Choosing and using the right reverb for cinematic and soundtrack production is essential for authentic results. In this feature, we’ll detail the differences between reverb and echo, discuss classic reverbs used in soundtrack composition, and identify the best methods to deploy reverb in your productions. It’s time, then, to explore the rich and resonant world of plates, placement, and reverb plugins to discover how to use reverb in cinematic and soundtrack production.

Echo-verb

Do you remember the first time you walked into a large, enclosed space or tunnel, and your parent or guardian turned to you and said, ‘Can you hear that echo?’ Well, the chances are, it wasn’t an echo, but it was a reverb! So what’s the difference?

Echo and reverb are common bedfellows. An echo is normally identified as a sound that bounces back at you. If you’re standing in a location with lots of tall buildings, the flat surfaces are ideal for reflecting sound waves. Shout ‘hello’ at the top of your voice, and if you hear it hitting your ear in some form of duplicated and delayed form, you’ve got an echo.

Where reverb differs

The physics of reverberation is largely the same, it’s just that the surfaces will likely be more numerous in number, with reflections bouncing off many of them. The resulting waves and echoes pile up on each other, forming a constant and sustained sound. There will be no discernible echo, although just about all reverbs offer what is known as a pre-delay. This allows the user to dictate how long it takes for the first sound reflection to materialize.

There are differences between reverb and delays and some plugins can do both

Echo v Reverb

Given the blurring of the sound waves between echo and reverberation, it’s hardly surprising that both forms of effect have their place. In more commercial settings, echoes and delays can perform a similar task to reverb, with many engineers preferring delay to reverb. Delay tails can be more exacting in timing, eliminating the wash effect that reverbs can leave behind.

However, when it comes to orchestral soundtracks, reverbs are the preference. The primary reason for this is historical, reflecting real life. If you go to an orchestral concert, the hall will react with the orchestra, supplying a satisfying reverberated backdrop. As the volume increases, so does the amount of reverberation you can hear. This is a guiding principle for applying reverb and is essential to understand as we explore how to use reverb in cinematic and soundtrack production.

A concert venue has the biggest influence on reverb (photo by Matheus Viana from Pexels)

Life imitating vintage art

The chances are, if you’re working in the realm of orchestral soundtrack work, you’ll be using samples. This could be either for the finished article or by way of trying out your ideas before committing to a recording session. It’s also commonplace to blend samples with live players, depending on the music you compose.

Most orchestral sample libraries offer reverb as part of the instrumental construct. It’s just how much of that color you want in your sound, informed by whether you actually like it. The vast majority of sample libraries are recorded in relatively dry settings or sound stages. This means that the sampled reverb will most likely be relatively short in length. Consider this to be more of an ambiance, rather than some long-tailed reverberation. 

Blending dry and room

Thanks to the complexity of sample packages, it’s often possible to blend the room’s reverb using different mic signals. While a Decca tree mic array or similar close microphone rig will offer the sound of the instruments close-up, ambient microphones capture the room. Some libraries have chosen to employ more colorful recording rooms, with brighter tones and longer reverb times. This will offer an altogether more purist approach to applying reverb, but it might not necessarily offer the sound that you are after. It’s for this reason that the vast majority of soundtracks utilize drier acoustic spaces. If this is the case, it’s up to you to add reverberation at the mixing stage, employing dedicated hardware or plugins.

Orchestral libraries often offer a mix of reverb options or a dry recording for adding reverb later at the mix stage

Vintage to digital

There are an incredible number of reverb options available if you need to add them to your orchestral sounds. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, all DAWs are equipped with reverbs that can occupy the acoustic hole. Logic Pro’s very own Chromaverb is a highly-respected plugin, which forms part of the Logic suite. It’s the perfect plugin to use if you’re starting out. 

Meanwhile, Altiverb by Audio Ease is a long-established ‘convolution’ reverb plugin. Convolution reverbs allow the user to capture the acoustic layout of a space, replicating the reverberating space for use in your own mix. Audio Ease has already constructed many rooms for inclusion, so you’ll find a plentiful supply of halls and spaces included from the get-go.

