A minimalist approach to using FX

All too often I witness engineers trying to set reverb decay times for a perfect snare hit while the vocals are missing in the mix and beautiful solos go unnoticed forever.

I love using spatial effects to create interesting moments in the music coming from the stage. A well-chosen reverb that supports the mood and the message of the musical content is the one magical component I would have the most difficult time giving up, if I had to restrict my workflow or my gear options. It is probably also one of the most qualifying distinctions between digital consoles. Getting the EQ to translate from one console to the other is usually a much easier task than mimicking a reverb setting from one manufacturer to the other.

So when I have time and the setup allows it, I provide myself with a palette of various spatial colors - drum room, snare plate, long drum verb, vocal plates and halls, tap tempo delays and slap backs - they are all carefully chosen, EQ-ed, sometimes dynamically processed and with their parameters linked to controlling encoders with meticulous deliberation. I like prepping parameters of these spaces for songs with scene/cue/snapshot recalls and then manually adding them to the mix, following the flow of the song, the response of the room and the energy of the performers and the audience. But what happens when I don’t have the time to set it all up?

In my Guerrilla Mixing course I explain the practice of minimising everything down to its core, utilising the bare essentials to get the job done efficiently and as quickly as possible, as time is often such a lacking and precious resource. And believe me, it is a rabbit hole that entices many an engineer. All too often I witness engineers trying to set reverb decay times for a perfect snare hit while the vocals are missing in the mix and beautiful solos go unnoticed forever.  So if you don’t have the time to even do a decent line check, how are you supposed to do a complex setup of various spatial effects and have them under control while still dealing with monitors on stage? The answer - you don’t.

In such cases I always suggest using only one reverb. There are definite limitations to this approach, especially in terms of the tools at your disposal to match the content from the stage. But instead of focusing on the negative aspects, let us inspect the positive ones:

  • You only have to worry about one send-return setup and one mix bus.

This one is a huge time saver. Just setting up three FX slots instead of one can be time consuming and in the heat of the moment there is a bigger chance of things not being routed and/or adjusted properly.

  • Using one reverb can act as a “glue” for your mix.

Since the listener gets the feeling of all audio signals coming from the same space, it helps sell the sonic illusion of the sound being propagated from a singular spatial point.

  • You can add another level of entire mix EQ.

If all of your content is being augmented with the same reverb, then changing the EQ on the reverb can be viewed as another tool to influence your entire mix. Consider the option of using reverb return channel EQ to match musical content (darker for slower songs, brighter for up-tempo music).

The immediate question arises - what are the settings that would competently cover all musical signals and all musical genres. The short answer - there are no such settings (at least that this humble student of audio would know of). But what I propose is utilising the settings of one reverb and adapt them to best match the music content. Most of the digital mixers have user defined encoders and when I am using only one reverb, these get populated with at least two of the reverb settings - predelay time and decay (or reverb length).

Now, for my personal choices - I would usually start with a plate reverb and if possible, turn down the early reflections slightly (or adjust the ratio in favor of the tail, depending on the controls available). Since I will be applying the same reverb to a lot of channels, turning down the ER helps with the masking of the direct signal and helps keep transients coming through slightly better. I set the decay time at about 1s and predelay at 20-40ms. I almost always use a fair amount of predelay, because I want to keep the clarity of the original signal. This slight separation of the effect works wonders in keeping a clear, punchy mix, especially for the vocals. This is my “average” setting that I use as a starting point to determine the quality of the effect and its interaction with the musical content. The effect return channel gets a fair amount of HPF and LPF applied, as I don’t want to muddy the low end and am not really a fan of crispy reverbs (but that - as most of these settings) is a personal preference more than a hard rule.

When we get to slower tempos, the predelay time gets raised substantially, as does the decay time. With slow songs, I consider the predelay time as an additional blended delay effect. So the predelay time gets raised to 80-120ms, sometimes more, depending on the musical content. With the delay time, I also raise the length, usually to a value above 2 - 2.5s.

So by adjusting the parameters of only one effect, I can quite successfully track various musical content. It frees me to pay more attention to what is happening on stage, knowing that I only have 4 parameters to work with - predelay, decay, one mix bus and one FX return channel.

Using reverb or any other effect in your mix will always be a matter of personal preference and taste. I just wanted to point out that even severe limitations can be quite “freeing” in the sense of reducing the number of choices we have to make and really utilising the tools we have to support the performance and enhance the message.

Just as a guide or a starting point, I have created a simple cheat sheet that lists some of my go-to settings when mixing with one reverb. Click on this link to get the “Mixing With ONE Reverb Cheat Sheet” for your own personal reference.