Timing Reverb To The Music

My tempo calculator of choice, Audiofile Calc.

My tempo calculator of choice, Audiofile Calc.

I wrote a post about this concept a while back, but as there seems to be some renewed interest, so here we are. Also, I got to experience not doing this over the weekend and it made such a difference, I thought I would write a new post. Here’s the concept: I was listening to a Pensado’s Place podcast some years back and Dave was talking about setting his vocal delay to 1/16th or 1/32nd note relative to the tempo of the music. He said that usually works out to somewhere around 100-102 msec. I tried it, and sure enough, it sounded good. Then it occurred to me that I could do the same thing with reverb times. 

So I whipped out my handy-dandy BPM to millisecond calculator (I use Audiofile Calc for iOS), and tried it one weekend. The results were good. So I kept doing it. Here we are about four years later. 

The basic idea behind this is simple. All sounds decay naturally over time. Modern worship music is fairly percussive, meaning there is an initial impulse, a decay and then in some metered time later, another impulse. Time—for music—is broken up into measures and notes. Those notes are played over a constant time signature that keeps everything on beat. 

Have you ever heard a band where one musician can’t quite keep the beat? They’re either a little ahead or a little behind, or maybe they wander back and forth. When they’re out of time, it becomes apparently quite quickly. 

Assuming the entire band is playing in time, all the music has a common impulse and decay. It’s all in time. Now, if you take your vocal reverb and set it randomly to 2.2 seconds because that’s what the guy who trained you said you should always use, your vocal reverb tail may or may not decay in time with the rest of the music. Chances are, it’s not in time. And when it’s not in time, it stands out like the musician out of time. 

Now, what if you set your vocal reverb to decay in a whole note’s worth of time? Give it a try. What you’ll hear is not the reverb. The vocal will just sound more rich and lush. In contrast, if you pick a random, non-musical decay time, you’ll hear reverb. Some people want you to hear their carefully crafted reverbs—they spent all of sound check dialing it in, after all! But personally, I’ve found it sounds a whole lot better to not hear the reverb—until you turn it off.

What’s amazing about this technique is that you can use incredibly long reverb times without affecting the clarity of the mix. I’ve done 4, 5, even 8 second reverb times and all you hear is a rich, lush vocal. Yes, if you pay really close attention you’ll hear the reverb tail. But for the most part, because it’s decaying in time with the music, it decays with everything else. 

So if you’re playing along at home, call up your BPM to time calculator and set the tempo to your song in question. Now, look at the time for a whole note. Set your reverb time to that time, or as close as you can get if you’re using a Yamaha console. Take a listen. If you’d like to go longer, try a dotted whole note (that’s 1.5 whole notes). Or, if the song calls for it, a double-whole. If you got the tempo right, the reverb will just dissolve in time with the music and sound fantastic. Now, for fun, pick some random time between a whole and dotted-whole. Hear the difference? Suddenly, you hear the effect. Put it back and it just sounds good. 

If you don’t want to spin a bunch of virtual knobs on a phone calculator, you can download this PDF chart that I made up. It covers a pretty wide range of time signatures common to worship music and gives you the corresponding time from a thirty-second note all the way up to a double-whole. I find this faster and keep a copy in my weekend mixing bag. Give it a shot and see if you like the results.

Elite Core

It Might Not Be Your Fault

Recently, I taught a class on mixing. A four-hour class. This was particularly cool because I finally got to walk people all the way through my weekend mixing process, not just part of it. I had a ton of fun preparing for the class—which is good because it took me 40-50 hours—and learned a lot myself. 

I started the class by mixing a track with almost no EQ, compression or effects. Well, I did have high pass filters on most channels, and I put just a little reverb on the vocal. Believe it or not, it sounded pretty darn good! You want to know why? Because I’m an amazing mixer, obviously. That’s tongue-in-cheek, by the way. No, it sounded good because I was mixing some pretty great musicians who knew how to play around each other. 

It’s Not Your Fault

I’ve been to plenty of churches where the pastor or worship leader is frustrated by the “mix” and wants to know how I can help. Often, I have to say, “Well, it would help if you had musicians who knew how to tune and play their instruments.” It’s also helpful if they don’t all play the exact same line all the way through the song. 

You might have been to a larger church, or a concert and hear a mix that you thought was great and felt bad that you mixes don’t sound like that. It may not be your fault. It could just be that your band isn’t very good. A lot of small- to medium-sized churches have some wonderful people with great hearts who volunteer to play in the worship band. Unfortunately, they’re not great musicians. And often, the ones people think are “great” are only great compared to the truly awful ones that sometimes volunteer there. 

At that point, the role of the FOH engineer is damage control. You can do the best job you can, but it’s never going to sound better than the people on stage. 

