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This installment of Foundations of Audio explains one of the most essential ingredients in audio mixing, reverb—the time it takes for sound to bounce, echo, and decay during a live performance or recording. Reverb gives a natural richness to your recordings, which is possible to reproduce. Producer and audio engineer Alex U. Case covers the acoustic, mechanical, and digital means for creating reverb, and charts the parameters (room size, density, etc.) you'll need to know to take advantage of the original recording space and enhance it in post. He then shows how to simulate reverb digitally with effects, adding timbre, texture, and contrast, and improve the sound of your mixes with a sense of space and depth.
These techniques can be practiced with the free Get in the Mix sessions, currently available for Pro Tools and Logic Pro.
It would be a mistake to think of reverb as an effect only to be applied track by track. We've got a long list going of all the reasons we reach for reverb. But we don't make those decisions based on the snare, and then the vocal, and then the guitars. We really have to serve the song. We have to serve the artist. We have to serve the art. So a critical motivation for reverb is tied not to the tracks, but to the song itself, to the songwriting, to the story and to the structure of the song. Reverb is a very powerful way to create a change of scenery sonically.
We create different but appropriate reverberant signatures for different sections of the tune. As the mix plays the sonic environment advances as the song progresses. Obvious opportunities for a reverb driven scene change are when the song moves from intro to verse, or verse to chorus, or chorus to bridge and so on. Let's see how that works and how it sounds in an actual mix using a song by the artist Iyeoka called Millionaire. Here's verse one into chorus one. Notice the pronounced shift in reverb when we hit the chorus? Our mix is changing pretty radically here.
The verse has been mixed rather dry, with lots of lo-fi elements where vocals and vocal effects are aggressively filtered, overcompressed and distorted. This sets up a terrific contrast with the chorus where things are allowed to get better sounding, cleaner, brighter, fuller, and far more reverberant. This is motivated entirely by the sentiment of the song. She isn't a millionaire, but she feels like one because, you know, life is good. That millionaire feeling of the lyric is magnified sonically through the lushness, the exaggerated lushness of a large-hall reverb appearing in the chorus.
It wasn't much there in the verse. And the reverb time far exceeds the typical two-second concert hall. Here it's pushed to four and a half seconds. We get away with it because we only put this large-hall sound on certain key tracks. The entrance of the background vocals in the chorus is a common occurrence in pop music, and treating these vocals to a good bit of ear candy is often appropriate. So while the lead vocal in the verse includes filtered and natural sounds for her voice, they all remain quite dry. When the background vocals enter, supported by more than four seconds of flattering resonance, the song is transformed.
Mission accomplished. Listen to the background vocals with all that verb. These background vocals aren't the sole indicators of our Millionaire reverberation. The arrangement of the song offers us some supporting tracks to help us assert the scene change. There's a synth that enters in the chorus, offering great tamboral interest to the mix. The songwriters and producers built in tracks like this to give the listeners new sounds at the chorus and advance the meaning of the song. As mixing engineers, we should follow their lead and give this synth the lush reverberant treatment.
Acoustic guitars, made edgy with guitar amps, get softened in the chorus with a dose of large-hall reverb. Tambourine and other minor parts also move into sweeter, more reverberant sounds as we go from verse to chorus. We've orchestrated a crescendo of reverbs, so the chorus transports us to a new place, so that we feel like millionaires and don't mind if we aren't. The tune rewards us with some great moments for the scene change. For example, there is this nice breakdown right before the last choruses.
We let it return to the drier, more direct sound, the more forward sound quality. And when the chorus hits, it's huge. Listen to the moment when the background vocals come in singing their, oh, oh, oh's. That might be my favorite moment in the song. The scene change is pretty compelling and her vocals deliver. It is a millionaire feeling. Of course it would be silly, distracting, and annoying to overdo this mix move. We aren't required to change scene with each change of song element from verse to chorus to bridge.
But as a mixer, it's important to notice, when the song invites this sort of a treatment, deliver it.
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