Delay vs Reverb

In this blog post i’ll be delving into something which is a good consideration when looking at mixing music both live and in a studio setting. that is the age old argument of which is better or more suited to your application, reverb or delay?

to primarily approach this argument one must first understand what each is. i will however keep the explanation brief as it is very slight the difference.

What is a delay?
A delay is simply a repeat of a signal or basically it is an echo. A delay can be one single sound or it can be many sounds depending on how the delay is set up. Some folks don’t like using the term echo in place of the term delay, but if it helps you to remember what it does then I don’t see the harm.
A delay works by you playing a signal through it and it is repeated back to you. Now how fast the signal is played back is dependent on how the delay is set.

What is a Reverb?
Reverberation or reverb for short works a little differently. In general terms reverb happens when a sound is produced in an enclosed space causing a large number of echoes to build up. The sound then slowly decays as it is absorbed by the walls as well as the air in the room. Think of being at the mouth of a large cave. If you were to yell “hello” into the cave the sound would repeat back to you and slowly die off as time progresses.

Delay and reverberation are closely related to each other because they both depend on echo to be effective, but they do differ. Let’s imagine that you are in a large room. If you were standing in the middle of that room and clapped your hands together, what would you hear? Well first you would hear the direct sound of the clap. Your ears and your brain would hear and determine that the sound is close by. Next you would hear the reflections of that sound as it reaches a wall or ceiling and then reflects back to you. This reflected sound you would hear is an echo. This echo would begin to multiply as it hits more and more surfaces within the room. These echo reflections turn into reverberation. Now with a delay you have an echo also but it is more like a repetition. The sound is repeated back to you after a predetermined amount of time.

When to use Reverb or Delay?

That is an impossible question to answer as it really depends on the material you are working with, the outcome you are looking for or the end result. But if we dive into their differences a little further it might help you decide which one you need to use on your next project.

With reverb the character of the sound is influenced by the room or maybe even more specifically the material in the room. For example a room with brick walls would sound differently than a room with wooden walls. But also keep in mind that the sound that you get out of a reverb is not only effected by the environment or the acoustics, but also the mechanical aspects of the reverb itself also plays a part. And remember how we said a reverb can contain a number of echos? Well because a reverb typically tails off we can create or fill space with them too.

A reverb is great for vocals, guitars, snare or any sound that you want to fill out. Just remember that there are no rules here. Only you and your material know the right amount of reverb, so trust your ears. Sadly in most cases beginners use too much of it. You don’t have to hear it distinctly in the mix for it to be effective in your song.

A delay is a repeated exact copy of the original signal. It has a clear and precise reproduction of the original content. Although it may change in tone it is still quite clear to hear and will sound much like the original. Setting up and use of a delay greatly depends on timing on these repeats as it relates to the original signal. So you could have these delayed signals match the tempo of the song or you can set it up to respond in milliseconds. It is totally up to you which way to go for your particular track. Delays are great for an effect or creating excitement in a track.

Delays are great on vocals and guitars, but remember there are no rules. You can use a delay on any signal that you want to.

Both reverbs and delays are also great for creating space and depth in your track. You can use them both in many different ways to help place sounds where you want them to be. By using reflections properly you can really give the appearance that any given sound is coming from where ever you want it to be coming from based on the listeners perspective.

That in short is a brief look at delay and reverb. They are not objectively better than each other however they have their appropriate uses and it is up to you as the producer or mix engineer to know which you are after.

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