What Happened to Reverb?

"Not only were the most sonorous parts of the caves preferred for illustrations, but the density of painted images was directly proportional to the level of resonance. ... Our conclusion is inescapable: the early inhabitants of these caves must have gathered around the images for chanting or singing." - Ted Gioia, Music: A Subversive History

Caves, cathedrals, concert halls—wherever music is made, the space itself is a contributing player.

As Gioia writes in Music, there's reason to believe that the early humans who painted the Lascaux caves in modern-day France chose the site of their artwork and rituals exactly where the chambers would resonate the most. One can imagine the combined effect of the paintings, the firelight, and the reverberant chants, an overwhelming mix of sound, light, and movement. Steven Errede, a professor who studies the physics of music, has suggested these were the first "rock" concerts (pun his).

Other old, though much less old, examples are the choral performances of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere in the 17th and 18th century Vatican, where the lead would direct his highest note to the most resonant spot of the Sistine Chapel. Since then, many choirs, opera singers, classical musicians, and countless others have learned to sing or perform in ways that complement the acoustics of a room, while acousticians have designed performance halls to heighten this sense of resonance.

This is reverb, traditionally speaking. But ask a musician creating rock, pop, hip-hop, or other contemporary music today what reverb is, and the things that come to mind probably aren't the effects of physical spaces. They're plugins and pedals or settings on an amplifier. So how'd we get from actual halls and chambers to choosing "hall" or "chamber" at the flick of a dial?

Reverb's Jim Tuerk and YouTube's Rob Scallon tackled the question in a nearly hour-long video, sharing the long and short of long and short tails, and taking us from natural reverb through plates, springs, pedals, and more.

Reverb at the Birth of Recording

If you've ever recorded yourself in an untreated room like a garage or basement, you've probably encountered unflattering echoes. Maybe you didn't even notice while performing, but as you listen to the playback, the effect is glaring. You can hear the boominess of the room or the flutter of reverberations off the walls.

From the dawn of the recording age, this is a problem that professional recording studios have worked to solve through design, building materials, acoustic treatment, and expert mic placement. Live rooms that resonate just the right amount, vocal chambers with deadened walls, diffusers behind the mixing board—all of these are ways to control the reverberations that would otherwise roam untamed.

The reverb that remains is the sonic fingerprint of a studio. Spaces like Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue or the famously sloped floor at Sun Records imparted a certain character to any song that was made in them.

But once studios learned how to tame most of the naturally occurring echoes, producers and engineers wanted to add some back in, at their discretion.

Echo Chambers

The earliest artificial reverb effects were still empty rooms, but they were rooms built and used specifically for their echoes.

The origin story of echo chambers (or reverberation rooms) takes place at Universal Recording studio in Chicago. On a 1947 session for The Harmonicats' "Peg o' My Heart," Bill Putnam set up a speaker and a microphone in the studio's bathroom. Capturing the sound that reflected off the hard tile floor and walls, he then mixed that wet signal back in with the dry.

This same basic idea was, thankfully, taken out of the bathroom and replicated. Sunset Sound, Abbey Road, Capitol Studios, and Motown are just a few of the famous studios whose echo chambers added space to beloved hits. In the same way that a concert hall's construction determines a certain sonic character, these echo chambers too impart a signature sound. And today, the specific sound of many of these famous rooms have been distilled into branded reverb plugins.

Plate Reverbs

The earliest reverb machines to break free of a physical room were plate reverbs—though you still basically need a spare room to fit them.

In the video above, you can see and hear a plate reverb at Chicago's Electrical Audio studio. A large sheet of metal suspended by clips, a plate reverb works by sending an audio signal to the plate and using pickups to record the affected signal. The sound reverberates through the metal sheet and decays.

The EMT 140 was the first commercially built plate reverb. Engineers gravitated toward them because of their ease of use and the greater amount of control they offered when compared to echo chambers. They also have their own unique sound, with a bright attack and a decay that darkens as it gets quieter. For that reason, "plate reverb" is a common setting on any number of digital pedals and reverb plugins today.

