Don’t wait ’til mixing to get a great tone. Record your sound as best as you can to make your tracks shine.
Recording bass can be a challenging task. Whether we are talking about a natural, woody upright-bass tone that balances well within a jazz quartet, or a nice, round electric tone with definition and copious amounts of low end for “modern” situations, the science behind how to achieve these sounds has eluded more than a few engineers and players. As both a player and as a recording and mixing engineer, I wanted to pass on a few tips that have served me well over the years.
Get the sound you want out of the instrument and amp first. Before attempting to patch, mic, process, or record anything—listen! Making sure your instrument’s sound/signal chain is free from buzzes, ground loops, unwanted distortion, and that your amp and instrument are placed where they sound best in the room will save you lots of time and headache. Make sure that the player and engineer agree that the tone is what the song or project calls for. If you opt to record electric bass direct only (not my choice), then the above still applies, but the console and speakers are now “the amp.”
Once we have a great sound in the room, let’s look at how to capture it. Speaking with my mix hat on: I hate mixing acoustic or electric bass that is contaminated with “bleed” (leakage from other instruments in the room). Too much bleed makes it difficult to do post EQ, compression, level adjustments, automation, or correctional edits. Yes, yes … Blue Note, Motown, Stax Records, yada, yada—I love them all too! But here, I’m talking about great sounding modern recordings and mixes. In short, try to get as isolated a signal as possible, even if this means putting your amp in a remote location. I have mine set up on the third floor, while my studio is in the basement. If you’re recording acoustic bass, then either use an isolation booth or very good baffles and mic placement to minimize bleed.
A little compression allows for a more even tone throughout the bass’s range, and can even tighten a good performance, without really being noticeable.
With acoustic bass, I use two mics—one over the lower fingerboard (where the player plucks the strings) and one over the soundhole beside the bridge. My favorites are the AKG C12 (fingerboard) and the Neumann U47 (soundhole). There are many generic mic choices. Experiment with smaller diaphragm mics for the fingerboard and larger diaphragm mics for the soundhole, six to eight inches away from the instrument. With electric, I use a single mic (U47 usually) and a good quality DI (direct injection) such as the Avalon V5. If you don’t have a great DI, then use the DI-out on the player’s amp.
Some mic pres are more bass-friendly than others. I’m a fan of ’70s Neves like the 1073, 1081, and others. Neves have phenomenal EQ, mic pres, and DIs. I’ve also had great success with Avalon’s all-tube VT-737sp—a great mic pre with an amazing optical compressor, EQ, and a very nice DI. After the pres, I put both signals (mic+mic or mic+DI) through some sort of light compression or limiting. My favorites are either LA2A- or 1176-type compressors. Untreated, low notes are quite a bit louder than those throughout the rest of the instrument. A little compression allows for a more even tone throughout the bass’s range, and can even tighten a good performance, without really being noticeable. This also allows us to get more signal on each track without overloading.
For recording, my approach to equalization is mostly corrective. I usually don’t “print” EQ unless the instrument tone, the mic choice, mic placement, or room sound are problematic. I like to leave the mix engineer with options by not over-compressing or EQing the bass sound as I record. With that said, if you happen to have a Pultec, then throw it on there. Even with nothing boosted or cut, it does wonders for bass. My goal is a great-sounding bass track that uses the entire dynamic range available without ever clipping. If you don’t have access to vintage gear, check out new stuff by Golden Age, Heritage Audio, or even software plugins by UAD (their emulations are exceptional).
Pay attention to phase. You’ll probably need to reverse phase on either the DI or your second mic to defeat phase cancelation (two very similar signals canceling each other out). I usually match the level of both signals and then reverse the phase on one to see if the sound becomes clearer/more defined. Sometimes (rarely), the mic or DI are dissimilar enough to not need it, but I always check.
Room vs. instrument: For me, a good instrument tone involves some of the sound from a good room. This adds depth and dimension, while the DI (electric) or fingerboard mic (acoustic) adds definition. Play with the mic placement and/or the balance of the two signals until it sounds good. My particular ethos is that whatever I record needs to sound great before the mix.
