When I first started making electronic music, a lot of my friends reacted to it by saying “Wow, it sounds like video game music!” At the time I took this as a compliment, because I love video game music and it informs a lot of my work. But I started to realize what they were commenting on, at least partially, was the lack of depth in the soundscape. If you listen to something like the Tetris theme song or the music from Final Fantasy VII, you’ll hear what I mean: there is no context to the music in terms of sonic depth; that is, it doesn’t sound like it’s in real environment. When you throw a brick through a glass window, you don’t just hear the sound of the brick hitting the glass, you hear the sound of the brick hitting the glass and then the reflections of every surface that sound wave comes into contact with splintering and coming back at you from all sorts of strange angles. In fact, depending on where you stand the sound reflections that reach you will be completely different. That’s where synthesised reverb and delay comes in.
What is Reverb?
Reverb (short for reverberation) is effectively the modelling of a room with a digital or analogue simulation. It replicates all the tiny micro-echoes from each simulated surface in the room creating the effect of that track being in the room with all the attendant properties of those surfaces. For example a metal room would have a particularly harsh reverberant quality, where’s polished wood room would sound quite bright and rich.
In contrast, delay, is a direct facsimile of the original sound in the signal, reproducing it a number of times at diminishing volume based on the feedback or repeat level. Parameters adding or subtracting frequencies, adding flutter, modulation, panning etc, can be included within the delay as well as on reverb units.
A good way to start thinking of how we would use reverb and delay in music is as an analogue to a room: we have the height axis approximated to volume: how loud or soft something is would equate to how high or low the ceiling of the room is (you can see a very literal depiction of this in your mixer faders). Then we have the width of the room, which is equivalent to the width of the sonic spectrum, how wide and expansive the music sounds. Finally, we can consider the depth of the room which relates to the depth of the music in terms of reverb and echo, which is the aspect we’ll be examining today. Just as if you stack things on top of each other in a real room it would become cluttered, so we don’t want to put too many things at the same depth or it will sound flat.
There are pl parameters that affect the sound of a reverb (high and low EQ, early reflections, late reflections all the way to modelling the shape of the room) but arguably the most defining is the decay time. This essentially determines how long the sound that you have run through the reverb, will last for, as in how long it will take the sound to decay. You can have a short, slap-back style reverb, like you might hear in old school Elvis recordings or a longer extended sound that you might hear in an impact one shot in modern dance music. The same is true of delay, except with delay the image of the sound is usually more defined and less “blurry” sounding.
A good deal of what creates interest in music, particularly modern electronic music is contrast of depth. Have you ever heard one of your producer friends or a music critic refer to the production of a song or album as “lush”? What they’re most likely referring to is the contrast of depth.
Think of the difference between a Hollywood movie and a stage play. The play is essentially a flat two dimensional vista: sure, there may be a few props dotted around giving it a little bit of visual dynamism but essentially it’s a flat plane. Compare that with a movie, say the classic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” scene in Apocalypse Now where Kilgore is standing in front of the river and the flares and napalm are drifting up around him. One of the elements that make that such an epic and engaging scene are the layers and contrast of depth. Right in the foreground we see the soldiers and Kilgore, the smoke a little further back, than the river and finally the tree line and sky. There is a distinct sense of scope and texture.
Types of Reverbs
We could get into all the varying types and kinds of reverbs: plate, spring, convolution, but for sake of brevity, let’s limit our investigation to two main type: hall and room reverbs. Hall reverbs are typically what you will hear in elements that are meant to sound big and spacious, pushed a little to the back of the mix, like hearing something in a great big hall. Room reverbs sound like just that, a relatively small room. They give character to a sound and a sonic space without being overpowering or moving it too far back in the mix.
As an example let’s apply this to a musical example, “Some Minds” by Flume. Immediately we can hear the sound of a live brush drum kit, with an electronic kick, some extra percussion and a soulful vocal over the top, rounded out by a chordal organ like synth sound. Thats plenty of layers already. Now, notice the difference in depth between the layers: what sounds closest? What sounds furthest away? What sounds live and what sounds unreal or “spacey”? Lets break it down: the closest sounding object, in the musical “foreground” is organ and the kick sound, definitely electronic. There’s a touch of short reverb on here, giving it a bit of a room sound, however, it is very restrained. The next closest object is the brushed snare kit sound. This is definitely a live sample as it sounds very “real”. Listen closely though and you’ll hear a touch of added reverb, likely bussed from the same room reverb sound as the kick. This creates cohesion but also pleasing contrast. Further back again we can hear the vocals crooning a high “Ooooh.” There is a much more obvious hall sound here and here there is perhaps a touch of delay on the too. Finally, bringing up the rear we can hear the percussive sounds in what almost resembles an echo chamber, a very long tailed reverb.
Remember, reverb is like the icing on the cake. Unless your going for a very specific aesthetic, it’s unlikely you want to saturate everything you do with reverb. Use it sparingly.
Here are a few little tips and tricks for you to take away:
- Generally its a good idea to low cut the bottom end of the reverb spectrum. With some exceptions, generally one should consider cutting out all frequencies below 200 hz otherwise sounds can become muddy or crashy.
- Some reverbs such as Logic Pro’s Space Designer offer a ‘reverse’ reverb setting, essentially a built in volume swell with reverberant qualities and parameters
- It’s often a good idea to apply reverb as the final step in the mixing chain. You know the old saying “you can’t polish a turd”? Well, adding a truckload of reverb to a crappy sounding synth is only going to make it sound like a crappy synth in a big room. Get your mix right first and then spice it with some ‘verb.
- A neat trick with delay (specifically sample delay, to create width is to use a plugin and set the two left and right channels about 400 or 500 samples apart. This will engage the Haas Effect and give your sound some width. While this is technically of a trick to do with depth, it actually tricks the brain into thinking the instrument is wider based on sounding as though the reverberations are coming from different parts of the room.
- Running a reverb from a bus, as opposed to directly running a separate instance of each one per track will save your computer a significant amount of ram, and bouncing down tracks with reverb on them, even more so.
About the Author:
Hailing from sunny Manly, in Sydney, Australia, Nice Girls Can’t Dance is the moniker of Alex Eldridge’s electro house/chillwave/blahblahgenreblah project. After spending years touring and practicing in tiny garages for little job satisfaction and less money, Alex had his tiny fragile mind blow by awe inspiring thunder that is Justice’s first album ‘Cross’ (sic) and decided to turn full time to his other hobby of producing electronic music, which he has been doing more or less consistently since he was 13. Fusing the French duo’s merciless slabs of square wave with a love of wordplay in the vein on the Arctic Monkeys and LCD Soundsystem, and occasionally a more contemplative side closer to, say, Steely Dan writing trap music on acid, his sound is completely twisted. Alex also owns a children’s guitar school in Manly, Sydney where he earns his keep quietly defiling young minds with rock n’ roll. https://soundcloud.com/nice-girls-cant-dance