On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

Give someone with a practiced ear a recording and they’ll be able to date it for you pretty quickly, to within a range of two or three years probably. Fashions change in music production and mix topologies, and so any element in a record may potentially give away when it was made: a particular guitar sound, the presence of a certain bass drum sample, the sound of the snare drum (tuning, size, damping, volume), the presence of programmed sub bass; anything really.

But perhaps the quickest route to determining the date of the production will be the amount and the type of reverb or echo used.

In the very earliest days of recording, making a record meant bringing a group of musicians into a room and positioning them around a recording horn. You’d base their positions on how loud you wanted their instrument to be in the end product. If you were working in a reverberant, live-sounding room, you’d make a reverberant, live-sounding record. In a dead room, you’d make a dead-sounding record. As magnetic tape became the standard recording medium and as consoles got bigger and engineers developed ways to treat signals during mix that had been recorded without effects (‘dry’), it became possible to create unusual, even other-worldly, sound pictures that weren’t at all based on the reality of the room the music was tracked in. As often as not, the appearance of reverb in a pop record would be an illusion, separate to and grafted on to a musical performance during mixing. You could solo the vocal, play it back in a cathedral nave and record the echoey sound produced by the sound bouncing around such a large structure, and hey presto, cathedral reverb. Generally speaking, then, the performer probably did not hear the echo or reverb that appears on the record while he or she performed; it was an extra-musical event. It may have been there to add a sheen, a sense of dimensionality, to make the music ‘sound expensive’, to make the record ‘sound like a record’ (to employ a couple of studioland clichés), but like most everything else in the realm of recorded music, it was an artifice.

Engineers developed a whole gamut of such techniques in order to better serve the wishes of their artist and producer clients, but history shows that any such technique can become wildly unfashionable at a moment’s notice. The use of the gated snare (that is, gigantic reverb on a snare drum turned on and off abruptly by applying a gate to an ambient microphone) was so prevalent in the eighties that it could be counted an absolutely standard studio technique. In 1993, nothing sounded more dated than the gated snare and a record-maker employing one would likely have been laughed out of town.

Broadly speaking, in the fifties/sixties and eighties the trend was towards spacious, reverby mixes and the seventies and nineties saw a move towards tighter, drier productions. The sixties reverb sound was produced by the use of large acoustic spaces to track in, and/or the use of plate reverbs or echo chambers. The eighties’ reverb sound was more likely an effect added at mixdown by using the Lexicon 224, an early (hardware) digital reverb processor, or some other similar signal-processing device. They produce very different effects – some of the Lexicon sounds are so over the top as to be cartoonish, and over-enthusiastic engineers and producers did some terribly heavy-handed things with them.

However, even then synthetic reverb effects (that is, effects produced not by tracking in a live room, or playing back the signal in an echo chamber, or through a plate or spring unit) were not new. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, made a trademark of creating an echo effect on the vocal by multing it and running the copy though an extra tape machine, delaying the copy slightly compared to the original. This sound became synonymous with Sun Records, and with rockabilly more generally. This sound has since been endlessly copied, revived and parodied. At this very minute, somewhere in the world, someone is making a record right now with a tape-delayed vocal, and congratulating themselves for their witty and original use of this fresh and innovative production technique.

Which kind of gets me to my point. Pop started eating itself long ago and while new techniques are always being created and employed, nothing really new has happened with the use of spatial effects (that is, echo, reverb and delay) since dub. Reverb, echo and delay are now so loaded with signifiers, so weighted down with the history of record production, that if one hears a striking, prominent use of a spatial effect on a contemporary record (or a very dry record that contains almost no such processing), what one is hearing is merely a quotation or a reference from another, older – and almost certainly fresher – record. All that differs is the number of quotation marks around the effect.

Perhaps this will change. Modern pop records are so dense, so loud and compressed that things like reverb tails tend to get swallowed up by persistent, steady-state instruments such as synths and programmed bass. But rock and indie is still rife with lazy, heavy-handed and uncreative uses of echo and reverb, and personally I want to hear something more driven by personal emotional expression and less driven by the desire to do something just because Sam Phillips (or Spector, or Clearmountain) did it.


The vast nave of Westminster Cathedral, © Mike Quinn

4 thoughts on “On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

  1. boardoffun

    Great article, as ever, but I can’t agree with you on some of this. You say that “nothing really new has happened with the use of spatial effects . . . since dub”, and that “reverb, echo and delay are now so loaded with signifiers, so weighted down with the history of record production, that . . . what one is hearing is merely a quotation or a reference from another, older – and almost certainly fresher – record”. But getting closer to the supposed “source” of an effect – its first instance, say – doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting access to a “fresher” version of it. What matters is if the effect works for the song. Does it make it better, or does it make it worse? Listeners and makers of music are increasingly aware that every effect is loaded with signifiers; musicians and producers also know that quotation is another tool to be used to make a great recording. Sometimes, evoking a Sam Phillips recording really is the best possible way to achieve “personal emotional expression”. Besides, when you listen to a 1955 Elvis recording today in 2013, your experience of the song will be conditioned by the associations it evokes, your own cultural awareness, your tastes (which, too, have been moulded by what you know). If, as a listener, you draw from these associations, it’s a bit strange to be so wary of musicians who draw from them, too, in an attempt to make something great.

    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      ‘Better’ is a continually moving target, for both the artist and the listener, and as a listener I can’t judge intentions, only results. I tend not to like an effect when I hear it as an obvious quotation, perhaps because at that point it feels like an intellectual exercise rather than a emotion-driven one. It’s that thing of being taken out of the music. But that’s a personal taste thing: when the effect is done well, I can’t quibble. But when I hear a badly applied effect, a little process begins: ‘What are they doing there?’ I think. ‘How are they doing that? Why are they doing that? How could they have done it better?’ At that point, I can’t be moved by the song because I’m listening in an intellectual way. I’d argue that this is not just an affliction suffered by engineers, producers and musicians; any listener will be so affected, though they might lack the vocabulary to describe their reaction.

      The thing is, effects (particularly time-based ones) tend to totally transform the way the music is perceived by the listener. It’s really interesting to read people’s responses to listening to the remixed, much drier, version of Ten by Pearl Jam – it confirmed two things to me: one, that whatever you do, not everyone will like it; and two, the apparency of intimacy in a mix (to which reverb, echoes and delays can be key) has a big part to play in whether or not I, personally, like it. Ultimately, I think these effects are more apt to have a negative effect on the music than people employing them might think, so doing so for the sake of it, quoting for quoting’s sake, pastiche for pastiche’s sake, is a dangerous game.

      1. boardoffun

        True, it’s a subjective thing. But I’d be amazed if anyone sits there ramping up the tape delay, say, purely as an intellectual exercise in quotation. M Ward, for example, can get distractingly mired in pastiche; I find it creates a barrier of cuteness that detracts from his songs, some of which are very good. But I doubt he produces music in this way in order to come across all clever-clever – he’s moved by the old music he’s referencing, and his many fans are in turn moved by the antique atmospherics he evokes. At its best, it’s a tool to create an unreality, a space that seems removed from the blunt realities of 21st-century life. It’s a shortcut to a romantic fantasy of the past. A lot of his music, and a lot of the music of others in his genre, might seem enamored with “quotation for quotation’s sake”. But there’ll be listeners out there who really respond to the effect – to them, it’s a heart reaction, not a head reaction.

  2. Pingback: Reverb, echo & delay revisited | songs from so deep

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