Reverb vs Delay: Do You Know the Difference?

The beats play their critical role but the entirety of a song is almost always based on the vocals.

As important as they are, they are almost the most difficult elements to mix.

Even top audio engineering professionals find it hard to get the vocal space right.

It takes a lot to get the perfect vocals that won’t be too “dry” or have the effect of floating in the background. You have to strike a delicate balance.

To strike that delicate balance in the mix, you have to get two effects that define the vocal space right: delay and reverb.

It is these that will determine whether the vocals will be just where you need them to sit in the mix.

The reverb and delay are two of the most commonly used effects in music production.

As a music producer or audio engineer, you have to figure out the exact place where each of these should be and what each does.

You must also know when to use each of these effects as the two can get a little confusing.

In this article, we take a look at each of these effects, what they do, the differences between them, the shared similarities as well as when you should use them.  

Reverb vs Delay: When To Use Them?

To have a clear idea of what Reverb and Delay effects do and when you should use them, let’s first see what they actually are.


Differences Between Reverb and Delay

The Delay is the more precise of the effects.

It merely refers to repetition after the other notes of a musical instrument.

It refers to an original audio signal getting repeated again and gain over a short duration of time.

The number of times over which this signal is repeated is known as feedback.

As a result, the more feedback that you have in a signal, the more numerous times that the signal will be repeated, and that implies that the effect will continue for a longer duration of time.

Can the Echo be a Delay?

A common analogy for a delay is that it is like an echo in the Grand Canyon.

If you shout something in a mountain range, canyon or gorge and the same words shouted repeat again and again farther away, this creates a mechanism similar to that of the delay.

An echo in a canyon is just a sub-set of a delay.

The signal in the echo is repeated over and over again only with an attenuating (lowering) amplitude with every subsequent repetition.  

When you are implementing a delay on the DAW, then you will configure the effects differently.

For example, you can choose to have the delays gradually attenuate (die down) as it happens in the movies or a canyon.

Or you may simply choose to have the delay continue with the same amplitude.

The permutations for using a delay on the DAW are limitless.

A Short Delay

Short delays can be divided into Doubling Delays and Slapback Delays.

Doubling Delay

The doubling delay is created by adding a 20-40ms delay to the vocals.

If this delay lasts longer than 50ms, then it will be regarded as a slapback delay.

When the doubling delay is added (mixed) to its original source, it generates an effect that is similar to a doubletracking.

This is commonly accomplished using vocals.  

Slapback delay

For a delay to be regarded as a slapback delay, it must last longer than 50ms.

This is the rule of thumb for determining a slapback delay.

The slapback delay lasts between 75ms and 250ms and entails little feedback.

Recall that feedback is the number of times that the signal is repeated.

The slapback delay was most commonly used in the rock and roll records of the 1950s.

It was particularly used in the vocals since without the echo or the delay, these recordings would not have the requisite realism.

Adding the delays enabled these recordings to have a sound that was more “realistic”.

Long Delay

As the name suggests, this is indeed a very long delay.

It also features high feedback.

This delay is most commonly applied in rhythmic playing.

The extensive delay followed by the large feedback creates something very interesting.


Reverb vs echo - what's the difference and when to use them

Reverb is something many of us will be familiar with since we interact with it on a daily basis.

Reverb happens whenever the soundwaves bounce off the surrounding surfaces and then come back to our ears at different times.

The interval is very small but the reverb effect creates the perception of space when we hear it.

When someone is singing in a huge hall that has good reverb, then the length of time it will take between the singing of the note and the complete fading away of the sung note is referred to as the reverberation time or reverb’s “tail”.

Reverb is something that most of us are used to but how can you handle this when you are recording music?

Music recording techniques generally emphasize getting rid of as much of the external acoustics as possible in order to more efficiently capture the sound source.

How Can This Be Done With a Reverb?

During the recording of music, we try as much as possible not to capture the acoustics of the room that we are recording in.

We want to capture the “pure” sound without something external interfering with that purity.

When we capture less of the room’s acoustics during the recording, it will be easier for us to edit the sounds after the recording.

After the editing out of the room’s acoustics, the Reverb is added to give the sound the perception of space and depth that will make it sound more realistic.

Some producers regard the Reverb as different timed delays that feature different feedbacks which will kind of “blur” together to generate that perception of depth and space.

Types of Reverb

There are five types of reverb. These include the following:

  • Room Reverb
  • Hall
  • Chamber
  • Plate
  • Spring

As the name suggests, Room Reverb simply sounds like if you were to play the sound in a small room.

It also has a very short decay time.

The Hall Reverb tries to create the effect in the Concert Hall sound.

The Hall is supposed to sound tonally even and “grand”.

The Chamber Reverb comes out like the large rooms that have been designed for the orchestras but which are not as large as the Hall one.

The Plate and Spring Reverbs are man-made reverbs.

These reverbs are created from a vibrating metal plate or spring.  

Reverb Can be Created Artificially

Musicians have always wanted to bring out the effect of being in a large hall in spite of the size of the room in which they are performing.

However, recreating the reverb proved tricky at first.

Some of the earlier techniques deployed to create reverb in recordings included recording sounds via loudspeakers that are situated in a large hall before recording the output of this via a microphone.

