What Is Reverse Reverb and How Do I Use It?

While regular old reverb is one of the most essential and widely used effects for instruments and vocals, its quirky offspring, reverse reverb, doesn’t get nearly the love or attention it so deserves. Also known as reverse echo or reverse regeneration, the effect takes the reverb tail of any instrument (acoustic or synthetic), vocal, or sample, and simply reverses it.

The origins of reverse reverb are a bit fuzzy. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page claims to have invented it for The Yardbirds track “Ten Little Indians” (and it sounds amazing), but it’s possible that musique concrète artists experimenting with reverse tape loops in the 1940s and ‘50s unknowingly pioneered it before that.

And, of course, The Beatles groundbreaking track “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which grew out of the band’s psychedelic backmasking experiments in the 1960s, probably has some natural reverb from Abbey Road that got reversed in the recording process.

The Yardbirds - "Ten Little Indians"

Lee Mallory - "That's the Way It's Gonna Be"

Another early example of reverse reverb can be found on Lee Mallory’s “That’s The Way It’s Going To Be.” Produced by unsung ‘60s genius Curt Boettcher (The Millennium, Sagittarius), the song’s outro features a swirling reverse reverb that is even more psychedelic than “Ten Little Indians.”

Despite periodic use of reverse reverb in the 1970s and 1980s, including on Bauhaus and Love and Rockets albums, the effect didn’t really become a major sonic ingredient and overall aesthetic until My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 hit the scene. Reverse reverb is all over MBV recordings, thanks to Kevin Shields’ obsession with the effect.

It can be heard more recently on a lot of Boards of Canada songs, more than likely through similar reel-to-reel tape manipulations as were used in the ‘60s. So, if you’re looking to add another psychedelic dimension to your psychedelic, shoegaze, and ambient techno recordings, reverse reverb is a great way to do it.

Using Reverse Reverb

Like any reverb effect, reverse reverb is best placed at the end of the FX signal chain. One might even say the real pleasure of reverse reverb is listening to how it warps other effects like tremolo, vibrato, delay, and even filters. A clean guitar or synth note going into reverse reverb will differ from an already modulated tone.

Playing clean guitar through a reverse reverb will yield something reminiscent to The Beatles’ backmasked guitar parts, though tamer and not as clear.

At the beginning of this demo, Jim uses the reverse reverb setting on the Digitech Polara pedal.

Placing tape echo and tremolo or even a very slow vibrato before the reverse reverb and strumming chords rhythmically — particularly open chords — will result in woozy MBV swells. Manipulating the tremolo arm while strumming (like Kevin Shields) yields even stranger shoegaze and psychedelic effects. When combined with compression, vibrato set to a slow rate, and some tape echo, reverse reverb will produce something like Boards of Canada’s lo-fi warbly sound.

Adding reverse reverb to a synthesizer or other electronic gear like drum machines also creates a wide variety of sounds. Applying reverse reverb to a kick drum sample, for instance, generates a deep and dark beat that sounds great in techno tracks.

Like any signal processing, the key is experimentation. With less conventional effects like reverse reverb especially, the freedom from preconcieved notions on how it should sound can be liberating and will certainly take your music to all sorts of new and energizing places.

FX Racks and Pedals With Reverse Reverb

Plenty of reverb pedals do reverse reverb and do it well. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start for those looking to explore reverse reverb. It's also worth noting that most of the self-titled "reverse" reverb modes are emulations and that technically the effect can only fully be achieved by reversing an actual reverb tail and placing it after the dry sound.

For the My Bloody Valentine variety, look for the Yamaha SPX90 and Alesis Midiverb II units, both of which had unique reverse reverb algorithms that Kevin Shields loved.

The Alesis Quadraverb rack unit — used by many early ‘90s ambient techno and IDM artists — also features reverse reverb. Lexicon’s line of reverb racks from the ‘90s boasts reverse reverb as well, some of which can be combined with other effects.

For those with a preference for pedals, there are plenty of solid options. On the affordable end is the Digitech Digiverb, which has excellent reverse and gated reverbs that play well with both guitars and synthesizers, allowing users to control level, EQ, and decay.

Digitech’s Polara, with seven reverbs modeled after Lexicon units, also offers a reverse setting. A step up from these pedals in terms of both programmability and price is Electro-Harmonix’s Cathedral, which allows users to alter the reverse reverb with tone dampening, feedback, and pre-delay.

For even more reverse reverb programmability, look to pedals like the Strymon BigSky, Empress Reverb, and Eventide Space and H9 — a very flexible pedal that features all of the algorithms from Eventide’s TimeFactor, ModFatctor, PitchFactor, and Space pedals.

Another option is the Walrus Audio Descent, a boutique pedal that is among the best new reverse reverbs currently available.

And if you want to cut right to the chase and replicate the exact MBV sound, check out the Keeley Electronics Loomer. Modeled after the Yamaha SPX90 and the Alesis Midiverb II units used by Kevin Shields on Loveless, Loomer’s reverse setting isn’t true reverse, as it basically reads different delay times while applying increasing volume. It also includes an envelope-controlled vibrato along with a filter, which is pretty unique for a reverb pedal.

DIY Analog Reverse Reverb

Creating reverse reverb from scratch is for people with the proper gear and resources. In other words, you will need the right studio space, preferably an echo or reverb chamber, and reel-to-reel recorders.

Most people won’t have access to an echo chamber like those used in studios in the 1960s. But there are plenty of spaces that could function as a makeshift chamber, provided you’ve got permission to be there and there are multiple microphones to capture the reverb tails.

Once the track or sample is recorded to tape, the recording would need to be flipped over and recorded in reverse onto an open track, or even dubbed onto an entirely new reel of tape.

Doing this on a cassette recorder is trickier because these decks don’t have separate play/record heads, but this Instructables article shows how to hack a solution. The far easier option is to play through a rack or pedal set to a desirable reverb setting, record it to tape, and repeat the reverse technique described above.

Learn more about effects pedals on our Effects Pedals: What Do They Do? | The Basics homepage.

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