A reverb tip from the playbook of legendary engineer Al Schmitt.
Hi everyone, and welcome to another Dojo. This time, I want to focus on the creative possibilities of using multiple reverb buses to spice up your tracks and mixes.
The first time I heard of this concept (many years ago) was through the legendary engineer Al Schmitt, who recorded Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Jefferson Airplane, George Benson, Toto, Steely Dan, Vince Gill, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. He also mixed well over 150 gold and platinum records. When he talked, people listened. Especially me. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend four days filming him while he engineered and mixed an album from start to finish at Blackbird. Whenever he was waiting for some gear to get set up, or the band to arrive, I would express my deep appreciation for the records he engineered/produced and ask him questions. This article is based on part of one of those conversations. So, tighten up your belts. The Dojo is now open.
You may be asking yourself what benefits using multiple reverbs can bring, and wouldn’t everything just get washed out? Let me first describe how to set up multiple ’verbs in your DAW and then we will look at how to use them. Let’s start with my emulation of how Al would have used the five reverb chambers at RCA Hollywood studios when he was recording.
"I like doing this with instruments that may have a fair amount of delay on them, but still need to feel like they are affecting the reverb space within the mix."
In your DAW, create five different aux buses. You can make them mono or stereo buses, depending on your computer’s processing power. Instantiate one reverb on each bus. I recommend UAD’s Capitol Chambers, Waves’ Abbey Road Reverb Plates, FabFilter’s Pro-R, Valhalla DSP’s Plate, or similar choices. There are many great, quality reverbs out there. Regardless of what you have, I’d encourage you to experiment with different types of reverbs and settings. This can give each bus a different character and lead to some creative mixing decisions. Have a look at Fig. 1.
Next, pan them as follows: ’verb 1–hard left, ’verb 2–half-left, ’verb 3–center, ’verb 4–half-right, and ’verb 5–hard right [Fig.2]. You can also vary the reverb time if you wish, but I suggest that if it’s based on a real space (like the Abbey Road or Capitol chambers), leave the reverb time alone to maximize the sonic footprint of each of those spaces. Also, keep the dimension (the shape of the room) the same. If it’s a pure digital ’verb, I will tweak to taste depending on what I want the reverb’s role to be in the mix. Usually this is the center ’verb for me.
Now take a listen to your mix and locate where your instruments/vocals are panned in the stereo field. For those instruments and tracks that lie on the left side, route a send to reverbs 1 and/or 2. For those that are on the right, send them to reverbs 4 and 5, and route and assign everything else that you may want reverb on to reverb 3.
Adjust your send levels for each track and listen to how transparent the reverb starts to become. What I find is that the placement of the tracks in the stereo field remains consistent and focused instead of getting smeared into both channels with brute force from the same reverb.
If you want an A/B comparison, set up another reverb aux bus (reverb 6) and change all your reverb-assigned tracks’ outputs to this new reverb and listen to the difference. What do you notice?
Finally, by having different reverbs panned through the stereo field you can easily do things like have a hard-left instrument’s reverb come back hard right by assigning it to ’verb 5. I like doing this with instruments that may have a fair amount of delay on them, but still need to feel like they are affecting the reverb space within the mix.I hope this gives you some inspiration and deepens your understanding of reverb.
Until next month, keep experimenting! Namaste.
The entire world of ’verb—from traditional to extreme—really does lie at your fingertips. Here’s how to access it.
This article is for recording guitarists eager to make the most of reverb plug-ins. We’ll explore the various reverb types, decode the controls you’re likely to encounter, and conclude with some suggestions for cool and creative reverb effects.
This is not a buyer’s guide, though you’ll hear many different products. Our focus is common reverb plug-in parameters and how to use them. Nearly all modern DAWs come with good-sounding reverbs. You can also add superb third-party plug-ins. But there are also plenty of free and budget-priced reverbs—just google “free reverb plug-in.”
