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What is Reverb?

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Reverberation or reverb for short, can be described as the reflection (bouncing) of sound waves off of surfaces and objects in any room, space or environment. The result of these reflections is a audible prolonging of the sound.

A Reverberation is created when a reflected sound wave takes 0.1 second or less to return to your ears.

If a sound wave takes over 0.1 second to travel back to your ears after being reflected, then it is technically not reverb, but instead becomes an echo.(strictly speaking)

Reverb exists everywhere in the real world, and can be caused by sound waves bouncing off all sorts of surfaces and objects, such as: Walls, Floors, Trees, Animals, Tables, Curtains, Pillows, Glass Windows, and many other objects/surfaces.

How Surfaces and Objects Affect Reverberation?

The manner in which a sound wave is reflected and how that sound wave is reflected and altered sonically, depends on the characteristics of the objects and surfaces in that environment.

For example hard materials tend to reflect more sound waves than soft materials, rough surfaces tend to diffuse sound more than smooth surfaces and concave surfaces tend to amplify sound waves more than flat surfaces. Studio builders and recording engineers use these facts to create “live rooms”, “dead rooms” and aid in audio effects processing. 

A live room is a room made up of hard reflective surfaces, like wood or brick walls/floors. Live rooms are useful for recording instruments like acoustic guitar, and gives the instrument a bright and naturally ambient or “wet” quality “(depending on size of room).

A dead room on the other hand is made up of softer materials (like specially designed acoustic foam) and is usually used to capture instruments/vocals “dry” (with a minimized amount or no reverb) the producer can then add “fake reverb” at a later stage in the production. 

Therefore the types of surfaces and objects in an environment, will have a direct effect on how a sound is reflected, and also on the acoustic and timbral quality of the sound. This is the reason why some rooms or spaces sound better for recording certain instruments vs others.

*Note: An extreme example of a dead room is an anechoic chamber (meaning echo free). These types of rooms are specially designed to absorb all acoustic reflections. The result is a room that is so free of acoustic reflections, that it is said you can hear the flow of your blood, and even pulsing of your own heart when you are inside and the doors are closed. 

A Brief History

Natural room ambience has always been a feature of recorded music, however it wasn’t until the creation of artificial reverb in the late 1930s that recording engineers were able to alter and control sounds of the space that the instruments were recorded in. 

The first artificial reverb, called “Chamber Reverb” or sometimes called Room or Hall reverb was created by playing a “dry” pre-recorded sound through a loud speaker in the room or space of choice, the sound coming through the loud speaker was then recorded by a microphone on the other side of the room. This new “wet” signal could then be mixed with the dry one, resulting in a more ambient recording, that sounded like it was recorded in an entirely different space, than it actually was. 

Chamber Reverb remained a staple of recordings after its creation, and was famously used on many hit records, some recording studios like Abbey Road and Motown went as far as building purpose-built reverb and echo chambers. This method, although less common today is still used to some degree, as it provides a certain realness and ambience that is not attainable with plate and digital reverb counterparts.  

Over time, companies like Elektro-Mess-Technik (EMT) would create truly artificial and physically portable reverb units, in the form of plate and spring reverb. The first of these truly artificial reverb units was the EMT140 Reverberation Unit-a plate reverb, and was released in 1957. 

Both plate and spring reverb are electromechanical technologies that work by passing a “dry” audio signal through a metal plate or spring (via a transducer), and picking up the resulting vibrations on the other end of the plate/spring with one or two pickups (mono or stereo). The amount of reverberation in the plate can be controlled with a dampening pad. Tightening the pad creates less reverberations, while loosening it allows more reverberations. This new “wet” reverberant signal can then be mixed with the dry signal, giving the new audio a distinctive and unique reverberant acoustic quality, quite different from the reverb created using the earlier Chamber technique.

Plate, Spring and Chamber reverb are all still in use today, however they are more commonly found and used as digital hardware devices or as emulation plugins for DAWs.

*Note: Although more “portable” than a Cathedral, plate reverbs tended to be much larger than their spring counterparts(100Kg+), therefore the plate reverb was almost always reserved for the recording studio, while spring reverbs found their way into guitar amps, cars and other audio devices, due to their much smaller size.

Digital Reverb

In 1976 EMT changed the music production scene once again by releasing what is considered the worlds first digital reverb units, the EMT 250. Digital reverbs were different from the previous types of reverb, because it gave the user much more control by running algorithms that allowed for the adjustment of various other attributes not possible with previous reverb units and techniques, such as delay times.This meant that the user could now emulate real world spaces, as well create complex and completely unnatural sounding reverberations.In addition to this the EMT 250 was also the worlds first multi-processing unit, incorporating effects such as echo, phase and chorus into its features, which at the time was a feat to behold.To this day the EMT 250 is a highly praised and sought after reverb unit, with people even labelling it one of the best reverb units ever made. 

Digital reverb stepped into new territories once again in 1999 when sony unveiled the DRE S777-the first real time convolution reverb.This was special because convolution reverb allowed the user to create reasonably convincing samples of real world spaces (impulse responses), meaning that producers/engineers could now make a recording have the reverberant qualities of a recording made at Abbey Road, Sunset Records, Rosslyn Chapel or even in the Grand Canyon. This is not to say that using a convolution reverb automatically made your recordings perfect, but it allowed you to put you instruments in almost any room or space, as long the impulse response of that space had had been created recorded and saved into the sample bank.

Conclusion 

Plate, Spring, Chamber and Convolution reverbs are all still in use today. However over time we have seen the focus become more digital, with many of these revered reverb units and spaces being emulated and made available through Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plugins as well as in plugins native to DAWs like Logic Pro X and Pro Tools.VST reverb plugins have also implemented more parameters for control, meaning more complex and out of this world reverberant spaces are possible than ever realised before.

All these things have made it easier, and much more affordable for the everyday musician to immerse their instrumentation in exotic sonic environments, while allowing the more experimental and sound effects driven producers to create, “out of this world” sound pallets and sonic worlds.

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