Reverb is a tool that is mostly utilized in mixing, and its main purpose is to create depth and the illusion of space in a song, however, it might come as a surprise that it actually gets used in mastering as well.
In this article, we’ll discuss the do’s and don’ts of reverb in mastering, find out whether you can put reverb on the master, and where it might be useful to do so.
Can You Use Reverb on The Master Track?
Applying reverb on the master track can be dangerous, as it can easily ruin the clarity of the song, however, if done appropriately, a small amount of reverb can help to add cohesion, ambience or even additional width, as well as depth to the track.
Generally speaking, it is the mixing engineer’s job to create a sense of depth and width in a song by using time-based effects like reverb or delay, still, occasionally a good mastering engineer might find new ways to bring additional textures or make sonic improvements to a song by utilizing reverb, however, since mastering is about small adjustments, it is crucial not to go overboard with it.
There are certain genres and songs that sound better dryer, while others are more atmospheric and can benefit from a bit more reverb.
So how exactly can reverb be used in mastering? Let’s take a look at some examples!
1. Enhancing the tail of the instruments or the whole track
A problem that can happen to mixes sometimes is that the end of a song gets faded out or cut off too abruptly, preventing the instruments from ringing out properly. Adding some reverb to the end of the track and steadily increasing it can help to make the fadeout sound a bit more natural. For the sake of demonstration, in this audio example, I purposely made the fade-out at the end of the song very abrupt and unnatural.
Before Reverb ↩️
This technique can be used anywhere in the song, not just at the end. For instance, in this next example, I decided to increase the tail of the instruments a little bit to make the stop before the chorus sound a bit more natural.
Before Reverb ↩️
2. Adding depth and contrast with reverb
In audio production, reverb is mainly used to establish depth, which creates an illusion of distance; certain instruments sound closer, while others sound like they are far away from the listener.
This is an excellent way to create contrast between the different sections of a song.
In this next audio example, I’m using some reverb in the intro to make the guitar sound like it’s far away. When the other instruments come in, I turn off the reverb, so that suddenly everything will sound very close to the listener.
Remember, you can always automate the reverb to turn on and off during the song, it doesn’t have to be on throughout the whole track.
Before Reverb ↩️
3. Adding width and ambience with reverb
Reverb creates an illusion of space. Adding reverb to the master track can create an ambience that helps to glue all the elements of the song together, making the different instruments sound like they're all in the same space.
If you're using a reverb that is emulating a larger environment like a large hall, it can add additional width to your track. In addition, you could use a mid/side EQ and boost the high-end of the reverb’s sides a little bit for some extra width.
Before Reverb ↩️
Should You Add The Reverb to The Whole Master or to Individual Stems?
The benefit of applying reverb to individual stems instead of the whole master is that this way you have more control over the reverb and you can process the different instrument groups separately. This is the purpose of stem mastering.
Are you not familiar with stem mastering? No problem. Firstly, let’s clarify what a stem is. The terms “stem” and “multitrack” are often confused with each other.
- A stem is an already processed, mixed and bounced track.
For instance, a lead vocal stem is a lead vocal track that already has processing applied to it, such as EQ, compression, reverb or even delay.
Stems often combine different instruments together. For example, a stereo drum stem might be a single audio track that includes the kick, the snare, the toms, the hi-hat and the overheads and all the processing effects that have been applied to these individual tracks. Nowadays a very popular form of mastering is stem mastering, where instead of one stereo mix, the mastering engineer is working with individual stems, which gives more control to the engineer.
If you want to apply reverb during the mastering process, I would highly recommend putting the reverb on the individual stems and not the whole master. This can give you greater control over the reverb during mastering.
For example, you might want the reverb to only affect certain instruments or you might want to use a different type of reverb for each instrument group, such as a plate reverb for the vocals and a room reverb for the drums, and then set the volume or the send amount of these to different levels.
How To Use Reverb in Mastering
1. Create an auxiliary track for the reverb and use a send
If you wish to add reverb to the whole master, make sure to place the reverb on a separate auxiliary track and use a send to send the direct signal (the master without the reverb or a stem) into the reverb. This way you can process the reverb and the master separately.
2. Set the wet signal of the reverb to 100%
This way you can make sure that the aux track will only playback the reverb and any further processing that you add the aux track will only affect the reverb.
3. Adjust the reverb parameters
This is the part very you really have to use your ears. There’s no such thing as a reverb setting that fits every song, so experiment with different settings.
For faster songs that have a denser arrangement, I would recommend using a short reverb time. A long reverb can significantly increase the tail of instruments, which can easily make the song sound messy. If the song has a slower tempo, sparser arrangement and more space, you can try using a longer reverb.
4. Adjust the volume of the reverb
Remember, mastering is about very subtle adjustments. You don’t want to drench the stereo mix in reverb.
The added reverb should be barely audible and shouldn’t be distracting, so make sure to either turn down the volume of the reverb or lower the send amount.
5. EQ your reverb
This step is extremely important. Adding reverb to a sound will change the frequency content. Equalization can help to prevent the reverb from causing frequency masking and build-ups.
Start by applying a high-pass filter around 300-600 Hz. Adding reverb to bass frequencies is the easiest way to ruin a song, as it can cause phase cancellation and low-end build-ups that will make the track muddy.
Some reverbs can significantly increase the brightness of the audio and enhance harsh frequencies. For this reason, it is recommended to also use a low-pass filter on the reverb around 10 kHz.
Since many important instruments, such as the vocals, the snare or the guitars have their presence area in the 2-5 kHz range, I usually use a bell EQ to carve out this area from the reverb to prevent frequency masking from happening.
6. Always A/B and automate the reverb
Never use reverb just for the sake of using reverb. Always A/B to determine whether the reverb is actually improving the quality of your track or it is decreasing the clarity.
Moreover, feel free to experiment with automating the reverb. It doesn’t have to be static. Some sections might require more reverb, while others may need less or no reverb at all.
Issues to Avoid When Using Reverb in Mastering
As amazing as reverb is, using it incorrectly can cause serious problems, such as frequency masking, build-ups in the low-end or the mid-range, comb filtering, and in general, loss of overall clarity.
Most of these issues can be prevented by following the steps in the previous section. The most important steps to remember are to be subtle, not to overdo the reverb, choose a reverb setting that is appropriate for the tempo and the instrumental arrangement of the song, and lastly, apply equalization on the reverb to prevent frequency masking.
As mentioned earlier, I would highly recommend utilizing reverb on individual stems instead of the whole master. Not only does this give you more control over the reverb, but it helps to identify, separate, and fix problems more easily. Applying the reverb to the whole master or placing it directly onto the master track could mean that any potential problem will be extended to every single instrument.
Having said that, there are no rules in audio engineering and there are no right or wrong ways to do things, so as always, use your ears and experiment!
Using reverb in mastering is a very controversial topic. Some engineers think of it as a recipe for disaster, while others believe that a subtle application of reverb can help to enhance the quality of a track.
The keyword in mastering is moderation.
If you wish to utilize reverb in mastering, you should be subtle with it. Any major application of time-based effects, such as delay or reverb should be done during the mixing phase.
While it is entirely possible to utilize reverb in mastering, it is important to remember that not all songs or genres require the application of additional reverb. At the end of the day, as an engineer, you should do what’s best for the song.
Mastering requires advanced listening skills and it is a craft that takes years to learn. If you are not confident in your mastering skills, it is highly recommended to let an experienced professional handle this process. Check out one of our previous articles where we recommended some great mastering engineers and services!
If you enjoyed this article, make sure to read our other articles as well!