Reverb is one of the most common effects used by both guitarists and producers. Still, it’s an often misunderstood effect and if used wrong, it can do more harm than good. In this feature we’ll look at different types of reverb and the do’s and don’ts when it comes to using reverb as a part of your guitar tones.
Reverberation, or reverb, is essentially sound reflecting off a surface creating a feedback with different time and decay. The surface could be anything – a wall, furniture, persons etc. The larger the space the larger the reverb will appear.
Going to a concert at a large venue, like and indoor or outdoor stadium, will give the impression of the band being drenched in reverb. What you hear is the sound from the stage and PA system being reflected on the venue’s surfaces creating a big reverb. In a small Club, the band will sound dry and tight, because the sound reflects earlier.
Reverb can be replicated or simulated either mechanically or digitally for use in music. Plate (an actual metal plate reflecting sound) and spring (sound fed through one or more springs) are mechanical devices often used in studios and guitar amps in the 50s and 60s. They have a distinctive sound and are still favoured by many producers and guitarists for their unique and vintage flavour.
Digital reverb appeared in the late 70s. These are units, either studio hardware/software or pedals, that simulate different types of reverb, including plate and spring but also natural reverb (church, hall, small room etc). Some units can also create artificial reverb with different effects added.
Reverb is always used on recordings in some form (I think Slayer’s Reign in Blood was recorded without any reverb to create an overly aggressive tone). A producer will often use a short reverb on an individual track or group to create a room, allowing some separation between the tracks or instruments.
Reverb can also be added on individual tracks or groups to create a specific effect. Strings and orchestra might get a reverb resembling a concert hall or a small room for a quartet, while guitars might get a digital spring simulation or perhaps a large hall for that special effect.
Reverb can also be achieved in the recording process, utilising the ambience in the room. A common trick is to place a drum kit in a hall or a room that has a unique reflection character. Placing a microphone a foot or more away from the guitar cabinet will allow the tone to breathe and the mic will pick up some of the sound reflecting in the room.
Another approach is to play back a recorded signal into a room and re-recording the ambience. This was a common trick in the days before plates and spring, where producers would use reverb chambers.
Common for all techniques is that you want to create the illusion of space and a more lively and open sound. Without reverb, a recording would sound flat and less real or alive. Our ears hear and use reverb or the reflection of sound to calculate space and orientation.
A typical bedroom or rehearsal studio will sound pretty dry as the reflection time is short. Your guitar doesn’t sound anything like those huge stadium tones you love and desperately are trying to achieve. It’s therefor tempting to drench your guitar in a huge reverb but this can do more harm to your tones than good.
As explained above, the reason for using reverb is to create the impression of space. In that regard, using reverb in a small room like your bedroom, makes sense. However, reverb created by an effects unit will in many ways sound authentic but it won’t be the same as having a pristine tone coming from your amp and reflecting off the surroundings. A big reverb sounds impressive but the tone you’ve worked so hard on to achieve will sound coloured and less dynamic. The result is often that you need to adjust the settings on your amp and pedals to compensate.
Using reverb on a stage can do even more harm to your tone. Again, reverb is used to create space but a concert venue already have lots of natural reverb or ambience as the larger space will create bigger reflections. You’re basically trying to simulate something that’s already there and your guitar will have a hard time cutting through a dense band mix. Sadly, your loyal fans in the back will have a hard time hearing your guitar properly.
But Gilmour’s guitars obviously have tons of reverb on PULSE!
– No. The signal coming from his amps is dry. No reverb. What you hear on the album is a mix of his cabinets (both mic’ed and from the sound board) and ambience from mics placed around the stage and hall. Reverb was also added in the mixing of the album to create the impression of being in the audience when listening to it.
Gilmour sure use reverb during the fuzz solos on Pompeii.
– No. That’s delay (or echo) created by the Binson Echorec echo machine. Tape, disc and analog echo in general has a warm tone and often some modulation cased by wear and old parts. This creates a very musical echo that when blended with an instrument gets an almost reverb-ish character. The Binson in particular has a very spacious and “wet” tone.
But Gilmour always use reverb on the albums doesn’t he? I can’t get that tone without reverb!
– Yes, he often does. Most of the guitars on On an Island appears to be fairly dry with little or no reverb (perhaps just some room used in the mixing). Only delay was used, either as a part of the recorded tone or added digitally in the mix (mostly the former). Momentary Lapse of Reason and Division Bell however, has lots of reverb added to the guitars to create a lush and spacious mix.
As much as there are no rules when it comes to guitar playing, the rule is that you should never use reverb on your live guitar (bedroom, rehearsal or stage) unless it’s for a specific effect.
Spring reverb is my favourite. The mechanically achieved effect was originally featured in guitar amps in the 50s and 60s. It has defined that era and guitarists are once again beginning to appreciate its unique tone. Spring reverb is instant surf, 60s pop and early punk. Today it’s either used to replicate that vintage flavour or, as Steven Wilson often does, used for dirty and strange sounds.
Guitarists such as Sigur Ros’ Jonsi and Jakob’s Jeff Boyle use different types of digital hall reverb as part of their tones and often blended with delays. The effect is dramatic and creates long sustained notes and chords sounding close to a synth.
Using delay or echo is an effective way to create the impression of a bigger tone, while maintaining much of the original signal. This is one of David Gilmour’s trademarks and something he master like few others. Analog echo in all its forms, can create the impression of reverb and make the guitar sound both more sustained and bigger.
Digital tap tempo delays allow you to play patterns and rhythms to a beat. U2’s The Edge wouldn’t be much without his delays and while he often creates walls of sound, the tone is pristine and defined.
Blending different delays can also be an effective way of creating a bigger tone. Again, this something Gilmour often do – blending two delays with different time settings like on Run Like Hell and when replicating his old Binson multi head repeats with digital units.
What’s important is that you create a guitar tone that you like and one that will inspire you to play, practice and maybe even write some music. If that means layering a thick blanket of reverb on your tone then go for it! Still, be aware of what your effects actually do to your tone and don’t use them just because you think you need to. Reverb can be a great effect if used right but it cause a wide range of problems and issues if used wrong.
Please feel free drop a comment and share your experience and thoughts on using reverb!