When it comes to time-based effects, mixing studio recordings is a pretty straightforward thing, but things aren’t that simple when it comes to mixing live sounds, especially if we’re talking about live vocals, since it’s a central piece of every live composition and you have to maintain a perfect balance between full transparency and spatial treatment. So, in this article, we will explain to you how to adjust reverb and delay settings for live vocals perfectly.
Before you use time-based effects
It’s better to think of reverbs and delays as spicy seasoning that should be sprinkled with great caution since too much of it can easily ruin your mix and too little may leave it tasteless. Pushing the cooking analogy even further, you have to remember that any amount of seasoning couldn’t save a dish if the ingredients are wrong in the first place. Although some mixing engineers prefer to do it in the beginning, usually, applying time-based effects is the last thing to do when it comes to live mixing. The reason why it’s done this way is that any spatial treatment, especially if it’s excessive, can mask some issues that could be easily fixed if time-based effects weren’t applied. So before you even think to apply reverb and delay to your live vocals, you have to make sure that everything sounds just about right.
What mic to choose
Choosing the right mic for your vocalist wouldn’t necessarily be your first step, but nonetheless, it’s an important one. And in all actuality, this is quite a tricky thing to do since there’re no strict guidelines on how to choose microphones. Some audio engineers prefer to use budget-friendly and robust workhorses on everything. Others prefer a slightly different approach and there’s even an option of using something very boutique and vintage. However it may be all of those options aren’t mutually exclusive and it’s really up to you to decide what suits your workflow best.
One thing to remember is that microphone should complement the timber of a particular vocalist, so you have an option of choosing something rather universal if you tend to work with different vocalists quite often. Or you can choose a small park of different microphones if the number of vocalists you’re working with is rather limited.
What mixer to choose
The next thing you can think about is choosing a decent mixer since it could be a sort of operational center of your live rig. Of course, any mixer will do the job just fine if it’s in working condition, but nonetheless, there are a few things to keep in mind. If using reverb or a delay is very important to you, it wouldn’t be especially easy with a simple analog mixer and you have to purchase a separate hardware unit with those effects onboard. If analog mixers are usually very budget-friendly, effects units are not, so you may consider investing in some digital or a hybrid mixer. Those mixers usually have the same layout and functionality as analog ones, but additionally, they have a lot of built-in effects.
After you figured out what microphone to use and got acquainted with your new mixer, the next thing that could be of great help is gain staging. Once the band is ready for the soundcheck, you should start with adjusting individual levels until you get a perfectly balanced sound where nothing is too quiet or pops up too much. The important thing to remember is that an empty hall and a crowded one will have a drastic difference in the sound distribution, so you might also need to adjust your balancing during the live show. It may seem like a rather gruesome endeavor and you may be very much distracted by some frequency masking, but it will definitely pay off in the end since any further adjustments would be much easier when everything is in its right place.
Live vocals adjustments
When you are happy with the balance of your live mix, it’s time to consider some further adjustments that you may apply to your vocals. If it sounds particularly boomy, you may consider adding a low-cut filter or dialing back some mids to get it out of the way of bass and guitars. Some high-shelf boost might also not be a bad idea since it can help the vocal to shine a bit more and can give it additional clarity. However it may be before making any spatial adjustments, you have to make sure that your vocal has a proper frequency response, especially when it comes to middle frequencies since those will be boosted when you apply a reverb. You may also consider taming dynamic range just a bit with a built-in compressor if you feel like it’s needed.
How to adjust delay and reverb for vocals
If you still remember our clever cooking analogy, you would know that any time-based effects should be applied with great caution and in moderation for any live mixing scenario. Unfortunately, very rarely devices intended for live gigs allow you to surgically adjust built-in effects. In most cases, you can choose a preset and adjust how it blends with the original sound, it may be very convenient for someone who prefers a faster workflow, but if you prefer to make as precise adjustments as possible, you may think of purchasing some advanced and modern digital mixer. Some of those even allow you to use your favorite DSP plugins that you would normally use in your DAW while mixing studio recordings. And it’s needless to say that those plugins could be tweaked rather extensively, to say the least.
Do you even need reverb and delay?
After everything else is settled, a very reasonable question arises, do you even need to use reverb and delay in a live mixing situation? The short answer would be, no, it’s completely unnecessary and at times could even hurt your mix. But it also could be very helpful, so you should apply a lot of critical thinking before you actually apply some spatial treatment. Any environment intended for live gigs has its own acoustics, which means it already reverberates naturally, if the environment is rather large and produces a lot of reflection, some additional reverb on vocals could make it be literally lost in space. So if this situation occurs, you’d be better off restraining yourself from using any additional reverb, but if you feel like your vocal still needs spatial treatment, you may use a gentle delay instead.
How to add reverb to live vocals
If you feel like the venue can handle some additional reverb and the live-mixing device offers you an option of precise adjustments, you need to make sure first that you’re using the right type of reverb. Plate and room reverbs are better suited for live mixing since they don’t usually have long decay times, but cathedral and hall reverbs might be over-excessive except if the venue is extremely small and you need a grandiose effect. After you’ve settled on the reverb that is most suitable for your particular situation, you may set the pre-delay time somewhere between 10 and 30 milliseconds to make sure that it adds dimension to the vocal without affecting its transparency. You can do it, of course, only if pre-delay is adjustable on your device.
How to add delay to live vocals
Delay and reverb are not mutually exclusive, so you don’t have to choose one over the other, except maybe in this situation described a few paragraphs above. But putting a delay over the reverb may drastically hurt its clarity, so you should definitely use it carefully. Usually, a quarter or eighth note delay should do the trick, but you also need to turn down the number of repeats so the vocals wouldn’t step down on other instruments in the mix. One to two repeats might be a sweet spot, but it very much depends on the actual musical content of the performance, so feel free to experiment further. It also might be a good idea to put a delay on the auxiliary track, this way, you have the ability of blending it with the vocal almost surgically and also, you can send other instruments to the delay AUX.
Before adjusting your reverb and delay settings for live vocals, you have to actually decide if using time-based effects would be appropriate. To make this decision easier, make sure that your mix is properly balanced and you’re using equipment suitable for the job. Apply some EQ and compression to your vocal to make it sound more transparent and polished. After you’re happy with the results, you may add some plate or room reverb with reasonable pre-delay time and some quarter or eighth note delay, which you’d have to blend moderately. And always remember to rely on your personal taste and critical thinking.