Convolution reverbs like Altiverb allow you to capture a reverb from a specific room

System Addict

One reverb that has become an industry stalwart and professional choice is the TC Electronics System 6000. This unit has undergone many updates over the years, but the essence of the reverb has remained intact. It is considered to be the reverb sound of Hollywood and delivers everything from stereo signals to a full-on surround master.

While all of these reverb examples are within the digital domain, for many years analog plate reverberators were the sonic weapon of choice for the discerning composer. The EMT 140 was an enormous unit, comprising a huge plate with an accompanying auxiliary control unit. It offered an undeniably vintage take on reverb coloration and is now available in plugin form from several companies. The Universal Audio EMT simulation is excellent for providing a counterbalance to the crispness of digital samples. Its distinctly vintage sound adds grit, and can charm samples to life if you find yourself having issues with realism.

You can add vintage grit with some great plugin emulations

How to use reverb in cinematic and soundtrack production

While working with reverbs, it’s important to consider how you wish to use any reverberated signals. This will likely be informed by the delivery requirements of your work, so let’s consider the most common methods.

If you find yourself working in a more traditional scenario, a natural progression to the concert hall environment will be to simply plug your chosen reverb in at the master bus stage. Providing your reverb plugin offers a wet/dry mix facility, and to the best of our knowledge they all do, you’ll be able to balance the reverberation (often described as the wet signal) with the dry, unadulterated orchestra. It’s a quick and simple way of applying some instant gratification to your soundtrack, although it is restricting. 

Use your reverb on the master bus for instant reverb gratification

Aux alternative

Some production deliveries might require the use of stems, better described as a set of constituent mix parts. When compiled together, they will present a full mix. Stems can be broken down into any number of instruments or sections, but it can sometimes be a requirement to deliver reverb in separated stem form. If this is the case, you’ll be best advised to employ an auxiliary send or bus.

This simple solution will allow the immediate soloing of the reverb channel, which is best deployed in a ‘wet’ only state. It also means that during the mixing process, different levels may be sent reverb-bound, which can also be exceptionally useful. A string section might benefit from a greater degree of reverberation, while a brass section could require less. Utilizing aux/bus signals will help maintain a happy balance between reverberated sections, for ultimate flexibility.

Using reverb with an aux bus gives you a lot more flexibility

Of course, it’s also possible to add reverb at the instrument level, but consider this: the orchestra is a living, breathing, organic unit. It might be a mass of 80 players, but the instrumentalists communicate in sections. All of these sections form a sum-of-parts that play in a single room, so adding too much variation of reverb color may cause a degree of sonic confusion. It makes sense to treat orchestral sections as single instruments, sharing reverbs for cohesion.

In more high-end productions, surround sound may also be a consideration. There is good psychological evidence that placing instruments in a surround setup is not always a good idea. However, a surround-equipped reverb will help create a full ambiance, which can envelop an audience in a cinema. This is where units or plugins such as the TC Electronics 6000 series can be of real help. It’s worth remembering that many DAW-included reverbs will offer a respectable surround sound starting point if you’re on a budget.

Synthetic textures

Of course, orchestral scoring only accounts for one element of reverb deployment. Hybrid scoring, or even fully electronic scoring, offers a bright and exciting new canvas away from the western symphonic form.

No reverb plugin personifies this ideal more than Eventide’s Blackhole. Available in both hardware and software forms, Blackhole has acquired legendary status for any setting where space is required. It’s highly impressive as an effect that can endlessly reverberate.

A common and recent use of this effect requires a simple tonal starting point, such as a percussively subtle synth or felted piano. Playing a short note will offer enough substance for the Blackhole to work its magic. With reverb times that can be pushed to excess, the use of the pre-delay setting can helpfully combine a sense of single-fire echo with the grandeur of a lavish reverb. Blackhole is also equipped with modulation possibilities – an easy route to blurring the signal, as though a subtle amount of chorussing has been added. 

Blackhole is a legendary reverb for all types of space settings

Voyages into reverberation

Traditionally, we have always thought of reverbs as an easy way of applying mix ‘fairy dust’. However, they have so much more to offer and can supply fertile territory for experimentation.

Try experimenting with long reverb times, by adding bit-crush distortion and delays to the backend of the signal. You might even want to add reverb to the reverberated sound that you design. Thanks to the creative environment of a DAW, reverbs can offer plenty more than simple backend reverberation. The question is, how will you use yours today?