Reverb = delay. Reverb is merely a delay effect. Sounds traveling through air eventually encounter surfaces. Some sound bounces off these surfaces, producing a complex network of echoes, made even more complex when the initial reflections bounce off secondary surfaces.
The controls on reverb plug-ins define how the software mimics this process. Function names can be confusing, but remember, everything relates to acoustic phenomena that you already understand intuitively. For example:
- The space’s size. (The further a sound travels before hitting a surface, the slower the echoes arrive.)
- The hardness of the reflective surfaces. (The harder the material, the louder, brighter, and more plentiful the echoes.
- The relative angles of the reflective surfaces. (A square room sounds different than a round one, which sounds different than a trapezoidal one.)
- The presence of other objects. (Soft surfaces like carpets, cushions, and acoustic foam diminish the reverb, usually affecting some frequencies more than others.)
- The listener’s location. (The further an ear or microphone from the sound source, the more reverberation is perceived.)
Understanding Reverb Types
By definition, all reverb plug-ins are digital. Most are either algorithmic or convolution-based. Algorithmic reverbs employ delay, feedback, and filters to mimic sounds bouncing around in space. Convolution reverb (also called impulse response or IR reverb) creates “snapshots” of actual sonic spaces and audio devices. In convolution, developers amplify a test tone in the targeted space (or through a target piece of audio gear) and record the results. The software compares the new recording to the dry test tone, and then it applies corresponding adjustments to any audio, making it sound as if it was recorded in the modeled space or through the modeled gear. (That’s how the speaker simulations work in most amp modelers.) Algorithmic and convolution reverbs often perform the same tasks, just via different methods.
But when we make musical choices, we rarely think, “This should be algorithmic and that should be convolution.” We’re usually trying to evoke a particular sound: a place, an old analog device, a freaky sound not found in nature. So, let’s take a whirlwind tour of reverb history, with thoughts about obtaining those sounds via plug-ins.
A Haul-Ass Reverb History
Real spaces. Before the 20th century the only reverbs were actual acoustic environments: caves, castles, temples, tombs. It wasn’t till the 18th century that people began constructing spaces specifically for their sonic properties—the roots of the modern concert hall.
Convolution reverbs excel at conjuring specific places. Most IR reverbs include libraries of such sounds. Some evoke iconic spaces and famed studios. IRs can also mimic small spaces, like a closet or compact car.
Clip 1 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
In Clip 1, you hear the same acoustic guitar snippet through IRs captured inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, the isolation block at Alcatraz prison, Chartres cathedral, and the interior of a VW Beetle, all using Audio Ease’s Altiverb library. (For demo purposes, reverb is applied rather heavily in all audio examples.)
Echo chambers were the earliest form of artificial reverb, though they aren’t all that artificial. The chamber is usually a room with hard, reflective surfaces. A loudspeaker in the chamber amplifies dry recordings, and a distant microphone records the results. It’s still “real reverb,” only it can be added and controlled independently from the original recording. This process evolved during the 1930s and ’40s. The first popular recording to use the effect was 1947’s “Peg o’ My Heart” by the Harmonicats, produced by audio genius Bill Putnam.
PEG O' MY HEART ~ The Harmonicats (1947)
During a recent recording session at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound, I shot Video 1 in the famed Studio A echo chamber, thanks to house engineer George Janho. You’ve heard this very room countless times. The Doors and Van Halen made most of their records here. You also hear this reverb on “Whole Lotta Love,” the vocal tracks on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Prince’s 1999 and Purple Rain, and countless other famous recordings.
Sunset Sound Chamber
Echo chambers are well represented in most IR reverb libraries. Most algorithmic reverbs do chambers as well, replicating the general effect without modeling a particular space. You can even find plug-ins dedicated to a specific chamber, like Universal Audio’s Capitol Chambers, which models the Hollywood chamber famously used by Frank Sinatra.
Spring reverbs. These were the first truly artificial reverbs. They initially appeared in pre-WWII Hammond organs, and by 1960 or so they had migrated to guitar amps. Fender wasn’t the first company to make reverb-equipped amps, but their early-’60s reverb units still define the effect for many guitarists.
