Modern Approaches: Reverb and Delay

November 2, 2015

In its aim to present a wide range of production techniques and philosophies from a diverse panel of working artists, the Modern Approaches series has so far tackled equalization and compression – two tools essential to delivering high-quality audio, but also ones whose underlying concepts and methods for effective implementation can be difficult to fully understand. Now, Modern Approaches is ready to move on to the fun stuff: reverb and delay.

Forms of time-based processing (that is, audio processing which manipulates the timing of a signal in order to produce an effect), reverb and delay are production tools whose results are often immediately apparent to the listener. Add a standard reverb to a piece of audio and the signal now sounds like it is coming from within a room. Add a standard delay to a piece of audio and the signal now echoes itself at regular intervals, with each successive repeat of an echo gradually decreasing in volume. Turn the “wet” (meaning the affected signal) control up in either of these examples, and the original signal becomes lost further behind the sound of the reverb or delay. Turn the “dry” (meaning the unaffected signal) control up, and the effects of the reverb and delay become quieter in relation to the original sound.

Reverb and delay are some of the most fundamental tools that allow producers to really get creative with their work.

These are the basics of reverb and delay, and something that most every beginning producer is able to pick up with little trouble. Still, there is ultimately much more to consider here than just the “dry” and “wet” balance – both reverb and delay have the immensely powerful ability to add a perceived depth to a piece of audio and, when used effectively, can transform mixes from two-dimensional landscapes into immersive, three-dimensional audio worlds. Reverb does this by adding closely spaced echoes to a signal (mimicking the reflections sound would incur in a real world space), thereby giving the listener aural cues as to the overall size, density, and nature of an artificially generated space. Delays introduce various forms of, well, delayed signals into the audio path, creating echoes that can mimic what one would hear replied back to them when they shout into a long, dark cave or (perhaps more fun) altering a signal into an entirely new form that could not ever be recreated in the real world.

Reverb and delay are some of the most fundamental tools that allow producers to go beyond the utility of audio production and really get creative with their work. And while bathing a sound in a pillowy reverb or dubbing out a vocal using delays can certainly be fun, only seeing these tools as a means to add FX to one’s track overlooks the essential value reverb and delay can have in adding depth and physicality to a production. To give us a better idea of the many ways one can wield the power of reverb and delay, we’ve again asked a council of notable beatmakers to offer some insight into their own production process.

John Roberts (New York - Brunette Editions, Dial)

I try not to overuse delays and reverbs or to make them sound like “effects.” I prefer to use them on audio that is happening in the vacuum of the computer (i.e. synthesizers or instruments recorded dry) in order to make them sound as if they are occurring in a natural setting.

The only outboard effect that I currently have is the Roland RE-101 Space Echo, which has a very liquid sort of sound that really appeals to my ear. I use it for subtle delays, to create soft walls of feedback, and to dull down the edges of digital samples.

Ras G (Los Angeles - Stones Throw, Leaving Records)

I use delays in the early stages of production and also in the mix stage. I use many different delays (especially with vocals, I like the vocals to have that dubby sound) – be it the delay and reverb on the Pioneer DJ mixer, the delay on my Roland SP-404, and up to the final stages of the mix in Garageband where they all can have their special flavor added to make it all sound cohesive.

Anthony Parasole (Brooklyn - Ostgut Ton, The Corner)

I may go a bit overboard with time-based processing as I use many different reverbs and delays – from multiple guitar pedals to a few rack units that I own – in the recording process and route them via aux sends to the designated channel returns on the mixing board, which then has its own stem on my DAW. Time-based processing is super important in crafting your own sound – each reverb, delay, filter, effect, etc. on each sound gives it a different life, and recording these passes live allows you to capture very unique textures that may not occur otherwise.

Palms Trax (Berlin - Dekmantel, Lobster Theremin)

Delay, reverb, flangers and phasers are probably the most important tools for me and I use them straight from the start of creating a song as I feel like they’re as much a part of the creative process as the melodies, synths, etc. Delays can help beef up a sound, and can make your hi-hat patterns sound a lot more complex than they actually are. It also helps to round out samples that aren’t quite as good as you’d hoped.

