returns the outputs of stereo reverb devices to the mix in stereo, but this is by no means the only option out there. Elliott Scheiner: "I've always felt that part of the charm of old records is that you could hear the reverbs return to the same place as the instrument. Like if I have an electric guitar on the left, the reverb returns to the left as well, so all the sound comes from one place. When I mixed records in the '70s... I would use three 140 plates: one I'd dedicate to the left, one to the right, and one to the centre... We decided to go for a 140 plate sound on [Steely Dan's] Everything Must Go, and I did pretty much the same thing."
Joe Chiccarelli also describes panning mono reverb returns to match the dry source tracks when he was mixing The White Stripes' Icky Thump, whereas Lou Bradley took the opposite approach for Charlie Rich's 'The Most Beautiful Girl', panning the plate reverb on Pete Drake's slide guitar part to the opposite side of the stereo field to create a nice little production hook.
Even if you follow the herd and go for straight stereo reverbs, Phil Ramone still has a few words of warning: "You really should listen to [the reverb] in mono to make sure that what you're hearing is what you get. That's why a lot of television shows get so screwed up. They come in with these great effects, but when they check in mono, half the signal goes away, or half the reverb goes away."
The final hot tip that comes up time and again in interviews with producers is that you should use fader rides to adjust the reverb levels during the track, and there's no excuse for not experimenting with this now that mixer automation facilities are so widely available. For a start, Al Stone points out that having reverb on all the time reduces its impact: "Rather than have a reverb on throughout a track, I'd rather flick it on and off throughout a song in two or three places. That's what an effect should be. If it's on all the time it cancels itself out."
By the same token, you can increase the drama of selected song sections if you save a separate reverb just for them. "I'll pick the spots [for reverb]", say Tony Maserati, "like on a very emotional high point of a song." Alternatively, momentarily switching an existing reverb off can also catch the listener's ear, especially if the source in question is your lead vocal. "One thing I like to do... is to use a small room on something, and then once the listener is aware of the sound, just cut it out, then bring it back in again," suggests John Leckie.
The other main reason top engineers seem to be riding their effects is to provide that elusive feeling of momentum that drives a mix along, and really lets you know when the chorus has arrived. Tom Elmhirst used this approach on the drums for Amy Winehouse's 'Rehab', for example: "I had the drum spring on a separate fader and was riding it. You can hear on the track that the drum track is dryer in the verses, while the reverb comes right up in the chorus and the bridge."
Nowhere is this technique more useful than when the mix relies heavily on loops. "When I have a loop like that without change," reveals Mark Endert "the way I can achieve contour is by changing the amounts of effects. So at the beginning [of Maroon 5's 'Makes Me Wonder'] there are minimal effects on the guitar loop, then when it hits the first verse there are more delays, when it hits the chorus there is chorusing and delay and reverb on it... In the verses it's more like a 16th slap feel, and when it gets to the choruses, I harmonised with an AMS 1580S, pitch-changing and fattening the guitars. You can get a lot of contour out of a track that lacks dynamics just by changing the acoustic space around it."
Another situation where automation can be handy is where there are problems to be solved. John Leckie: "Whenever there's a little sibilance or a little something that ends with a sharp attack which sets the reverb off, just trim the effect send during the mix to where you can't hear it. You've still got the bigness, but it never sounds reverby."
It should be pretty clear by now that digital reverb is only one of the tools at your disposal for creating space in your own music, and that there is much to be gained from picking up some of what you need while tracking. Even if you only have access to digital reverb, I hope that you've found some useful tricks to improve your mixes nonetheless, as well as getting more use out of the spring and plate patches in your plug-in's preset library.