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 Vocal Reverb
There’s a few simple steps to setting up your vocal reverb.
First, create an aux track to put your reverb on. Then, send your vocal to that aux track. The process of doing both is different for every DAW, so Google “how to create a send in [insert DAW here]” if you’re not sure how this works for your system.
Once you’ve added your reverb plugin to the aux track, make sure it’s set to 100% wet (or, depending on the plugin, make sure the mix balance is set to 100%). We’re going to be mixing this sound into the original vocals, so we don’t want any of the original leaking into our reverb track.
Next, pick your reverb type. There are several different types of reverbs – rooms, halls, plates, and more. Each have their own tone and characteristics. Try out several different kinds and see what sounds best for this song.
Once you’ve picked the reverb that sounds best, it’s time to shape the reverb to fit with the song.
First, adjust the reverberation time to fit the tempo of the track. To do this, put the reverb time fairly high (think 4 seconds), then slowly move it down while the song is playing. Once you get to a place that sounds good to you, leave it.
In general, shorter reverb times work best, as longer times can add mess and muddiness to a mix. Usually this means a time less than two seconds.
However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule! Sometimes a longer reverb time will work better for a track, particularly if you are wanting an extremely lush-sounding vocal. Just adjust the time until it fits well with the rest of the track.
In general, you want your reverb to fade out before the next phrase. So if you were to solo your vocals in the chorus, let’s say, you would hear the reverb of the first phrase fade away before the next phrase started up. This rule of thumb will keep your reverb from making the vocals sound messy and uncontrolled.
Once the reverb time is set, check out the pre-delay. The pre-delay is how much time it takes for the reverb to come in after the vocals have started. Our ears naturally use pre-delay to determine how far away we are from the walls of a room.
For a vocal, pre-delay is a perfect way to keep reverb from muddying up the beginnings of words.
Experiment with pre-delay times and see what fits best with the song. Usually somewhere between 30-100ms is good.
Finally, we want to set our distance parameter. This determines how close the listener is to the vocalist.
Since we want our vocals to be as up-front and personal as possible, we’ll set the distance very low.
With reverb time and pre-delay, you were making sure the reverb would fit with the RHYTHM of the song. Now, we’re going to use an EQ to make sure the reverb will fit with the TONE of the song.
Put on an EQ plugin before the reverb plugin on your aux track.
Your vocal reverb sound has a big impact on the sound of the vocals themselves. Often, you can use your reverb to fix issues that you haven’t been able to with your vocal processing.
If you have a vocal that’s too dark, for instance, it might be a good idea to cut out the low mids of the reverb and boost the top end. That way you’ll get a nice subtle shimmer without having to boost the top end of the vocal itself.
Also, it’s usually a good idea to cut out the lows of a reverb. That area isn’t useful for vocals – it just muddies up the mix.
Put on a high pass filter and cut between 50-150Hz.
Don’t be afraid to be liberal with your EQ shaping. Since this is an effect we’ll be mixing in, it only matters what the reverb sounds like in context of the song. Just make sure that you’re making all of your cuts and boosts with an intention, not “just because I feel like I should.”
You are trying to accomplish a goal. So make sure you know what that goal is before you take any steps to reach it. That’s mixing with intention.
Now the reverb is shaped and ready to go. The final step is simple:
Set the level of the reverb.
While playing the song on loop, turn the reverb all the way down. Then slowly bring it up until you notice it. Once you’ve done that, turn it down just a bit – you usually overestimate how loud it should be.
Reverb is generally meant to be felt, not heard. The right place isn’t where it’s audible and obvious. The right place is where it makes the vocal “feel right” with the rest of the instruments.
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.
First things first, we need to create an aux track for the stereo delay. We’ll be sending our vocals there to be processed. I mentioned this above, but this is done differently on each DAW. Do some googling to find out how to do it for yours.
Just like the reverb, we want to make sure the delay is set to 100% wet (or, depending on the plugin, that the mix knob is set to 100%).
Next, unlink the sides of your stereo delay. We want to be able to change the delay times of both sides independently.
Now set one side to 50-200ms, and the other about 20-50ms behind that. The exact number will depend on how obvious you want the effect to be. The longer the delay, the more obvious it is.
Just turn the delay time up high, then turn it down slowly until it sounds right to your ears.
Next, set the feedback to 0-15% feedback. Traditionally, this has NO feedback, which means it has only a single repetition. However, having a few extra delays will help the effect to sound more natural.
Change this parameter to fit your taste.
Now we’re going to do the same thing as we did with our vocal reverb – shape the tone with our EQ.
We’re not going to treat this exactly like reverb though, as slapback delays usually have filters on the low and high end to make the delay “fit inside” the vocal.
How much you cut depends on the sound you’re going for. The more drastic the cut, the less obvious the effect will be.
I’ll usually cut up to 300Hz and down to 3kHz at the most. Make sure to use your ears – only cut as far as you feel the song needs! Don’t cut just for the sake of it.
Finally, you just have to mix the delay in!
The process is the same as your vocal reverb. While playing the song on loop, turn the delay all the way down. Then slowly bring it up until it feels right to you. Then turn it down just a bit.
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.