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Mixing Vocals: How Much Reverb?

9:28 am Home Recording

Among the many decisions we face when mixing a typical song, one of the most important is what effects, if any, we are going to add to the recorded tracks. In particular, the addition of artificial reverb to one or more of the vocal parts can have a big impact on how that vocal sounds in the final mix. In this article, I will use one of my own songs to demonstrate the result of adding reverb to lead and/or backup vocals.

Let me start with some general advice about using reverb. To begin with, I recommend that you record the vocals “dry,” with no reverb, to give yourself maximum flexibility at mixing time. You don’t want to get locked in to a reverb setting that sounded great during recording but now doesn’t “go” with the rest of the mix. (Note that I would put plenty of reverb on the vocal monitor signal you send to the artist - it’s a real confidence builder. Just don’t record the reverb.)

My second tip is to make your reverb adjustments for individual vocals and instruments while listening to the full mix. When setting reverb, it is always tempting to “solo” the vocal or instrument in question (i.e. listen to it by itself) to see how the reverb sounds. The fact is, it doesn’t matter how it sounds with the instrument alone, since that’s not the way it will be heard! Every reverb adjustment, whether to level, duration, or color, should be made in the context of the full mix. (After you get it perfect, then listen to each source alone if you want, but I’m warning you. Some will sound “wrong.” Don’t you go “fixing” them!)

Why Add Reverb?

One result of adding reverb to a vocal track is to give the singer’s voice a sense of “place,” of coming from somewhere. A completely dry vocal can sound sort of disembodied, even artificial, especially in a mix with reverb on other elements. We are accustomed to hearing some kind of natural reverb when people sing, whether it’s in a double-wide or at Carnegie Hall. When there’s no reverb at all, we can’t really tell where the singer is!

A second result of adding reverb is to a vocal to push that part “back” in the mix. If we were sitting in the balcony at Carnegie Hall with one singer fairly close in front of us and another way down on the stage, the one onstage would have much more natural reverb in proportion to direct sound than the one nearby. Even with eyes closed we could judge which was further “back,” simply by the amount of reverb. It works the same way in your mix. More reverb makes the sound source seem farther away.

One application of this second result is that backup vocals are often given more reverb than a lead vocal in order to position the backup singers “behind” the lead singer on the stereo stage.

Setting an Example

I will use several alternate mixes of my song “Goodbye Angel” (mp3, chords, lyrics) to demonstrate the effect of adding reverb to the vocals. I chose this song because (a) it has lead and backup vocals through much of it, and (b) it is only one minute long. (This is the same song I used in my article Recording and Mixing Backup Vocals, for similar reasons.)

First, here is a completely dry mix with no reverb on anything (mp3). (Enable popups for this site if the mp3 players do not appear, or just click the mp3 links to listen.)

OK, now here is the exact same mix with the lead vocals still dry but with a fairly long-duration reverb on the backup vocals (mp3).

Notice how this pushes the backup vocals “back” in the mix. Now here is another mix, this one with the backup vocals left dry but with a good dose of reverb on the lead vocal (mp3).

Different, eh? Since the lead vocal is louder, the “sense of place” effect dominates the “push back” effect, at least for me. The lead vocal still seems to be in front. You will notice that reverb tends to make a lead vocalist sound “larger than life,” which is why it is so often (over-)used on singers that are in fact rather smaller than life, talent-wise.

You can hear the final mix I came up with for “Goodbye Angel” below. I ended up using reverb on both the lead and backup vocals, as well as on some of the backing instruments.

Goodbye Angel (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: all parts

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6 Responses
  1. Cheryl :

    Date: October 15, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

    Your site is amazing — chocked with great advice. My question is: at a live performance, what kind of portable reverb box can I use for my vocals. I don’t need all the EFX and pre-sets used by rock bands. I’m a jazz singer. Fortunately, most of my gigs I don’t have to bring in P.A. Occasionally, it does happen. When it does, I have a Fender 1270P. It’s small, but does the job. It does NOT have any reverb — hence, that ‘DRY’ sound you mentioned in your article. Is there a small portable plug-in reverb box available which can add that extra little presence to my vocals? Any help is greatly appreciated.
    Thanks! :-) CC

  2. Dusty :

    Date: October 30, 2008 @ 3:13 am

    When I play gigs live with my own equipment I have on board effects processors in my mixer that have great reverbs for my vocals. However, when I’m gigging out at a venue that has house sound, I can never get the sound engineers at the board to give me the type and amount of reverb I feel my voice needs. Always too dry. So I bought a TC Helicon Voice Tone Create Pedal. It’s AWESOME! It’s a very simple pedal to use in adding reverb or delay to your vocals on stage. Now my live vocals are no longer compromised by sub par house equipment or an inept or uncooperative club sound engineer. Check it out. Hope this helps…

    dusty ~

  3. wayne :

    Date: January 19, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    I’m just getting started and singing live.I have a desktop pc that I load my music onto.That goes into my amp and then into my speakers. Will an echo pedal work to echo my voice or is there another type (inexpensive) that I should get? Thanx

  4. Swell :

    Date: June 15, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    This is an awesome site for us!

    Just wanna ask you something, how do you EQ your background vocals to make it sound so warm and not interfering with the lead vocals?

    Thanks!

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    Date: June 19, 2011 @ 8:58 am

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  6. Melchizedek Tornu :

    Date: June 2, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    please i’ve been trying to apply reverb on lead vocals and back up vocals but i can’t get the correct setting,can you help me with the settings?thanks.

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