Plate reverb, spring reverb, and digital reverb were the solution to these archaic methods allowing for the seamless creation of reverb.

A far as reverb techniques go, the digital reverb has been the ultimate invention.

Instead of taking a large loudspeaker and microphone into a large hall, digital reverb simply uses computer algorithms that take the sounds and then repeat them several times rapidly while gradually making the sound decay.

Digital reverb techniques are so advanced and refined that you can literally simulate reverb in any type of room imaginable.

Similarities Between Reverb and Decay

The differences between Reverb and Decay are already well-articulated but they also share some similarities.

For example, both of them are time-based effects that process signals and alter them in various ways.

Reverb and Delay are closely related but not necessarily the same thing.

Both of them are delay-based effects but Reverb has multiple delays and feedback that causes a “blurring” of echoes and creates the sound or perception of an acoustic space.

The Reverb sounds like different but simultaneous delays that recreate any type of acoustic space effects.

Differences Between Reverb and Delay

echo vs delay - when to use them in your track or mix

While both the reverb and delay are time-based sound effects, a delay simply refers to the repetition of a signal over a short duration of time with the number of repetitions being determined by the feedback.

Reverb occurs from the natural bouncing off of the soundwaves on every surface in the room whether it is hard, soft, tall, or short and we are able to hear and perceive it as the acoustics of the room.

It is like sitting in a massive empty room and then clasping your hands.

You will first hear the direct sound of the clap as this is the sound that is closest to you.

In a short period of time, the sound of the clap will bounce off the walls of the room and get back to your ears.

This is the Delay.

However, the sound waves will be reverberating all over the place and dying down gradually.

This is the Reverb.

When to Use the Delay and the Reverb

When to Use the Delay and the Reverb

As a music producer, you will frequently have to decide when to use the Reverb and the Delay.

This can be a complex decision.

Where to use either of these will depend on a number of factors such as the musical genre as well as the individual song being produced.

It also depends on your own sound preferences.

How do you want it sound?

There is a lot of subtlety involved when adding either the Reverb or the Delay.

You will want both of these sound effects to bring out the feeling of depth and space so that it will be noticeable when these effects are present in the music or when they are absent.

However, you shouldn’t add them to the extent that they become overpowering.

It should be a subtle touch.

If they are coming out too much to an extent that they appear to distract the listener from immersing themselves in the music, then you need to dial down on the effects.

Subtlety is key and it is always a touch balancing act to pull off.

It is something that you will learn with time.  

Begin with Reverb

Reverb vs Delay for vocals - When To Use Them

If ever you find yourself in a dilemma over which of these to start with, always begin with the reverb but remember to observe the subtlety.

Subtlety is paramount when it comes to adding these sound effects.

Don’t ruin the effect by going overboard but you must also avoid using different types of Reverb.

For example, you won’t require different reverbs for the guitars, vocals, and so forth.

Reverb is used to make the sound appear like it was played/recorded in a room so you should use it in such a way that you bring out the ambiance in the sound that the listener can perceive, without interfering with the music sound itself.

It should sound natural as if the music was actually recorded in an empty room.

If you use multiple reverb types, that organic factor is lost and the music will not sound natural.

You should use a reverb type that is very similar to the room in which the music was actually recorded.

It is this that will bring out the organic factor in the music sound.

If the whole music was recorded in a small studio, then it is best to use a room reverb as opposed to a hall or chamber reverb for a huge hall.

Mismatching the reverb to the actual location where the music was recorded is what brings the unnatural sound in the final music product (to which the reverb has been added).

However, keep in mind that the above is only a general guideline and it is not cast in iron.

As a music producer, you can always play around with the different reverb types to create something that sounds delightful and you might never know where you might hit some resonance that creates sweet-sounding music.

The final arbiter will be your ears and sometimes, the sweetness comes out of breaking the rules and conventions.  

Reverb Can Ruin the Music When You Use Delay

An important factor to keep in mind about reverbs is that they have tails.

These can come with mixed results.

There are instances where the tails will add a positive quality to the mix but in most instances, the tails will do the music no good.

To test it out, try running your guitar, vocals, cymbals, synths, or any other instrument through the same reverb and taking care not to do it on the low end of the spectrum, and see the results.

It is also likely to get muddier if you add a reverb to kick drums or bass.

A low-end spectrum mixed with reverb always creates muddiness.

When Should You Use Delay?

You can use Delay to do many of the same things that Reverb does such as inserting a sense of openness and space in the musical recording.

In case the Reverb isn’t producing the desired sound or if it is muddying up your track and you need a more organic sound then you should try out a delay.

A delay will also come in handy in your track if the reverb is creating a more washed up sound.

One of the main disadvantages of Reverbs is that they have tails that can ruin your track.

This doesn’t happen with Delays which doesn’t add tails to the sound.

If you are looking to add some spatial effect to your sound, a short slapback delay may do you wonders.

A stereo delay can provide your music tracks with the same sense of space that one would get with a Reverb but without worrying about any muddiness.

Final Thoughts

A proficient audio engineer must learn how to properly use each of these effects.

It is something that you will gradually master with constant practice as well as repetition.

Hopefully, this article has been offered you some perspectives on what each of these effects entails and how you can optimally deploy them in your tracks to bring out the spatial aspect in your music.  

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