Reverb in a monitor mix?


If you want to get an argument started about monitors and monitor mixing, a good topic to go with is reverb. In the years we’ve traveled around the world talking to people about their monitor mixes, we’ve heard everything from “Reverb should NEVER be in a monitor mix AT ALL” to “I can’t sing well without reverb.” So what’s the deal?

As with most things involved in an audio system, there are a lot of factors to consider here and there’s not just one answer. For instance: What instrument are we talking about? What type of music? What type of venue? And maybe most importantly, what is the musician using to listen to the monitor mix?

Reverb Basics

Let’s start with the basics of what reverb does. As an effect in an audio system, reverb, which is usually now applied through digital signal processing, mimics the natural effect we hear when a given sound bounces off the various surfaces in a space as the sound decays. Reverb is why a giant stone cathedral sounds so much different than a phone booth: that stone cathedral has a lot of hard surfaces for sound waves to bounce off as they fade. Reverb effects units give you control over a number of different parameters that control exactly how that sound is “reflected” over time–what frequencies, the decay time, the delay time, damping, and so on. A good reverb unit will allow you to make your signal sound like it’s in a stadium, theater, small club, or nearly anywhere else.

What sounds natural to us is a combination of the direct sound and reverberations of that sound.

What sounds natural to us is a combination of the direct sound and reverberations of that sound reflecting off of walls and other surfaces.

Why We Like Reverb

We employ reverb for the simple reason that sound with some amount of reverberation sounds more natural to us and more energetic. But that comes at a cost. Well, a couple actually.

The first is that the timing reference is less distinct with reverb than for a signal that is very dry (no noticeable reverb). Since one of the main purposes of a musician’s monitor is to provide a timing reference, you can see why some think reverb in monitors is a very dangerous thing! With too much reverb, musicians can start to drag or get sloppy in their timing, especially with percussive music.

Reverb can also decrease intelligibility. Think how much harder it can be to understand someone in a cathedral versus a phone booth. Now imagine putting a funk band in that cathedral! Reverb can also increase sibilance (the “s” sounds). Neither of those is necessarily such a big deal in a monitor mix, unless you look at it this way: One of the purposes of a monitor is to let a musician hear what they sound like because that’s what they can control. If their signal is highly processed, they’re not hearing the sound they’re actually making. It’s sort of like styling your hair in a funhouse mirror: the mirror isn’t giving you an accurate picture of reality.

The other criticism some musicians make about reverb is that they feel it can make it harder to sing in tune. On the flip side, some people suggest that some amount of reverb helps singers maintain pitch by extending the pitch reference of one note into the next.

All of that sounds like a pretty good argument for pretty dry signals in your monitors, right?

In The Monitors

Most of us here would generally agree, with two important caveats. The first one has nothing inherently to do with reverb but is about monitors in general: a monitor mix is a tool for the musician and it has to serve the musician’s needs. If a given musician says he or she sings or plays better with some reverb, then that’s a good place to start. If the reverb is kept to a fairly short decay time and at a reasonable gain, you’re pretty likely to avoid the common pitfalls that reverb can produce.

Earbuds-with-sax_0561-3But the second issue is the most important: if the musician is using in-ear monitors, some amount of reverb may be very important. Many musicians–especially vocalists and wind instrumentalists–complain that in-ear monitors sound compressed or unnatural compared to playing or singing acoustically or monitoring through a floor wedge. One of the biggest reasons for that is the loss of natural reverbation; in-ear monitors block out effectively all natural sound reflections a musician would hear in an acoustic space and in-ears change the natural resonance in the musician’s skull as well, so singing with in-ears can be like singing in a tiny phone booth. Not very satisfying or energizing. Adding some reverb to that vocalist’s mic or that instrumentalist’s mic will help things sound substantially more natural in their in-ears.

The bottom line is that it’s good to exercise caution when adding reverb to a monitor mix but there are some really good uses for it. Often adding reverb to only a few select channels will make a big difference for how natural the mix sounds to the musician, without introducing all the slop of a really “wet” mix. Unfortunately, it’s usually not the same channels for everyone in the band, but that’s where an A360 Personal Mixer fits in!

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  1. Thank you for your article: excellent information. As a singer, you are right about asking for reverb in the monitor and starting an argument from “that’s a crutch” to “it will feed back.” I have to then explain when you sing in any room you have natural reverb; it is never completely dry. When you hear nothing out front from the mains, which is usually the case with a loud on stage band, you need reverb in the monitor so you don’t blow out your voice. You push harder when the sound is completely dry; it’s like singing in a sieve. You keep singing louder and harder as nothing comes back to you. You don’t mean to do this but it happens. It happens because it is NOT natural. They made theaters for actors and singers in such a way that there was plenty of natural reverb to prevent the loss of their voices and to carry the voice to the audience. Most clubs are super dead sounding, the gig is outside and so on making a little reverb in the monitor a must. For all singers, we thank you for understanding that it’s not a crutch or to sound pretty.

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