Reverb: An Introduction
The massive advances in digital technology in the last few decades have made it easier than ever to replicate different types of reverb at the flick of a switch.
In this article, we’re going to explore the history of reverb as an effect, and how it’s come to be such a hugely popular tool for musicians, producers, sound designers and countless other creatives! Without further ado, let’s begin!
The Reverb Effect
The term ‘reverb’ is short for reverberation, which in scientific terms means the persistence of sound after a sound is produced. When you clap in an empty room, the sound you hear coming back at you is a reverberation.
Although reverb occurs naturally in scientific terms, it can be replicated by mechanical means or indeed digitally, as it often is today. Laurens Hammond was first granted a patent for a spring reverberation mechanism in 1939; this involved a sound being passed through a series of springs that’s then fed back into a pickup. It became a built-in feature of the early Hammond Organs, and is still used in many guitar amps to this day.
Here’s a breakdown of the basic types of reverb you’ll come across:
- Spring Reverb - because it’s the oldest form of reverb as an artificial effect, the metallic sound of spring reverb often evokes a vintage atmosphere. Spring reverb can be digitally mimicked, but some manufacturers such as Fender, Mesa Boogie, Blackstar and more still include spring reverb mechanisms in some of their amps. If you’re a rock’n’roll or blues player and you want to add a little extra room to your tone, a subtle spring reverb effect will go a long way!
- Plate Reverb - similar concept but with the springs replaced by large plates of metal. The resulting signal is then mixed with the original input to varying degrees, allowing greater control over the amount of reverb added.
- Chamber/hall Reverb - this makes use of a naturally ambient space, hence the name – if you play a guitar in a cathedral hall, chances are it’s going to sound pretty spacey and atmospheric. Naturally, it’s not quite as practical as you need a dedicated space to be able to perform or record in!
- Digital Reverberation - the most commonly heard reverb in pedals and recording effects. It replicates the large number of echoes that you hear in natural reverberations and allows you to tweak different parameters such as attack, decay, room size and more.
How Do I Use A Reverb Pedal?
A reverb pedal can be used to attain a number of different effects; whether you’re looking to capture a certain space such as a church hall, drench your clean lines in hypnotic ambience, or simply mimic an old-school spring mechanism, there’s a wealth of options available on the market. When it comes to choosing the reverb pedal that’s right for you, there are a number of things that you need to consider – before we delve in, check out this uber-cool video of Rabea & Danish Pete comparing reverb & delay pedals from GFI System - this just goes to show what a decent reverb pedal can do!
- Attack – adjusting this controls how quickly the reverb effect is heard after a signal is detected. Keep the attack down low if you want the reverb to be immediate and textural, or turn it up higher if you want to convey a real sense of space and distance!
- Decay – opposite to the attack control, this determines how long before the reverb tail dies back down to silence. When set low, your reverb sound will be short, but set it high, and you’ll have a long-lasting wash.
- Mix/level – as you might have guessed, this controls the level of the reverb against your dry signal. Set it low for a subtle hint of ambience, or crank it and hear your guitar disappear into ambient oblivion!
- Tone – although the ‘tone’ knob has many variants, it most commonly controls the ‘colour’ of the reverb. This can mean anything from a bass-heavy rumbling echo to a breathy reverb sound. This depends very much on stylistic preference and your own taste!
Each reverb pedal or effect has its own character, but they’ll all have some degree of tweakability. These are some of the more common examples of controls you might find on a typical reverb effect:
It’s worth noting that there are some additional controls that you may encounter when looking for the perfect reverb effect. Here are a couple of less common examples:
- Shimmer – this nifty option shifts the input signal up by an octave (12 notes) and adds it to the reverb mix. This makes for a truly dreamy, otherworldly soundscape.
- Dampen – this control is designed to round off the high frequencies of reverberations, making them sound warmer and less harsh. This works particularly well if you want a subtler ambience that doesn’t highlight the attack of your tone.
- Modulation/sway – this modulates the pitch of the output signal in a similar way to a chorus effect. Keep it down low for a subtle, wavy texture, or crank it for a deranged wobbling echo!
- Pre-delay – this is similar to attack, but can sometimes be used for a delay-like quality by creating an audible gap between the original signal and onset of the reverb sound.
A reverb pedal, as with any ambient effect, will sit most comfortably at the end of any effects chain. This allows you to make use of its full ambient potential; if you add reverb before other effects, its sound will be altered or in some cases cut short. This is subjective however, as you may want your reverb to sound gritty or affected in some way!
It’s also quite common to run reverb through your valve amp’s effects loop, if it has one. The effects loop sits between the power amp and preamp valves; the preamp valves provide your amp with its overdrive or distortion, so putting reverb in the loop before the preamp means you’ll get a cleaner, more accurate reverb sound! Again, this is subjective – why not experiment and see what you prefer?
What’s the Difference Between Delay and Reverb?
When you yell into a valley or a mountain range and you hear your voice repeat several times, those are clear reverberations bouncing back at you – repeats of the same sound. Delay is the repeating of the same signal, like an echo, gradually decaying. You can change the number, volume, modulation and space between each echo.
‘Reverb’ as we know it is essentially the same thing, except there are more echoes (reverberations), and they end up so close together and interwoven that they merge into one long, slow-decaying echo. The parameters that you can adjust are very similar, but because of the frequency of the reverberations, they have a slightly different effect! Here's a handy diagram that sums up the difference:
Why would I want a reverb pedal?
