A Brief but Complete Guide To Guitar Reverb
Reverb is an effect guitarists use regularly but often don't understand the ins and outs of. For many, it’s an on-or-off effect on an amp. When confronted with more complex offerings of reverb they are struck with confusion.
Reverb can be a really powerful musical spice. Most recordings include some kind of reverb to create dimension and space.
Let’s talk about the various types of reverb and the many ways we can manipulate them.
Spring reverb is the most popular form of reverb. This is largely due to Fender’s inclusion of spring reverb tanks in their amps starting in 1963, with the Vibroverb model. Before that, Fender made an external tube spring reverb tank (1961 to 1966) popularized surf guitarists such as Dick Dale. An outboard reverb was needed because the Tweed and Brownface era of Fender amps had no reverb.
Fender’s decision to include spring reverb on most of its amps made reverb a very popular and widely used effect. For this reason, spring reverb is forever bonded to the electric guitar.
External tube reverbs sound different from the built in spring reverbs in classic Blackface Fender amps.
Although other amps by Gibson and Ampeg included spring reverb, it rarely sounded as good. Fender became known as the supreme leader of reverb. But beauty is in the ear of the beholder, of course.
Spring reverb is a really difficult thing to capture. Many digital pedals have tried and, in my opinion, have fallen short. There are a few companies like Demeter and Anasounds that make real spring reverbs in pedal form now. They sound great!
Spring reverb is very interactive with the guitar. I feel most pedal manufacturers haven’t figured out how to emulate this symbiotic relationship in the digital realm yet.
A spring reverb gets its name by using real springs to generate reverb. A driver amplifies a signal onto the spring and a pickup captures the sound of the spring resonating.
Although I do keep a few spring reverbs within reach to tie into my UA Apollo setup as outboard gear (the Demeter Reverbulator can run at line level as well), there are a few plugins I also use. The PSP SpringBox sounds fantastic, as does the UA AKG BX 20. I use plugins when I don’t need that special interaction that happens with a spring and a guitar.
Spring Reverb Variables
Let’s dig a little deeper into spring reverb and its variations. First, let’s hear the difference between an outboard tube spring reverb, built-in reverb, and reverb pedals.
The SpringThing is a point-to-point wired tube spring reverb. This particular model doesn’t have a giant spring sound. The spring’s sustain is shorter then the vintage Fender version.
Despite the difference in decay, we can hear the EQ curve that is prevalent in this style of spring reverb. It’s more saturated, almost overdriven. It’s the sound of tubes. And tube spring reverb is the sound of surf!
Headstrong Lil King
The built-in reverb in my Headstrong Lil’ King is very much in the style of the built-in reverb of Fender’s Blackface era. It happens to be one of my favorite reverbs.
The Reverbulator is the Mercedes Benz of spring reverb pedals. It houses two sets of springs: one for a short spring sound and one for a long spring sound. You can even combine them.
You’ll hear that it has a different character than the tube spring or built-in spring tones. Since you are likely to use spring reverb in different situations, it’s good to research what the best match is.
For instance, if you want that Ventures vibe, you’re going to want a tube spring unit or built-in Fender reverb.
If you like dreamy spring reverb that isn’t very springy, then units like the Reverbulator are a more appropriate match.
It’s also worth mentioning the preamp plays a big role in the sounds of outboard reverb. I’ve tried some other pedal spring reverbs and haven’t bonded with them. I find the preamp in the Reverburator to be very flattering. But this makes sense, since Demeter has been making wonderful amps for decades.
Plate reverb is similar to spring reverb in that it uses a driver to amplify a signal onto a plate of metal. As the metal resonates, a pickup captures the sound.
But plate reverb doesn’t sound like spring reverb. Plates tend to be my second-favorite reverb. It’s a classic sound on many classic records including those of The Beatles and The Moody Blues.
I use the UA EMT 140 plugin a lot. They’ve done a great job recreating 1960s plate reverb.
Plate reverb is a style where I start to feel digital guitar pedals have done a decent job. UAD has come the closest. In pedal form, I use the Strymon BigSky. The Big Sky happens to be my favorite digital reverb pedal. It’s incredibly flexible and sounds amazing. The only thing it falls short on is spring reverb.
Plate reverbs sound really nice on guitars. They don’t have that sometimes boingy sound of springs. So they sit in a smoother place but still have a lot of character. The overtones are really flattering and can allow you to live in that Morricone Spaghetti Western world.
A hall reverb is meant to recreate the sound of a music hall or a symphonic hall. Ya know, places where orchestras used to play. Back in the day, before amplification, they designed rooms to sound great and resonate sound. They weren’t designed to be dead environments. Rather, to have sonic space.
Hall reverb sounds as if your instrument is being played in one of these halls. As you would expect, halls are individual. So depending on what hall your pedal or plugin is emulating, it could sound quite different.
Hall reverbs tend to be quite full sounding. It’s a great attribute when mixing or recording but it can be tricky in live situations, where it tends to get muddy. For this reason, I often use spring or plate reverbs live. But when it comes to sound, there are no rules!
