“Reverb can be your best friend, or it can act like that bully in the corner,” laughs noted producer, engineer, and mixer Kevin Killen. “Some days, the relationship is a bit better than other days.” Few would disagree. As much as we all love the magic that reverb lends to an instrument or an entire track, we’ve all had those days when dialling in just the right balance of wet and dry seems an impossible juggling act.
In this roundtable discussion, James Rotondi for Universal Audio, discuss the delights and vicissitudes of reverb with four of pop music’s top mixers. While each artist has their own singular take on the mystery and science of reverb and their own favourites among UA’s fleet of inspired reverb plug-ins, don’t be surprised to hear them echo each other just a bit. Good ideas, after all, do tend to reverberate.
André Allen Anjos: Better known as “RAC,” Anjos has created official remixes for Lana Del Rey, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bob Marley, Phoenix, U2, and Kings of Leon among many others. He has remixed over 200 tracks and was nominated for a Grammy in 2016 for Best Remixed Recording for the track "Say My Name (RAC Mix)," performed by Odesza ft. Zyra.
Eric "ET" Thorngren: From the legendary Sugar Hill recordings of the early ’80s, on through to the Eurythmics, Public Image Ltd., and many more, Thorngren’s credits are staggering. Perhaps most notable for his work on Talking Heads’ legendary album, Stop Making Sense, Thorngren also mixed Bob Marley & the Wailers’, Legend — the best‑selling reggae album of all time.
Kevin Killen: Five-time Grammy winner Killen mixed and recorded Peter Gabriel’s 1986 release, So, featuring the groundbreaking singles “Sledgehammer,” “Don’t Give Up,” “Big Time,” and “Red Rain.” More recently he mixed Sugarland’s multi-platinum smash, Love on the Inside, and tracked David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
Tucker Martine: The Grammy-nominated producer behind My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, and many more, Martine has also crafted albums for Beth Orton, Neko Case, Mudhoney, Bill Frisell, and Sufjan Stevens.
What are some landmark records for you that illustrate interesting and effective ways to use reverb?
Killen: I really liked the way the early Blue Nile records sounded, like 1984’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and also the band Talk Talk, on albums like 1988’s Spirit of Eden. Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois' ambient album, The Pearl, was also a very evocative record in terms of reverb and delay being a marked colour in the sound of the album — very open and adventurous.
Anjos: The use of reverb and time-based effects on U2’s The Joshua Tree, also produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, with songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” really stood out for me. More recently, M83’s “Before the Dawn Heals Us” is a modern record that uses some of the same reverberation ideas.
On the other end of the spectrum, records like Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required — which uses super-tight reverbs to create an entirely different kind of pop sound — and Paul Simon’s Gracelandfeature some of my favourite reverbs.
Martine: The first one that comes to mind for me is the track “Some Velvet Morning,” by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. It feels like they’re transmitting a message from another dimension. I’ve tried to find out definitively what reverb that is on his voice but it’s hard to say. Some people say he ran his voice through an old oil tank. Can you guys at UA please find that out and recreate it for me in a plug-in? [Laughs.]
Thorngren: The first reverbs that really knocked me out were on the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl and Pet Sounds albums, on songs like “In My Room” — what you’d hear on those guitars and drums. I mean, the beauty of those reverbs. Amazing. A lot of that stuff was done at what is now East West studios, but was Bill Putnam’s Western Recorders at one time. They have three live reverb chambers there that are just wonderful.
Which records that you’ve personally worked on have a reverb presence that you think works particularly well?
Anjos: One of my recent RAC singles, called “Can’t Forget You,” with the singer Chelsea Lankes, has a heavy use of the UAD EMT 140 Plate Reverb plug-in. I used the same idea in my recent “Restless” remix for New Order. When I put slightly overdriven guitars into the EMT 140, it just instantly takes me back to a specific place in my childhood. I think that must be why I keep coming back to it — it’s literally like time travel.
Thorngren: “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer was probably the biggest reverb extravaganza I’ve ever worked on. It was the ’80s, and things were starting to get very “drummy” on records at that time, that big, big sound that I would call “cartoon drums.” So I did a whole lot of stuff on Tony Thompson’s drums: two gated reverbs, then harmonized gated reverbs that were pitched down, and even a slap delay on the bass drum on that song. A whole lot of people sampled those drums!
Martine: The last My Morning Jacket record, The Waterfall, comes to mind, as Jim and I spent considerable time geeking out on reverbs. Sometimes we printed his physical EMT 140 plate that he has in his garage — it’s a little trashier sounding than mine — and sometimes we used my real one. But very often we used the UAD EMT 140 plug-in, especially when I needed to automate anything or if we had the real EMT 140 on, say, the lead vocal, and wanted the background vocals to have a slightly different footprint.
It doesn’t hurt that My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James is a master of singing to the reverb and responding to what it gives back. Lately, I’ve been having fun experimenting with putting compression on the reverb return. You can create some new kinds of spaces that way.