However, full-sized plate reverbs are the size of a small car and are sensitive to the sounds and vibrations around them. (For this reason, Electrical Audio keeps its plate reverb deep in the basement.) They can also be quite expensive to buy on the vintage market. So for musicians looking to add reverb to their individual instruments, plate reverbs are entirely impractical. But that's where spring reverbs enter the soundscape.

Spring Reverbs

The first instrument to come with its own supply of reverb was the Hammond organ, but it wasn't until the Hammond spinoff company Accutronics created the Type 4 spring reverb that it became available as a standalone unit.

The idea really took off in popular music, however, once Leo Fender built the Fender Reverb Tank and started to add them into his line of amplifiers like the Vibroverb and Twin Reverb. You can hear these spring reverbs getting a workout all over early '60s surf rock, with Dick Dale's "Misirlou" being the primary example of how spring reverb can transform a riff.

A spring reverb works in a way that's similar to a plate reverb. Instead of a sheet of metal, however, the original sound is sent through springs (sometimes a single spring, but usually two or more). While this allows spring units to be relatively small and easily added to amplifier chassis, it also means the sound is very different from plates or echo chambers: brighter, thinner, and, well, more springy.

For this reason, while it sounds great on guitars and can sound great with other instruments, it's not usually the first choice in recording studios when engineers think about treating a mix... that is, unless it's an AKG BX20.

This overbuilt, large format spring reverb acts differently than the spring reverbs you find in an amplifier. The springs are bigger, there are more of them, and it sounds more lush and full than the traditional boing of a spring. Because of that, the teak-wood box of the BX20, BX10, and BX15 from the '70s can be found in virtually every professional studio.

The thrill of using springs in non-standard, unexpected ways has driven the creation of a number of new devices. Gamechanger Audio's Light Pedal combines spring reverb with infrared optical sensors, which catch and allow you to experiment with additional harmonics and noise from its reverb tank. And the desktop KNAS Ekdahl Moisturizer keeps the springs exposed, so that you can manipulate them directly.

Early Digital Reverbs

Randy Bachman's EMT 250
Randy Bachman's EMT 250. Photo by House of Stone Instruments.

In 1976, EMT took what it learned from its plate reverbs and its smaller diaphragm-based EMT 240 and created the EMT 250, the first digital reverb unit. With four levers and a row of buttons on top of a large paper-shredder-like enclosure, it looks far different from what digital reverbs would become, but you could set decay times, treat high and low frequencies with different amounts of reverb, and add other effects as well.

As digital outboard gear progressed, digital reverbs were more commonly built as rackmount units or as algorithms within multi-effects. Different boxes rose and fell from popularity, with these digital reverbs helping to define eras and mini-eras within pop music just as analog reverbs defined previous ones.

The prime example of this is the AMS RMX16 Digital Reverberation System. One of its many algorithms was the "Non Lin 2"—a gated reverb that gave the Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" drum sound to whatever audio you sent through it. Prince, Kate Bush, Hall & Oates, Duran Duran, and many other famous artists used the effect throughout the '80s, to the point where any use of it now is automatically a sonic throwback to that time.

Modern Reverbs

Today, of course, digital reverbs don't even need rack space. Most DAWs come with their own plugins that offer plate-, spring-, and room-like sounds (at varying levels of believability). Companies like Universal Audio, Waves, and countless others offer emulations of nearly every specific reverb unit or echo chamber of note that's ever existed. And other, stranger plugins go beyond the bounds of known reverberations.

But digital reverbs have also been put to great use within reverb pedals—from mainstays like the Boss RV-3 to the new crop of inventive reverb and delay-reverb effects from Strymon, Meris, Walrus Audio, Chase Bliss Audio, EarthQuaker Devices, Source Audio, Empress, and other boutique builders.

Next-Gen Reverb Pedals

By and large, if you find a pedal with reverb in it, it's a digital reverb. But that's not always the case. Anasounds, Crazy Tube Circuits, Danelectro, Spaceman, and others have made true spring reverbs in pedal-sized enclosures.

So whether you're grabbing a pedal, calling up a plugin, or creating a bathroom echo chamber of your own, there's an embarrassment of reverb riches available. You can hear many of the units mentioned here in the video at the top of the piece, and you can find most for sale on Reverb.

Interested in learning more about the history of effects? We have you covered. Check out The Pedal Movie below.

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