Room reverb is exactly what it sounds like: reverb that emulates the sound of a room. Room reverb is “smaller” then hall reverb. It doesn’t have a long trail. This emulates something more like having a room mic setup in a studio or large living room.
Room reverbs are great for when you need a little air around your guitar sound but you don’t want to wash it out. Sometimes a fully dry guitar signal is just too harsh or narrow. Blending in a little room reverb can soften things in a flattering way.
Chamber reverb emulates the method of placing a speaker or couple of speakers in a reverberant room and miking the sound of the speakers resonating in the room.
Two of the most famous chamber reverbs would be the Capitol Records chamber (which was in the basement) and the Motown records chamber (which was in the attic).
UAD has recreated the Capitol Records chamber in plugin form, and it sounds great. You’ve heard this reverb on countless recordings.
Chamber reverbs is another reverb I reach for frequently. I’m very much into these classic sounds.
Some reverb units have options for otherworldly ambient effects. The Strymon BigSky has a swell reverb that I’m quite fond of. It swells a note or chord to a lush reverb. There are also options for adding octaves and other pitch-shifting effects to the reverb.
Another feature I like about the Strymon BigSky is the option for infinite sustain. You can play a note or chord, hold down the pedal, and the chord/note will sustain until you release it (it’s engaged by a pedal button). The BigSky also takes line level signal for use with mixing.
You can sometimes create unnatural spaces as well. This can lead to some very interesting reverb that can be run before or after your guitar amp depending on what you’re trying to achieve. More on that later.
Let’s look at some common parameters on reverbs.
Decay is the time it takes for the sound to fade away. Basically, it’s how “long” the reverb is.
Diffusion is trickier to understand. If we stand in a room and a guitar amp is playing in front of us, we’re going to hear not only the amp but also the amp reflecting off all the surfaces in the room.
Diffusion adjusts the distance between those reflections. If the reflections are closer together, it’s going to fill out the sound more. Less diffusion will thin it out.
Pre-delay is a very important parameter of reverb. It’s the time it takes for the reverb to be heard. With no pre-delay, the reverb is heard as soon as you play a note. This can sound great. But if you like a lot of reverb and feel your sound is getting lost, you can add more pre-delay. This will allow the note to come through before the reverb begins.
Pre-delay provides a reverb- saturated sound but retains articulation of each note.
Some reverb allows you to change the shape of the room. As you can imagine, this changes the way sound is reflected. An octagonal room and a square room have different reflections.
The Strymon BigSky gives us the option to infuse some modulation into our reverb. This can be a nice feature. It can add depth to your tone and can be more subtle than putting a chorus on your entire signal.
Now that we covered some of the basics of reverb, the types, and parameters, let’s discuss how to use it.
Delay and reverb are spatial effects. For a some time people believed that spatial effects should be avoided until mixing. The idea was to record everything dry for more control later.
Well, thankfully that era of closed-mindedness has passed. Yes, there are times when you will want to add reverb or delay later. But sometimes it’s crucial to the performance and tone to track with spatial effects.
I’m not suggesting you smother everything in reverb while committing to your tape (or DAW). I’m saying that if reverb is part of the performance, track it!
For me, this comes up in two situations:
1: Spring. As far as the guitar is concerned, spring reverb sounds best at the amp. Either before the front end or in the circuit. At this point it’s pretty rare for me to track a guitar without reverb when I know I will need it.
It just doesn’t sound the same applied after the tracking, even with good spring reverb plugins. For one, a tube guitar amp with a spring reverb built in (or spring reverb pedal in front of the amp) has another stage of gain. Depending on how hard you push the guitar amp, the reaction and tone of the spring reverb changes. It’s dynamic.
Turn a Blackface Princeton reverb up to eight and push the reverb. Tell me you can get that with a plugin! Spoiler alert: you can’t!
2: Ambient effects. Creating ambient landscapes sometimes requires actually playing the reverb. What you play and how it responds to the reverb changes your performance. The reverb becomes part of the performance. I feel it’s incredibly important to capture this.
There are times when I may even be on the floor with the pedal, tweaking parameters as I’m playing to conjure up interesting textures.
I even go as far as creating a guitar loop and feeding that into a delay and reverb to tweak it in real time. I often still prefer to do this in front of the guitar amp as opposed to in post.
As I mentioned earlier, I find it important to keep a relationship with the guitar amp and gain staging. As the amp gets pushed harder, it reacts differently. I may use this to my advantage to augment the tone.
There are times when I’m creating soundscapes where I know I want the reverb to be separated. I may want to run the wet-only signal of a reverb into a Death By Audio Evil Filter to really mess with the reverb and make it sound unnatural.
I may want to compress and radically EQ the reverb. This is a case where I may re-amp the reverb to pair with other guitar pedals.
Reverb in post doesn’t always sound bad, either. I love the UA EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator or UA Capitol Chambers on guitars. It’s more about knowing when to use it and in what applications.
Using reverb requires some planning when recording. You have to look into the future and consider how it’s going to end up. I find this to be important not just with guitars. You should try to have a vision for the song you’re working on. Don’t just grab at straws. Imagine what it will sound like when mixed.