Existential problem: Reverb

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Rodgre
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Existential problem: Reverb

Post by Rodgre » Wed Dec 30, 2020 5:45 am

I need to be talked off a ledge a little bit and given some perspective.

I struggle nowadays with the amount of effect that is appropriate for lead vocals in certain genres that I mix and I need some guidance.

Back story, I started recording in the late 80s/early 90s when it was the thing to put a ton of effects on everything. Digital reverbs were finally cheap and everyone wanted that super gloppy reverb/quarter note delay thing all the time, at least in a lot of the more "alternative rock" that I was recording back then. Then in the 2000s, there was a stylistic change in mixing and a bit of backlash against that dated 80's sound and things got super dry. I followed suit and started to be more confident in dry mixes with up-front vocals.

Over the years, I've sort of grown to not pay so much attention to what's trendy in mix styles and I just do what I think is best for the song/artist. I have some rock bands that are obviously going for a 90's vibe and I do that thing. Then I have americana projects that want to go a different direction, and I take it there. Do what's best for the music.

Now I have a project that I'm mixing which I would categorize somewhat with a lot of more recent bands that I like a lot, which I consider to be kind of tipping their hats to the late 80's/early 90's twee indie rock thing that I loved to listen to back then. Alvvays, Best Coast, Ariel Pink, Frankie Rose, etc. The band I'm working with, however, is made up of band members that were in seminal 90's indie bands, some that forged the scene that I'm referring to. With that in mind, I'm very cognizant that I don't want to mix this project like a 90's throwback. I want it to sound modern and current, but true to what the music wants. There is a battle going on in my head, as can happen. I'm trying to anticipate what the worst reviewer is going to say about this project and I want to avoid that. I want it to sound RIGHT.

Those of you who are either younger than me and have started mixing in more recent years and aren't tainted by living through the 90's and all the stylistic changes, how are you treating your vocals? Those of you in a similar boat as me, who have been doing this through many style changes and mixing cliches, how do you treat your vocals?

The hill I'm thinking of climbing is to find a distinct dark reverb sound, sort of like what Neko Case has done, which will become a consistent signature part of the overall sound for the whole project. I have a nice collection of vintage spring reverb units that I can experiment with as well as limitless things I can do with plugins. I'm thinking that if I come upon something unique and cool sounding, that isn't just a PCM-70 preset, it will be the way to go. Maybe I've answered my own question.

I guess I just want some backup from you all. I need perspective. I feel like I've been trying to fight teenage instinct for many years, in order to keep my mixes sounding current, and now I feel like I might need to let go of that a little and do what comes more natural. Not that I really care what others think when I'm supposed to be confident and in control when I produce/mix a project. I think I'm having a crisis because I remember talking with some engineers some 20 years ago. We were discussing a particular very very successful engineer/producer/mixer from the 80s and they were saying that he's super talented and a great engineer, but don't let him mix your record unless you want it to sound like 1985. It really stuck with me and I'm feeling like, I don't want to be "that guy"

Sincerely,
Lost in the Reverb

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digitaldrummer
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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by digitaldrummer » Wed Dec 30, 2020 6:59 am

what does the band like? if they want "Born in the USA" snare drums, then maybe they are right. if they want big lush Jim James vocal reverbs then maybe try it and see? It might work, it might not. I think it depends on the vocals a lot too. There are some voices I like to mix on the dry side where as others I just can't. The cadence of the vocal lines matter too and can sometimes dictate what is needed (for example rap probably doesn't generally work with a big reverb). Also, never read the reviews... 8)
Last edited by digitaldrummer on Thu Dec 31, 2020 6:52 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by Theo_Karon » Wed Dec 30, 2020 8:21 am

Oh man. This one really hit home for me in a number of ways. What a conundrum! Reverb... I'll try to offer what little perspective I can, as I've sort of grappled with this from the other end - maybe we can sail in opposite directions here, meet in the middle, we'll both drown and they'll write a song about us. You know what they say about captaining the ship that sinks - you get your picture in the paper!

I came up in Chicago in the late 2000s / early 2010s, in the midst of a scene whose obsession with 'authenticity' telegraphed itself constantly & compulsively in ways large and small, several of which I was acutely aware of to the point of evangelism; others smuggled themselves into the fundament of my critical apparatus so invisibly that to this day I still find the occasional straggler living rent free in there and do my best to drag it, kicking and screaming, into daylight to finally be dismantled. One result of this recieved dogma was that I comported myself, I'm quite certain in hindsight, in a completely fucking insufferable manner. Another somewhat more esoteric result was a learned suspicion of any sonic departure that didn't emerge naturally from the process of recording.

While this may at times have served as a welcome counterbalance to the overzealous kitchen-sink tendency you describe in an era of affordable & 'good enough' facsimiles of literally every effect ever, it also had an extremely unwelcome consequence: I didn't learn to play well with 'artificial' sounds until waaaay later than I otherwise might have. It wasn't until I landed in LA around 2013 and started working (recording music IN THE COMPUTER...!) on a much broader variety of records that I realized both that all those Cure records I had been obsessed with in high school and then 'outgrew' were in fact totally amazing after all, and that pretty much every played-out stylistic trope had its origins in something very striking and cool. The transparent imitators have aged like milk but the originators still sound as fresh as the day they were cut... from the sounds of it you've got a few decades on me here, so I apologize if this is all old hat - but imagine my astonishment upon tracking the scourge of gated snare reverb through the ages back to its lair only to discover In the Air Tonight! Intruder!

