A lot of mixes stand or fall on their use of reverb – the process is used to give the impression of sounds being in a real acoustic space, providing your mix with front-to-back depth, and is often referred to as the ‘glue’ binding all the different parts of a mix into a coherent whole. Using just enough reverb to do these jobs, without overdoing it and turning your track to sonic mush, is one of the major components of the mysterious pro sound.
But, as a great writer once said, not all reverb plugins are created equal. Different types of reverbs are good for different applications, so it’s unlikely that you’ll want to use the same plugin for everything. You might want to use a plate reverb for drums, and a high-grade convolution reverb for strings or background ambience. Often, you don’t want the most ‘natural’ sounding reverb – you want to add a particular colouration to the sound, and that’s why there are so many variations on this vital effect.
Adding to this idea, most of us have grown up listening to music processed with rather artificial-sounding spring, plate and digital reverbs, and those sounds are ingrained in our subconscious as musically appropriate – it’s what we’re used to hearing. So don’t sweat about ‘realism’ too much.
Confused yet? Read on and before I get to the Best 10, I’ll try to unpick things a little.
Reverb: A Pocket History
Ever wondered what all the preset names on reverb plugins actually refer to?
Room / Hall / Chamber: The first reverb effects used for recorded music were created with echo chambers – a loudspeaker would play the sound back in the chamber, and a microphone would pick it up again, including the echo of the room itself. The same principle still applies for simulated ‘room’ and ‘hall’ reverbs -you’re capturing the ambience of a particularly sized and shaped space.
Plate: Next came plate reverb, used a lot in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Plate reverbs use a transducer to create vibrations across a large ‘plate’ of sheet metal. A pickup captures the vibrations as they bounce across the plate, and the result is output again as an audio signal. Plate reverb tends to be bright and clean-sounding, and it holds a special place in many producers hearts.
Spring: Uses a similar principle to that of plate reverb, but with a metal spring instead of a plate. A transducer at one end and a pickup at the other are used to create and then capture vibrations within the spring. Being compact and relatively cheap to manufacture, many guitar amp designs ended up incorporating a spring reverb unit. Spring reverb adds a distinctive metallic colouration to the sound, and in the days of classic rock ‘n’ roll it was known that you could shake the reverb cabinet while recording so that the springs clashed together for a properly unhinged sound. I wouldn’t recommend attempting this with a plugin version though :)
Algorithm vs. Convolution
Almost all reverb plugins (as well as hardware digital reverb units) use one of these two digital processing methods.
Algorithmic reverbs use calculations based on hypothetical rooms and other spaces to generate their reverb sounds. Generally this gives a sharper, more artificial sound, typified by most hardware digital reverbs of the last 30 years. This is not necessarily a bad thing though – as mentioned above, musically we’re not always after the most ‘natural’ sound, but the one that has the right ‘character’ for the track. Algorithmic reverbs are also far lighter on the computer’s CPU than…
Convolution reverbs use pre-recorded samples of real rooms and spaces to build Impulse Response (IR) files of those spaces. The impulse response is then ‘convolved’ with the incoming audio signal you want to process, hence the name.
Convolution reverbs then, are generally far better at simulating real spaces than algorithmic reverbs – the only major downside is that they also require significantly more CPU processing power to work, so you are more limited in terms of the number of instances of the plugin you can run simultaneously.
The 10 Best Reverb Plugins – The List
So now we know that choosing the right plugins for each job is crucial, and we’ve covered the basic differences between the types. Now I’ve compiled a rundown of what I consider to be the very best reverb plugins, whatever your price range.
I should add that in the end, ‘best’ is highly subjective when it comes to reverb – there is a lot of choice out there, and picking a personal favourite is literally a lot like choosing a favourite colour. You’ll notice I’ve included some ‘Honourable Mentions’ alongside the best 10 below, mainly because I couldn’t bear not to include some excellent reverbs like Waves Trueverb and Magnus’ Ambience that might not otherwise have been accounted for.
Anyway, here’s my two-pennies worth…
1) Best Free Convolution Reverb:
SIR1 is a freeware convolution reverb, using impulse response (IR) files to achieve a great variety of excellent sounds.
(By the way, you can get free IR files from places all over the internet, such as Voxengo and NoiseVault. With these you can quickly build up a library of your favourite ‘spaces’ to apply to your mixes.)
So, get the right IR file, and SIR1 can do a pretty decent job of sounding like just about any reverb you want.
Like all convolution reverbs, SIR1 is still a fairly heavy load on the CPU – but at least it’s light on the wallet eh?
More info & download here.
2) Most Flexible Reverb:
112dB Redline Reverb
Developed by Martijn Zwartjes, who used to work at Native Instruments, the Redline Reverb’s first incarnations were the Rev-6 and Space Master ensembles for NI’s Reaktor. Both of those are still favourites among many producers, and the Redline just builds on their sound, performance and musicality even further. A future classic.
I gather this plugin scored 10/10 in a Computer Music review recently, and also won their Best Plugin of the Year (of any type), so it’s obviously worth checking out.
More info here.
Wave Arts MasterVerb 5
It would compete pretty well against most convolution reverbs, but being of the algorithmic variety MasterVerb uses about half the processing power of most convolution plugins.
More info here.
