Boss RX-100 Reverb volume knobWhen I say reverb what comes to mind? How about delay?

For a lot of people who are just starting out with recording and mixing, they may think that reverb is that awesome plugin you use to make everything sound like it’s in a cathedral. And when they think of delay you may think of The Edge from U2.

The truth is, there is SO MUCH you can do with reverb and delay to enhance your mixes, and the most effective ways are usually the most subtle. I don’t use huge cathedrals and dotted eighth-note delays all the time, but I do use both reverb and delay plugins on almost every mix I do.

How do you pick between the two?

Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ve said this before, one of the sure signs of an amateur mix is too much reverb. The same is true for delay, or really any effect. You get so excited about this new plugin, and it sounds SO good in your ears that you don’t realize that your entire rock mix is drowning in a huge hall reverb.

Subtlety is your friend. A good rule of thumb for dealing with reverb and delay? If it’s obviously there, you probably used too much. Of course you want people to hear it, but you don’t want it to be so loud that it’s distracting. It can be a tough balance.

There are times where a big huge delay or reverb is perfectly appropriate, but for the most part you want to keep it simple, keep it subtle.

Reach for Reverb First

If you’re debating whether to use reverb or delay in your mix, reach for the reverb first. And don’t go crazy with a bunch of different reverbs. You probably don’t need a separate reverb for drums, vocals, guitars, and keys.

Here’s what I do. I’ll set up a single “Large Room”-style reverb and I’ll sometimes set up a second reverb for my drums (depending on how much I like the sound of the room mics).

The job of the drum reverb is to be my room sound. Room mics sometimes don’t cut it. Or maybe you record drums in a small room, but you want them to sound like they were recorded in a bigger room. That’s how I use reverb for drums. I want it to sound like a pair of room mics in a nice big studio. So I send a small amount of the snare, toms, and sometimes the overheads to a dedicated drum reverb. The same rule applies. If the reverb is obvious, I turn it down.

My Large Room reverb is for everything else. I’ll run a little bit of vocals, guitars, keys, pretty much a little bit of everything in the mix except for drums and bass (bass + reverb = mud). The purpose of this reverb is to simply give the mix some space. I’m not looking for a big long decay and a huge cathedral sound here. I’m keeping the decay under 1 second. The idea here is to make all the instruments sound less “in your face” and more “in your room.”

If you record everything in your studio one-track-at-a-time, you’ll end up with a bunch of nice, clean tracks. The problem is that they can sometimes sound dry. The solution? Add in some reverb. If done well, you won’t be able to hear it too much. You’ll just notice that the tracks have some space and seem to be more “glued” together.

When to Use Delay

Delay can obviously be used as an effect, like The Edge’s signature dotted eighth-note guitar delay. But did you know that a delay can do a lot of the same things a reverb does?

Sometimes if a reverb simply isn’t giving me the space I want without making the mix sound too washed out, I’ll reach for a delay. Sometimes a simple slap-delay is exactly what I need. Reverbs have tails to them, and sometimes those tails can be GREAT for a mix, and sometimes they can just cause more muddyness and confusion in the mix. That’s when a delay can come in handy, since it’s simply a delayed signal without all the decay of a reverb.

A nice, short stereo delay can give your tracks that sense of space without hogging up a bunch of real estate in the mix. A longer stereo delay can make guitar and background vocal tracks sound much softer and more roomy. It’s great for getting that warm, thick sound out of those bed tracks.

My advice to you? Try both reverb and delays. Mess around with them and see if you can get some interesting sounds out of them. You never know until you try. And remember to keep things subtle.

The best mixes are usually the ones with a bunch of small, subtle pieces of “ear candy” throughout the song. Mmmm…candy…

Thoughts? Leave a comment below.

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  • Brett Hughes

    Does anyone use a subtle stereo delay to create some space and width to drums, guitars, etc? I’ve found it has the capability to give dimension and depth to the “landscape”… thoughts?

    • Delay can be a great way to add some space without having to deal with the “tail” of a reverb. I definitely use delay a lot for that.

  • Pingback: 4 Ways to Create Depth WITHOUT Reverb | Home Studio Corner()

  • Chris

    I just love the awesome but subtle smoothness you can add to a track with these fx. Have i done o.k over here:

    Keep up the good work Joe.


  • Chris

    I just love the awesome but subtle smoothness you can add to a track with these fx. Have i done o.k over here:

    Keep up the good work Joe.


