How Convolution Reverb Can Level Up Your Sound Design

+ Ryan Lott (of Son Lux) teaches how to build custom virtual instruments for sound design and scoring in Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

By Brandon Miranda

Convolution reverb is an incredible solution to making reverbs sound more realistic. Where digital reverbs operate using an algorithm to simulate spaces, convolution reverbs use recordings of real spaces to then be applied to your input signal.

This could also be thought of as using a digital instrument versus a sampled instrument. This process of sampling real acoustic spaces makes convolution reverbs powerful tools for making your music sound more realistic, adding more dimension to your mixes, and creating never-before-heard sounds for your productions. 

A reverb is an audio effect that is applied to a sound signal to simulate reverberation. In other words, a reverb simulates a live space (i.e: bathrooms, church halls, auditoriums, canyons). Reverbs add a sense of dimension to our music. Digital reverbs are algorithmic, meaning they use a set of successive mathematical or verbal instructions to accomplish a task. These algorithms synthesize our desired space.

This is where digital and convolution reverbs differ; the latter’s source for generating reverbs comes from a live recording of a space.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “(Artificial) Space Is the Place: A Reverb Technology Primer.”

Convolution Reverbs consist of two components: a recorded sample called an Impulse Response (also known as an “IR”) and then the extracted reverb of that sample source’s interaction with a space. For example, a typical process is to use a trigger a short, transient impulse response (a sweep tone, starter gunshot, or a snare drum crack) in a church hall. Both the impulse response and the resulting reverberations are recorded.

Next, the processing within the convolution reverb will remove the IR (impulse response) signal leaving us with just a recording of the reverb. Now, the result is our very own reverb that is shaped by the pitches, tones and transients of the IR as it relates to the church hall. Convolution reverbs essentially record and process the reverberant behavior unique to real acoustic space.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Our 10 Favorite Free Plugins for Logic Pro.”

Now let’s get into the cool stuff.

Modern convolution reverbs allow us all the same parameters and features as digital reverbs. Parameters such as decay times, tone, stereo width, and pre-delay can all be used to modify this resulting reverb! Imagine sampling an IR in a church hall but then still having the flexibility to adjust the length of that church’s decay time! 

Because of this ability to recreate spaces remotely, convolution reverbs are often applied in post-production for film and television. In the most common scenario, sound designers will record ambiences on set and then store these sounds in case overdubs or voice-overs need be to re-recorded in a separate environment. This allows for a consistent ambient sound throughout a film despite changes in recording environments. 

How can you apply to your music?

Some of the stock convolution reverbs — like Logic Pro’s Delay Designer and Ableton Live’s Hybrid Reverb — allow you to use complicated Impulse Responses to create exceptionally unique reverb tones. You can extract ambiences from long pad sounds, drum samples and basically anything that’s recorded audio is fair game. I’ve even bounced down a recording of a reverb tail from a vocal shot and used that as my IR (essentially making a reverb out of another reverb!).

This can be a great tool to make your mixes sound more unique or to pull you out of a sound design rut.

Two Examples

Here is a snare (impulse response) that already has a bit of a reverb tail. By dragging it and dropping into the Hybrid Reverb, I am able to extract the tail from the snare and use it as the room tone for the vocal sample.

This time I am loading a pad sample into the Hybrid Verb. Notice now how the reverb tail has a long pulsating feel just as the original sample!

Lastly, for you super nerds out there (like me), another great idea for using a convolution reverb is to go to a professional studio with hardware reverbs and pass some IR’s through those… essentially making your reverb sample library out of the best analog reverbs (just don’t try to tell the studio managers you’re there to steal reverb sounds…).

Like all music production tools, there is a vast array of possibilities we have to break the rules. Anytime I pick up a new plugin, I investigate inside and out, first exploring the basics and then seeing how I can essentially break it:

  • Can I run weird sounds through this?
  • Can I apply this to a nontraditional sound source?
  • Can I stack it with other effects?

Especially with convolution reverbs, this inquisitive mindset can open up doors to creating sounds no one has ever heard before! Happy rule-breaking…

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinKiefer, and the new Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

Brandon Miranda (artist name, ALX B) is a Los Angeles-based artist, producer and mixing/mastering engineer. Trained under songwriter Lovy Longomba (a former assistant of Dave Pensado) as well as a previous assistant engineer for OWSLA, Brandon possesses unique expertise that spans across numerous genres and disciplines of music. As an engineer, he has credits with artists signed to Warner and Konvict Muzik, and along with his creative endeavors, Brandon has a deep passion for music education.

Elijah Fox at the piano

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