Reverb is basically essential, especially since most of us are just recording with no room ambience. I used to just use the default Logic reverbs, but they started sounding a little contrived to me and now I have the Lexicon plug-ins that are totally worth splashing out on. I’ll often apply reverb to a buss, filter all but the first 200hz off and send a little of the kick drum signal there to get a more cavernous sound, or just help cushion it a little. Side-chaining one to the other also gets a bit of movement going, and with a bit of patience, you can get a pretty good “Berghain kick.” Other than that, I always have a reverb on a buss to send drums to and help keep them sounding cohesive.

Phil Moffa (New York City - Butcha Sound Studios)

While I’m recording sounds in, I’m always tracking reverbs and delays that are coming from hardware, pedals and rackmount gear on every pass. I’m always trying to get some kind of vibe from a reverb or a delay or both with every pass, that way that stuff is already in the computer and we don’t need to go back and add it later. It captures part of the vibe of the recording process, and also the quality for me is always better. I’d rather use a cheap reverb pedal than a plug-in any day.

To me, reverbs and delays are things that aren’t just set it and forget it. You don’t just put a reverb on something and then just track it for eight minutes, you should be there to ride the fader and play with it, make certain sections more wet and others more dry, dub out certain things. I like to perform the effects just like an instrument.

Lakker (Berlin - R&S)

Reverb and delays are something we use quite heavily. We probably rely on reverb too much sometimes. Used creatively, reverb can really do amazing things, and we enjoy spacious sounds and creating different spaces within a mix. Recently, we’ve been using much shorter reverbs, just to create different spaces in the mix separate from the longer and more atmospheric reverbs we’ll put on particular sounds. Usually our synths and a lot of the found sounds and field recordings in our tracks will end up going through a lot of different reverb chains in the final mix.

How much reverb and delay we use can depend on what sort of thing we’re doing. If it’s a really dancefloor-focused track, maybe we’ll find it’s better to pull it back and have the sounds be more stripped and dry, but if the song is more for listening, you can use a bit more. I also like the idea of taking down your delay and reverb returns by three dB at the end of a mix, pulling them down just a little bit can be a handy way of making your sounds clearer.

Kowton (London - Livity Sound, Idle Hands)

I create a lot of the movement in my tracks by automating delays and reverbs. At the same time, I also use reverb pretty heavily to place things in the mix, though I see these two techniques as very different processes. Basically, everything apart from the kicks and sub in my tracks are run through a delay and/or reverb. I feel a large part of what my tracks are depends on them having depth and these tools are the best way to implement that. I’ve found that the Soundtoys Echoboy plug-in is great for creative delays, whereas something like the Waves RVerb is a fairly static, but lovely sounding reverb for placing things in the mix. The Eventide Space is great for giving things a metallic edge.

In addition, I think adding delay to most things makes them sound better. I like the idea that everything isn’t necessarily running in time all the time: the more sounds cut across bars in irregular patterns, the more exciting music sounds to me. Levon Vincent is king of this – often each section of his tracks will have subtly different delays applied to each hat or shaker pattern and the results are captivating. I’ve got a Moog pedal that is never in time, which is great for this sort of thing.

Natasha Kmeto (Portland - Dropping Gems)

When I’m initially building sounds, I use reverb often. Recently, I’ve been messing around with having reverb on a sound, and then all of a sudden displacing it so the listener is suddenly put in a different place; as an arrangement effect, that can be really cool. I also enjoy combining really short reverbs with huge reverbs and going between the two, it makes it a little more psychedelic for the listener. I’ll also just play my reverb automation on a controller – a lot of my live set is performing FX, so I’m used to using reverbs and delays to ease transitions between parts and to build anticipation in a track.

Matt Karmil (Cologne - PNN, Endless Flight)

I use reverbs and delays a lot to get personality into the component parts of my tracks as I’m putting sounds together – to make sounds feel distant or narrow or trippy or really straight or whatever the texture is I’m looking for. I use real plates and real tape echoes to do this.

Tape echoes are the best thing ever, they are key to my sound. The one I use the most is the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, it’s a very physical thing – you can move the tape head around and change the speed while it’s going.

K15 (London - Wild Oats, WotNot)

I tend to use different reverb settings for different sounds as it allows them to blend in different ways. I think reverb can add a wealth of space and depth to a sound; giving the lightest, most vulnerable sounds overwhelming presence or the most brutal tones a withering tail. There’s a George Duke track, “Echidna’s Arf,” where his Rhodes is run through a reverb unit, and the resulting tone and color it gives his music really made me think about the power of reverb and how it can create a world away from the original sound.

