The Creator’s Toolbox: How Using Ambience Can Make or Break Your Tracks

By Rich Tozzoli  •  December 1, 2016

Bob Power

Reverb is one of the most effective tools in the studio, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. It’s not just a matter of how much to use, but how to get reverb-sweetened tracks to blend, and how to keep a sense of dimension without swallowing up your music. Whether you’re trying to produce radio-friendly songwriter demos, finished tracks for release, or building your soundtrack library, the use of ambience can make or break your tracks.

We asked two GRAMMY award winning mixer/producer/engineers about their approach to this important topic: Bob Power—whose resumé includes work with Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Inia. Arie, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Citizen Cope, Ozmati, and Macy Gray— and Mikael Eldridge’s (a.k.a. Count), whose credits include Radiohead, No Doubt, Galactic, DJ Shadow, Trombone Shorty, Rod Stewart, Blink 182, and the Rolling Stones.

What's Your Basic Approach to Using Reverb?

Bob Power: My choice of reverb really depends on the track, the combination of genre and vibe, and where the artist wants to take the song. Tempo and groove also play a part in my choices, even if unconsciously. If a groove is “active”—not necessarily fast—I tend to stay away from longer decay times. There has to be room in the composite groove [from all the instruments] for the length of the ’verb. If it is too long you end up losing twice: First, you don’t notice the tail of the reverb because another [rhythmic] element has taken precedence in the track during the reverb decay. Second, you might obscure that rhythmic element by [the reverb] competing with it.

Eldridge

Mikael Eldridge

Mikael Eldridge: Over the course of my career, I’ve worked on a lot of fairly dense songs, with lots of layers. A lot of these songs, particularly with artists like DJ Shadow, Zoe Keating, and Tycho, are also quite atmospheric. Obviously one of the keys to having a sense of depth on these mixes is the use of ambient effects. One of the first questions a lot of people ask me is what reverb I use on my mixes. But perhaps what they should be asking is not which reverb, but rather how I use reverb—or whether I use reverb at all. Even the very atmospheric songs I mix tend to rarely have reverb. Ninety percent of the time, what sounds like a reverb is actually delay.

Why Use Delay Instead of Reverb?

ME: Delays have a way of adding ambience that usually don’t muddy up the mix as much. If you saturate and EQ the delay, you can get an effect that is almost indistinguishable from a reverb, but it might sit better in your mix. Rolling off the high frequencies above 2kHz, and the lows below 300Hz, can really help. Saturating with some distortion can also really help. Soundtoys’ Echoboy is the holy grail for great delays because it is so versatile. All of the EQ , saturation, and distortion, and even modulation are built in. You can really control the style of delay infinitely. There are other great delays, but Echoboy is by far my favorite. For more unusual modulated ambient effects that I want to stick out in a mix as more of a “special effect,” I’ve been using FXPansion’s Bloom a lot recently, along with PSP’s N20.

BP: To be honest, I use delays as much as reverbs these days—they are much more controllable, can be contained within the soundfield, and don’t wash out elements so much. In regard to tempo, although many great mixers do it very well, I’ve always felt like delays and reverbs and pre-delays that are timed to the track are a bit Mickey Mouse, other than in EDM or dance music. But like I said, I know a lot of folks who do that to wonderful effect, no pun intended.

ME: Don’t get me wrong, I definitely use reverb. Typically when I use reverb, you don’t really notice it. You would notice if I were to mute it, but it rarely jumps out at the listener in the mix as an obvious effect. Delays are usually the bigger, more noticeable ambient effect in my mixes. However, there are definitely times when it makes sense to use a more obvious, noticeable reverb. On the forthcoming Roberto Fonseca album I recently mixed, the concept was to create references to Cuban music history, from the 1940s through today. There were quite a few tracks where I really spent a lot of time emulating the sound of old ’50s-era Cuban music. We went all the way, even distorting and saturating spring reverbs so that the mixes sounded like old vinyl.

How Many Tracks In Your Mix Actually Get Some Ambience?

