Reverb – good or bad?

Reverb can make a dry toneless guitar sound like something an angel played in a huge cathedral. It’s the tool of every producer making the music sound alive on record. Yet, reverb can also kill your tone and make every effort of producing the greatest tone on earth seem like a complete waste. In this article I’ll try to share some views on a topic that often cause a lot of debate.

Technical stuff
Reverb, or reverberation, is essentially many echoes with different time and decay that feed back upon each other. This “chaos” creates ambience or reverb. In regards to a concert hall – the larger the venue, the more reverb.

There are mainly two different kinds of electronic reverb, – spring and digital. Spring is commonly used in amps. The spring has a transducer at one end that converts the signal to vibrations that reverberate in the springs and are converted back to electrical signal. If your amp has a spring feature, you can rock it back and forth and you’ll hear this “crash” inside (a cool effect in it self!).

Digital reverb is basically a simulation of the spring, creating a more accurate type of reverb. Still cheap reverb units fail to create the natural dynamics of either a pring or a hall, small room, cathedral or similar. The more expensive ones have software that carefully simulates typical rooms, – the space, the absorption etc.

Using reverb
Reverb is used on most recordings to make the sound more alive and dynamic. Reverb is also often used to “hide” stuff, like vocals out of pitch or a guitar that’s too earpinching. If you’ve watched the BBC Dark Side of the Moon documentary, you can see how they used reverb on David’s guitars. The effect is quite dramatic as if you hear the guitar on a staduim. Almost any recording (or album) would have sounded extremely dull if it wasn’t for reverb and Pink Floyd certainly used this effect to “colour” some of their most beautiful moments.

There are basically two ways to add reverb on a recorded track. The most common way is to use studio units and digitally add the reverb. This way you can achieve almost any desired effect. Another, perhaps more exciting way is to use the ambience in the room where you’re recording. When mixing a guitar, you can add a second (or multiple) microphone in a distance from the amp. This mic will record the natural reverb in the room and when you blend these tracks you can get some pretty cool sounds (this is how they recorded the intro on “Sorrow” from “A Momentary Lapse of Reason“).

When you’re in the audience at a concert, you will notice that the sound has a lot of reverb. This is the natural ambience at the venue. A small place, like a club, will make the band sound very tight and dry while on a stadium or at an indoor hall, you’ll hear that the band sounds huge. No matter how big the hall is it’s almost certain that the guitars and drums (at least) don’t have additional reverb in the mix. And that’s where the debate starts…

No reverb!
I often hear from guitarists that’s just started playing or from people who just play at home that they need to use reverb or else the sound is too dull. And I’m not trying to sound like a mister “know-it-all” here…. it took me years to understand why reverb can be bad for your tone and I’m still no purist. Butl, what I always try to stress is: as a rule, you shouldn’t use reverb unless you’re using it as a specific effect.

When you plug your guitar straight into your amp’s clean channel, you’ll hear the direct signal from your guitar. When playing live, this setup should always be your basis… your fundament (whether or not you use the clean or gain channel). You’ll hear every nuance of your amp, your guitar’s pickups and your picking style. Any effects you add will colour that basic tone and add character and dynamics to your sound. When you play live, no matter how big the stage or venue, your sound will echo throughout the hall and reverberate naturally. To get to the point, – when you add reverb (spring or pedal/multi effect) you’ll be adding reverb on top of reverb. What’s being naturally blended with the ambience in the hall is already drenched in reverb. This is overkill and in most cases, your loyal fans won’t hear the neuances in the fantastic tone you’ve spent hours creating.

Frequently asked questions:

“But Gilmour’s guitars obviously have tons of reverb on PULSE!”
– No… and yes. His signal is dry but what you hear on the album is a mix of his dry signal recorded straight from the soundboard and an ambience track that captures the sound coming from the PA system. In addition, the whole album is mixed with reverb to create the feeling of being in the audience when you listen to it.