Fucking astonishing - don't blame the besotted idiots who hoped in vain to scrape off a little of that magic for themselves by cribbing the surface-level aesthetic signifiers of each paradigm shift, lifting the trappings while entirely missing the point - there was something there! I had a similar feeling the first time I installed an EMT plate at my studio some years back - I had tracked with plates at bigger studios but had not previously had the luxury of time to spend experimenting during a mix. And suddenly a whole world of cavernous reverb opened up - the reverb return has so much texture and depth that I could solo it up and listen to it all day - what a difference! It's not dumb anymore! That's why those Scott Walker vocals sound that way - someone pushed that fader up and liked it so much that it just stayed there, nothing more to it than that.

All of this is not to say that Changing the Face of Music is an appropriate criterion to keep in mind while selecting a vocal reverb - humility and an allergy to pastiche are both qualities that one's work can only be served by continuing to cultivate. But I hope this might serve as a reminder that often the odd or jagged choice that somehow just lands even while it feels a little lopsided or a bit too obtrusive is the right one. There's a line from William Gibson's Neuromancer that I often come back to when thinking about the interface of modern, digital tools with the palettes that defined past eras: "His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it."

If ever there was an age of affordable beauty, we're living in the middle of it. Perfection is cheap, therefore nuance is everything. I think that's the most valuable vocal aesthetic that has emerged in the past decade - at least it's what speaks to me, and it's what unifies American IV-era Johnny Cash, Alabama Shakes, Billie Eilish and Perfume Genius (fight me!). To me that's where 'modern' cashes out in a valuable and reliably useful sense in the present moment - detail, intimacy, nuance. Perfection may be cheap, but we also have a better set of tools for highlighting these qualities than we ever have. And guess what - they play beautifully with any set of effects you care to throw at them!

I like the sound of seeking darkness, texture and depth, but at that point it's truly a question of preference with no right or wrong answers outside of the particular context you're working in, so I will leave you here with one last thought: experiment with long pre-delays if you haven't already. Like, LOOOONG ones. Like 400-600 ms kind of long. Print the reverb with no pre-delay and use a plugin delay. Try different delay times on each side. Try using a plug-in delay with some character and adding some feedback. We all know that an important part of getting your reverb to sit right is high-passing it aggressively - if it's a main feature in the mix, try NOT doing that. Try not using any pre-delay at all. Again, sorry if old hat. I've got enough enthusiasm for the both of us! Godspeed!

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Nick Sevilla
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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by Nick Sevilla » Wed Dec 30, 2020 10:48 am

WHAT DOES THE BAND WANT?

DO THAT.
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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by vvv » Wed Dec 30, 2020 2:52 pm

I think I might could try doing all the vocals with the "Itchykoo Park" sound*.

It's not really ever been done before.

Except on "Itchykoo Park".

*I have a white MD541, see:
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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by cgarges » Wed Dec 30, 2020 4:52 pm

I totally get you, Rodgre.

I think part of the "today" reverb sound are things that aren't obviously digital: plates, chambers, springs, etc. And in some ways, the shittier, the better. And ironically, there are some good plugins that do this stuff-- the UA stuff, Valhalla stuff, Soundtoys Little Plate (especially with a filter and/or delay in front of it), Audio Thing Springs, Transatlantic plate, etc. Don't get me wrong, some of those early digital reverb sounds are coming back, too, but I think easing into it through some darker, weirder verbs are gonna be easier for you.

Start with the drums. Get a little weird and crazy with them and that might help set the stage for other stuff.

Hope this helps.

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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by losthighway » Wed Dec 30, 2020 5:01 pm

Plenty of good points here- consult the artist, consider predelay, refer to some big reverb singers (My morning Jacket, Neko Case).

I do all of my reverb out of the box, so I tend to print reverb as its own track, 100% wet, so I can play with the wet/dry ratio ad infinitum in mix revisions, and also scoot the verb track later if I want to adjust predelay.

In a couple recent mixes for artists whose tastes I didn't know, or weren't sure themselves I gave them a few different versions of one track, a menu of reverbs. There are only so many hours in the day, and gigabytes in the cloud, so of course I curated some things I thought would work based on the style.

For my mixes the vocals tend to have one of the following: a lush plate, a subtler room, a slap, or a dirty slap (add some grit/distortion to the delayed signal). Of course our choices are infinite and I often have a little bit of subtle room trailing after a dirty slap etc. Sending 3 mp3s with rough examples helped us focus in on the style quickly, and probably took all of 30 minutes to put together.

I find most singers end up wanting a subtle touch of one of the above, so subtle that you could even exchange one for the other and it wouldn't drastically change the style of the mix. Just a little 'vaseline on the lens' as one singer I worked with is fond of saying. At that point the reverb isn't as much of a style, genre, or character type like you're pondering, and more like how a photographer might light something.

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Re: Existential problem: Reverb

Post by vvv » Wed Dec 30, 2020 6:42 pm

cgarges wrote:
Wed Dec 30, 2020 4:52 pm

Start with the drums. Get a little weird and crazy with them and that might help set the stage for other stuff.
Again, may I reco "Itchykoo Park".
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