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.

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