We’ve all been conditioned to believe that reverb is the most important of the effects in our toolbox – but truth be told, it’s not. That distinction goes to EQ, but reverb can certainly make or break your mix.

So…what do pro mix engineers do to combat the problem? To answer that question, I enlisted Sharon Kearney, Los Angeles independent mix engineer, to give me the top reverb mix problems she hears and what to do about them. Our interview is below:

What newbie mistakes do you hear most often?

I was at a seminar a couple of weeks ago where people brought their mixes for critiquing and what I heard on almost all of them was too much reverb and the same reverb across the whole mix. Also a lot of un-EQ-ed reverb. The majority of new engineers out there think you pick one, slap it on the mix and then just decide how much of it you want to hear. This is really not the best way to get the most out of your mix.

So – what’s in your bag of tricks when dealing with reverb in a mix?

I’d say the number one thing for DAWs is to hi-pass filter the reverb returns at 40 Hz – this is the very least you can do in the EQ department since all that’s down there in terms of reverb is stuff that you won’t hear – so dial it out, it makes for a cleaner mix. Then I always EQ out with a parametric EQ a little bit of 280 Hz and 120 Hz. All of the above is achieved by putting an EQ on the reverb return’s insert, ideally you want an EQ with hi and lo pass filters and at least 2 bands of parametric EQ.

I also back off the reverb’s early reflections 1 or 2 notches because they are often too muddy for my taste. These couple of things can clean up a reverb considerably and open up lots of space in a mix.

The flip side of the EQ spectrum for reverb shaping is the low pass filter – this can be used to tame down the brightness or presence of a reverb – this is handy to use if you love everything about your reverb but it’s just a bit too bright or obvious and turning down the reverb’s send is not working. Setting the filter somewhere around 8-12K and giving it a dip of 1 or 2 db can be all you need to sort that out. As always, use your ears and play around, see what sounds best to you.

Can you explain diffusion and how you deal with it?

Diffusion is basically how a sound bounces off a surface. It’s more affected by the surface than the size of the room – like with a flat wall, the sound would bounce once off the wall and there wouldn’t be much diffusion. But if the back wall had a lot of difference shaped crevices and angles, there might be a lot of diffusion as the sound reflects off all of them.

I usually change the diffusion because I feel that a lot of presets load up with too dark a sound. Moving the diffusion slider thins out the verb and makes it more distinct. You can always add it in later if you need to.

Any other tricks?

People seem to know to time delay to the song, but the same goes for reverb. Don’t have the tails hanging over into the next beat – this adds mud. And a great trick I learned recently is to use a bpm chart to time the pre-delay on the reverb. Do it in tiny amounts, so the pre-delay would be something like 35-50ms, but you use math to match it to the beat and again, this cleans it up and sounds a lot more musical.

Another trick is to use mono reverbs. I get great space by putting a mono reverb in the exact same pan position as the original track. I use this a lot on acoustic guitar tracks in a super busy mix using a short room reverb. It keeps the track from getting lost in the mix. For an example, you can check out this band, Jezzebelle, and a mix I did on “In The City.” Almost every track had a mono reverb on it. I think only four sounds, the lead vocal, stereo electric guitars, snare drum and drum overheads had a stereo reverb on them.

Very short room reverbs also really help bring a sound forward in the mix but you have to use it sparingly – you don’t want to obviously hear the room sound as this can change your sound source in an undesirable way. Just add a little touch with a decay time of anywhere from .7 sec to 1.2 sec. Hip hop snare drums are big fans of the ‘tiled room’ preset which is why it can be found as a preset in almost every reverb there is. You would think that a hip hop snare has no reverb but it often does and it’s often tiled room, so this is the level of subtlety required. Bypassing on and off is your friend here for trying this one out and hearing what it’s doing.

Also, a lot of people think of the reverb as adding space, but it’s also good to remember that the verb pushes an instrument back in the mix, so you can use it to create spatial depth for different tracks. Use several reverbs to create a more defined space. The same verb on every sound will eventually just be one giant smear of mud.

Awesome! Do you do anything before the mix to help you as you develop it?

Definitely. Decide what acoustic space you want the mix in before you start. Is it a small club thing, or is it supposed to sound like an arena?

Crucial: Read ALL the documentation on your reverb plug-in and understand how each parameter works. This will improve your mixes a lot!

Okay – last most important highlights…

Most importantly – EQ the reverb RETURN. If you don’t know how to work sends and returns in your DAW, read your manual. That way you can clean up the mud but also tailor the sound of your reverb – make it warmer, colder, etc.

Reverbs are fairly forgiving, much more so than EQ’s – what that means is, there’s no need to spend hours tweaking your reverb to the nth degree, 99.9% of people are not going to be able to tell the difference between early reflections of -2.5 or -2.9 – or a diffusion of 72% versus a diffusion of 76% – you should be able to, with a little bit of practice, load up a reverb preset, do your standard couple of tweaks to shape the sound then move on. But as said above, learning all of your reverb’s documentation will go a long way since you’ll be able understand the parameters you’re changing and how they shape the sound.

A general note is this: you need to find a reverb preset that you like right off the bat before you start tweaking. If you find yourself changing every single parameter and EQ’ing the hell out of it, then you don’t have the right preset for the song. All it should need is a bit of EQ and some fairly basic changes to a couple of the main sound shaping parameters.

Lastly – bypass all reverb returns often to make sure that your mix is still lively – bypass, bypass, bypass – see what it’s taking away after you hear what it’s adding.

And I’ll add one of my own tricks…

Start with NO REVERB. Build your mix in terms of interesting sounds, EQ, panning, and a few other effects, before resorting to throwing reverb on everything. That way you get the best ground based mix you can, and then you can use the above tools to add depth and space.

Have a great Christmas! And if any of you get DAWs – don’t forget to try out these tricks!