In this tutorial, we examine ways to use effects such as Reverb and Delay processors in modern sounding vocal production,as well as example techniques to use them in a Pro Tools session.
REVERB AND DELAY IN MUSIC PRODUCTION
One of the final stages of a music mix is the application of effects such as reverb, delay, echo, distortion, etc... Across all genres of music, effects are used to enhance and accentuate different parts of a song and draw the listener into the mind of the artist. Listen to any modern song on the radio and you will hear a wide range of effects used in different ways and by varying degrees. This is especially true in modern Pop music (this includes all genres such as Rock, Dance, Hip-Hop, R&B, etc...). Listen to song such as "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift, "Little Red Wagon" by Miranda Lambert, "Big Bad Wolf" by In This Moment, "Feel Right" by Mark Ronson ft. Mystikal, just about all songs in modern music, and you begin to appreciate how much these effects add to the production and musicality.
There are several different types of effects utilized in music production, from reverberation, delay, distortion, chorus, phaser, almost anything that is a direct tonal change to the audio. In the previous article we discussed how to shape the tone of a vocal by using EQ and Compression, now we will utilize the signal flow of Pro Tools, bus sends, and aux track returns to add effects to our vocal chain. Let's take a look at and define some basic effects you'll use consistently.
Reverb (short for reverberation) is the acoustic character of a space, such as Hall, Room, etc... It is a natural phenomenon that is caused by indirect sound waves bouncing off the various surfaces before reaching your ears. When combined with direct sound waves these reflections give us a sense of dimension as well as allow us to determine the distance and direction from which a sound originates. Reverb processors, whether plug-in or hardware based, emulate the reflective nature of different acoustic spaces such music halls, churches, and rooms. Let's take a look at some common parameters you'll encounter when working with reverb processors.
Algorithms - These are different reverb types based on the acoustic space they are emulating. For example, "Hall", "Church", "Room", or "Plates". These are designed to give you a starting point from which to tweak settings.
Size - These settings, usually "small", "medium", or "large", determine the size of the acoustic space and various settings associated with those spaces. A larger sized room will also have a longer decay time due to the distance the sound waves have to travel before "bouncing" off the walls, a smaller room will naturally have a shorter decay time. Most reverb plug-ins allow you to adjust the decay time of the reverb allowing you to design 'non-natural' sounding reverb effects.
Pre-Delay - The pre-delay control is used to create a gap of time between the original sound and the onset of the main body of reverb. Pre-delay can be manipulated so as to more accurately recreate the natural pre-delay that occurs in large buildings and spaces. Furthermore, it can also be used to emulate a "slap-back" delay by creating separation between the dry and effected sound.
Mix - The mix slider allows you to set the amount of blend between the 'dry', unaffected signal and the reverb sound. A value of 100% would result in only the reverb sound being played out of the output. Many plug-in presets you'll play with have the mix % at various levels in order to create the overall reverb sound.
Within our audio world, delay usually refers to an processor that creates a delay in the audio signal for a short period of time. Delay can refer to either a single repeat, a series of repeats over time. When a delay repeats over time it can be referred to as an "echo". Most delay plug-ins have various controls that allow you to alter the delay time, the number of repeats, as well as bpm synchronization allowing you to be 'in-time' with your song.
Most effect processors are known as "multi" effect because they can process reverb, delay, or any combination of the two creating other effects such as chorusing, phasing, etc...
Applying Effects In The Mix
The creative use of effects in a music mix allow you to enhance and accentuate different parts of a song taking the listener on the journey the artist is guiding them on. While there are very few "rules" to the use of any processor in audio, there are some great "guidelines" that many more talented engineers have figured out. One of the primary way effects are applied in a mix is "side-by-side" with the unaffected signal. This allows you to blend the "dry" vocal with the "wet" effect signal to achieve a better balance in the mix with the rest of the music. Also, this method allows for far more control of the wet and dry signal as each track has the full complement of plug-in points, sends, and automation.
An added benefit of placing effects via sends is that multiple tracks can be sent to the same effect. For example, backing vocal layers can all be sent to the same reverb. Also, it allows you to apply creative automation across the song changing blends and part volumes. A great example of this is in the Taylor Swift song "Blank Space", at the end of the first pre-chorus, the line "And you love the game" has a significant swell in vocal reverb and delay compared to the rest of the song. It only happens for that line which helps the transition to the chorus as well as making it stand out to the listener.
Follow these steps to create an effect send in Pro Tools.
1. Create an Aux Input Track - Go to the 'Track' menu, select 'New', select 'Stereo' and 'Aux Input' to add to your session
2. From your 'Vocal' track, create a stereo bus send, using any available bus.
3. Assign the bus input to Aux track - make sure you are inputing the same bus point you are sending form your main audio track
4. Launch Reverb or FX plug-in on Aux track you created *Note-Make sure to bring up the Send volume fader, it defaults to being turned all the way down
What we now find ourselves with is a main vocal track next to a vocal fx track (in our example Reverb is the chosen effect). You have the ability to fully automate both track, adjust levels between them, as well as add any other plug-in to shape the effect sound to better fit the mix. This process can be repeated several times allowing you to create effect layers for your mix.
Pro Tools allows you to create up to 10 sends per track, which means you can send your vocal track to 10 different effect returns. In the example above, I have created two send from the vocal track, both feeding an Aux track return. This allows me to have a reverb processor side by side with a delay processor, both layered with the lead vocal. The fundamental premise behind all this fancy signal flow is to allow you more control over your mix. Due to the way audio signal flows through a console (essentially top to bottom), if you were to place the reverb or delay directly on the vocal track you would always be hearing it and have to rely solely on the Mix % adjustment of the processor. Essentially you are "locked-in" to that reverb always being present. Professional mix engineers don't like to be "locked" in to anything, especially since they have to balance all of the elements of a mix. It's is better to have more control than less control, allowing you to customize your mix to be unique.