What is reverb? How to use digital reverb in your music

Allowing us to create a sense of space, reverb is easily one of the most popular effects used in music.

Despite this, there are many elusive aspects to the effect, from why it occurs in the real world to how the various types of digital reverb plugins we see in the DAW differ from one another. In this article, we turn our attention towards reverb, exploring what it is and identifying its common types, parameters, and best practices.

See the table of contents below to easily navigate from section to section.

What you’ll learn:

Feeling ready? Let’s dive into the world of reverb!

What is reverb?

The producers who are reading this may primarily think of reverb as an audio effect that we use when making music in the DAW. However, the reality is that we hear reverb every day in the world around us.

Whether it’s the walls in our room or the small objects sitting on our desk, most of our surroundings reflect sound to various extents. While we often don’t actively perceive it, at any given moment we’re bombarded by the countless sonic reflections that bounce off of these surfaces.

That said, in certain environments the reflections are prominent enough that they become audible. Let’s imagine an empty hall for an example. If we stand in this space and clap, we hear a mixture of direct sound (sound that travels straight to our ears) and reflected sound (sound that radiates, bounces off of walls and other objects, and travels back to our ears). Reverb is the persisting sound that’s created by the sum of these decaying reflections.

When we navigate the world around us, we interpret this mixture of reflections to perceive the nature of the space we’re in. Thus, we mostly use reverb in our music to simulate spaces, although there are plenty of other creative uses for it.

How reverb sounds

Let’s take a listen to what reverb sounds like in the context of music. Below is a vocal sample without any reverb:

And here’s what it sounds like when we add some digital reverb:

Notice how the vocal with reverb sounds like it was recorded in a large space. While the effect is highly noticeable in the example, it can also be used in far more subtle ways.

Digital reverb types

These days, most of the reverbs we use when producing music are digital models. Unless you own a large studio and have the space to create your own reverb chamber, you’re going to have to primarily rely on digital reverb plugins.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though—whether they’re aiming to simulate real-world spaces or are achieving otherworldly effects, modern reverb plugins can sound quite convincing (for a fraction of the cost). When browsing through them, you might notice that there are several different types that are particularly common. Below is a list of a few of these reverbs, with a brief explanation of what makes each one unique.

  1. Hall / chamber
    • These reverbs simulate spaces as if you’re in a hall or chamber.
    • A hall usually has a longer reverb time (around 1.8 seconds or more), while a chamber is typically a smaller space with a shorter reverb time.
    • There are plenty of famous concert halls out there such as the Berlin Symphony Hall and Boston Symphony Hall, and many digital reverb units try to recreate these spaces.
  2. Plate 
    • A plate reverb is a man-made device that vibrates a sheet of metal when a sound activates the surface.
    • Plate reverbs were particularly popular in the ’60s, and both analog versions and digital emulations are still widely used today. They’re known to work well with vocals and drums in particular.
    • One of the best digital plate reverbs out there is Universal Audio’s EMT 140, their re-make of the physical EMT 140 plate.
  3. Convolution
    • A convolution reverb makes use of a recorded sample—called an impulse response—of an existing acoustic environment. This impulse response essentially records and processes the reverberant behavior of a particular space.
    • Anyone can create an impulse response of an acoustic space and load it into a convolution reverb (though doing it well is more difficult). Audio Ease’s Altiverb contains some of the best convolution reverbs of magnificent acoustic locations that are certainly worth checking out.

How to use a digital reverb plugin

Although there are many types of reverbs out there, they generally share a few common core parameters. Understanding how each of these impacts your sound will be incredibly helpful in allowing you to shape the sound that’s in your head. Below, we define and visualize the relationship between some of these characteristics.

A graph that visualizes reverb, with the Y axis representing amplitude and the X axis representing decay. The graph shows that as decay occurs, the amplitude of reverb decreases.

The parameters of reverb
  1. Decay: Also known as the reverb time, RT60, or reverb tail, this parameter tells you how long it takes for a reverb to fall by a certain level (60 dB, to be exact). The longer the decay time, the longer you would hear the reverb linger in your mix.
  2. Early reflections: Early reflections are the first group of reflections that occur when sound waves hit an object. More pronounced early reflections will perceptually place your listener in a small room, while a lower early reflection level will place your listener further away in your acoustic space.
  3. Pre-delay: The pre-delay is the amount of time it takes for a sound to leave its source and create its first reflection. Having a slight pre-delay allows you to separate the dry and wet signals, and prevents the reverb from masking the original signal. A reverb with a significant pre-delay will cause the listener to perceive that they’re in a big space.
  4. High / low frequency attenuation: Most reverbs have the ability to use some sort of a filter to attenuate high and low frequencies. If you find that your reverb sounds too bright or too metallic, try filtering it with a low-pass filter at around 4 – 8 kHz. Similarly, using a high-pass filter can help clean up your reverb and reduce muddiness.
  5. Mix: The mix setting on reverb plugins allows you to adjust the balance between the dry (original) and wet (reverb) signals. If you’re using a reverb as an insert, use the mix setting to adjust the dry / wet ratio. If you’re using it as an aux send on a track, set the reverb mix to 100% so that you would only hear the reverb signal.

Best practices for using digital reverb

Below are some best practices for using digital reverb in the DAW.

Use aux tracks to preserve resources

To preserve CPU resources, it’s often wise to share a single instance of your digital reverb across multiple instruments. To do so, simply create an aux track and have the reverb as an insert on that track with a mix setting at 100%. This allows you to send many instruments to the same reverb, instead of putting separate instances of the same reverb on each individual track.

Don’t overdo it

In isolation, reverb almost magically makes everything sound better. However, using too much reverb or having too long of a reverb time can blur your mix. For example, a percussive sound may come across as less dynamic when drenched in reverb.

Use reverb wisely and with intention. If you find a sound disappearing in the mix or lacking definition, try changing the reverb setting or not feeding it any reverb at all.

What is reverb: Conclusion

Hopefully this article gave you a better understanding of what reverb is and how you can apply digital reverb in your music. When used effectively, reverb can be that special touch that glues your sounds together, brings out their best qualities, and takes your listener into a new space.

Do you have any questions about how reverb works? What effects would you like to see us explore next? Start a conversation with us on the Splice Discord.

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June 3, 2022

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.