recording with reverb

Recording with Reverb and Echo – Tips and Lessons from Six Classic Tracks

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If you’re recording and mixing your own tracks, you may have already begun experimenting with reverb and delay, two time-based effects that offer the opportunity to change the perceived time and space coefficient of an individual instrument, voice, or an entire mix. Simply put, the use of reverb and echo effects can create the perception of music being performed in a small concert hall or a 20,000 seat arena, or anywhere in between. We’ll consider the aesthetic use of each, and recommend a few classic tracks worth checking out that make excellent use of these time and space effects.

Reverb vs. Delay

While both of these effects are time and space-related, they are most easily differentiated by the discrete time that elapses between the original sound and its delayed reflection. The classic example of delay is often also referred to as “echo.” Go into a large rectangular room (gym, garage, church hall, apartment building foyer) and clap your hands loudly and listen to see if there is a discrete echo. The smaller the room, the closer together the original sound and its echo or echoes will be. Go into a cathedral, and you’ll immediately hear how the echo time is increased proportional to the room’s overall cubic dimension.

Reverb, on the other hand, is made up by the early reflections and diffusion of the original sound source in a three-dimensional space. This causes the listener to perceive the original sound blended with reflected sounds that arrive a fraction of a second later than the original sound. A good example can be heard by singing in your bathroom. You will not likely hear any discrete echo, however, the reflective surfaces such as tile, painted sheetrock and glass will add the early reflections that add a sense of dimension or depth to your voice. Next, go sing in a carpeted and curtained room, and you’ll immediately hear the dryer sound with few, if any, early reflections.

Rather than recording in different rooms, it’s simpler to simply use a reverb or delay effect. Using these effects in the control room or home studio also allows for very precise application to one or many different tracks, rather than relying on the specifics of the room you’re recording in.

Jeff Crawford
Jeff Crawford

Adding reverb to your mix polishes the overall sound and will add a bit of “roundness” to the recorded parts. If you place all of the instruments and vocals for a particular song through a specific reverb effect, you’ll create the impression that all the performers played together in the same space, whether or not they actually did so.

To discuss and analyze the creative application of both reverb and delay, I met up with engineer Jeff Crawford at a local studio to play back some classic rock tracks while he offered his opinions on how the use of these effects played a key role in the overall recording.

To stream the audio from these classic tracks, you can go to either Pandora or Grooveshark and sign up to hear them for free.

Lou Reed

Reverb lessons from classic tracks
“Walk on the Wild Side” from Lou Reed’s Transformer. This is a classic record that used varying levels of reverb to creatively add a sense of distance and movement to the track. Jeff explains how the engineer and artist likely achieved this effect.

“What happens is Reed has the backing vocals singing ‘doot-do-doot’ at a medium low volume in the mix, enough to hear, but that recorded background vocal track is also feeding a reverb unit. The reverb unit’s return signal was then likely sent to a different channel on the mixing board, allowing the engineer to artistically mix the dry and wet (reverberant) signals.

“As Reed introduces the background singers with his famous line, ‘And the colored girls sing…’ the engineer has the wet fader up and the dry fader down, which creates the ghostly sonic image of the background singers a long ways from the listener. As that section of the song continues, the engineer then cross-faded the two, bringing up the dry vocals, while slowly pulling down the wet, or reverb return vocals. This creates a nice effect of the background vocals seem to move forward to the front of the mix. It’s a simple yet effective way of creating both distance and movement within the song.”

Joni MItchell - Ladies of the Canyon

“Morning Morgantown” from Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. This song demonstrates a straightforward, very tasteful use of reverb that gives depth and body to the record.

“This simple song features two acoustic guitar parts and Joni’s voice, with some tasteful accompanying incidental instruments. No bass, no drums, so the use of reverb is even more apparent. You’ll notice Joni’s voice has a dash of reverb that gives it a beautiful shimmer, while the two acoustic guitars, which are panned left and right, have more reverb than the lead vocal. This creates the effect of placing the vocal ‘closer’ to the listener than the guitars and the other backing instruments. Simple and effective, this subtle use of reverb fits the song perfectly.”

“Lyin’ Eyes” from the Eagles’ One of These Nights. This song features a pronounced use of reverb, including differing amounts on the band tracks, background vocals and lead vocal can be heard in the classic paean to heartbreak. The use of reverb places the Eagles tight three-part harmonies in an almost cathedral-like wash of reverb that adds a touch of choirboy poignancy to the record. Jeff breaks down how The Eagles, working with producer Bill Szymczyk, build the 6:21 track.