“Gilmour sure use reverb during the fuzz solos on Pompeii.”
– No. That’s delay or echo created by the old Binson echo machine. This had a very unique kind of tape echo that produced a very “wet” delay. David has never used reverb on stage.

“But Gilmour always use reverb on the albums doesn’t he? I can’t get that tone without reverb!”
– Yes, he does. But as I’ve explained above, this is to create dimension and space in the music. When you play live, your tone will be coloured by the natural ambience in the room/hall you’re playing in. The audience will hear a wet tone, much like the tone Gilmour has on the albums.

It can be really frustrating sitting at home playing without reverb, sounding like you’re playing in your bathroom. I can only recommend that you force yourself to get used to it. Turn off the reverb and appreciate the clean tone, the characteristics of your effects and the dynamic of your playing.

Use delay to create sound textures and a more spacious tone. When playing basic rhythm stuff, you can leave the delay on with a very mild setting. This also helps to smooth harsh overdrives. When you play solos, you can add some more. This is a much more effective way to create a bigger sound and you won’t loose the small nuances in your tone.

As always, I want to stress that what’s most important is that you create a tone that you like. If that’s done with tons of reverb fed trough a washing machine, then go for it! Still, it can be valuable to experiment with different solutions and ways to setup your gear. Every once in a while, you should just strip down everything and start from scratch. Maybe you’ll discover some new exciting stuff.

6 comments so far

  1. Roger Sartori says:

    Here’s me again, Bjorn! HA! I’m sorry to disturb you so much with so many questions, but I just love your work and you’re kind a tone guide to me! Speaking of reverb, what do you think about the song Marooned with a shimmer effect? Do you think it would sound good? There’s this pedal Mooer ShimVerb which has that cool feature, but I never played with it. I only checked the video demonstration on youtube… Best regards, my friend!

    [No worries, Roger :) I haven’t tried that myself but the shimmer effect in it self is very cool and of course a must for your Edge tones :) Obviously, David’s using a Whammy for the song but it would be interesting to try it with a shimmer effect as well :) – Bjorn]

  2. Alexa Madrid says:

    Nicely done article. I used to always as at least a dash of spring reverb on shows and at home, but now I only use the tremolo on my Fender amps. It’s so telling to use reverb all the time since it does add something special. But I see your point about using it as an effect. Plus, I can really hear where I’m making boo-boos without reverb.

  3. Serge says:

    Hi and thank you for a really interesting article…
    I’d like to focus on your last paragraph, in where you suggested one should strip down everything and start from scratch, and share my personal experience…
    I am a blues guitarist searching for my “own” tone while staying within the parameters of “classic” or “original” blues. The most important feature that became apparent during this search was that most of the blues men that epitomised the genre only used pretty basic rigs.
    I decided to take this approach and start from scratch… bought a Mexican made guitar played through a cheaper but still decent quality amp (I did however replaced the Reverb Tank).
    The interesting thing is now I seem to be getting pretty close to the sound I wanted in the first place, I like what I hear and my playing has actually improved.
    Now I’m in the process of re-recording every track… which I was never happy with…
    Again, thank you for your article

    [Thanks for sharing Serge! – Bjorn]

  4. Dave How says:

    I’ve just reached over to my Peavey Classic 30 rig and turned the reverb off…

    [Welcome to a new world :) – Bjorn]

  5. KEITH says:

    I’ve owned an amp or two with reverb, and I’ve never turned reverb on anywhere but the mixing desk of a studio. Never thought it sounded good live, but definitely necessary to make a recording sound big! If you notice though, most blues, and rockabilly guitarists drench their sound with reverb at all times. A Tele, through a twin, with reverb, and many times a comp to add gain, abd tighten up solos.

    Just an observation, Peace, Keith

  6. Gabor says:

    Clear situation.
    Generally it makes no sense to create a vanilla ice cream, mixed with fish and chips..
    For the sake of taste and sound, we should avoid it.
    But where is the right place of a reverb pedal, on a gilmourish pedal board, when there is no loop of the amp?
    We should not use it too much:-)

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