Easy Synth Programming – Reverb
Some things you want wet and some things you want dry. If you favor a bit of the drop, an alcohol-dry province won’t make your holiday itinerary. Should you care for depth and space in your patches and mixes then a reverb dry impression is wrong. Let’s explore this effect, and how it relates to synths and mixes, in more depth now.
I can think of few effects which divide the audio community more sharply than reverb. Whether its personal taste, comprehension, or access to expensive tools, it’s a knife. That’s funny since it can actually give a softness to our music.
Right now, I want you to perform a quick and honest self-assessment. How are your reverb skills? Do you know the many options which are available like, rooms, halls, plates, springs, and non-linear? What about parameters such as room size, predelay, and early reflections – are you haunted by the confusion they cause?
Should that be the case then this article, part of the Easy Synth Programming series, should be of big help. In the following paragraphs, we’re going to listen in on different reverb types, sizes, and mix amounts. Mixed in will also be a short discourse on how these mathematical and physical sounds affect us subjectively.
Us vs. Them
Any time you listen to the top end of your mix, as compared to a professional reference, you might notice a difference. In reality, unless someone points it out to you, you actually probably won’t notice. The difference is that, in general, a pro mix has a cohesive spatial profile and your mix doesn’t.
Another facet the diamond of reverb offers is a sense of distance. Just listen to the audio on YouTube videos and you can hear this in action. Videos shot without a lavalier, shotgun, or close mic suffer from unintelligibility. This, my friends, is thanks to a particular leg of our reverb journey.
Indeed, reverberation, as complex of a topic though it may seem, can be harnessed by us normal people too. Should we endeavor to focus on the most important controls first, we can harness the Pareto principle and make headway. We can best do this by looking specifically into some actual synth instruments.
How Do You Do?
Let’s take a look at how to implement reverb. I’m going to show you how to do this inside of two different synths. These two synths are Massive by Native Instruments as well as Primer, which comes inside of Syntorial.
If you’re brand new to synths then definitely stick with Primer. Of the two synths it is the easier one to learn. Maybe that’s how they named it.
On the other hand, if you’ve been around the block, join me with Massive. I realize that Serum is the hip new cat in town. Even so, Massive still has much to offer.
A Prime Example
Now I begin with Primer. Open up your DAW, instantiate an instance, initialize the patch, and meet me back here. Ready? Let’s go.
At this point you should hear only a sawtooth waveform when you press a key. Take a look at the bottom right hand corner of Primer. There you will find the reverb section.
In the case of Primer, it has two separate controls which govern its reverb abilities. This arrangement is simple and effective. Those two are:
Let’s take a look at each of those in turn. One is easy to understand while the other is more difficult. I’ll start with size, the harder one.
Sizing Me Up
In Primer’s case, the effect is surprising. No matter how ‘big’ you’ve set the room reveb to be, that initial sound remains. I expect that initial sound to change.
Turn the reverb mix fully right and the size fully left. You can hear how the sound is shafty. That is to say it’s metallic and narrow.
Continue playing a note while you turn the size toward the right. What I hear is additional layers being piled on. That shafty reverb sound just blends into the larger washes.
Around a size of 0.4, I hear a tremolo effect in the reverb. This is to simulate echoic reflections. That means waves of sound bouncing between two surfaces.
When you make the reverb larger, however, you start to get a periodic filter-and-pitch-esque warble. This effect increases as you enlarge the reverb size. Also, the release envelopes of the reverb elongate.
My expectation is that more variables should change as the reverb size increases. I think that changes in predelay, early reflection character, and dampening should appear. Perhaps they do and I can’t hear them, leave a comment if you agree.
These additional controls are not available inside of Primer. Again, this being a training vessel primarily, we are focused on simplicity. Since reverb can be so overwhelmingly hairy, let’s be grateful there’s nothing more on which to focus.
Next up let’s talk about the reverb mix control. It’s there to blend your reverb signal, also known as ‘wet’, with your direct, ‘dry’, signal. This knob has a bigger effect than you might expect.
Technically, I just described what the reverb mix knob does. That’s easy and just required one paragraph. How can I expand on something so innocuous?
I’ll tell you how – its technical simplicity belies the magic spell it casts on our unsuspecting ears. After all, it is the faucet control to your reverb stream. Remember that “Fireflies” video by Owl City? I guess this would be as close to ‘magic’ as one can get, though he used different sounds.
I’ll Be Washing You
In practical language, the reverb mix knob is placing your sound into the room, whose size we’ve previously determined. This lets you ‘bring the sound forward’, its default state, or ‘push it back’, with a lot of wetness. Taken as a whole, this gives a few effects to your mixes.
One effect you can achieve is having more ‘depth’, front-to-backness, in your mix. This is true whether we speak of an isolated synth patch or a whole song. A louder, less-reverb-sound appears closer to your face. In contrast, a quieter, more heavily reverberated sound gets pushed farther away from you.