There are loads of ways you can use a reverb pedal in your rig. Here are some of the most common applications that you might want to consider:
- Ambience – if you feel that your sound is just too ‘dry’, and you need to add some padding to it, a little reverb can work wonders. With delay, the audible repetitions of your playing can sometimes interfere with the rhythmic aspect of your playing, whereas reverb simply adds a nice wash. Perfect for when you want your lead parts to reach a little further or your cleans to have a real sense of space!
- Smoothen Your Mix – adding some reverb with a quick attack and decay can help fill in the gaps in your sound. Do you ever feel like that space in between riffs or song sections is abrupt and unattractive? A tiny amount of reverb can help smooth over your playing, helping you sit better in the mix – whether it’s live, in rehearsal or in the studio!
- Abstract Texture – when you want your guitar to adopt a different tonal flavour entirely, or add texture to an otherwise formulaic mix, only a feature-packed reverb will do the trick! Making use of controls such as decay, tone and shimmer on some more complex reverb pedals can make for some really interesting effects!
Here's a selection of some of our favourites! These are among the most popular, critically acclaimed pedals in the reverb category, with pedals that (hopefully) suit every application and every price point!
- Strymon Big Sky – with over 300 built-in presets, 12 reverb types and seven control parameters, this is the all singing, all dancing option. Strymon are famed for offering truly lush, studio-quality effects in rugged enclosures - as a result, it’s slightly pricier than the rest of our range (at a cool £479), but some might argue that you get what you pay for with Strymon!
- TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 – this true bypass number is deceptively small; it conceals a killer range of reverb effects and unique features that have helped make it a top seller. It has 8 reverb types, three basic controls and stereo input & output for truly immersive ambience. Its secret weapon is the MASH feature – the footswitch responds to pressure, so the harder you stomp, the more intense the effect!
- Tone City Tiny Spring – this cheeky number from Chinese manufacturer Tone City offers a wonderful spring reverb sound that is easily adjusted with a single control. Turning this control affects a mixture of level and decay; as you tweak it upwards, the reverb becomes bigger and louder, whilst remaining silky smooth. The best bit? It’s only £49.99!
- Boss RV-500 – Boss decided to reinvent their approach to reverb with this ground-breaking unit. Twelve modes, 21 brand new reverb algorithms and studio-quality 32-bit/96 kHz processing are just some of the features that set the RV-500 apart from the rest of Boss’s colourful range. It also has a wealth of input/output options and is built with the kind of tank-like ruggedness you’d expect from Boss!
- Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail – compact, robust, easy to use, pristine tone, affordable; this one has it all! If you’re looking for a straightforward & affordable reverb solution that doesn’t take up much space on your board, and don’t mind being limited to three modes and two controls, the Holy Grail might just be the one for you!
- GFI System Specular Reverb V2 – Indonesian manufacturer GFI System aimed to push the boat out with the Specular V2. Featuring 6 unique modes, this pedal takes high-quality abstract & modern reverb sounds and crams them into a mid-price package that'll sit neatly on the smallest of pedalboards. Ideal if you're looking for fresh, inspiring sounds without spending a fortune!
- Line 6 – these guys are widely credited with flinging the multi-FX concept into the 21st century. Their ground-breaking Pod technology made it easier than ever to have a wealth of sounds at your disposal at all times. Because of their experience in digital effects, they’ve managed to hone their digital reverb game to near-perfection! They offer a whole host of reverb & ambient effects in a lot of their key ranges, such as the M Stompbox Modelers, Pod HDs and their flagship Helix units.
- Boss – titans of the pedal world, Boss also offer a range of simple multi-FX processors that have graced countless pedalboards in recent years. These units offer heaps of tonal flexibility at affordable prices points – check out the ME and GT ranges, with their simple spring, hall and spring reverb options among others!
- Zoom – perhaps the most affordable of the bunch, the Zoom G series pedals boast intuitive interfaces and a decent selection of onboard effects and modelling options – perfect if you’re looking to experiment with different reverb sounds without paying a fortune!
- Atomic – the Amplifire Range is designed to be an all-encompassing guitar tone toolkit. Boasting highly accurate amp modelling and cab simulation options, they also come crammed with effects including top-class reverbs. Although they don’t have a the biggest selection of onboard effects, they’re ideal if you’re after an all-in-one solution without compromising on tone!
It’s worth mentioning that although there’s a wealth of options on the market for guitar reverb effects units, amp modelling and plugins becoming more and more popular as an effects solution. Kemper, Line 6 and many other amp manufacturers offer top-quality onboard effects that can be incorporated into presets. Pretty much every DAW or recording software release offers some sort of reverb or ambience plugin, and there are plenty of expansion packs and individual plugins that you can buy or download!
Reverb is, rather fittingly, a vast category that reaches far beyond many other guitar effects. In this article, we’ve covered its rich history, its most common applications, the typical ways in which you can adjust it to your liking, and some of the key players in the category.
With all of this in mind, the term ‘reverb’ may be a little less daunting now, and the idea of incorporating it into your rig may seem like more of a reality. Whether it’s a simple one-effect solution, a fully-loaded professional grade effects unit, or just something that you can experiment with – we’re confident that this article can help you make the right choice!
P.S. Have you checked out our other buyer's guides? You might just find something you like!