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Reverb - Effects.....the Pro's get it so right, why do the Novices get it so wrong?"

Reverb can either make a recording [a demo or a proper commercial recording] or it can destroy are many of the hidden secrets to getting that Hit, Number One sound that is easily acheievable.

Most guys out there buy an effects unit and glance at the manual. Then they get totally fazed by the terminology: Hall, Room, Rabbit Hutch and all the chorus and echos, plus the flangers, vocoders, telephone voices. What's it all about? A lot of the Members of 'The Serious Writers Guild' have asked me to write a small piece about effects. Which are the best units? What's it all about, in fact.

From the start there are just three types of reverb to concern yourself with:

  1. Room [will make anything sound like it's in a small room]
  2. Hall [sound like in a hall]
  3. Cathedral [and in a Cathedral]
All the other quirky description are particular to various manufacturers. But the decriptive title will, fairly accurately, give you a good idea of what to expect that reverb to do. Listen to a well produced play on the radio [Radio 4 in the UK...superb] and you will hear reverb units stretched to the limit and doing the job properly. The actors will actually sound like they are in a canyon, or in a club, or a dining room or in a country garden...that is all done with expert use of reverb units - usually quite expensive ones. Plus judicious use of E.Q. they use expensive units as, when using talking voices, any noise from the units will be heard. We can normally get away with a bit of noise on a commercial Pop recording.


There are dozens of effects units....almost all as good as each other. As I always say: "the 12 year old in Our Price couldn't tell you what was used...she just likes it".

The classic units still have a sound all of their own. The AMS reverb and separate echo and chorus unit was the classic of all time. I would often hire them in for sessions...a frightening price to buy, but the sound was 'identifiable and expensive'...I often described it as "glass beads spilling down a marble staircase in a mirror lined stairwell". Anyone who has been lucky enough to use one will understand what I mean.

It was the 24 bit processing they used that did the trick, so I am told. My two nephews are a major part of the AMS/NEVE/CALREC business set up.

Now, 24 bit is common...come on...even Zoom use it...and I can never understand stuck-up sound engineers turning up their noses at Zoom. I am looking at FOUR Zoom units in my racks as I type!

There is no 'manual' or 'book of words' on what unit to use for which effect or which unit to use for different instruments.

It boils down to experience and skill in extracting the best out of each unit.

Starting with vocals:

We all know that it is nice to have a 'timed' delay [echo - timed to the beats per minute] available, just hanging about in the background. I do this, as a matter of course, when I set up a mix. I have a number of Digitech units in my racks..I like them because they are 'evil'...they 'don't take any prisoners' certainly know when they are switched on. I use a Digitech Studio Twin with S Disc processing for my vocal echo work. Mainly because there are patches on there that combine echo with chorus. So for extreme left/rigt vocal sounds that echo/chorus is stunning.

In achieving that 'Destiny's Child', 'Honeyz' type of extreme left right [which I have used for years] it is essential not to use a full stereo reverb, as this will distribute the vocals throughout the stereo spectrum and thus defeat that extreme left/right effect. In fact for that very 'today' left right sound you need the vocals almost as dry (no effect) as possible.

Roland RSS (Roland Spatial sound] is probably the most 'used' effect for creating that stereo microphone effect.

The lead or main vocal should have it's own dedicated reverb unit. The most expensive you can afford. I use Industry Standard Lexicon. The most missused units in the World. You find them in every studio, but sadly they are either ON or OFF. Study the manual. Experiment, test. Every track demands a totally different reverb...maybe a vocal enhancement setting...maybe a short predelay...or a long one? Predelay has got to be timed in exactly the same way as the BPM.

In my 'One Minute With Dec - The First Annual', the interactive CD's I actually give a good demo of predelay, compression etc. click on The First Annual . Always have a 'reference' CD available and always be amazed at the amount of effect we use...much more than the amateur demo and certainly much more than the in-house studio engineer would want to use!

A HIT mix is always the KIKIN' rhythm and the exciting vocal...all the rest is gloss. So, you now know where to concentrate your best effects units.

A lead vocal today would have at least four effects units working on it. And trust me, there is no room for 'subtlety' in HIT recording effects. I have never used 'room' or 'hall' in my life! I use the biggest and brightest reverbs that will tear your throat out.

Four, I hear you ask? How could you use four units on just one vocal?

  1. Reverb supplying the reverb and predelay.

  2. A unit supplying vocal enhancement.

  3. A delay unit.....and then

  4. A chorus unit.

We are not talking here of using a '4 in 1' unit like The Alesis Quadraverb [a much maligned, but very useful bit of kit]. Using separate units is much more convenient than fiddling about with the internal settings of a 4 in 1 unit.

Always remember that straight reverb will push the vocal away into the distance. Whereas massive compression and vocal enhancement will push the vocal towards the listener and pitch it six feet in front of the speakers!