Next time you’re out, listen to the cars as they approach then pass. You’ll hear the sound I just described. Ask yourself what other cues you can identify which help you place the object in space.
Reverb, reflections, and mechanical analogs are a broad and deep topic of which I am yet a master. It is for that reason I encourage you to broaden your educational palette beyond this article. With that, let’s explore the settings in Massive.
Massive, being the aptly-named behemoth it is, has double the reverb control count of Primer. Yes, it has four whole knobs you can twist to your distant heart’s content. Sarcasm aside, Massive actually has eight controls, one for each type of reverb.
You heard me right – Massive has two distinct types of reverb, each with its own four controls. Though these two options are similar, there are some differences. Let’s take a look at Reverb and Small Reverb next.
Small Reverb is probably the lesser used option. When most people think reverb, they think long. This is probably because we’re rarely in intermediately sized spaces. Why do you need a small reverb and what makes it different?
The foremost answer is reverb decay time. A larger room has a longer decay which might overwhelm a faster or more dense track or patch. Small reverbs can clean up and tighten your spaciousness.
Whereas Massive’s regular Reverb has a larger early reflection profile, Small Reverb’s signature is its slap back profile. Small Reverb seems to have fewer, but stronger, early reflections than the bigger brother variant. Instantiate both, set them fully wet and then bring down the size.
To me, it sounds like Small Reverb is more of a stereo enhancer at low settings. The tail is minuscule, if at all present, but does widen the stereo image. For this reason I say that Dimension Expander, another spatial effect, is similar to reverb.
The regular reverb gives me more of a phaser effect. While it’s true that both reverb options will phase your sound, their respective characters are different. That detail known, let’s listen for the effect bigger sizes have.
At 12 o’clock, Massive’s Small Reverb gives me the impression of a hallway. I’m not talking the hallway in an apartment, but a commercial hallway. Think of the kind you might find in a hospital, or a bit smaller, for instance.
As we turn the size control up, I hear the Small Reverb emitting more of a parking garage-sized space. Like I mention in my videos, small, in terms of reverb, is actually pretty large on a human scale.
Switching over to the regular Reverb, the noon position offers us a fully train-station-sized environment. Another similarly sized space is a medium-sized concert venue. Twisting the knob further to the right gives more and more of an unearthly quality to your sound.
Each reverb module has a total of four controls. We just covered the same ones that Primer shares. The other two, we’ll leave out for now. Let me just give a brief word on each before we move on.
I think we can hear the effects of Density more easily on the regular module. While the manual says that less density equals more echoes and less diffusion, that’s misleading. In fact, more diffusion equals more echoes spread out over time and space. Let’s not get confused, though.
The bottom line for Density inside of Massive is that the echoes are more discreet with the knob turned left. The further right you go, the more ‘washiness’ you get, which of course means more actual, if indiscreet, echoes. Despite small, and regular reverb modules using the same underlying algorithm, the two Density effects are very unique.
The final option which each module enables us to achieve is Color. This eponymous knob deploys a ‘subtle filter’, according to the manual, that allows for a brighter or darker sound. Importantly, this is not a ‘damping’ control as the eligible frequencies do not attenuate over time.
To summarize, we just explored Primer and Massive, two virtual instrument synthesizers we might have in our DAW. Both synths have similar reverb sounds but Massive gets the W on features and versatility. For simplicity for the sake of learning, Primer remains king.
Reverb is a complex topic deserving of an entire website’s dedication. Being that I am neither an expert on synths nor spatial effects, I am speaking within my pay grade. Although, even with limited knowledge, we can reap the magical rewards that such an effect bestows.
I also covered some of the problems you may encounter if you don’t much, if any reverb. We made discussion about the subjective effects these algorithmic and impulse response-based sounds have on our human selves. Now, let’s wrap up with some action steps you can take to expand your musical education.
As always, be sure to actually perform these exercises on your own. There is no substitute for experimentation, not even a perfectly-designed curriculum. You need to take risks and be willing to fail.
One thing I related when completing this lesson are my send levels when I mix. Try to correlate the dry-wet knob to -27dB or -12dB on a mixer send. Remember to make your reverb fully wet when placing it on a return track.
Of course make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and/or my Hexie Dose Newsletter for updates. Currently, I’m publishing content each and every Monday at 4PM PST. Whether you like original Electronic music or want to make it, Hexspa is the place to be.
One more thing: these lessons are inspired by a program called Syntorial. Basically, it’s a video game app for macOS, iOS, and Windows that teaches you synth programming by ear. The demo includes 22 lessons and I can all but guarantee even that will teach you something. I’m also an affiliate (already finished the course once) so if you eventually buy it, you are also supporting me.
Thank you very much, I’ll see you next week.