Jlin (Gary - Planet Mu)

Reverb and delay play a role in my production – I use them as enhancements on a certain sound or FX. I don’t do it all the time though, because it’s not always needed. (I will say, however, there are times when I have ran an entire track through some reverb.) If I decide to add a delay to a track, it’s really just for extra flavor or to give the track a surprise, a kick.

There are never any specific elements that get reverb or delay put on them in my productions – it’s all a matter of feel. There is not a right or wrong way to do a thing, it all depends on what the producer is trying to display. In my opinion, a producer has to fail a lot for the sake of experience in production. I know I did.

Ana Helder (Buenos Aires - Cómeme)

I use reverb and delay whenever I want to get an “atmospheric” sound. In general, I start using them when the track it is still taking form, but most of all when a song is close to done. I like using Analogy Delay or Bionic Delay plugins for PC and also Lexicon’s Mx Dual Processor because I like to use the tap-tempo function.

Gonno (Tokyo - Endless Flight, International Feel)

I use many types of delays, echoes and reverbs in diverse ways. At the moment, I’m especially into the Strymon’s Timeline delay for helping to create sounds. Almost all of the tracks from my recent album, Remember the Life Is Beautiful, include tones from a Moog Little Phatty, a Korg Volca-keys, and an Acidlab’s Bassline 3 ran through the Timeline. For reverb, I often use the Altiverb plug-in and UAD’s Lexicon reverbs for building stereoscopic sounds up, mainly on basslines and lead-synth lines, and sometimes claps and such as well, depending on the situation.

FaltyDL/Drew Lustman (New York - Ninja Tune, Planet Mu)

These have been around for so long, reverb and delays are those old standbys, just reliable tools for altering sound. I couldn’t get my tracks “rolling” in the beginning, and then I found that some delay and reverb made them much bigger. Listen to Aphex Twin and how he uses small chamber reverbs; he makes it sound like the song is inside a glass box inside your ear. With the right techniques, reverb and delay can make things sound small as well as big. I like that.

Avalon Emerson (Berlin - Spring Theory, Icee Hot)

I find I use reverb less and less, and only sparingly on upper registers. Dance music is often played in cavernous concrete boxes, so additional source reverb can zap the energy and percussiveness of a song.

When I do use reverb, I will do things like use the same reverb on everything in a track, to simulate a “real world” environment, where everything is supposedly in the same room when you’re hearing it. I use a fair amount of delay on hats too, and an LFO to modulate the phase a tiny bit and give it a little bit of motion – while maybe not consciously discernible, it makes things feel a bit more alive.

Aïsha Devi (Geneva - Houndstooth, Danse Noire)

For me, delay and reverb are not artificial tools, but they are used to create a space and to add fullness and energy to a track. I usually put a lot of delay on my voice, so to me, it can be like having friends who are answering back to me. I see music as a shamanic and spiritual experience, so I use delay to get a kind of repetitive mantra feeling from my voice; it allows me to reverberate my own energy in a way.

I love reverb for that same reason. When I make music, I am doing it in my really really small studio, so when I record my voice, it is totally flat. When I add reverb to it, it allows me to mimic nature; to mimic being outside, on top of a mountain or in a cave. For most of my reverb sounds, I use the Eventide Space pedal. It’s digital, but it sounds so full and generous and warm.

Brenmar (New York City - Fool’s Gold, Grizzly)

It’s all about introducing space. You can think of your track like a picture – there is the foreground, the middleground and the background – and you can use reverb to help create the relationships between your sounds. Not everything can be front and center; the kick, the hi-hat, the snare, the bassline, the synth and the vocals can’t all be demanding your upfront attention. (You can try, but it will probably sound a little intense.) You have to know what should be at the forefront and what elements are going to support that, and reverb can help create those relationships and create spaces between the sounds. You can have something be really dry and feel really close and personal and intimate in a song, or you can wash it out and sneak it into the background.

More often than not I am using both delay and reverb the way they are “supposed to be used.” With delay, I like to actually throw the delay on its own track and then record (or, since I’m using Ableton, freeze) that track and turn it into another audio track. This allows me to have just the audio of the delay, and from there I can do some really cool stuff with that. Not only can you hear what’s happening in the delay on its own, but you can see what’s happening on the waveform, and you can use that to help fine-tune edits and automation.