BP: I generally only want to hear reverb on a few things in a track. I once heard someone—wish I could remember who—say, “save your long, spacious ’verb for one thing in the track.” That’s a great statement; if you want to hear the reverb clearly as an effect, only use it on that element on which you wish to notice it. If you send a lot of elements to that (‘verb), you notice it less and less on the intended element.

Other than hearing the ’verb as a discrete effect element, I find myself using reverbs mostly to develop layers going back in the front-to-rear dimension of the mix. It’s not so much that you’re placing elements deep [back] in the soundfield— more that you’re developing a smooth transition in that front-torear dimension between different elements, which gives them more clarity via their own place in that dimension. Done poorly, it’s like a new, super hi-def TV, where you see the discreet layers of the image as they recede, like paper cutouts with shadows. Done well, think of film, or a plasma display, where the visual elements recede in a much more organic, continuous way. Although like any element of production, it’s much better when you don’t notice it working so hard; hopefully, it just envelops the listener as a complete, integrated experience.

Do You Tend To Have a Preference for the Type of Reverb - Plates, Springs, Rooms, etc.?

BP: My choice of reverb type depends on intention—the song, production, artist, etc. Generally, I use short rooms, and sometimes early reflections with no ’verb—ok, giving away a trick here—for elements that I don’t want to “hear” the reverb on. I’m simply taking them off the front level of the [front-to-rear] speakers. For me, the only thing I want there is a voice-over, or intimate lead vocal, and usually, not even those.

Occasionally, I do often follow some old-school practices: chambers or halls for strings; plates for horns, vocals, and percussion; short rooms for drums and percussion. That said, over years of loving and trying to emulate the great Philly International sound—bless you many times over, Joe Tarsia—I’ve found that throwing everything, especially strings, in a plate can get you going in that direction. Who knew?

I usually reserve springs for electric guitar. As on other elements, it usually takes the track in a retro direction. I find that at its best, good mixing gives the listener the feel of a type of track or era, without trying to copy it verbatim.

Another trade not-so-secret: These days, I’m really loving mono reverbs on snares. You get the sound and vibe of the reverb, but it doesn’t bury the snare in width, and leaves so much more room in the soundfield for other elements and ambiences.

ME: I have a few favorite reverbs, but I often have to try them all on each song in order to find the one that works best for each song. For a long time, Sonnox’s Oxford reverb was one of my go-to reverbs. It gives me a lot of control.

There are now a few esoteric reverbs that have given me some more options for different styles that require less manipulation on my part. Eventide finally released a plug-in version of Blackhole, which is a very otherworldly, highly modulated reverb. The PSP Springbox and Piano Verb are really cool and interesting. Waves have stepped up their game with the H Verb and the Abbey Road plate reverbs. Pro Tools now even comes with good reverbs. The plug in Space is great for a lot of things.

How Much Tweaking Do You Have to Do

BP: Pulling up any of these great reverb plug-ins and selecting a preset is probably not going to get you great sound. You are going to have to spend some time adjusting the plugin parameters, and adding additional plugins in order to get it to sit in the mix right. Even if you aren’t going for a retro sound, adding distortion pre (before), and even post reverb can really help your ambience sit better in your mix. Perhaps the most common mistake I hear in mixes that really makes them sound amateurish is when you hear a dry vocal proceeded by a very separate giant reverb. Distortion and saturation can really help blend things like vocals and horns to the reverb to make them sound like one thing, rather than two separate things, which is usually what you want.

Does the Style of Music That You're Doing Relate in Any Way to the Reverbs You Reach For?

BP: See the above regarding the old school Philly sound. Certainly, the style of the track affects my reverbs, as it does every decision I make, conscious or otherwise. Again, the groove—not just the rhythm section, but the composite of all the instruments— has a great bearing on my choices. A decent rule of thumb is to tailor your ’verb to work with the density of the part; a long legato string line or pad will feel in step with a long spacious reverb. But quite the opposite for an active percussion part [where] you probably want to stay with shorter decays, and smaller apparent spaces.

But remember, as with all things recorded music, the coolest things usually happen when someone breaks the rules.