One of the most important effects is a triple image effect which you should have available for the kit and percussion. I use ART. Again for the main reason that "you certainly know when it's switched on". It's just stunning what a triple image can do for your high hats, snares....will definitely cut your ears off! Nasty in the extreme. Which is exactly what we want in a 'today' mix. I aim to get my kit and percussion, plus samples, as fat as possible and as nasty as possible. I want to see blood dripping from the ears.

Orchestra stabs are the EASIEST thing to make sound so exciting, and also the easiest to make sound boring! Don't even bother to use an orchestra stab from a keyboard....YUCK!

What do I use?

Sample a Max Martin stab from NSYNC [I didn't say, that did I? Get permission first though]. Then add that marvellous, timed predelay we spoke about and a 'bright as a button' nasty, short reverb. That orchestra stab will burst out of the speakers! Of course, make sure you are driving the channel nicely up into the red...a point always forgotten by amateurs [sorry, but if you don't earn all your dosh from music, you are an amateur].

The same predelay and reverb will be dynamite for your brass. I could write forever on the different effects that will enhance different instruments, but I would suggest you should find out yourself.

How do I get that huge dance lead synth sound?

The biggest dance, lead synth sounds, will be achieved with massive predelay and a big Cathedral [3 seconds long] reverb. Make sure it's EQ'ed hard and bright. Check it out.

Use these basic principals:

First, ask yourself does the voice or the instrument improve with the addition of reverb and effects. 'Queen' mixes were as dry as a bone usually...check 'em out. That is how Brian May's guitar sounded so huge and bursting out of the speakers. Freddie's voice, likewise was usually dry [no effect].

Most of Dr Dre's stuff is very dry or maybe just a tiny bit of room reverb surrounding the vocals. The snares, generally will be dry. The hardness is achieved with compression and very accurate choice of frequencies used in the instrumentation.

Check out the voice, particularly dry, EQ'ed to create maximum 'interest' and 'entertainment' [never forget that that is what a record is entertain]. Then, when you are totally happy with the dry, EQ'ed sound of the voice get the compressors going. I will discuss compressors another time but that is where a lot of the magic will come from. Then finally decide on the effects.

Effects should ADD to the excitement, if they don't - leave 'em out.

You should always bear in mind that mostly effects should be heard when the voice finishes....a theory a lot of great producers live by. However two factors in effects will 'thicken' the voice:

  1. A slow delay left on in the background, which you only really hear when the voice stops, WILL make the whole effect more interesting.
  2. An extremely short reverb with all the top end taken off will thicken an otherwise thin vocal sound and put a 'halo' of color around the vocal.

How many effects units should you have?

Use as many effects units as you can afford. The cost need not be prohibitive. The 12 year old buying a CD doesn't know whether you used a twenty year old Yamaha R100 for the echos - or the latest all singing, all dancing $3765 unit!

In fact Celine Dion's vocal producer [Humberto Gatica] uses one of the oldest tricks in the book....he uses an old tape machine to produce the echo [or predelay] and feeds that into a vocal acoustic that set up is ancient...but it works! You will hear his magical vocal touch on Julio, Bette Midler, Cher, R Kelly.

Are the manuals important?

Study the manual of each unit and use it to the maximum. RTFM. [Read The F****** Manual - to quote Microsoft]

Always drive the units as hard as possible without distortion and have the output and the 'mix' on the unit to maximum...that way the unit will be operating as quiet as possible. Most noise in a mix comes from the effects units.

Use unusual effects units...I favour Digitech and ART for that "you certainly know they are switched on" factor. In fact, Digitech tend to give their pre-production units to major producers to make up their favorite you are getting the benefit of those countless years of production experience.

Have at least one 'expensive' unit dedicated to vocals.

Learn how to use the vocoder section of your effects units...'cos no one else can!

Bring your favorite units to that big studio when you are doing your major project...saves hours and you will get the sound YOU want and not the boring sound that the studio in-house engineer gives you.

Just be aware that even a guy of my experience can come up against a house engineer who just has one unit switched on and one fader to give you more or less...with one patch selected....and he will give you every reason under the sun for doing that!


Always record the special efffect bits onto the tape or hard disc or that you can get that really important effect 'RIGHT'. Then it is there forever and you don't have to worry about it when you mix. You can also re-use the unit for another purpose.

You may want to consider a little chorus [or a lot!] on the vocals right through...Kylie makes a fortune from that one effect!


When you mix your back track [which you should do as you mix the main track] make sure all those natty vocal effects are on the back track, so that, when you sing the toon live all those Hit effects will be there. The audience don't know whether you create the effect live or not...and what's more they don't care...

They just want to hear YOUR Number One.

You may feel at times that I am overly commercial and just into making the dosh from would be right there. But it is a view shared by all the 'major' guys right through history....check out this quote:

"The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be: 'Yes.'

And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.'

-- Aaron Copland


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