I don’t know if this will blow anyone’s mind, but recently on a track I had your kind of typical trap snare roll, tuning down before the one, then I took a reverb and had it open as the snare was going down in pitch. The reverb started dry, but was automated to be completely wet by the time the snare reached its lowest note. It just spiced it up a bit. That’s an example of using reverb as an effect completely in and of itself, as opposed to using it to subtly enhance something.

Boody B (New York - Boysnoize Records, Palms Out Sounds)

It’s so easy to love reverb and delay, and as a result, so easy to overuse them. I have a nice little collection of outboard delays – I particularly love my pair of early ’60s Dynacord Echocord tape-delay boxes (they are sort of like Roland Space Echos, but with a much more dusty, temperamental and unpredictable sound). They are mono, so I like to split a stereo signal and send one side to either Echocord. Their motors never run at quite the same speed, plus they have different vacuum tubes in them, so this creates nicely uneven delay patterns. I also really enjoy the sound of my Alesis Quadraverb for big ‘90s sounding reverbs.

In general, I like to try and treat reverbs and delays more as instruments, rather than as effects per se. One easy trick I’ll often use is to print reverbs and delays down early in the process so that I can chop up the tails, do destructive time-stretching, resample/pitch them or mangle them in other ways.

Bicep (London - Feel My Bicep, Aus)

We basically have “Primary” and “Secondary” reverbs and delays. “Primary” ones will come from outboard units like a Roland Space Echo delay or spring and Eurorack reverbs. These have a lot of character and can really alter whatever is going through them, although they can be slightly coarse and clumsy, so we also implement some “Secondary” softer digital reverbs and delays when mixing as these we can use with subtly and real accuracy. We also alter delay timings quite a bit on each element as that helps add different movement to rhythms.

We tend to prefer the sound of outboard reverbs, but they are not as accurate as in-the box stuff, so we use a combination depending on the sound we are going for or which instrument we are using the reverb on. In the box, we have gone through quite a lot of the UAD plug-in reverbs but have ended up going back to a mix of Valhalla VintageVerb and Ableton’s stock reverbs. Outboard, we have an Eventide Space, an Ensoniq DP4, four different Accutronics spring reverbs (ranging from the ‘70s to present) and we have also been using a Lexicon Model 200 recently.

We would have to say that the Eurorack Make Noise Erbe-Verb is our favorite because of its unique sound – you can really mess with it a lot live to get an amazing effect, especially considering its size. Delay-wise we have a Space Echo, and also use just the built-in Ableton ones when we want something a bit tighter or perfectly synced.

John Barera (Boston - Supply Records, Dolly)

I use delays and reverbs on synths in a track when a certain sound is lacking depth, but I try not to use this kind of processing excessively. Reverb on techno drums goes a long way though, so I often incorporate some while finding my initial sound palette, and I usually make a unique delay or reverb for each channel in a track as needed.

One of my favorite tricks is to record myself playing chord stabs while adjusting the frequency and resonance on a synth. Then I would run that through a delay unit, a reverb, maybe distortion and a filter, and record a new take of myself manipulating the parameters of these effects on the chords across the length of the track to see what happens (usually something really fun). The one specific approach I could recommend for this is, using Ableton Live, to process these sounds with the overdrive and ping-pong delay [included in the program,] as I’ve found that a lot of nice sounds happen this way.

Ambivalent/LA-4A (Berlin - Delft, Valence)

Delays and reverbs can be the spark that starts a track, sometimes a synth or drum pattern doesn’t work without it. Reverb has saved some melodies, delay has inspired some rhythms – it’s something I get to right away when I start working. Sometimes it’s an insert, dedicating an effect to a specific instrument or channel, other times it’s an auxiliary send that gets used by multiple channels (often these are just for utility reverbs). For example, a lot of drums in my tracks will have a very light dusting of a “room” reverb, which can give them just a little bit of space in the stereo field. Creating stereo spread using delay and reverb is an important part of my productions.

Occasionally, I will use delay and reverb to draw out the decay of a sound, but for that I also like to use bizarre effects or tape-delay emulations. I have an Eventide H8000 (which I love for these kinds of super strange effects), and I also love my Lexicon MX200. These are the two hardware units I use on nearly everything. For digital plugins, I like the UAD Roland RE-201 Space Echo, and also their EMT 140 and 250 units. Waves makes a nice delay unit called the Hybrid series, which has a lot of fun functions that straddle what’s possible in the hardware and software worlds.