As one of the earliest effects in music, reverb has been highly influential in shaping the history of rock. What started as a way to make an instrument sound "bigger" has become an invaluable tool of countless genres and styles. From the Fender spring reverb amps to the old studio plate units and the many rackmounts, pedals and software plug-ins of today, reverb has evolved in many ways. While it might not be as widespread in today's music as high-gain guitar tones, reverb remains one of the most influential and popular clean effects around. Today, we're taking a look at what exactly reverb is, how it evolved and where it is today.
What Is Reverb?
Reverb, or reverberation, is a series of acoustic reflections that occur within a space when sound is created. To the listener, it sounds like a combination of short repeats that reach our ears at different times. The timing, frequency, and volume of these repeats will vary depending on the size, shape, and contents of the space. Whether natural or digital, reverb gives depth to a recording and provides listeners with a subconscious feel about the environment where the performance took place.
When Fender first added reverb to their amps, it made the space guitarists practice in sound much, much bigger. Notes trailed off longer and it could sound like you were playing in a concert hall. While this idea seems far from revolutionary today, effects like reverb and tremolo were completely new and exciting 60 years ago and gave typically flat tones a whole new sense of depth. While Fender made plenty of amps before then, the ones with reverb and tremolo are the ones partly responsible for ‘that Fender sound’ that gets mentioned from time to time.
Fender was first able to achieve reverb by using long springs in an enclosed pan located at the bottom of the amp; springs would wobble as signals were put through them, creating a very distinct type of reverb known as "spring reverb." Classic guitar sounds, from rockabilly to surf, roots rock and Americana styles still use spring reverb for the signature lo-fi sound it produces. It sounds like you are in a bigger space, but the notes don’t trail off as long. You get the depth without the decay, although some outboard spring reverb units allow you adjust that. The spring reverb in amps is a lot more basic. You usually get 1 knob. The higher the reverb level there is, the more washed out and indistinct your sound is. This type of system is still found on many amps today. You can tell if your amp is equipped with spring reverb if it has a dedicated reverb knob or if you hear a jolting sound when you kick the side of your amp when the reverb is being used (although that's definitely not recommended).
Studios used various tricks to achieve reverb in the early days of recording. Early studios used cavernous spaces with a speaker on one end and a microphone on the other to simulate bigger spaces. In the early 1960’s, plate reverbs became popular. These were giant sheets of metal within a frame that vibrated when a signal was applied to them. This vibration of the metal plate was recorded and mixed in with the direct signal. While this technique got the job done, the resulting sound was very metallic and EQ had to be used to tame the highs. The benefit to plate reverb was that it didn't require as much space as the older method and didn't sound as "springy" as spring reverb.
As music technology evolved, more studios and eventually musicians began using rack units for their effects and processing. With this shift came the rack-mounted digital reverb, a piece of equipment that went miles above what Fender's amps or plate units could produce. With these, a player could choose the size of the "space," such as where the listener seemed to be standing or where the virtual microphone was in relation to the player. Like a lot of early, advanced gear, these digital rack reverb units were very expensive at the time. They eventually became stripped of many of their more nuanced controls and settings in order to lower their price and better suit guitarists as they didn't require the same level of precision as a studio. Eventually, this technology would give birth to compact reverb pedals that could do much more than the expensive rack units of the '70s and '80s could ever dream of.
Although reverb has taken a back seat to the heavier type of effects more in-vogue today, it remains popular among many styles and players. The old school spring reverb amps are still in high demand and can easily fetch thousands of dollars for their signature sound. Reverb rack units and pedals have only gotten more sophisticated, able to create some amazing tones with plenty of versatility. And then there's the software reverb plug-ins found in today's DAWs, able to emulate many of the classic reverb sounds with nothing more than a computer. Whether you're trying to capture the spirit of a classic sound or create brand new ones, reverb remains a staple of music, an important effect with plenty of legacy.
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