The Studio at Your Feet: Old School Studio Reverb Techniques in Pedal Form

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  • June 30, 2017
Flint reverb

Natural reverb is the sound of reflections in a given space. The differences in size lend character to the reverberated sound, and devices both mechanical and algorithm-based have been employed to create a sense of ambience that reverb can deliver. This particular effect is sought after by many a guitarist, thus reverb has long since had a home in stompbox form.

Many advanced reverb pedals, such as the Eventide Space Reverb and Strymon BigSky possess engines that deliver infinite emulations and parameters for sculpting endless decay. Yet there are a few basic archetypes that (most) reverb pedals are based on. Here we took a look at the history of reverb as a studio effect and how its essence is captured in the form of pedals.

strymon flint

Diving into the lineage of modern reverb pedals and the classic studio techniques that were once the only way to create cavernous guitar sounds.

Room/Hall/Cathedral

Among the first experiments in the field of artificial reverb involved simply placing a speaker in a reverberant space. Led Zeppelin got their famously huge drum sounds by tracking John Bonham in stairwells; engineers recording at Capitol studios have sent sounds to dedicated echo chambers for decades – the techniques employed are limited only by space and imagination.

These techniques are widely recreated in guitar pedals, with digital algorithms replacing rooms, halls and cathedrals. The resulting sound of these settings on pedals, depending on the type of chamber, ranges from roomy styles with quick reflections and short decays, to epic echoes that wouldn’t be out of place in a canyon. Some well known and praised options are the TC Electronic Hall of Fame, DigiTech Polara Reverb, Electro-Harmonix Cathedral, EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath, and the BOSS RV-5.

Plate

The first mechanisms for plate reverb in the studio weighed over 250kg, and are responsible for iconic sounds on countless records, such as Beatles and Pink Floyd albums recorded at Abbey Road. Models such as the EMT 140 made by Elektro-Mess-Technik gained popularity as despite their weight, as they were still lighter than carrying multiple reverberant rooms around, easier than finding a large room to record in, and cheaper than moving other equipment to said room.

The plate reverb system works by transferring the input signal into mechanical energy in the form of a vibrating metal plate. This motion is then detected by contact microphones – one for mono, two for stereo output – which makes the audio signal. The device may be adjusted with a dampening pad made from acoustic tiles, its distance away from the plate determining the length of the reverb – closer means shorter. The resulting sound is a short wash with a quick decay, described as full or smooth, and iconic to the era. The Catalinbread Talisman pedal attempts to directly embody the EMT 140, and is widely known as one of the top plate reverb emulators out there.

Spring

Smaller and more convenient, this form of reverb relies on a simpler and far less expensive mechanism. Spring reverb units employ a driver that sends a sound signal into the device, which is returned via a pickup. What differs is the method of reverb ‘production’ – the springs in this reverb are housed in a compact tank, which vibrate to create its trademark drippy, metallic character.

The sound is bright, which makes it a natural pairing for the twangy, top-end-friendly stylings of blues, surf rock and country. Hammond snapped up the patent for this type of reverb in 1939 and it’s integral to the iconic sound of 60s-era Fender amps.

Today, you see spring reverb emulated in pedal form in units such as the Boss FRV-1, Strymon Flint, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail, Demeter RRP-1 Reverbulator, SolidGoldFX Surfrider, and despite the relative simplicity of the analog unit, it is arguably the hardest reverb type to replicate accurately in digital form.

Digital

With the development of the digital technology came digital reverb processors. The EMT 250 was the world’s first digital reverb, created in 1976. The Lexicon 224 followed shortly after, cheaper and smaller, becoming a studio staple. Digital reverb works by creating virtual space, using myriad feedback delay lines, with decaying tails that emulate reverberations bouncing off walls.

The flexibility of digital reverb is virtually endless – as long as your computer can process it! Digital forms such as Silververb can be emulated through certain models, you just have to manipulate some the huge amount of options the pedals give you.

Reverb adds space and mystery to a guitar tone, and helps the sound meld magically into the mix. Yet all reverb pedals are not created equal – some excel at creating dreamy, ethereal ambience; others are more faithful to their mechanical ancestors. Carving out some space in your pedal board for reverb is worthy of contemplation.

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