Apr 172012

Dear RTH, I’m writing to ask for your help. After my trip to the Experience Music Project, where I was able to see and hear lots of beautiful guitars, I’m still confused about this concept of “wet” vs “dry” sound. I’ve been trying to understand the differences, especially in light of Mr. Moderator’s musical preferences, and just when I think I have it sorted out, some track completely throws me into the spin cycle.

Could you please post your favorite “wet” and “dry” tracks so that I can better understand these sonic labels?

Much obliged, LMKR


  16 Responses to “Spin Cycle”

  1. I think it’s a matter of overall reverb, natural and/or added. The Band’s s/t album is dry: it’s the sound of musicians mic’ed in a mid-size room in a direct fashion. Listen to “Up on Cripple Creek” to hear how directly the instruments are presented. You can hear the bass drum pedal squeak. You can mentally “measure” how long a note resonates.


    Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention” is another great example of a dry recording. It’s IN YOUR FACE dry.


    As someone who appreciates in-your-face displays of expression in everyday life, I’m often a sucker for such productions and voted “Dry” in the associated poll. I read a great story about NY Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin a few years ago, which said he didn’t allow his assistant coaches to wear sunglasses when the team was going through its summer practices. Why? The former Marine wanted to be able to look his coaches in the eyes at all times. That’s kind of what I like about dry recordings. The Jayhawks’ best records are nice and dry too.

    Wet recordings use the natural reverberations of the recording space and/or added reverb to provide a unified “big picture” of the sound of the band. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recordings and a lot of the Beach Boys’ stuff made great use of big rooms. Most of the really fun psychedelia of the late-’60s abused “wet” effects, as demonstrated in the Dukes of Stratosphear’s loving tributes:


    The Chills’ “Heavenly Pop Hit” uses a lot of the kind of reverb that typically bugged me in the ’80s without crossing whatever line it is in my tastes. The rest of that album, however, got to be too much for me. I drowned in the even application of reverb across the mix.


    Both styles of production can work, and of course there are records that expertly use a contrast of dry and wet sounds. I think of many of the songs on Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ Get Happy!!, on which the drums and bass throb at the fore of the mix while Elvis’ voice and Steve Nieve’s keyboards swirl all around the place, with echo coming out of one speaker and other disorienting tricks.

  2. tonyola

    One of the “wettest” records I can think of is Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”. It’s drenched with reverb and delay to the point of distraction. All the effects end up sucking the punch and presence from the song – the whole thing ends up sounding filtered and dissipated.

  3. hrrundivbakshi

    From the same album:

    “When Doves Cry”: dry

    “Purple Rain”: soaked

  4. Wet vs Dry is simply the percentage of the effect (in this case, reverb) that you hear vs the percentage of the original, unaffected sound of the instrument. So a mix of 90% vocal with 10% reverb would help to smooth and fatten the vocal track with out the reverb being really prominent.

    Without getting into it too deep, there are many variables to reverb aside from just dry vs wet, but another important one is how long the reverb effect lingers. You can have a cavernous sounding reverb on a vocal track for instance but set it up so that as soon as the voice stops, the reverb effect trails off quickly rather than dissipates naturally.

    By the way, I don’t do this professionally so there’s a good chance someone like HVB is rolling their eyes at my explanation right now.

    I also voted for dry. Devine Intervention is a great example of a bone dry song. I also really like the stereo separation on that song. You can clearly hear any individual instrument if you focus on it.

    Early Rod Stewart albums are good examples of a dry mix. I looked on youtube for Italian Girls from Rod Stewart’s Never a Dull Moment but was surprised that it wasn’t up there, so here’s Lost Paraguayos:

    Daniel Lanois is a big proponent of the wet mix. From his second solo album, here’s Death of a Train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MxVioMh72I
    and Lotta Love To Give

    If I were guessing, I’d say you favor a wet mix, LMKR, based on your love of things from England in the 80’s. For my tastes, the 80’s were a wet (and overly gated and compressed) decade, production-wise.

    Obviously, almost all records fall in between the two extremes. And as the Mod mentioned, certain instruments can be targeted for reverb (or delay) to great effect.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Thanks for all the input so far. I’m going to drive my colleagues crazy today listening to these tracks. But I’ll just tell them I’m conducting research.