The reverb effect is produced by routing the dry signal through actual springs, with a microphone capturing the clangorous results and blending them with the original tone. Springs generally sound splashy, trashy, and lo-fi, often in glorious ways. It’s an anarchic sound, best captured in a plug-in via IRs. Most of the spring reverb sounds in guitar modelers are IR-based. Meanwhile, reverb stompboxes—usually algorithmic—mimic the sound with varying degrees of success.
Plate reverb appeared in the late 1950s, initially in the Elektromesstechnik EMT-140, which remains a sonic gold standard. Plate reverb works similarly to spring reverb, but a massive metal sheet replaces the springs. It’s generally a smooth, sensuous sound relative to a spring.
Clip 2 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
In Clip 2, you hear the same acoustic guitar snippet through impulse responses of a Fender spring reverb unit and a vintage EMT-140 plate.
There are countless plate clones among today’s reverb plug-ins. Some are convolutions based on analog gear. But algorithmic reverbs also excel at faux-plate sounds. In fact, one of the initial goals of early digital reverb was to replace cumbersome mechanical plates. Speaking of which.…
Digital reverb (the algorithmic kind) arrived in 1976 via the EMT-250, also from Elektromesstechnik. Lexicon and AMS produced popular rivals. They focused largely on mimicking rooms, chambers, and plates. Sound quality has improved over the decades thanks to increased processing power and clever programming.
Today you can get far “better” algorithmic reverb from plug-ins. But ironically, those primitive digital ’verbs are trendy again in pop production. You can find precise clones of retro-digital hardware in plug-in form.
Convolution reverb debuted at the end of the century, popularized by Sony’s DRE S777 unit. Convolution reverbs often have fewer controls than their algorithmic cousins because most of the process is baked into the impulse response.
Most convolution reverbs have similar sound quality. The free ones can sound as good as the pricy ones. Higher prices are often based on the size and quality of the included IR libraries. Google free reverb impulse responses for gratis goodies.
Recent wrinkles. There are always interesting new reverb developments. For example, Things — Texture from AudioThings and Silo from Unfiltered Audio are anarchic granular reverbs that loop and manipulate tiny slices of the reverb signal to create otherworldly effects ranging from the brutal to the beautiful.
Clip 3 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 3 includes several granular reverb examples.
Image 2: Zynaptiq’s innovative Adaptiverb generates reverb via pitch-tracking oscillators rather than delays and feedback loops.
Some newer reverbs employ artificial intelligence to modify the effect in real time based on the audio input. iZotope’s Neoverb automatically filters out frequencies that can muddy your mix or add unwanted artifacts. And Zynaptiq’s Adaptiverb generates reverb in a novel way: Instead of echoing the dry signal, it employs pitch-tracking oscillators that generate reverb tails based on the dry signal. It, too, excels at radical reverbs suitable for sound design.
Clip 4 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 4 demonstrates a few of its possibilities.
Common Reverb Plug-in Controls
The knob names on a reverb plug-in can get confusing, but remember that they control variables that you already understand intuitively. Also, not all controls are equally important. The most essential ones are the wet/dry balance and the reverb decay time (how long it continues to sound). By all means learn the subtler functions, but don’t be surprised if you use them only rarely.
Video 2 walks you through most of the controls you’re likely to encounter on an algorithmic reverb plug-in. I used ChromaVerb from Apple’s Logic Pro DAW for the demo, but you’ll encounter similar parameters on most algorithmic reverb plug-ins.
Digital Reverb Walkthrough
Creative Reverb Ideas
Spring things. The single reverb knob on vintage amps is simply a wet/dry blend control. Some spring reverbs add a dwell control to set the amount of reverb input. Higher settings mean louder, longer reverberation.
But in the digital realm, you can deploy old-fashioned spring reverb in newfangled ways. For example:
- Pan the dry signal and spring sound apart for a broad stereo effect. (Traditional spring reverb is strictly mono.)
