use of reverb and delay in six classic tracks

Using reverb and delay: Lessons from six classic tracks

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One way to better understand the adept use of recording techniques is to study classic hits. We’ve got six examples of expertly crafted songs that showcase creative use of reverb and delay.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

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 delay effects can create the perception of music being performed in a small concert hall, a 20,000-seat arena, or anywhere in between.

Let’s 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.

Understanding delay

While both reverb and delay 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 will be. Go into a cathedral, and you’ll hear how the echo time is increased proportionally to the room’s overall cubic dimension.

Understanding reverb

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.

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, sheetrock, and glass will add the early reflections and provide a sense of dimension or depth to your voice. Next, go sing in a carpeted and curtained room, and you’ll hear the dryer sound with few, if any, early reflections.

Using plug-ins and effects

Finding recording spaces that facilitate natural reverb and delay is often impractical or impossible. Rather than recording in different rooms, it’s simpler to 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.

Adding reverb to your mix polishes the overall sound and will add “roundness” to the recorded parts. If you place all of the instruments and vocals for a 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 my friend and audio engineer Jeff Crawford at a local studio to play some classic rock tracks as we discussed how the use of these effects plays a key role in the finished recording.

Reverb lessons from classic tracks

“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed

From Transformer
Written and performed by Lou Reed, produced by David Bowie

This is a song that uses varying levels of reverb to creatively add a sense of distance and movement. Jeff explains how the engineer and artist likely achieved this effect.

“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, the engineer has the wet fader up and the dry fader down, which creates the ghostly sonic image of the background singers far away from the listener (around 1:25 in the video). As that section of the song continues, the engineer then cross-fades the two, bringing up the dry vocals, while slowly pulling down the wet, or reverb return vocals. This creates a nice effect as 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.”

“Morning Morgantown” by Joni Mitchell

From Ladies of the Canyon
Written, performed, and produced by Joni Mitchell

This song demonstrates a straightforward, 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 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” by the Eagles

From One of These Nights
Written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, produced by Bill Szymczyk

This song features a pronounced use of reverb. Differing amounts can be heard on the band tracks, background vocals, and lead vocal 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.

“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.)”

Using a pre-delay to add a tiny time delay between the original/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 powerful and identifiable sonic hook that wouldn’t be the same without this layered use of differing amounts of reverb on the various vocal tracks.”

In addition to the creative and copious use of reverb and delay, the mics and other signal processors (e.g., compressors and equalizers) used in the studio were probably the best available, creating a rich, present, and balanced tonal range. When these pristine recorded sounds then have high-quality reverb and delay added, the results are striking.

Delay in classic tracks

“Rock On” by David Essex

From Rock On
Written by Marc Bolan and David Essex, produced by Jeff Wayne

Delay 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 by delay and panning as can be heard in this example, which takes the original mono track and pans that track, slightly delayed, to the opposite speaker.

“The trick with this song was to take the backing track, which is in mono, and pan it to the left channel; then they added a short delay and panned the delayed track to the right speaker. This gives the record a sense of space that the mono track would not have had on its own.

“Then, they added the lead vocal, with a little bit of processing, in the center channel, which balances the mix well. Later on, strings and other instruments were added to give the song 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, experiment with a delay between 40-80 milliseconds, depending on the tempo of the song, then pan the unprocessed and delayed channels into opposite speakers.

“Walking on the Moon” by The Police

From Regatta de Blanc
Written by Sting, produced by Nigel Gray and The Police

Here’s another example of very creative use of multiple delays.

“Here, the producer(s) decided to use multiple delays on different instruments. Just listen to the delay on the hi-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.”

Again, an instantly memorable sound, and another hit record. 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.

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.”

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

From Face Value
Written, performed, and produced by Phil Collins

“In The Air Tonight” 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 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.”

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The limits to how you can use reverb and delay in your own recordings are bounded only by your imagination and the particular types of reverbs and delays you use. Have fun experimenting!

Keith Hatschek is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.

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About Keith Hatschek

Keith Hatschek is an author and educator who spent two decades in the music industry prior to joining University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA where he directed the Music Industry Program. He’s written four books and more than 100 articles on the music industry. His latest book, The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, tells the story of the famous jazz musicians’ five-year struggle to create a jazz musical challenging segregation at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

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