Killen: Interestingly, about a year or two after hearing The Pearl, I got to work with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois while engineering U2's The Unforgettable Fire, and they employed some of those same longer reverb techniques on that album. Up until that point, U2 hadn't used a lot of longer reverbs — there’d been some short reverb decay times, and a lot of stuff was recorded in natural ambiences. So to hear Brian and Daniel extend and create atmospheres behind a particular instrument, using both reverb and harmonizers, well, that was a real eye-opener for me. I’d also have to mention Peter Gabriel’s So, and Shawn Colvin’s debut album Steady On, both of which have a really strong reverb imprint. You take the reverb off of those, and they’re very different records.
At what point in the recording process do you begin using reverb and other time-based effects?
Anjos: I’m a firm believer in doing everything at once. The mixing process is part of the songwriting process and effects should be treated like songwriting tools, in my opinion.
Having said that, I use reverb to create a space for the entire song, so more often than not, there are multiple elements going into the same reverb. This creates a kind of “sonic glue” that, in the final mix, can make even an overdub-heavy record or an in-the-box recording really feel like it’s a band playing in a physical space.
Killen: I strive to create an atmosphere that the song can exist in, so I absolutely start from Day One. That hearkens back to when I started out working in a 24-track studio, and we just didn’t have a lot of effects, and we didn't have automation, so it was preferable to print the effect to the multi-track tape. That way, when you came back around to mixing, you had a lot of the sonic character already imprinted. I've followed that strategy throughout my career, and I continue working that way in the digital audio environment as well.
Thorngren: I like to wait to add reverb or delay, to make sure that I can hear any bubbles, clicks, or glitches in the recording. Sure, I’ll give the singer some reverb if they want it while recording, but I’ll never print the reverb at that point, unless I’m in a studio where I really need to capture its special sound. I have all my reverbs set up as aux returns, in the same way as I would have on a console, so I can adjust and change as I go, but normally I stay dry until I’m mixing.
Martine: I start using reverb or delay as soon as I feel there is dimension lacking and I’m not able to get it by moving the mics or changing the signal path. If I think something will ultimately get reverb or delay down the line, I like to introduce it right away, even if it’s not the final setting. It helps you know what the song does or doesn’t need.
Which reverbs do you use the most and why?
Killen: I love the EMT 140 plate reverb. I grew up on the EMT plates so I'm very familiar with how they sound. So the fact that the UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator plug-in has three different responses makes it such a useful tool to have.
I also grew up on the AMS RMX16 — among the first totally digital reverbs, along with the Sony DRE-2000. It has very unique presets in and of itself, and was the first to really capture what’s known as the “Nonlinear” or “Non-Lin” sound, which is so great on drums — that's a default I use a lot.
I also love the Lexicon 224XL Digital Reverb, which got a lot of use when I was coming up in Dublin, working at Windmill Lane Studios. That has such an interesting sound, and we ended up using that a lot with Irish band Clannad, to extend the duration of notes and vocal sounds, and create these clusters and chords with them.
Anjos: It’s the UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator. You can pretty much send anything into it and it will sound good. The stereo width is also very reasonable. It’s a specific sound with a lot of character, and it helps create a lot of glue within a mix.
Martine: I’d say 80% of the time I’m using either the UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator or my real EMT 140. On the plug-in, I usually start on the “C” plate. It has this kind of bronze darkness that I find alluring. It’s great for gluing a track together.
When the 140 is too dense I usually try the UAD EMT 250 Classic Electronic Reverb next. It’s brighter and doesn’t take up quite as much space. Plus, it has those cool modulation features. I just recently discovered the UAD Ocean Way Studios plug-in and ended up using that a lot on drums when mixing the new Mavis Staples record. It’s kind of the perfect thing when you get to mixing and wish you had other room mic options. The UAD AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb is great if the track has room for something long with that metallic haze it does so well.
Thorngren: I go right to the EMT 250. I find that reverb length is very important, and I tend to like them shorter. The UAD EMT 140 is such a great version of the original, but if I’m looking for shorter decay times, when I try to shorten the reverb lengths on the UAD EMT 140, I find that they get a little bright. Whereas the EMT 250 still sounds really meaty even with shorter lengths well below one second. And the thing looks like a Buick’s radiator!
What are your favorite UAD reverb plug-ins, and what are some of your favorite settings?
Thorngren: I always use the UAD EMT 250 and the UAD Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb. Those are two hardware units that I’ve been using since I first started recording, and they’re still just wonderful. I always have them loaded up when I’m setting up a mix. I’ll use them for different things.
For example, if you shorten up the reverb a lot on the 224, it acts as more of a “stereoizer,” makes things wide. So I’ll have a short one, a medium one, and then a longer one for certain things. And, as I said, I’ll have a number of both of those earmarked for different things.