“The song starts off with the band playing the song powered largely by a driving acoustic rhythm guitar and the melodic guitar line picking out a phrase from the song’s melody. The first verse features a lead vocal with lots of reverb, thickened with a pre-delay that is best heard on the sibilant consonants (s, t, etc.) [Editor’s Note: Using a pre-delay to add a tiny time delay between the original or dry vocal’s occurrence and when it hits the reverb is a standard process to add more depth to a featured instrument or vocal.]

“The next verse adds a second voice singing a harmony part, also thick with reverb. Then a wall of vocals with even more reverb hits on the chorus, sitting atop the steady instrumental track, creating a very powerful and uniquely identifiable sonic hook that wouldn’t be the same without this layered use of differing amounts of reverb on the various vocal tracks.”

Jeff was careful to point out that in addition to the creative use of a good deal of reverb and delay, the mics, other signal processors such as compressors or equalizers used in the studio by The Eagles were probably the very best money can buy, further helping to create a very rich, present and balanced tonal range. When these sounds then have high-quality reverb and delay added, the results are striking and memorable. “Overall, this track epitomizes how a strong song and performance are made even better by the use of reverb and echo,” Jeff concluded.

Delay in classic tracks

Echo use can be complex or simple depending on the creative impulses and imagination of the artist. Even a simple mono backing track can be fattened up delay and panning as can be heard in the next example which takes the original mono track and pans that track, slightly delayed, to the opposite speaker.

David Essex - Rock On“Rock On” from David Essex’ Rock On. “It’s a very simple song and what Essex did was to take the backing track, which is in mono, and pan it to the left channel; then he added a short delay and panned the delayed track to the right speaker. This gives the track a sense of space that the mono track would not have on its own. Then, he added the lead vocal, with a little bit of processing in the center channel, balancing the mix well. Later on, he adds strings and other instruments to give the song more depth, but the basic structure and use of delay can be heard very clearly in the song’s introduction and vocal entry. Without the delay, you wouldn’t have the same record. In fact, the sound is part of what made it a hit.”

If you want to emulate this effect, Jeff suggests experimenting with a delay of between 40-80 milliseconds, depending on the tempo of the song, then pan the unprocessed and delayed channel into opposite speakers.

The Police - Regatta De Blanc“Walking on the Moon” from The Police’s Regatta de Blanc. Here’s another example of very creative use of delay.

“Here, the producer decided to use multiple delays on different instruments. Just listen to the delay on the high hat that starts out the song… it’s a different delay than that used on the vocal, which is different than the delay used on the guitar. The kick drum has delay which is then panned near the end of the song, so throughout the entire five-minute track, the mix engineer ‘plays’ the delays themselves like another musical instrument, creating new rhythmic patterns that were not played by the musicians.”

It’s important to note that this approach wouldn’t work as well on a loosely arranged track. The tight and controlled arrangement played by The Police, which features short, percussive parts, makes this type of experimentation with delays very successful. Again, an instantly memorable sound, and another hit record. Through it all, the bass line uses no delay effect, providing a solid anchor around which the rest of the track evolves. Jeff ties the use of delay effects back to the song’s title. “Most of us don’t really know what it’s like to walk on the moon, but the delays and echoes give a sense of space that fits the mood of the piece perfectly.”

Phil Collins - Face Value“In the Air Tonight” from Phil Collins’ Face Value. While we considered the use of pre-delay in “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Walking on the Moon” showcases reverb and delay and offers a case study in the creative use of both to create an atmospheric sonic hook of its own that helped create another hit record. “In The Air Tonight” is a track that uses multiple delays on every instrument and vocal to create a moody, ethereal ambience. (Listen to this one on headphones!) The drum part that enters at 3:51 has gated reverb – a classic ‘80s signature – and adds the additional ambience of a very large three-dimensional acoustical space (think airplane hangar), further creating a memorable sonic hook.

“The long intro, nearly a minute, uses delays carefully with repeating echoes to build a sense of anticipation. Like ‘Rock On,’ Collins uses the drum machine track panned dry in the left and the delayed drum machine in the right speaker, creating movement and tension that sets up anticipation for the rest of the instruments to enter. The first sustained distortion guitar is deep in the mists of reverb, giving more three-dimensionality to the delayed spread of the stereo drum machine. Soon, another guitar and two keyboard parts join in, each with its own effects, building a repetitive bed for the lead vocal entry at 52 seconds. Collins’ vocal has a heavily processed EQ, with early reverb reflections and delay further enhancing that part.

