At its core, reverb is an emulation of sound in a physical space. Without it, instruments can seem dry and onedimensional. We hear reverb in the world around us—both indoors and outdoors— and it helps us define proximity and spatial depth. Reverb can be a great sonic lifesaver that transforms limp, boring sounds into elements of vibe and ear-catching interest.
But using reverb is much like risking a blowfish repast. Eating a little can taste exotic, but too much of the wrong stuff can kill you. Likewise, overuse of reverb can kill your mix by making it sound muddy, washy, and undefined. Reverb needs to be used tastefully, judiciously, and, most of all, playfully.
Obviously, personal choice is a huge factor in what is a “good” or “bad” use of reverb, but there are some pretty reasonable rules of thumb regarding the effect if you want your mixes to sound professional. For example, nothing says “newbie” like a nice vocal performance completely drenched in reverb. You may think the massive reverb covers up a few little vocal flaws, but the reverb tsunami may also be washing away the clarity and impact of the overall mix.
So if you’re feeling a bit unsure of your reverb levels and how they affect the other elements of the mix, here are some tips for turning down the spigot. You can always apply more reverb if you feel the subtle approach isn’t thrilling enough, but these suggestions should, at least, help you identify what “too much” is before you go overboard.
If your ear is immediately drawn to the reverb effect itself, you may have used too much. It’s unlikely every instrument in your production was played in a church hall, for example, so you should seek a reverb that matches the environment of your mix. In other words, if your drums were recorded in a dry space, but the snare reverb you choose is bigger than the Grand Canyon, the snare is going to sound as if it was recorded in an entirely different universe than the kick, toms, and cymbals. (Whether that’s a good thing or not, is up to you, but just be aware that some listeners may think it sounds weird.) One option is using just enough reverb that you don’t even notice it unless it’s not there. Dial in an ambient environment that doesn’t call attention to itself, and then take a reasonable break. When you listen back to the mix, mute the reverb at some point and see if the soundstage collapses a bit. If not, you may have crafted a near-perfect dry mix that doesn’t need reverb at all, or your reverb levels are too subtle. If the soundstage does turn rather dull and grey, then your reverb choices and reverb levels are probably right on the money.
If you want a fairly ambient environment, don’t automatically assume that a large reverb is the right tool for the job. Depending on the application, a small reverb with a long tail can sometimes sound better than a large reverb with a short tail. The “takeaway” here is ...