You know that saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? I have the same feeling towards vocal effects. If you can’t use a reverb or delay without going overboard, then you’re not allowed to use effects. 🙂

The only reason I seem a bit bitter towards vocal effects and effects in general is because I was a sucker for them. My first several recording projects were just completely swimming in reverb. Maybe drowning is a better word. It was like I wanted the whole wide world to know that I knew how to use reverb.

The truth of the matter is that reverb is becoming less and less prominent in popular recordings today. Just listen to one of your favorite tracks from the 80’s. Now listen to one of your favorite tracks from this decade. Notice anything? In just about every popular genre we’ve witnessed the lead vocal become more and more dry and in-your-face.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. It can make it more difficult on a singer. In the 80’s a singer could hide a lot of his/her mistakes behind a big wall of reverbs and delays. Today the lead vocal is more exposed, more bare. This, I believe, is part of the reason for this “perfect vocal” craze that’s going on in pop music. (More on this in the post Thoughts on Auto-Tune.)

What effects to use?

I’ve got nothing against effects…honestly, I don’t. They can add a LOT to a recording, especially if they’re used properly. (Think “subtle” rather than “obvious.”)

Reverb

When you think about reverb, you tend to think about a big cathedral or something like that. As I mentioned before, the popular production style of today is leave the vocal fairly dry and not to use a lot of long-tailed reverbs.

You may wonder, then, “Why use reverb at all?” Well, if you leave a vocal completely dry, chances are it will just seem TOO in-your-face. Using even a small amount of reverb will give it some much-needed depth.

All a reverb does is simulate a room. You don’t have to pick the “Concert Hall” setting to get a good reverb sound. A lot of time the smaller room settings are perfect. It puts the singer into a room rather than a vocal booth. Nobody wants to hear a singer in a vocal booth. They sound much better (and much more natural) in a room. Reverb can make that happen.

When using reverb, it shouldn’t be obvious. You should use just enough so that you would notice it if you were to take it away. That’s all you need.

Now, there are certain situations where a big ‘ol reverb makes perfect since…but I’m thinking more along the lines of orchestral music rather than a pop vocal.

Delay

To be honest, I don’t use a lot of delay when I produce a song. More often than not, I’ll use delay to give a doubling effect to the vocal. I’ll set up a delay plug-in with a very short delay, like 20 ms.

If you want to use longer delays, it can be really cool. Sync the delay to the tempo of the song, then set it to repeat the delayed signal every eighth note or quarter note. Or if you’re feeling feisty, try something funky like a dotted eight note.

When using longer delays, you probably won’t want the delay “on” all the time. You may only want it on certain phrases or on certain sections of the song. In this case, simply automate the send up and down, so it only sends the vocal to the reverb when you tell it to. (You can also automate the send mute to achieve this.)

How do you set it up?

I’m not going to go in-depth into how to set up a reverb and delay in this article. I’ve actually already created a video explaining how to set up a reverb track in Pro Tools. All the same principles apply for delays, except you just use a delay plug-in instead of a reverb plug-in.

What do you think about vocal effects? Leave a comment and let us all know.

Other Articles in This Series:

  • BadboyStudiosInc

    Generally, I think of reverb as wardrobe. Something that can change per song and sometimes per verse, bridge or chorus. Some songs, you want that in your face reverb like Bring Me To Life by Evanescence… Others, very little. Use it as an effect, like bloom or reflections in videogames, not a cover up to smooth out rough vocals. As mentioned, the best output comes from great input. If you slather reverb on your vocals when recording, you have no way to clean it up in post.

    Regardless of how you want to use reverb or delay, make sure it is somethng you add via plugin or hardware, after the dry vocals have been recorded. That way, you have the option to add or subtract and arent stuck. The good thing about modern vocalists, is you have to be able to sing… because heavy reverb is considered cliche and old fashioned. Which makes engineers lives easier, not having to do 50 takes. Though, that doesnt mean bad vocalists still dont exist. They do and they are the ones you will generally hear heavy auto tune or some other effect covering them up.

    As mentioned in the article, use your ears and don’t be afraid to listen to commercially recorded albums of the music type you are recording and mixing, to do a comparison. If it sounds off from those albums, its generally easy to figure out why. Also, dont be afraid to let others hear your work with a fresh set of ears. Ear fatigue and frustration are engineers worst enemies. Walk away and come back the next day for a new perspective. And most of all, experiment and have fun.

  • Most of the time I can agree with the minimal reverb direction. Yet as the side of me that is a great fan of Space Blues (Pink Floyd) and more alternative music hues I do have my moments when a heavy echo and/or reverb is just plain the right thing to do. Sometimes I just want to have my head in the clouds, although I’ve noticed that it is easy to overdress. I have certainly been guilty of that myself.

  • David S

    great points. i feel the same about reverb. all of my demos done by other “engineers” were always heavy on the reverb when i first started recording in bands (circa ’98 or so). I hated it. i realized it was because the “engineers” (regular guys that happened to have a 4-track recorder), were simulating the 80’s sound. I was wanting a modern sound, which i quickly learned meant very little reverb. so, i too have a bitterness toward the effect, however, i’ve learned recently, that it does need to be there, just in small doses. i suppose all things in moderation, right?

  • I can agree to a point about vocal effects. This article made me think a lot about James Hetfield (frontman for Metallica). In their older days, he used effects in his vocals. On some songs, it sounded a bit saturated, on others just right. The closer to the Black Album they got, they better the use of effects they had. Even Load and Reload got it pretty good with his voice think. Disappointingly, during their last two albums, St Anger and Death Magnetic, they left his vocals almost completely dry which created an extremely amateurish atmosphere on the overall mixing scheme to me. If they would’ve kept with at least the Load and Reload template of vocal effects, I seriously think their last two albums would’ve gone A LOT further than they did.