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Page 3: How To Use Reverb Like A Pro: Part 2

How top engineers use their most important effect By Mike Senior
Published August 2008

Analogue Reverb Simulators

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.

Joe Barresi: "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."Joe Barresi: "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."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."

Some Digital Classics

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."

Golden Oldies

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."

How Much Reverb?

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."

Al Stone: "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."Al Stone: "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."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.