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Finding the best reverb for rap vocals is more important than you might think. A rapper’s voice is everything; his or her vocals are their way of expressing themselves. So finding your “voice” is about practicing your performance, but also about finding a great combination of gear and effects to make your voice shine. I like to use visuals to explain music, because music is actually kind of hard to pin down. Effects and processing on vocals is kind of like makeup on a person’s face. It doesn’t really change what you are working with, but it can bring out your best. You can choose to go really over-the-top with makeup that draws attention to itself, or you can do makeup that doesn’t even look like it’s there. Subtle, but powerful. Vocal effects are the same way.
So what is reverb exactly, and why is it so important? When you hear a sound, you almost never hear just the sound itself (although that’s what your brain usually focuses on.) You also hear the way it bounces around its environment. If you’ve ever been somewhere with a noticeable echo, you’ve heard an obvious example. Cathedrals, churches, and classical concert halls are built in certain shapes to create powerful acoustic reverb that enhances performers’ music. It’s no accident that people like to sing in the shower. The reverb of the tiny room makes singing sound amplified and powerful. So reverb is just like makeup applied well- we often don’t notice it, but it has a big effect on the experience. Our brain tends to focus on the sound, not the reverb, but the reverb gives us the “feeling” of the environment.
When talking about music production, any time we generalize, there will always be exceptions. That said, there is a popular approach to all kinds of studio recording, including vocals. “Close-miking” means we record sound with microphones as close to the source as possible, to capture a “dry” sound. Every recording room adds some kind of reverb. So singers and rappers tend to record in vocal booths or using vocal curtains, and perform into mics that are close by. This allows the vocals to be recorded with absolutely the minimum amount of reverb. Then, reverb is added digitally (or sometimes acoustically) as part of the production process. This approach gives producers the power and flexibility to make the music fit together in a precise way.
Creating a professional-sounding setup to record vocals at home is easier than you might think. You can easily create a DIY vocal booth to record great dry vocals. But whether you are a rapper, producer, or just want to learn more, read on for some of your reverb options.
How to Use Reverb
Using reverb on rap vocals is really less about what plug-in you use, and more about how you use it. I highly recommend starting off by experimenting with your DAW’s default plug-in. If you want another great free option, download Voxengo’s OldSkoolVerb. Despite being free, this is one of my personal favorite reverbs for vocals, and for most instruments (although it is not great on drums and percussion.)
When you are first applying reverb to your vocals, I would recommend starting with this approach. Add the reverb plugin, and play with the wet/dry setting. (this setting may have different labels. In OldSkoolVerb there are separate knobs for “Reverb Gain” and “Dry Gain.”) This controls what percent of your vocal’s sound is 100% original recording, 100% reverb, or some combination of the two. While playing the vocals with the track, find a wetness setting that is barely noticable. You shouldn’t be able to immediately notice the reverb, but you should notice when it’s removed. One of the most common amateur mistakes is to be excited by the depth that reverb adds to your sound, and abuse it. But this is a giveaway amateur mistake, so resist the urge.
EQ on Reverb
Try using EQ (or the reverb’s built-in EQ settings) to control your reverb. On vocals, too much low-frequency reverb can make the vocals sound muddy or boomy, and too much high-frequency reverb can make words hard to understand (or can just be a downright annoying effect, amplifying certain consonants.) I like the oldskoolverb for this reason- it has three knobs, for your reverb’s low, mid, and high frequency EQ. You can lower the low frequency and high frequency, boost the mid frequency, without changing the EQ of the original dry signal.
Once you have found your basic reverb setting, you might find that you want to “set and forget” it, and that it will be fine all the way through on some tracks. However, as I mentioned, reverb is powerful. Who could resist the urge to express themselves with it?
Use Reverb to Create Environments
When I experiment with reverb, I like to keep in mind the way it works in reality, so I can know what kind of effect I’m creating. Making the reverb wetter makes the effect much more pronounced. Maybe you have some backup vocals supporting the lead vocals in your track, like doubles or shouts or call-and-response. Try keeping the same reverb settings as your lead vocals, but wetter for the backups. This will make it sound like the vocals are done by someone in the same space, but standing farther back from the mic. It helps create a feeling of “togetherness.” This is a common technique in all forms of music production. More reverb on the quieter tracks, so they sound like they are all together in a natural space.
Another powerful element of reverb is to play with the length of the decay. This may have other names, like “tail” or even “room size.” This is because small rooms have shorter decay times, and large rooms have longer ones. Again, this is why churches and classical concert halls are large- to create long reverb times that feel powerful. Keeping this in mind, you can be creative. If you want your vocals to sound intimate or vulnerable, give them a very short decay time and crank the reverb up. It will sound like you are alone in a tiny room. If you want to sound really powerful, give them a long decay time.
