Unorthodox Reverb Techniques
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Welcome to the 6th edition of my Pro Producer's Tips series! Time flies, indeed, and it's time again to dig deeper into another subject of music production to find more creative and inspiring ways to use our common tools in new ways.
This time around is all about unorthodox uses of reverb, a powerful tool we all utilize daily in our productions for achieving depth, a virtual sense of space, more emotion and glue between instruments and other common great habits I'll take for granted or just revise them a little bit, before getting into a more advanced and wild territory full of experimentation and, I hope, discoveries.
I've divided this article into two main sections: the first is more mixing oriented, the second is more sound design oriented, but actually as you'll see these are just blurred lines to make this long post a bit more tidy and easy to follow.
Furthermore, the techniques are presented in an increasing level of difficulty so, even if mainly aimed for advanced producers, hopefully it will be easier to digest for more people. I've also inserted some hyperlinks to previous blog posts when mentioned or to the specific sections of this one when some techniques and concepts are revisited.
As usual, if you are a regular reader, you'll expect to find audio examples, illustrations and free resources accompanying this comprehensive blog post.
Are you brave enough? Prepare yourself and let's start the journey!
A vanilla start, since this may be a technique you'll probably already be quite familiar with but as I said I'll try to get more complex and into less obvious and known approaches later on.
The reverse reverb technique or 'pre-reverb', as someone calls it, consists of reversing the source signal, applying a deliberate amount of the reverb of your choice (usually splash long results can be achieved with 'hall' settings) before finally reversing again the bounced audio.
In this way what you are getting is the original sound playing normally with a reverb tail underneath growing and sucking in reverse, in a ghostly, eerie fashion.
The common uses can be to use a rendered and cross-faded portion of this effect and employ it as a transitional effect and auditory clue before the introduction of a new section or instrument; because that effect is made with a sound you are introducing in your song, it's very effective in giving your ears and brain the feeling it belongs to the track and sounds right.
Keep this in mind: instead of relying blindly in endless research of the right fx to fit in your projects, use and abuse what's already there, as the core and original material of sound you are manipulating will remain the same even in more extreme applications like this one.
Restricting your sonic palette will give you more cohesive results and you'll come up with a unique sound since you're sound designing fxs for yourself, a win win.
In the following audio example listen to how the reverse reverb effect creates tension and builds anticipation for what is coming, in a cinematic scenario:
2. Side - Chain Compressing Reverb
This technique is so effective and a must have in your daily production toolbox, expecially during the mixing stage: applying sidechain compression to reverbs.
In some cases where you want the reverb just to feel the gaps in between notes or words if talking about a vocal, to improve intelligibility when the main instrument is playing, side-chain compressing the reverb to the dry source is hugely beneficial: tweak the main settings of the compressor paying particular attention to the amount of reduction applied (threshold and ratio controls) and the timing of it (attack and release times).
If you are taking a full drum loop as the sidechain input to a synth's reverb for example, the timing and reduction set by the compressor are crucial to get the right groove and polish in the mix.
You can even try to suppress certain dominant frequencies present in the reverb that may interfere with the dry sound using tools like dynamic EQs or 'spectral smoothers' such as Smooth Operator by Baby Audio or Soothe by Oeksound.
In the following audio example you'll hear a drum loop as the side-chain source for the bass loop's send reverb: the first four bars have both the dry bass and the send reverb, while the other four bars have just the reverb set in pre-fader so that the pumping effect caused by the drum loop to the reverb is more obvious to hear:
3. Compression vs Expansion On Reverbs
Some interesting results can be achieved with some more clever dynamic processing applied to the reverb; we have just seen the side-chain compression technique with reverb so that when the dry signal plays, the reverberated signal is attenuated for more clarity.
Let's explore more setups: if you want your transient enhanced with reverb in order to stand out, what you can use is upward expansion which is the exact opposite of downward compression (instead of attenuating signals passing over the threshold we are enhancing them), with a fast attack and a release time set to match musically by ear the evolution of the sound over its tail.