3) Best Convolution Reverb:
Audio Ease Altiverb 7
The established daddy of all reverb plugins, and something of an industry standard. No, it’s not cheap, yes you need a powerful computer to run it… but the sound and flexibility it affords is generally well worth it. The XL version also includes surround reverb and a TDM version for Pro Tools.
More info here.
The IR1′s presets are based on many famous venues and spaces from around the world. So if you want to hear what your music would sound like in the Sydney Opera House or at legendary NY punk rock club CBGBs, this is the reverb for you.
As far as I know, the IR1 is also unique for it’s parametric controls, whereby you can plot your settings on the interface display in the same way as you would on a parametric EQ.
More info here.
4) Best Surround Reverb:
M-Audio Wizooverb W5
Surround mixing can get very complicated very quickly, but I think this reverb handles it with ease due to its sleek and clear interface. Obviously the sound quality is top of the line as well! It features HDIR (High Definition Impulse Response), and can be run in stand-alone mode or inside your host application.
Incidentally, the W5’s slimmer stereo-version sibling Wizooverb W2 is also a strong contender for best reverb overall.
At the time of this update (August 2012) the official page isn’t available, but I did notice M-Audio are running a promotion of 60% off Wizooverb W2 and W5. more info on that here.
5) Best Bundled / Series Reverb:
Waves Renaissance Reverb
Some of the most useful reverbs are parts of bundles or series of plugins that work really well together. The Renaissance Reverb is my personal go-to reverb, as are many of the Waves plugins, especially the Renaissance series. A well balanced reverb in terms of overall sound and versatility, with simple but effective graphic EQs for quick shaping of the reverb return signal – great for efficiently slotting the sound into a busy mix without adding clutter or low-frequency mush.
TrueVerb actually combines an Early Reflections simulator with its standard reverb algorithms, to produce very natural-sounding room sounds.
More info here.
6) Best Free Algorithmic Reverb:
Kjaerhus Audio Classic Reverb
The Classic Reverb from Kjaerhus Audio is probably the best basic free reverb plugin out there. Low CPU usage, but it still handles sampling rates up to 96kHz, meaning that if you’re aiming for super-smooth reverb tails on a budget, this is the way to go.
More info: The Kjaerhus Audio website is no longer in operation, but you can still download the plugin as part of the complete Classic Series for free from here.
Smartelectronix / Magnus Ambience
Another excellent reverb with a great reputation. Created by a guy called Magnus, apparently in his spare time between ‘studies’, the sound quality is much better than you might expect – in fact a lot of people swear by Ambience as their go-to reverb. Magnus also lets you decide how much you want to pay for the plugin, what a guy.
More info and download here.
7) Most Expensive Reverb!
Lexicon PCM Native Reverb Bundle
This reverb collection from the long-serving hardware effect/processor company really is in a league of it’s own, both in terms of price and quality. It’s the company’s first step into the purely digital plugin domain, and as they’ve set the gold standard for digital reverbs with their hardware over the last 40 years, they really had to deliver. Fortunately it seems that they did! Another nail in the coffin for cumbersome external hardware units :)
More info here.
8) Best Simple But Versatile Reverb:
Audio Damage Eos
I really like Audio Damage software, apart from anything else their plugin and instrument interfaces are refreshingly different and stylishly minimal. I also like their audacious and witty Avatar-referencing sales blurb, so I’m going to quote it here, hope you don’t mind:
“Where Eos really comes into its own is when you drop Superhall on your piano or synthesizer tracks. The long modulated hall sounds of Eno-style ambience are where Eos thrives, something that is made of unobtanium with convolution ‘verbs. Quite simply, an impulse response can not do what Eos does.”
Eos only has 3 algorithms, but it’s so well thought out that in my opinion they cover everything you’ll need, at least for modern/electronic styles.
More info here.
PSP are another great company (I will probably be mentioning their magical Vintage Warmer plugin a lot in other posts). EasyVerb looks basic, and it is, but in the best possible way – easy to use, good sound and low CPU overhead.
More info here.
9) Don’t forget…
Your Sequencer’s Reverb
One great thing about all the major modern sequencers – Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar, Digital Performer etc. – is that the average quality of the bundled plugins and instruments is actually very high these days, and certainly for the most part useable in ‘pro’ productions. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Something to bear in mind through all of this is that no-one (except maybe another producer) is ever going to come and say to you, “I really liked your track, it was really amazing… it’s just a shame about the slightly brittle quality of the reverb tails…”
The best things about using the reverb plugins supplied with your sequencer are that a) you don’t have to pay any more, and b) they are likely to run more efficiently within their host program than a third-party plugin. Shown here is Logic Pro 9′s Space Designer Convolution Reverb.
10) Best ‘Classic Emulation’ Reverb:
Universal Audio EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator
Having just written the above, I’m going to switch back to gear fetish mode so I can tell you about the EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverb. It was EMT’s founder Wilhelm Franz who actually invented plate reverb in the late ’50s with the original EMT 140, so the pedigree for this plugin is pretty impressive. UA locked their ‘DSP circuit modelling experts’ in a room for four months until they came up with this emulation, so for their sakes, give it a try.
More info here.
So there you have it, the best reverb plugins in the world today. I hope you find the article useful – if you’re spluttering over how I’ve completely overlooked your favourite amazing reverb that you use on every single production, or you have a request for further info or future articles, let me know below!
Click the link above to find out more!