On the EMT 250, I’ll start with it set for .8 seconds, with 20 milliseconds of pre-delay, and leave the high-end roll-off that’s already there and the complete low end.
Killen: I would say the UAD EMT 140, the UAD AMS RMX16. When I worked with Peter Gabriel, we’d add either the RMX16 or a plate to the Yamaha CP-70 piano to give it a bit more space.
For the UAD EMT 140, on some of my latest mixes, I’ve been using the “B” plate at 2.5 seconds, and a 250 Hz input filter, with the predelay anywhere from around 30 milliseconds to about 90 milliseconds. And depending on the source material, either adding a bit of EQ on the return side or not. I might roll off some of the top, I might roll off some of the bottom. I’ve found that I like the character of the “B” plate a lot.
Anjos: I already mentioned the UAD EMT 140. My other favorite is the UAD EP-34 Tape Echo plug-in. There’s a sweet spot with the feedback control that creates this reverb-like sense of space. It’s difficult to explain, but it can add just the right amount of vibe throughout a song to take it up a step. It adds this layer of pure wash that just makes everything sound cooler.
Martine: My hardware EMT 140 plate is the first reverb I fell head-over-heels in love with, and you guys nailed it with the plug-in. It simply does what I want a vocal reverb to do. I use it for lots more than vocals, but it’s definitely my first go-to on a singer. I usually start with the “C” plate, as its darkness just appeals to me and is less likely to crowd the detail of a vocalist’s articulation.
I often put a little pre-delay on there to insure that the transients of the source material don’t get too blurred. If the UAD EMT 140 is feeling a little too thick, or it has too specific of a pitch, I’ll usually try the UAD EMT 250 next.
What are some common mistakes one can make when using reverb, and how do you avoid them?
Killen: A common problem is that when we're in the studio, the amount of reverb that we have in our mix often doesn't translate seamlessly to the outside world. You take a mix outside the studio, and suddenly discover that it's swamped in reverb—or the exact opposite. That's probably down to the actual listening environment itself.
For me, reverb is a tool to transport the listener to an environment that we're trying to create within the piece of music, and within the context of the story the music is trying to tell. And, look, it doesn't always work out that you find the right reverbs for that story. But when you find great reverbs that you can draw upon time after time, you do tend to constantly keep going back there, because you know that this reverb has a certain color, and you can trust that color to be perfect on a particular instrument.
Martine: Be careful adding reverb before you understand why you need it. Reverb can be forgiving. It can obscure out-of-tune tracks or blur loose timing issues.
Also, sometimes if you add reverb to an instrument or vocal early in the process, it can be good to take it away once in a while to be sure you are using because it makes the track more compelling, not just because you simply got used to it.
Thorngren: To my ears, digital reverbs, unlike physical rooms or live plates, work better when they’re doing specific things. You don’t want to send the drums and the vocal to the same digital reverb because they don’t react the same as a plate or a room. Back in the day, you could send everything to a live chamber or a plate, and it would sort of glue everything together. But digital reverbs don’t respond the same way. So I’ll have two or three reverbs just for drums, a few for vocals, and a bunch for guitar and piano, and another few if I’m doing horns.
Anjos: The most common mistake I typically hear is not filtering the input signal. A boomy low-end vocal signal simply isn’t going to sound very good through a raw reverb. I usually cut everything out underneath 500 or 600 Hz. It depends on the source material, of course, but I prefer my reverbs to be relatively airy and far, far away from the low-end.
Something else that’s often overlooked is the pre-delay time. If you time the pre-delay correctly and place it in a multiple of the BPM (in milliseconds), it really opens up the mix, and it lessens the overlap between the source and the reverb so that both elements have space to breathe.
Have you ever worked on an album with no additional reverb?
Killen: I’m a big fan of reverb, and yet I often find myself working with artists who say “I don’t want to hear any reverb on my record whatsoever.” And, of course, I completely ignore it. [Laughs.] Or, to be more precise, I just start bringing in subtle amounts of reverb, because I just think it’s an unnatural and very one-dimensional sound when everything is really dry, and that’s just my ear and brain at work. So if we’re going to go the “no reverb” route, let’s at least introduce some natural-sounding ambience around the recording so that’s there’s at least some sense of a depth of field.
Thorngren: I’ve done a lot of live records, but even on those, I may sometimes need to add reverb in places to, for instance, lower the sound of the band behind a guitar solo or something like that. That’s often a better strategy than messing with the levels.
Martine: I used to try and mix with as little reverb as possible, but at a certain point I switched back to “Team Reverb” and haven’t looked back. Sure, there are sometimes tracks or parts of tracks on records that I’ve work on that have no reverb, but it’s rare that the whole record won’t have any. Even if reverb isn’t right on a voice or instrument, I’m fond of a little slap delay.
Anjos: Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever released a song without reverb. Even if it’s subtle, reverb is always there.