You Can Only Grow So Far

I learned this first-hand. My mixing really didn’t get to the next level until I started mixing bands who were much better than I was. I had reach a point in my mixing where I could make a very mediocre band sound OK. But when I tried those techniques with a really good band, it fell flat. I had to learn and grow and figure out how to make a great band sound amazing. Last time I mixed at church I had three people—two of which I know actually know what they’re talking about—tell me the mix was really, really good. So arguably, I’ve improved over the years. 

I say that not to toot my own horn, but because I’m mixing really great musicians, my level of mixing has improved to their level. The better the bands I get to work with are, the better my mix gets. 

This is all meant to be encouraging to you. If you feel like your mixes are not where they should be, it may not be your fault. If you’re constantly being berated by your pastor or others in the room about the “sound,” take a look to see if it’s really a mix issue or a musician issue.

And I’m not trying to simply throw musicians under the bus, here. Sometimes, the engineer really is bad. I very recently heard a mix of a really good band that was so uninspiring that I left the room. That wasn’t a band issue, the but the FOH guy ruined it for me. 

The point is, the finished product will only be as good as the weakest link. Don’t be that weakest link.

DPA Microphones

How To Ask For New Gear

Does this make you want to entrust the tech team with more dollars?

Does this make you want to entrust the tech team with more dollars?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about developing upgrade proposals. Today’s post will be similar but different. This post was inspired by a photo I received from a friend at a church where I was once on staff. I immediately started thinking about all the churches I’ve been in where the tech booth is just a disaster. Or maybe you can barely walk on stage due to the rats nest of cables and junk that is all over. Or perhaps it’s the pile of broken and haphazardly placed junk all over their storage room. It might even be all of these (it usually is…). 

Now, keep in mind, the reason I’m typically there is because the tech guys are wanting to upgrade their equipment. I have to think to myself, “Why on earth would leadership give them any money?” 

Why You Can’t Have Nice Things

You’ve heard the expression, “And this is why you can’t have nice things.” It’s usually said after you’ve broken something, or it’s pointed out that your room is a mess. Basically, it means if you don’t take care of the things you have—which are likely not as nice—you won’t be entrusted with nice things. The Bible even talks about this. Those who are faithful in the small things are entrusted with larger things. Look it up. I don’t just make these concepts up, folks. 

If your pastor walks into your tech booth every week and has to subsequently pick the Tootsie Rolls off his shoes, you’re not likely to get more money to buy a new board. Or gaff tape. Clean the booth, organize your systems and make what you have immaculate. Wring every last ounce of performance out of it and maybe even do the impossible once or twice. Then you can start talking about upgrades. 

You’re Thinking Backwards

Many tech guys come to me with tails of woe about how their church doesn’t support them in their production efforts. Their thinking is, “If the church would just spend $XX,XXX on new gear for us, we would take care of it.” The reality is, if you’re not taking care of what you have, you won’t take care of new stuff. And your pastor knows that. Especially if he has kids. 

Now before you tell me I don’t know the struggles of working in a small church that doesn’t have a big tech budget, let me remind you that I spent almost 15 years working in small (ie. sub-500 people per weekend) churches. My first church was really strapped for cash. Once we built our new building, we were having trouble paying our pastor what he was worth, let alone buying a new console (which we needed). I kept the booth immaculate, and did everything I could with what we had.

One day, one of our members came back to the booth and told me that a music store near his office was going out of business and they had some killer, fire sale deals. He said he knew how hard we worked back there and thought there might be some things that we could use. He wanted to take me shopping, and use his credit card! We met up a few days later at the store and within an hour, we had a new mixer, some band monitors and two new effects units. God provided for us, and I’m pretty sure part of the reason was that my team and I worked really hard with what we had and didn’t complain. 

Maybe You Have Another Problem

As I was thinking about this post, it occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason you can’t get your upgrades funded is that what you want to do doesn’t line up with the vision of the church. I’ve talked with tech guys at small, country churches who can’t get the church to buy moving lights, personal mixers or a new PA. I understand the frustration, but consider this: What if the church wants to stay a small country church? What if they don’t want to be North Point? Now, there’s nothing wrong with North Point, but not every church needs or wants to do production on that level—or anywhere near it? That might just be OK. 

And if you find yourself constantly frustrated by that fact, you might need to consider if you are the one that needs to change. Churches. It might be that you need to find a church that does production on a larger scale where you can contribute. I had to do this about 12 years ago. I was attending a church that had really great teaching and solid worship, but it became clear after about 6 months that there was no place for me on the tech team. That led me to another church where I was able to make a much bigger impact. 

Might be something to think about.

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