Vary Reverb in a Song
Part of the beauty of reverb is that you can use different settings for different parts of the song. You can use automation (which makes your plugin settings change at certain defined points of the song) or you can copy your vocals on to multiple tracks, and splice up your takes so that the vocals are playing on one track sometimes and another track other times. You can apply different reverb settings to the different tracks, so that the reverb changes whenever you want.
One popular effect is to add a really wet, powerful reverb setting, that only comes in on individual words. Often powerful words at the end of a line, where there is a space afterwards so you can hear the reverb ring out afterwards. In situations like these, maybe you have a subtle reverb like we first used for most of the track. But you can automate the reverb to be much wetter at these important points.
If you have verses and choruses in your song, here’s another creative idea. Try using a “small room” reverb setting on your verses, to make them sound small and tense. Then, transition to a “bigger room” setting in the chorus, to make it stand out and sound powerful. This can give your song a real sense of dynamics and contrast, even if the vocals are actually the same volume in the verse and chorus. They will feel bigger in the chorus.
Explore Reverb Plug-Ins
Once you have learned how to use reverb to express yourself, I recommend exploring other reverbs. At their core, most reverb plug-ins work in essentially the same way. But creating a realistic reverb is a very complex process, and as a result, every reverb has its own particular “tone” or “sound” to it. Use the tips above to create the musical effect you want, and then experiment with different plug-ins to get the sound you like.
Types of Reverb
Before digital reverb, there were a few ways to get the sound when recording. The most natural way was to use the reverb of real rooms. Recording studios in the 1960s would often have a dedicated reverb chamber. After recording vocals or other instruments dry, the recording would be played in an empty room with a bank of speakers on one wall and a microphone across from it. The producer then had a dry recording and a reverb recording, and they could mix them to taste, just as we do now with our wet/dry knob.
You can experiment with this kind of technique- although I have never personally done it, producers have had success by playing tracks back in small rooms like bathrooms, and recording the playback. Every room has its own signature “sound” based on the size, shape, material of the walls, presence of objects in the room… And as always, if it sounds right, it is right!
Aside from this natural reverb, analog devices called spring reverb and plate reverb created their own interesting reverb sounds. I take the time to explain all this because most reverb plug-ins either emulate natural reverb, or the kinds of vintage sounds you get from analog spring and plate reverbs. For example, OldSkoolVerb has hall, spring, and plate settings.
One of the great things about being a modern producer is that there are almost always some great free options to explore. Reverb for rap vocals is no different. Check out the Tal-Reverb-4, which is great for a very large, lush sound. The SmartElectronicx Ambience is more advanced, with loads of knobs to explore. Its gate feature is interesting. A gate means an effect is only activated when the track reaches a certain volume level, so the gated reverb would only add reverb to louder sections of your vocals. DaSample GlaceVerb has a very unique tone. It sounds quite electronic to my ears, but that could definitely be a positive thing depending on your style. It also has a really interesting interface that lets you control reverb sound by changing the virtual room size, as well as the texture, reflection, and density of the walls.
There are more free reverb VSTs as well. But as in most aspects of music production, there is a reason the paid VSTs are able to charge. They can reach levels of professional sound, or have more flexibility, than any free plugin. As I mentioned, creating reverb is a complex kind of programming, so the best algorithms are available only in paid versions.
Valhalla offers a range of inexpensive VST options, and the company on the whole is known for great options at low prices. They offer different plug-ins for a vintage, plate, or room sound. Waves is a popular plug-in company. They are known for frequent sale prices, and many of their plug-ins can be acquired at low prices if you are willing to wait for these. They have several reverb plug-ins. H-Reverb is recommended for vocals, and comes loaded with presets designed by popular producers. Learning by example is sometimes better than experimenting aimlessly, so this is a great option! On a personal note, I am a fan of Waves’s Abbey Road Plate reverb, which has a rich tone that sounds great on big, powerful vocals.
If your budget allows, there is no limit to what you can spend on reverb plug-ins. As you might expect, that money is well-spent. The most expensive plug-ins are extremely powerful, and a single one can fulfill all of a producer’s needs. The FabFilter Pro-R and the Altiverb might be pricy for some people, but they are worth the money for their unbelievable power and professional sound.
If you still hunger for more reverb options, there is no end to your exploration. Some reverb plug-ins, such as the free Convology XT, allow you to load your own “impulse response.” This is like a model of a room. You can find libraries of free or paid impulse responses, which were recorded in real spaces across the globe, and you can even record your own impulse responses.
So there you have it! With this guide, you should have a great start to using reverb effectively in your rap and hip-hop tracks. When it comes down to it, you have to put in your time and earn your experience. Keep hustling, and your music will speak for itself. Don’t be afraid to try professional mixing services to help learn and improve your own skills- they can be more affordable than you think. Keep working hard, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.