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How To Use Reverb Like A Pro: Part 2

How top engineers use their most important effect
By Mike Senior

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.

Use Reverb Like A Pro: Part 2"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.

Real Or Fake?

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."

The 'reverb' you hear on records is sometimes the result of ambient miking techniques, rather than artificial reverb. Opening the doors of a studio and placing ambient mics in hallways or adjacent spaces, as described by producer Ben Hillier, seems to be a popular technique.The 'reverb' you hear on records is sometimes the result of ambient miking techniques, rather than artificial reverb. Opening the doors of a studio and placing ambient mics in hallways or adjacent spaces, as described by producer Ben Hillier, seems to be a popular technique.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."

Ambience With Everything

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."

John Leckie: "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."John Leckie: "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."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."

Love The Leakage

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."

Published August 2008