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Barry’s Guide to Recording Guitars: Should You Print Reverb or Delay?

Q: “Should You Print Reverb or Delay?”

A: There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to the question of whether or not to record with effects or dry. Most engineers and mixers favor dry, since it is easier to add effects than it is to take them away. The primary argument being that if a guitar is recorded with reverb and or delay, it can cause problems later on as the mix builds, particularly if there’s too much of either. This can create the illusion that the guitar is placed too far back in the mix and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bring it forward without covering up other things in the mix. The reason for this is because delayed reflections of sound is one way our ear/brain determines the distance that sound is from us. When we add reverb to something our brain instinctively hears it as being further back in the mix. On a rhythm guitar, specifically a distorted power chord as found in metal and hard rock, reverb can make the guitar sound as though it goes on forever and causes it to loose definition, or in technical jargon; makes it sound mushy. The other big reason is that it becomes very expensive in a commercial studio to bring back a guitarist to redo his tracks should the amount of reverb and delay on the guitar pose a problem. If it’s your own studio and you have lots of time, then it’s not that big a deal, but it does mean going back to square a at a point in the process when you near to a finished song. (That can be annoying.)

The other school of thought regarding printing reverb and delay to tape (or hard drive) is to consider them as part of the overall sound of the instrument and deal with it that way. This approach became popular in the 80’s when studios had more foam on the wall than a padded cell and washing everything in reverb became the sound of the day. (Once people realized that the wash of reverb and delay was to bring back the sound of a reverberant space, that trend went the way of all fads.) All in all, since reverb and delay processors are mathematical simulations of sound reflection, and not true room sounds, we can see how one person might consider them an effect to be printed like distortion or chorus. The problem is, reverb and delay, whether real or illusory, can cause problems in a mix. Of course, in recording, nothing is set in stone, and while most people tend to lean towards recording without reverb and delay, sometimes you must:

If you have a small 4-track or 8-track setup, most of the time you’ll be forced to print whatever reverb, delay or chorus the guitar player is using. Select the amount of effect that seems to sound good at the time you record the part. If you have a question about the amount of reverb or delay to print, use the least amount that you think you need. If you print too much delay or reverb it’s impossible to take it off.

One way to go is to have the guitarist get a good sound using whatever compression and distortion is needed for the part and save the reverbs, delays and choruses for mix down. (As we mentioned in the previous section, chorus can cause pitch problems if there’s too much.) Print the raw sound and finish shaping it in the mix. This approach lets you get just the right delay length, delay amount, reverb sound and chorus after you can hear the part in the context of the rest of the arrangement. Context is extremely important when it comes to mixing. Prior to recording we have a tendency to fatten up an instrument with EQ and effects so that it sounds great on its own. Often times, that sound doesn’t work in a mix. (We’ll cover this in detail when we talk about EQ.) In my experience, I’ve heard sampled string sounds that sounded thin and gritty on their own but fit perfectly in a mix and sounded great in context. What we’re saying here is to be flexible. If a guitarist has come up with a great sound that might take you a while to duplicate, and if they want to print the sound to tape, give it a try. Be conservative in the amount of reverb and delay that is included.

If track count is not an issue, the best possible solution is to record the effects on separate tracks, so that the guitar’s clean sound is sent to one track and the effects like reverb and delay can be sent to another. This enables the guitarist to hear his sound the way he created it, resulting in a better performance. This technique requires some extra patching or multing, and perhaps a couple of “Y cables.” (You know your rig, so I’ll leave it to you to sort it out.) If you are familiar with modeling plug-ins as we mentioned earlier, then recording dry and adding effects later is something you are familiar with and is necessary. As we said in the last installment, in the absence of stereo outputs on you effects processor, a direct box can solve the problem. Once you have a clean track and separate effects tracks, then you can add the effects tracks in later to suit the mix while giving you the guitarist’s original sound.

Much of the final musical impact depends on how the signal is patched through the effects: Try running the chorus through the distortion or the distortion through the chorus. Both sound different. These routing changes can really result in some unique sounds. Go ahead and print the chorus, flanger or phase shifter sound, saving the delay and reverb for mix down. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating innovative and exciting new sounds, so be open to trying unusual combinations. Think Hendrix.

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