  • Antonio Freitas

    Regarding Reverb and BASS, I am with you. Reverb can definitely muddy those longer bass waves and generally make a mess of it. But I would not recommend complete abstinence of reverb use in drums. A rich/tight sounding snare usually has a well chosen reverb+gate. If the room has poor reverberating characteristics and the overhead mics don’t have good ambiance to capture, the next best option has to be a well chosen and controlled reverb/delay.

    • Absolutely. As I said, I use reverb on drums in almost every mix.

  • dan

    I ALMOST never use more than one type of reverb on a single song. To me, it makes more sense to only use one, bcos if your watching a live band the vocals aren’t gonna be in a vox room and the drums in a large cathedral. Of course I have done it before.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard that argument before, but I don’t really want my mixes to sound like a live band at a show. I want it to sound BETTER.

      Also, most live engineers will use reverb on the vocals and sometimes drums, so you still have 2 reverbs happening: the artificial reverb done by the mix engineer, and the natural reverb of the room they’re playing in.

      • dan

        That is true, it just always seems to make my mixes sound muddy, even with the least amount of reverb. Of course, other people might be able to make it rock. I guess I’ll have to try it more often. Thanks again for all of your great articles Joe!

        • One thing to do is to EQ the reverb. I usually roll of everything below 400 Hz or so to clear out any mud.

  • Rasmus Källqvist

    My rule of thumb generally is that, if I pull up the send to the reverb and start hearing the reverb very obviously I pull it down one-two dB so the feeling of it is still there without it sounding cheesy and to big. The goal is kind of like, you want an A/B to the clean one to be really obvious but you don’t want the reverbed one to actually sound reverb without comparison.

    • Absolutely. I apply that same rule to a lot of things. Adjust something until it’s too much (EQ, compression, reverb), then back it off a bit.

  • Joe already mentioned sending delays to reverbs in the first comment. I’d like to add that by using pre-delay on your reverbs you can make the reverb stick out a lot more, thus allowing you to reduce the decay time or overall amount of it in the mix. Only having the reverb happen in those audible spaces or “ear candy” moments and pulling it out when it’s unnecessary (by delaying when it starts and accelerating when it ends) can really help to clean up the mix.

    • Yep, a nice long pre-delay almost turns the reverb into a hybrid reverb-delay plugin.

    • Antonio Freitas

      On the acoustical side of things, using a pre-delay on reverb does one amazing thing. It allows the percussive part of the hit to come through clearly while enriching the rest of the sound. Thanks for brining that to the conversation Ben.

  • joe

    one thing i like to do a lot is send my delays through to reverb.

    • Yeah, that’s a great idea. That way the delayed signal can have the same ambience behind it as the original signal.

      • joe

        i also sometimes take all the dry signal out of the re verb too so you don’t hear the direct delay, you only hear it through the reveb. i learned that from the vocals on frank ocean – novacane.

  • tron

    Also worth mentioning is impulse response reverb, which I’ve found can have an amazingly natural sound, depending of course on what impulses are used. Check out SIR, and LiquidSonics Reverberate.

    • I’ve honestly never used much convolution reverb. I use the stock D-Verb that comes with Pro Tools, and it works perfectly. Granted, I’m doing mostly straight-up rock mixes. If I was doing a bunch of classical, orchestral stuff, I could see how it’d be nice to have something more “realistic.”

      • tron

        I’ve never been happy with most digital reverbs, until I started using convolution reverb, then it just “clicked”, especially with Reverberate (I am not connected to LiquidSonics other than as a paying customer). I work on mostly experimental, free jazz, avant garde, electronic music.

        • Yeah, I bet with the stuff like experimental jazz you’ll need a really pristine, realistic reverb sound.

          • tron

            I suppose convolution is a tangential topic. So in the context of Delay and Reverb, this is a good article, to think about the potential relation and interaction between the two effects. I sometimes use long reverbs and long delays to create a “soup” of sound to some degree. It is a blast to play with…

  • I hear you on the too much use of delay and reverb. I find discovering a new plugin and overusing it can make a mix wash out. Ive been Recording for a few months and your posts have been a great help. Take a listen to some of the stuff Ive done

    • Yeah, you’re totally right, Sean. Too much of a good thing…and it suddenly becomes a bad thing. 🙂

      Dude, your tracks sound killer. Solid stuff, man.

      • Thanks Joe, your posts really help. after every one I seem to get better and better

        • Awesome, Sean! Great job actually applying the things you learn. I respect that.