- Add predelay, inserting space between the dry and wet signals. (If the plug-in has no predelay control, just add the effect to an effect bus with a 100 percent wet, no-feedback delay upstream.)
- Route a guitar signal to two different spring reverb sounds, panned apart.
- Assign the reverb to an effect send, add a compressor to the effect channel, and then sidechain the compressor to the dry guitar sound. That way, the reverb is ducked when the guitar is loud, but swells to full volume during quiet passages.
- Apply digital modulation to the wet signal for detuned or pulsating effects.
Clip 5 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 5 starts with a straightforward spring sound before demonstrating the above options in order.
Fender-style reverb is so ubiquitous that simply using less familiar spring sounds can be startling.
Clip 6 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 6 is a smorgasbord of relatively obscure spring sounds from AudioThing’s Springs and Amp Designer, Logic Pro’s amp modeler.
Finally, it can be exciting to use springs on tracks that don’t usually get processed that way. For example, spring reverb is often considered too quirky and lo-fi to use on acoustic guitar or vocals.
Clip 7 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
But Clip 7 shows how attractive springs can sound on voice and acoustic. (You hear the dry sounds first.)
Unclean plates. In contrast to a spring’s lo-fi clank, simulated plate reverb is smooth and warm. Even if your track already has spring reverb, you might apply some plate ’verb to integrate it into a mix.
One creative avenue is deploying smooth plate reverb in relatively lo-fi ways. For example:
- Try placing the reverb before an amp modeler on a track to mimic a reverb stompbox. That way, the reverb is colored by both amp and speaker.
- Imagine a guitar amp with a huge metal plate inside instead of springs. If your amp modeler lets you use pure amp sounds without speaker modeling and vice-versa, try sandwiching a plate sound between two instances of amp modeler on the same track. Turn off the speaker sound on the first amp sim and use only the speaker sound on the second one. This way, only the speaker colors the reverb.
- Plate reverb also sounds great panned separately from the dry sound.
Clip 8 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 8 starts with a conventional plate sound before demoing the above ideas.
Liquid reverb. Reverb plug-ins have one big advantage over hardware: Everything can be automated within your DAW.
In Video 3 I’ve written automation for both the decay time and reverb damping for an evolving effect that would have been difficult on hardware.
Oh, the places you’ll go. Convolution reverbs usually have fewer controls than their algorithmic cousins. You might do no more than adjust the wet/dry or fine-tune the decay time. But IR reverbs don’t have to be “plug and play”—especially if you create your own reverbs. It’s a surprisingly simple process. (Some IR reverbs, like Altiverb and Logic Pro’s Space Designer, come with an app to generate the needed signals and process the recordings for use.)
Image 3: You can get cool, if unpredictable, results by dropping random audio files into an impulse response reverb like Logic Pro’s Space Designer.
Theoretically, you need a hi-fi PA system to amplify the needed tones in the target space, and good microphones to capture the results. But not always! I’ve captured cool IRs in my travels with nothing more than an iPhone and a spring-loaded clipboard in lieu of the traditional starter pistol. I’ve even obtained decent results by clacking a couple of stones together.
Clip 9 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 9 includes quick and dirty IRs that I captured in a Neolithic cave painting site in France, a thousand-year-old ancient Anasazi ball court in Arizona, an ancient Greek stone quarry, a 19th-century limestone kiln in Death Valley, and the inside of an acoustic guitar.
You can also get interesting, if unpredictable, results loading random audio files into the IR reverb.
Clip 10 — A Guitarist’s Guide to Reverb Plug-ins by premierguitar
Clip 10 features a dry guitar snippet, followed by bizarre reverb effects generated by drum loops, synth tones, and noises.
New sounds, new spaces. Using reverb plug-ins can be incredibly simple. Often it’s just a matter of scrolling through factory presets, or making basic balance and decay time adjustments. You can also use them in endlessly creative ways. Whatever your goals, I hope this article helps you find exactly the sounds you seek.