Here’s something we all know:
The vocals are the hardest thing to mix.
That’s because they are so important. The entire song is built around them!
One of the most difficult things to get right is the vocal space. You don’t want the vocals to be dry as a bone, but you don’t want them swimming around in the background either.
There’s a balance that you have to find. So how do you get your vocals to sit exactly where they need to in the mix?
Today, we’re going to answer that question. You’re going to learn how to determine which is best for your song – reverb or delay.
Once you know that, we’ll go step-by-step into getting the reverb and delay settings just right. We’ll get your vocal space sounding radio-ready.
But first, grab a free copy of my Vocal Space Cheat Sheet. It has everything you’ll need to get your vocals to sit in the mix perfectly.
It’s a great resource to have while mixing! Check it out here:
Reverb vs. Delay – Which Should I Use For My Vocals?
There are two effects that will change the way the space around your vocal sounds:
Reverb and delay.
Reverb is the sound of the room. When reverberation is added to an instrument, that instrument sounds like it’s in a new space.
It could be a big concert hall, a tiny bedroom, or anything in between. It creates a “wash” of sound behind the instrument.
Delay, on the other hand, is much more precise. It’s just one repetition after another of the notes of an instrument.
Like the echo you’d hear if you yelled into the Grand Canyon.
Both of these are useful for vocals, but which you choose is very important.
Since vocals are usually the most important instrument in the song, the reverb or delay you choose will be more obvious than on other instruments.
Because of that, there’s a balance that has to be found with your vocal space.
You don’t want your vocals to be entirely dry, or they’ll sound out of place. They won’t make sense with the rest of the mix. They’ll feel like they were tacked on the song as an afterthought.
But you also don’t want your vocals to be too wet, or they’ll move too far back in the mix. You want your singer to be upfront and center, performing to the crowd, not standing behind the drummer and guitarist!
So, which do you pick? Vocal reverb, or vocal delay?
The answer is…
Reverb will fill the sound of the vocals out nicely. It will give them more fullness and sustain, and will have a more “natural” sound to them.
BUT reverb will also push the vocals back in the mix. It can cause them to lose energy and cohesion, because it overlaps the words and washes them out.
Delay, on the other hand, won’t push your vocals too far back!
…BUT it could cause your vocals to sound too dry or unnatural.
Both have their pros and their cons. There’s no right answer for which to use!
There are, however, musical precedents to follow.
Vocal reverberation is more common on slower songs and more natural genres. These benefit from the “wash” that comes with the room sound. It helps the vocals to sustain through long, drawn-out phrases.
Usually folk, ballads, old-style country, and classical use vocal reverb. It’s also making a comeback in the indie and alternative world.
Vocal delay is more common with faster songs and more energetic genres. Having the reverb “wash” would be too much for these songs. It would bleed over the words and push the vocals too far back. These aggressive songs usually want the vocals up-front and close so that the listener really feels the energy.
Usually pop, rock, hip-hop, and metal use more vocal delay than reverb.
That said, there’s no right answer! It’s usually a combination of the two. There are examples everywhere of pop songs with reverb or ballads with a slapback delay. It all depends on what the song calls for.
Try both to see which accomplishes the sound you’re going for in your song.
How to Set Up Your Vocal Reverb and Delay
I’ve made a few handy buttons to get the tutorials you’re looking for. Just click the one you need (or both!) and the correct tutorial will pop up.
Which would you like to set up?
How to Set Up Vocal Reverb
There are a few simple steps to set up your vocal reverb.
Before we move on, don’t forget to grab a free copy of my Vocal Space Cheat Sheet. It’s got all of this info in it and more.
It’s a great reference to have when you’re in the middle of a mix. Check it out here:
How to Set Up Vocal Delay
For energetic, powerful vocals, we’re going to want to set up a stereo slapback delay. It’s the trick that pro mixers use to get their vocals up-front but cohesive.
A slapback delay is a very fast delay with no repeats. It became very popular in the late 50’s with rock music, and has been a staple in music ever since. To hear what this sounds like, check out the vocals on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
We won’t be making one that obvious, but that’s the idea. It’s a great way to add depth and width to a vocal without pushing it back in the mix. It’ll also thicken your vocals.
Here’s how you set up your own vocal delay:
Conclusion: Vocal Reverb and Delay
Vocal space is one of the hardest things to get right.
But with this guide and a little practice, you should be able to get your vocals to sit perfectly.
Before you head out, make sure to grab my free Vocal Space Cheat Sheet. It’s a great way to make sure you remember all of this information for your next mix.
Trust me – it’ll lead to a more radio-ready vocal sound. Grab it here:
Songwriter and producer. Writer at Musician on a Mission. I’m here to help people make music that lasts.