by Anders Johanson January 10, 2021 10 min read
One of the most-loved effects, whether it be software or hardware, is reverberation - or, simply, reverb. Reverb can be created naturally, the result of sound waves bouncing off of reflective material like buildings or rocks, and continuing on until it is no longer discernible. Clapping outside in an open field might sound nice, but clapping in between two tall buildings or on the stage of an empty church will produce an entirely different sound. Reverb can make your track or entire mix sound like it’s playing in an empty room, long hallway, deep cavern, large sanctuary, or even drifting around in the vacuum of outer space.
Reverb can be the difference between a slappy, 50’s inspired Beach Boys-type track, or a modern, ethereal, vibey song like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky would write. As with most things out there right now, there is no shortage of options when it comes to reverb. You can track down a vintage rack-mount or standalone effects unit to route your audio through, send your sound into guitar pedals, or keep everything in the box with one (or two) of the hundreds of plugins on the market. No matter which route you choose, reverb is one of the most enjoyable effects to play with, and more often than not a little goes a long way - but sometimes it can be more fun to crank the knobs to 11 and see what happens.
Before we jump into the specific plugins themselves it is a good idea to get a quick refresher on the different types of reverb and how they could be used. At one point in time “reverb” really only referred to one thing, but as technology grew and changed more and more different types of reverb hit the market. Here’s a quick breakdown and description of some of the most popular reverb modes today.
There are other kinds of reverbs out there that emulate things you would find in real life, or even things that can only be created digitally. Non-linear reverbs are becoming more popular, essentially doing things with reverb that reverb cannot do in nature. Manipulating the tail (the very end of the sound before it fades into nothing) of a reverb to go back up in volume, or dance around, or just behave in a strange way. You can find plugins with non-linear reverbs and experiment with them for days without accomplishing much of anything, which is part of the fun, right?
So now you know a few different types of reverb, but what are you really supposed to do with it? Reverb is there to help you add a sense of space to a sound that would otherwise just sound flat and dry. In fact, if someone refers to a track as “wet” it’s usually because there is reverb on it. If you want your vocals to sound like you stood in a closet with acoustic treatment in it, then nobody is stopping you from doing that. However, adding a splash of reverb to that vocal track will give it depth, and it will go from sounding raw and unprocessed to suddenly having movement and life. The same holds true with drums. If you recorded a drum kit in a room that sounded empty and lifeless, adding reverb in the mixing stage will put a spark back into the recording. Or if you are using samples or one-shots in a mix, putting reverb on a reverse snare or finger snaps will help those sounds stand out among the rest.
Reverb can be used on individual tracks, it can be put in its own track and you can route audio to it so anything that passes through that track will have the same reverb setting, or you can even put reverb on your master output if you wanted to. The point is to use it in such a way that it adds something to your track, but not so much that it takes away from it. Reverb can get distracting very easily, as the sound of multiple instruments and vocals bouncing around in a room and echoing nearly infinitely takes its toll after a while. Too much reverb can start to make your tracks sound muddy, and setting the decay time too high can blend notes together in a way that will build up and sound messy over time, so tweaking it and figuring out the best setting is ideal. But then again, that could be the sound you are going for. Maybe you automate your reverb track to increase over time, to the point where the end of your song is just a jumbled mess of sound that slowly decays into a sonic abyss.
Whether you are using a plugin or outboard hardware reverb units, the basic principles stay the same. It’s like salt and pepper. You use it nearly every time you cook and it makes what you are creating better, but if you use too much then it’s all you taste and your food is ruined. Keep that in mind as you experiment with reverb.
No doubt about it, there are certainly many good reverb plugins that you can pay for, but this list is going to focus on a budget option that is friendly to everyone: free. Not every musician in the world is working on a film with a huge budget, or producing an album for a band who claims money is no object. Those types of projects give producers and composers the freedom to go out and spend a little more freely on hardware and software, and while that may be a goal to strive for, it just isn’t the case for the majority of people. So instead of oozing over plugins and libraries that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, here is a list of reverb plugins that will cost you nothing but time.
I am going to start out this list by cheating a little bit and steal a line from the photography world by saying that the best reverb is the one you have in the moment. More often than not, your digital audio workstation’s stock reverb will do the trick. Adding to your collection of plugins is fun and exciting, but if you go overboard then you will just set yourself up for making it more difficult to choose because of how many options you have. Becoming more familiar with the software and plugins you already have, including stock plugins that are already within your DAW, before you start to venture out into doing research and purchasing new stuff, is one of the best things you can do as a producer. You can go from one reverb plugin to five, to ten, to fifteen really quickly. Get to know the ins and outs of two or three plugins and decide whether you really need a different one or you just have the desire to get something new. Usually you’ll find the latter to be the case, but in the times when you do need something to add another flavor to the spice rack, these are some of the top free options (in no particular order).