“One other nice touch is that after the second verse, an additional series of repeating echoes is added to the lead vocal in tempo. This adds yet another memorable hook that prompts a visual image of Collins singing alone at night in a deserted cityscape, his vocals bouncing off the hard surfaces of his surroundings.”

The limits to how you can use reverb and delay in your own recordings is bounded only by your own imagination and the particular types of reverbs and delays that you have. With the ever-increasing number of software-based plug-ins, high-quality and affordable reverb and delay effects are available that can help you expand your creative tool kit to realize the sonic vision for your own recordings. Happy experimentation!

Song Credits
“Walk on the Wild Side”
Written and performed by Lou Reed
Produced by David Bowie

“Morning Morgantown”
Written, performed, and produced by Joni Mitchell

“Lyin’ Eyes”
Written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley
Performed by the Eagles
Produced by Bill Szymczyk

“Rock On”
Written by Marc Bolan and David Essex
Performed by David Essex
Produced by Jeff Wayne

“Walking on the Moon”
Written by Sting
Performed by The Police
Produced by Nigel Gray and The Police

“In The Air Tonight”
Written, performed, and produced by Phil Collins

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Echoes and the author of two books on the music industry, Golden Moments: Recordings Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry. He directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific and plays guitar in his free time.

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26 thoughts on “Recording with Reverb and Echo – Tips and Lessons from Six Classic Tracks

  1. Thanks for the excellent article Kieth, you kept me captivated right to the end ,since I have a small recording studio at home, I am learning by trial and error ,so any info I can stumble upon is very welcome, I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience, if I had known the future, I would have paid closer attention to that side of the art of recording while I was at the Music Annex, keep up the good work jsa

  2. I like that your articles are not so high tech that I am lost, yet relevant enough for relative newbees to follow. For all the junk I delete all the time, your articles are put aside to read and learn – keep up exactly what you are doing.
    Jim Dorn

  3. The use of onboard studio effects is a very judicious thing. It is true that an addition in milli-seconds of reverb or delay can fill out a recording very well it can also make a vocal track inaudible. It is the icing being placed upon the baked cake,the cake being a totally dry recording with the concentration being upon EQ and separation. You want to avoid having any kind of adultered signals on tracks going into post-production.Other than say your electric guitars being pre-amped with an avalon.Or perhaps a rotary speaker effect..No amount of trickery is going to make a bad recording sound good. When you go into post-production you want total control over all of the elements,then as I said you are blowing in the effects very carefully. You can witness on my films at aipublish the effects rack at Morrisound Studios.That is a quarter of a million dollar rack.It is cleaned daily,there is not a speck of dust on it. I am licking my chops just to look at it-the ultimate musical toybox! Just the LED”S alone are so cool to look at I have the lights dimmed in the control room.When it gets tapped it is very gingerly,it is a powerful toy.And so again I say if you are going to modify a sgnal you want that to be as pure of a sig as possible.

  4. I hear a lot of modern vocals where the reverb has a lot of sibilance in it because everyone seems to love to use bright mics and gear to record every single instrument these days. (which also drives me crazy.) If you set a high pass filter on your verb, so it doesn’t effect the highs up over 6k where those high-frequency consonants are, it will sound more “natural.” This is probably more important than what verb you use or what plug-in. If your reverb doesn’t have a high pass, double your vocal track, eq out everything over around 5.75k, and send that to the verb only, not to the main mix. This will accomplish the same thing as a high pass filter on the verb. Then you can use a fair amount of reverb without it sounding like it may as well have a sign on it saying “REVERB.” And with a delay those high frequencies can cause a lot of mess in the vocal track, which might not be there if you don’t hit the delay with those highs. Also knowing the tempo of the song can help with setting the delay…

    There is a big difference between room sound and verb sound. If you’ve got a live room I suggest, if your tracking set-up allows it, setting up a fairly dark room mic and experimenting with that. That could become a really special part of the sound and set it apart from a lot of what’s out there. And don’t assume that the only mic to use on vocals is a large-diaphram condenser mic. An sm7, ev635, RE20, or other dynamic mics may sound better for your voice, or even an inexpensive ribbon mic… (Bono has used an sm58 for some of the vocals on U2 records, for example.)