    So far I can say that I like “dry” vs. “wet” vocals. As some of you know, The Go-Betweens is one of my favorite bands and I don’t really care for when Grant’s vocals are distorted. I think that may have had more to do with his lack of confidence in his voice rather than the producer’s choice.

    I’m guessing, as CDM noted, that I’m more of a proponent of a wet guitar sound but I also don’t like an overly produced feeling so some of my favorite 80’s bands would benefit from some stripping of the reverb/effects. For example, I loved the early Lilac Time but when Andy Partridge got around to producing the albums, the sound got all “gimmicky.”

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    Helpful examples. I can hear it!

  7. cherguevara

    I don’t think you can really lean towards a “wet” or “dry” sound – the use of reverb changes with the times and with the musical style. Sometimes a very small reverb can add a sense of space without really being audible, so recordings that seem dry really aren’t.

    One thing that is effective is when there is a big reverb on one element of an otherwise dry track.

    Here’s one of my favorite reverbs of all time, the spring reverb on the twang guitar of this George Jones tune – stay for the solo:


  8. cherguevara

    I might add that there are several kinds of reverb, the technology evolving alongside the music.

    The room – put the player in a reverberant room and capture that sound. Most classical recordings are made this way. The Cowboy Junkies “Trinity Sessions” has the sound of the church in which it was recorded.

    A special room just for creating reverb – might be a bathroom, a stairwell, or any small space. This is a “chamber.” You can hear this sound on early Beatles records and also one clear example is the chamber at Sunset Sound, clearly audible on the Doors’ song, “Crystal Ship.”

    Then you have spring reverb, as found in guitar amps but also existing as stand-alone “higher quality” units. The George Jones song above is an example of that (on the lead guitar).

    Also, there is the plate reverb, a thin sheet of metal suspended and tensed in a metal frame (kind of like the tension on a drum head). The plate is an awesome reverb and you can hear that clearly on “Son of a preacher man” – and also on hundreds of songs.

    Beyond that you get into digital reverbs, some of which sound amazing and some sound terrible.

    Then there are delays, which are another animal and not to be confused with reverb, though the concepts are related.

    Like cooking, you can’t really put down the individual ingredients, it’s all about how you put them together.

  9. I’m reminded of a classic wet vs dry debating point: the reverb-drenched US single of The Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” vs the dry UK version. I hate that song so much that I have trouble choosing one over the other. Here’s the US version:


    Now here’s the UK version, beginning at the 2:27 mark of this YouTube clip:


    I’m pretty sure my close personal friends andyr and E. Pluribus Gergely swear by the US version. EPG makes a good point that the reverb pulls together the song’s strong dance beat. It fails, however, to drown out the vocals/lyrics.

  10. tonyola

    There are times where a “dry” mix just doesn’t work well. For instance, when Robert Fripp produced Peter Gabriel’s second album (the “scratch” record), he used a very dry, closed-in mix with all the instruments up front and a bare minimum of effects. It’s as if everything was crammed into a small room. The overall effect of the album seems to be at odds with Gabriel’s complex music – it needs a certain amount of openness and ambiance to sonically work.

  11. I like a couple of songs from that album, but I typically don’t like Peter Gabriel. I know what you mean about his music calling for some dampness.

    I find that whenever I like songs by an artist I typically don’t like they are songs that “true” fans of said artist DON’T like. Does anyone else find themselves in this situation? (I can’t recall, for instance, if HVB tends to like “bad” Dylan and Velvet Underground songs best.)

  12. tonyola

    The only record from Jackson Browne that I’ll sit still for is Running on Empty, which is pretty atypical for him. The true adepts like his more “personal” albums better.

  13. ladymisskirroyale

    The US version seems more sonically tied-together but the reverb also is too heavy. I wish I could hear a US-lite version.

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    Ah! Dry tracks = The Guitar God sound!

  15. Not necessarily. Think of David Gilmour’s guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

  16. trigmogigmo

    Good technical explanations. There’s a million ways to go between “full wet” and “full dry”, even between different instruments or parts in the same song.

    A guitar god example distinctively wet but not drowned:

    I love that dry production on the louder songs on Girlfriend. It’s also a cool effect applied to the stacked overdubbed vocal harmonies. Keeping it pretty dry can lend in-your-face power like this:
    (I wonder if the muted 10 second intro is there to trick you into turning up the volume!)

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