On the other way around if you want your transient to pass through dry but a wet tail, use a downward compressor instead with the same settings of attack and release times.
Furthermore, if you want the entirety of the signal to be enhanced with reverb then lower the threshold of the compressor and match the output to compensate so that all the reverb sound is compressed and the lower details come forward.
Other ways to achieve similar effects is by employing some tools that split the transient from the body of a sound like Quantum from Wavesfactory in order to process them differently from each other.
In the following audio example you'll hear an 8 bar key loop first with no reverb send applied, then the first repetition with an upward expansion configuration after the reverb to enhance the transients, the second repetition with a downward compression configuration to suppress the transients and enhance the tail of the reverb, and finally the third repetition with full on compression applied to enhance all the reverb parts and drown all the sound into reverb in a less dynamic way:
4. Adding Groove with Reverb
It may seem counterintuitive, since reverb usually smears transient material and pull away the groove if not set right (typically you instead want a short enough decay time not to interfere with the next sound coming afterwards, be it an other hit of a drum loop or a note from a piano melody) but there are ways in which reverb can actually enhance it.
For example creating an incidental reverb effect with automation on a drum hit can add drama and make it stand out from the others, creating anything from syncopation, if you stress weak pulses, to special edits and fills at the end of a phrase right before the start of the next bar, giving a sense of push & pull so fundamental for groove (great drummers know this!).
Another effective way to add groove with reverb is by playing around with synced pre-delay or decay times: some reverbs have the option to enter note-value settings like the new Crystalline by Baby Audio, for others not having this option just search for 'delay bpm time calculator' on Google and you'll find a lot of tools doing the basic math for you to find the appropriate note-value settings in ms according to your project's BPM.
By syncing the pre-delay to a 1/8th or a 1/16th note and shortening the decay time for less than a second you can create an effect similar to a single delay repeat but with the sound of a reverb; this is very effective to hi-hats or percussion hits on a drum loop to get an added almost 'ghost hit', other key element of groove in general.
For the synced decay time scenario imagine having a synth lead playing a riff melody and filling the gaps after the phrase with a swelling automated reverb that just stops in time before the new bar: this adds hugely to the musicality and justify the reverb as a groove element on its own, not sounding as a random 'ketchup effect' added on top of the lead.
Another crazy experiment you can try is to choose different reverbs that come in at different intervals: for example you may want the first set with a pre-delay of 1/16th and a long decay, combining it with a second reverb coming afterwards by setting the pre-delay at 1/4th that has a shorter decay.
In this way you get the two reverbs interacting at musical integer values.
In the next audio example you'll hear a 4 bar bass loop playing first in the original state then repeated with three reverb sends interacting at different synced values of pre-delay and decay, with panning involved too, to create a dynamic stereo interplay:
5. Lookahead Reverb
Usually reverb comes after the sound and that's how it works in real life: a source dry signal is played and the reflections boucing in a room come afterwards at different intervals of time.
But what if we change this behaviour by thinking out of the box?
What about a reverb that comes right before the dry signal?
It sounds weird and in a way that's what we can achieve with the reverse reverb effect too, to anticipate what is yet to come.
But there is another way we can implement this concept: in your DAW create an audio track which receives the dry sound you want to apply this effect to and apply reverb on this channel, the kind you prefer here doesn't matter.
Then apply a Track Delay function to a negative value to this reverb channel, let's say - 80 ms (in Ableton you can open this function by clicking the 'D' icon in the lower right of the display): in this way what you are getting is the reverb track playing before the actual dry sound!
If your DAW doesn't have this function handy, you can try the other way around so keep your reverb channel untouched while applying a Delay effect set to 100% wet to the dry channel and setting the time in ms to make it happen afterwards.
Listen to the dry and reverb tracks together when adjusting the delay time and hear how many different effects you can get out of this technique!