    Fred Gillen Jr., Woody’s House Studio, Croton -on- Hudson, NY

  5. GREAT Article! Please keep more of these going… it’s informative and inspirational! It’d be great if you could have a link right in the article to play these tracks rather than having to go to another site to get them.

    Excellent work all around though!

  6. Great article… BUT… I believe NOT mentioning “The Edge” from U2 when discussing reverb and delay is a bit of a “miss”… There is so much to learn from Joshua Tree alone!!! Other than that, well done!

  7. Interesting article… would it have been possible to include anything that’s a little newer then 1985 and possibly a bit more “relevant” to modern productions? If I handed any of my clients a mix that sounded like the Eagles or Phil Collins I’m not sure that I’d get called back…

    IMO it probably would’ve been more helpful to fledgling audio engineers to discuss why a particular reverb or effect was chosen. That’s always seemed to be key… with the right reverb there can be a ton of it on the track and nobody ever hears it. But the ‘wrong’ reverb will always blow out and be ugly no matte how short it is…

  8. right on, randy! barry, sam used real reverb. room mic’ing and probably a reverb tank which was just piping the sound into a live room and re-recording it. natural reverb effects are always better. although there are logarithms to figure out how to duplicate it, it ain’t the same. the old mics and the old live rooms were the key to the great classic recordings. this is something much overlooked in todays hi-tech plugin world.

  9. Good article.It would nice to hear how Sam Phillips used echo on the firet Elvis recordings.
    BTW,My 8 month old daughter is named Echo.

  10. I find that there are more techniques developed each and every day. Some people slam a new technique before ever trying it. Some will try them and use them to excess.
    My point is, there are many more good techniques than bad. And more often than not, the user is not remembering to LISTEN to the end result. The old school taught me to always TRY to put down your tracks (especially basic tracks) DRY. Then add the effects (condiments) after. Once you have a wet track, you better like it. Or you might have to do it again. And the next performance may not be as good as the first.
    I am letting my age show. But I only record wet when I know exactly what I will get. Because the talented artist may NOT be in favor of doing it again. And also, the talented artist may NOT like the track the way YOU cooked it.
    Then what are ya gonna do?
    A lot of the same things apply when you are mixing live too. A real good way to end up with a muddy mix is to have all of the stage instruments run wild with their own effects and then YOU have to try to make it all intelligible. I find that there are very few acts that can manage their own effects. More often then not, they have a mixer/sound man who works very closely with them and handles most of the effect ques from FOH.
    You guys have great topics and articles. Sorry for the rambling.

    Coot

    1. I forgot!
      Try putting the bass drum (kick)or bass guitar on two separate tracks. One dry and one wet. You still get your punch and you can season it to your liking. Then you can blend it in the final mix. If you are live, Ha! You gotta move fast and listen closely. Because you only get one chance to make them like it.

  11. This is by far one of the greatest articles I’ve read, thank you guys for posting this type of information online, I for one love experimenting with Reverb and Echo and hate (after many bad experiences) to place it in kick drum and bass, it just kills it all, thanks again guys and keep posting this very informative articles online, DiscMakers, you guys rock!!!

  12. Great article! I have to admit that I really enjoy reading “Echoes”, honestly I end up deleting a lot of stuff in my in box, but this is not one of them! Reverb and delays are very crucial when it comes to creating or rather recreating a natural acoustic environment. It should also be mentioned that in most cases the reverb & echo returns were most likely EQ’d (to some degree) to further support the psychoacoustic properties that the engineer was pushing to convey.

    Rock on! Excellent read!

  13. Thanks for a great article. I was just experimenting with the dry vocal pan left, and wet vocal pan right just last week. It is nice to see other people have done this with success. I liked the effect, and so did the performer, although, we were not recording this, I was doing it live in a concert!

    cld

  14. I believe it’s really cool to have you guys place this kind of info on line. It ehances and reminds me as i continue to record and have always used this type of reverbs. non the less great to read. Thanks!

  15. I’m thinking “nice writing!” And then I see it’s Keith Hatschek. So of course! Good writing Keith and good analysis Jeff. Keep up the good work!
    –Maureen

  16. One thing that would have also been nice to add as a counterpoint is when NOT to use reverb and delay! I hear so many amateur mixes that are just “drowning” in a sea of convolution filters and it just makes everything sound like mud. I do like that it was pointed out that there was no reverb on Sting’s bass for “Walking on the Moon”. Ughh! Reverb on bass is like a transient killer! It tickles me to hear s guy whining about how his mix has no “punch” and you see that he has reverb all over the kick drum and bass.

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