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[Mixing] Delay & Reverb

category: Music | course: Music Mixing | difficulty:

Most people are confused about the difference between delay and reverb. It is true that they both basically repeat your sound to make it sound like an echo are as if it’s in a great concert room, but they do it in a different way.

Delay

A delay does exactly what its name promises: it adds multiple delayed versions of your audio. For example, if I press a key on a piano with delay on it, I will hear the exact same key again every few milliseconds. It depends on your settings if it is slowly fading out, or kept at the same volume.

But, what essentially happens, is that the exact same sound is reproduced with a delay.

What would I use it for? Its most common use, is for echoing a specific (prominent) note at the same rhythm or tempo of the song. You just play the note once, at the right time, and then later you put a delay on it to repeat it in the groove of the song. This is used a lot in the dance industry. But, you can also use it in other types of songs to create a certain spacy, open and free effect.

Another very common use is for vocals. When you record vocals, you usually stand really close to the mic and get it on there as clean as you can. That’s good, but when thrown into the mix it sounds as if the singer is about to jump out of your speakers and the vocals are not cooperating with the other instruments. Adding a (small and subtle) delay creates some space around it, without the complexity of a reverb. The delay must be close to 0 milliseconds though, otherwise it will interfere with the vocal itself.

Reverb

It’s the more complicated brother of delay. With reverb there is an extremely vast array of options available, and there are lots of different types.

Reverb is different from delay in the sense that it doesn’t just repeat your sound, but it simulates the deflection of the sound off the room, other instruments, etc. When you add a reverb to something, its sound is not send directly to the speakers, but the software calculates the different sound waves and volumes that would be present if your room had a certain acoustic and sends those instead.

What would I use it for? A lot. Reverb adds some space to instruments, it backs them off from the speakers and puts them all together as if they were played at the same time, in the same room, and then recorded. On top of that, reverb adds some extra tones, some extra depth and weight that would also naturally occur.

You can use reverb however you want on all separate instruments, but I suggest using a subtle reverb on everything (global reverb), and then using another one on every bus ( = group of instruments that belong together) to really place every instrument at its own spot in the room.

All Delay Options

As usual, some DAWs have slightly different names, but at least all the options I will discuss are there. Also, most effects or instruments have a small delay section built-in. This is helpful because it is quick and very specific, but it usually has fewer options than a full-fledged delay effect.

  • Feedback (FB): What volume very delayed repetition should have. For example, setting it to 50% means that the delayed signal is exactly the same note but only half the volume.
  • Low Cut (Low): Set to a certain frequency level. Every frequency below that is not included in the delay.
  • High Cut (High): Same idea as low cut, but for the highest frequencies.
  • Tempo (1/4): For how much time it is delayed. Setting this to the tempo of the song is usually preferred, the button/slider usually has indicators at the side for 1/4th notes.
  • Dry/Wet (Mix or Blend): If a delay is dry, it means that its effect is negligible. If a delay is wet, you’re using the maximum effect it allows. As the names ‘mix’ and ‘blend’ suggest, this determines whether (and how much) the delay blends with the original sound.

 

All Reverb Options

There’s really too many different plugins, effects, extras and options when it comes to the world of reverb to cover here. So I will give you the options that a small reverb section included with most instruments/effects has, and that are the most important. I’ll also talk a bit about the different types that exist.

  • Pre-delay (Pre): Determines the amount of time it takes for the first reflection to start. A small pre-delay is often used to offset the reverb from the original track a bit, to prevent clashing. A large pre-delay is used to simulate a large room. Standard value is usually 0 milliseconds.
  • Damping: Determines how much higher frequencies are damped/softened/removed. A high damping value will remove the edge from a sound and make it warmer and brighter. A small value gives a sound more air.
  • Low Cut & High Cut (Low & High): Same as with delay, they determine whether really low or high frequencies are used in the reverb.
  • (Room) Size or Decay Time: As you would expect: it’s a value, set in milliseconds, that determines for how long the reverb will keep going. A large value is used if you want to simulate a large room (a big pre-delay helps there). Big reverbs are also useful for soloed instruments, but when multiple instruments are playing together you want to have a much smaller size.
  • Dry/Wet (Mix or Blend): The same as with delay, it determines how prominent the reverb is for the track.

Usually, a distinction is made between natural reverbs and the rest.

There’s the hall reverb and the room reverb that belong to the natural group. That simply means that they try to be as close to how it works in real-life as possible. They try to simulate your instruments actually being in a hall or room.

And then there’s the plate reverb, spring reverb and convolution reverb. The plate reverb simulates the sound being reflected by a single, straight metal plate. Spring reverbs emulate mechanical reverbs for a metallic sound, while convolution reverbs can load an impulse file that defines the room’s characteristics. These belong to the rest, because they don’t create a natural reverb. They are used for electronic, artificial sounds and effects.

Golden Rules for Delay & Reverb

  • Turn the reverb up until you notice it, then turn it down slightly. If you can really hear the reverb, it’s too much and it needs to be pushed back (usually by about 10-15%).

    That’s where another difference with delay comes into play: delay is an effect you usually want people to actively notice, unless you’re using it with a very small time difference to give vocals or instruments some more weight.
  • Remove the high end. 90% of the time, delays and reverbs sound bad because there’s too much high frequencies flying around and interfering with the sound you want. Use a high cut to remove them, usually around 5 kHz is good.
  • Watch out for the low end. While this may seem the polar opposite of #2, I mean that leaving the very low end in will make an already low sound seem like it is drowning in muddiness. In that case, also cut some of the low end, but not as much as with the high end.
  • Create a stereo sound. If you have an instrument panned to the left, you can create a delay of about 10-50 milliseconds on the right-hand side to make a wide, stereo sound.

    You can also use automation and delay to animate moving a sound left to right (or vice versa), which can be an awesome effect to add. But, it is much more noticeable and disturbing if used where it isn’t needed, so be cautious.
  • Match it to tempo. Although already discussed before, matching delays to the tempo (or 16th notes of the tempo) is way better than just randomly picking something.
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