Kicking off this list is one of the more impressive free reverbs available right now. Many reverb plugins will come with a user interface that only has a few functions, but Old Skool Verb gives you just the right amount of customizability. From basic parameters such as pre-delay, space, time, and length, to an independent three-band EQ, to the ability to completely mute the dry signal and only listen to the reverb signal right from within the plugin itself. No routing to an effects bus or separate track for that capability, just click one button and you are good to go. The plugin has plate, room, and hall reverbs, stereo processing, presets, and even an undo button. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything had that? Old Skool Verb is compatible with both Windows and Macintosh machines, comes in 32- and 64-bit versions, and is compatible with all major digital audio workstations (be sure to download the AU or AAX version for Logic on Mac, not the VST version).
This reverb plugin has more of a modern look and sound, with a sleek and stylish user interface to put a ribbon on the package and tie everything together. TAL Reverb 4 offers the familiar list of controllable parameters, such as size, diffusion, delay, dry volume, wet volume. Its native equalization features leave a little bit to be desired compared to other free reverbs out there, but if you just route your audio to a reverb bus then it will hardly be an issue. While having things within a plugin is nice, there are almost always things that can be done outside of the plugin in order to compensate. Grabbing TAL Reverb 4 and exploring its many presets can be fun, and the limited parameter control might actually push your creativity more than you would realize. This plugin is perfect for vocals. The current version of TAL Reverb 4 only supports 64-bit, so keep that in mind if you download this one.
As the name might suggest in this plugin, this thing can get pretty epic. Epic Verb has a fully-featured layout, with an interface that looks like plugins that cost hundreds of dollars. It’s amazing what can be found for free. It might be easy to get lost in the settings with this plugin, but spending some time to nail it down could turn it into one of the most versatile tools in your toolkit - and without spending a penny. Epic Verb has six different reverb algorithms, modulation controls (including the ability to modulate the reverb tail specifically), a switch that toggles between reverb and ambience, a three-band equalization section that will really allow you to dial in your sound, and presets to sift through and learn from. Not only is it pleasant to look at, it also sounds good. If its inclusion in this list wasn’t enough to say this - you should download this one.
This is what we like to call a classic textbook One Knob plugin. Verberate Basic 2 has tabs to select which of the four types of reverb you would like to use, and then it has a mix knob to control how much reverb is in your signal, and that’s it. It could not get any easier to use a plugin, and if you mess it up then you have nobody to blame but yourself. Don’t let its simplicity fool you, though. What Verberate Basic 2 lacks in a user interface it makes up for in sound quality. If you do not want to be bothered with meticulously crafting the perfect reverb for your track and you would rather open a plugin and know that it will work the first time, this is the plugin for you. Each of the four types of reverb available is a perfect representation of that setting. Verberate Basic 2 is compatible with all machines and comes in both 32- and 64-bit formats.
Rounding out this list of free plugins is another plugin that has limitations but is fun to play with. Freeze Chamber only has five knobs - input, size, width, damp, and mix. What makes Freeze Chamber stand out, though, is its Freeze function. Selecting Freeze will grab whatever sliver of audio was coming through at that moment and extend it out until you deselect Freeze, creating almost a pad-like sound in the background. This feature would almost have to be composed around, because doing it at the wrong time could lead to disastrous results, but if used correctly it could be beautiful. The one downside is that Freeze Chamber is only compatible with Windows machines, so Macintosh users are out of luck here.
Reverb is my most favorite effect to play with. I prefer a darker-sounding reverb that makes a track sound moody, as if the echoes are coming from far away, leading you to wonder what the sound is bouncing off of and where it’s going. Reverb can paint a picture of an environment to the listener. A simple lead line on a guitar can take on a new form with some reverb. A quiet piano recorded with close microphones can be pushed far to the back of a reverb plugin. A dry sounding loop or beat can come alive with a Spring reverb and a quick decay.
If you are new to incorporating reverb into your projects then it might take some time to figure out what you think sounds good. The more you play with it in your tracks and in your DAW, the more you will start to notice it in other productions. On the radio, on television, in movies - it will stand out to you and you will take note of how it is used. The more you experiment with plugins and learn how to use them, the better you will get at being able to load up the right one for your project and sculpt your sound in no time at all. Reverb really can make a huge difference in bringing a dead-sounding song to life.
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