Using Reverb On Vocals

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I was discussing reverb on vocals with a local musician whose mastered a few of his bands CD's.  He said that another musician told him the amount of reverb changes with the times.  "Sometimes, popular music uses a lot of reverb.  But today, very little is used."  If you apply it to a genre like pop or CCM, I might see a little of that.  It does seem the farther apart the years, the easier to see the difference.  The topic I see that needs to be raised is "how much reverb should I use in church worship songs here in 2009?"

Reverb has been called the "suck knob," the "talent knob," and "sandpaper" as it can be used to smooth out vocals.  But if you smooth something out too much, it becomes dangerous.  Take woodwork for example.  A freshly sanded piece of wood has a wonder feel to it.  Now take black ice as an example.  Ice that is so slick as soon as you step on it or drive on it, you lose control, is so slick, it’s dangerous.  Reverb should be like a sanded board – natural, smooth, and yet not all that noticeable.

Don't get me wrong, reverb isn't only used to "fix" poor vocalists.  That's just how it's most often attributed.

Reverb is heard all the time in a natural environment.  Playing guitar in a small room, I hear the reverb.  Talking with friends in a hallway, I hear reverb.  Anytime we are in a place with "good acoustics," we hear a natural reverb that sounds good.  Note this reverb is so natural to the environments, we don't notice it! 

Let's now put a microphone up close to a vocal, such as a typical dynamic cardioid microphone.  The natural reverb isn't being captured. 

A great place to start with reverb addition is adding back in the amount of natural reverb.  A simple tip when adding reverb back in, at first, is remember that if you can hear the reverb as a sound element in its own right, you have too much. 

Once you have captured the amount of natural reverb then you need to decide if/how to sculpt the remainder of the reverb.  Does the song call for more reverb?  How does the reverb match with other vocal effects you might layer in?  How does it sound in the overall mix?  There are no hard and fast rules for adding reverb but when you start by adding in natural reverb, as a guideline, it is a good starting point.

Backing vocals should be placed "in the background" of the lead singer so the lead singer stands out.  This can be done via lowering volume levels, EQ'ing so they don't stand out in the mix against the lead, and adding reverb so the backing singers blend together.  When using background singers, use more reverb on their vocals and less on the lead singer.

Reverb is a normal component of what we hear.  By adding it properly into the vocals, singer’s voices will sound more natural. 

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  1. says

    I’m from the Analog age and Echo and Reverb were what we used on stage. We all sounded pretty good. Nobody new anything else, so it was OK. In the early 80’s I worked in recording studios for EMI and I realized how different reverb is being used there. Thousands of dollars are invested in Lexicon units, but you can hardly hear the effect on the finished recording. The only way to hear the difference between dry and with reverb is, when the sound man switches from one to the other. In my own home studio, I have to ‘retain’ myself from using too much reverb, I guess I’m just too old fashioned… :)

  2. lyndie enmacino says

    good day Chris

    Awesome work bro. Thanks for this, , and I’m in charge of mixing vocals and instruments in our church somewhere here in Philippines.


  3. Michael says

    I like your descriptions of the use of reverb in a live setting. But I think we need to be able to hear the reverb in the mix. If I can’t hear the reverb then the congregation can’t hear it. If the congregation can’t hear it then it’s lost it’s effectiveness and isn’t benefiting the overall mix.

    I agree there can be too much which would make the vocals sound distorted but if you the sound engineer can’t hear the reverb component then you’re not gaining anything by adding it in.

  4. Admin says

    You will hear it, otherwise you won’t know you’ve added it.  Think of it as sounding flat.  It’s not until you hear it that you realize it was missing before.  Once it’s where it should be so the vocal sounds natural, then you can add more to fit the genre, style, typical house mix, etc. if necessary. 

  5. says

    I agree with the admin post. The way I was always taught sound and how I teach sound is if you can hear an effect there is too much of it. Reverb is a crutch in my church and really only serves to clog up the mix. We have 2 guitarists, bass, drums, keyboard, 3 “lead singers,” and up to 4 back-up singers. Ad in the rhythm instruments all playing the same chords and we have a mid-range mess. I try not to use reverb as a result but the idea of using just a little to add back is not a bad idea. I agree that reverb goes in phases and right now it feels very played out to me. I tend to shy away from it completely. Our singers do not have the best timing so it is almost like they are reverb to each other.

    Good stuff.


  6. paul says

    question: so I run this older but decent sound system at church: all peavey mixer, compressor, EQ and 2×450 (too much) power amp. No effects. What would be the easiest and cheapest route to some sort of device to give just a hint of reverb to the vocals? some sort of tube pre-amp? i do not want to add it to the entire mix, mainly just the lead singer. any help appreciated. thanks, paul

  7. Chris says

    Regarding reverb, you have a few options.  Go to and type "reverb" into the search box.  You’ll see a variety of implimentations, from rack components to single user effects like the TC Helicon VoiceTone Create Vocal Pedal. 

  8. JohnB says

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on using reverb to enhance the feeling of being part of congregational singing. Our church is fairly dead acoustically (useful in some ways for mixing, especially as the front of stage is close to the speaker line/congregation!) but which inhibits congregational singing as folks feel they are singing a solo although in a congregation of 150.
    I currently use a bit of reverb on the leading vocals and as much reverb as I can on the congregation (picked up on 2 AKG C568 mics), the latter being added to the main mix as reverb only, without incurring feedback or sounding as if we’re in a cave!
    I generally use the ‘Lots of Room’ setting on the Alesis Midiverb.
    Is this an appropriate approach or are there alternatives(excl redesigning the Church!). I’d note there seems to be a ‘threshold’,that when the congregation volume exceeds, the acoustic limitations are overcome.
    Also, what advice can you give on setting the room EQ (utilising the Driverack PA/white noise generator) which obviously is different when the Church auditorium is populated to when having the opportunity to set up when the church is empty.

  9. Chris says

    JohnB, Setting room EQ is beyond my comfort level.  I've worked venues where I've had access to the house EQ and I've made changes as needed for the event but as for setting for a room as in "set and forget" I'm not your man.

    As for how to use reverb in your space, I find it's a matter of listener preference.  Some congregations was to hear the band's singers loud and clear while others want to sing along with the band and feel they are being heard. 

    You might try you mix from scratch.  That is to say once you have the mix and vol level set for the band, then bring up your audience mic's (without reverb).  See where the right vol. level seems to be – than add reverb as needed.

    It might help to ask people in the congregation how much of themselves vs. the band they want to hear.