In the following audio example you'll hear a series of two claps first dry, secondly with instantaneous parallel reverb, then with the reverb in advance of 23 ms and finally with an advance of 114 ms:
6. Achieving Width with Reverb
In the previous blog post about stereo width techniques I talked about the use of short decay times and early reflections as a way to enhance the stereo width of mono sources.
Well, to take this a bit further try even distorting just those early reflections: this can create a massive enhancement of the stereo image and make for a more upfront sound with more definition in the mix.
Another trick you can try is to make multiple copies of your send reverb and transpose each one by a different octave and pan them differently (works better on mono reverbs); also try applying the Haas effect or even flip the phase to one of your sends for extreme widening (be aware of mono compatibility in this case).
Furthermore try using two mono aux sends panned one to the left and the other to the right, each with its own reverb for a rich and spacial effect.
In the next audio example you'll hear first an 8 bar melodic mono loop, followed by a repetition of itself where I've distorted the early reflections of a send reverb in order to achieve a wider stereo image:
7. Using Multiple Reverbs for Hyper-Realism
Before going into the more unusual and 'unnatural' applications of reverb in the sound design applications paragraph, let's look again to common mixing uses but with a bit of twist.
If we want to create a three-dimensional space in our mix, reverb certainly helps for that: it can be useful to set up a template in your DAW with three reverb sends already prepared for short, medium and long decay times and styles.
In this way you are ready to send the right amount of the reverb send of your choice from any sound of your production, pulling it back from the others if it needs to stay in the background.
Visually it can help to draw a graphic of your mix elements to decide where to place what, an intuition that David Gibson explored in his book 'The Art Of Mixing';
thinking of a real orchestra you can even calculate the micro delay times of an instrument from another based on how far from the source musicians sit for hyper-realism: go for convolution reverbs in these scenarios for best results.
In the following audio example you'll hear first a 4 bar loop with no processing, followed by a repetition where I've sent a different amount and type of reverb to the drums, synth-bass, lead and pad to achieve depth and a more three-dimensional feeling:
All the sounds from the previous and yet to follow audio examples come from my soundpacks, so consider checking them out in my shop page if you want to support me and bring some fresh inspiration to your productions!
8. Harmonic Reverb
What may not be obvious is that reverb, while great for adding depth and separation between instruments, can also cause harmonic clash.
This happens for example if the tail of a chord keeps going underneath the next one and sometimes this causes dissonance and doesn't sound very pleasant.
What you would prefer to do in this scenario is to tailor the decay time to end before the next chord, make automations or just restart the reverb circuit by de-activating and re-activating the effect just before the next hit occurs: be sure to do this right to avoid clicks or abrupt weird artifacts.
Some more advanced reverbs such as Adaptiverb by Zynaptiq even employ AI and spectral processing under the hood to prevent harmonic clash and clutter, in addition to other great features such as 'harmonic filtering' and transposition.
In this audio example you'll hear first an 8 bar melodic loop in its original state, followed by its 'harmonic reverb' transformation via the awesome Adaptiverb plugin:
9. Mastering With Reverb
This is a very delicate topic, since mastering engineers have different schools of thought.
Some of them don't employ reverb at all during mastering because they claim it causes loss of definition, makes everything less focused and muddy, while others who do employ a very small percentage of it claim it is a sort of Holy Grail of mastering.
I actually prefer the latter point of view since experimenting on my own I've found that indeed a small amount of reverb applied during mastering can create more depth, a 3D feeling and more emotion and glue.
The type of reverb and settings depend on the style and BPM of the music you are working on, but typically you want to go with expensive sounding ones which have a rich sound and just apply like 5% of dry/wet to it.
Experiment for yourself and find which of the two categories of schools of thought you think of falling into!
Fun fact: Izotope powersuite Ozone had a Reverb module built inside of it since version 5, but then it was removed because it was thought not be a common practice anymore, but remember that a change in practices and trends doesn't mean necessarily better results! 😉