Real acoustic spaces

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Studio B at Ocean Way Recording, Hollywood (photo: Universal Audio)

Ask most producers to think of reverb and chances are the first thing that comes to mind is a plugin or perhaps a hardware unit. It’s somewhat ironic that the very last option many of us consider is the most affordable of all. In fact, it’s an option that we have access to without spending a single penny: the natural reverberation of acoustic spaces.

Given how much time some producers spend trying to create the perfect sound using artificial reverb, it’s baffling why so few consider going straight back to one of the original techniques. The use of natural reverb stretches all the way back to the days when the idea of recorded music was just a twinkle in Thomas Edison’s eye. Initially, recording engineers had no choice but to capture the sound of the room the performers were in. As techniques became more refined, producers began to take greater control of the acoustic space. Phil Spector famously used the reverberations of large performance spaces to help define his trademark wall of sound. At Abbey Road Studios, engineers and producers took advantage of purpose-built echo chambers with built-in speakers and microphones, allowing them to route audio signals through acoustic spaces and capture natural echoes before they even hit the tape.

interesting natural reverb can add character and a sense of physical space to your music

Nowadays, when we record synths, drum machines or even vocals in an isolation booth, we’re completely bypassing the natural reverberation of a real acoustic space. The answer is simple: play that sound in a room and record the ambience using a mic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a high-definition, high-budget process; even a cheap speaker and mic placed in a space with an interesting natural reverb can add character and a sense of physical space to your music.

From the cavernous tails of sludgy reverberation you’d hear in a large hall through to the tight, bright echoes of a tiled bathroom, natural spaces are one of the fundamental tools in a producer’s arsenal. It’s surprisingly easy to use those spaces to your advantage.

In practical terms, you might well be thinking all this sounds a bit like hard work, but we’re not necessarily suggesting you turn your spare room into a dedicated echo chamber. Sure, you can re-amp a whole vocal track or synth line and record it back into your production to capture the echo – that’s a great way to add incredible character to your tracks – but there are other ways you can add a little natural ambience to your productions without going to that kind of effort. If you can’t handle the hassle of the real thing, we won’t judge you if you decide to fake it. Instead, think in terms of natural spaces but recreate them using artificial means. Whether it’s a room modelling plugin such as the UAD Ocean Way effect or a convolution reverb like Altiverb, it’s a useful exercise to think in terms of real spaces. Do you want to place that snare drum far away in a cavernous concert hall or close up and in your face with a small room effect?

25th June, 2014

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