Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Study In Reverb

Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is removed.[1] A reverberation, or reverb, is created when a sound is produced in an enclosed space causing a large number of echoes to build up and then slowly decay as the sound is absorbed by the walls and air.[2] This is most noticeable when the sound source stops but the reflections continue, decreasing in amplitude, until they can no longer be heard. The length of this sound decay, or reverberation time, receives special consideration in the architectural design of large chambers, which need to have specific reverberation times to achieve optimum performance for their intended activity.[3] In comparison to a distinct echo that is 50 to 100ms after the initial sound, reverberation is many thousands of echoes that arrive in very quick succession (.01 - 1 ms between echoes). As time passes, the volume of the many echoes is reduced until the echoes cannot be heard at all.

Mazzy Star--"Fade Into You" (mp3)
George Harrison--"Awaiting On You All" (mp3)

Reverb is like salt. For most aural palates, a light sprinkling of it makes music sound better. It, too, is a flavor-enhancer, one that gives both depth and complexity to any kind of music. Like salt, it is found in nature, though not always in usable form, and methods can be introduced to concentrate and enhance it. Like salt, too much of it can overwhelm everything else that is on the palate.

Reverb is like a 3-D movie, only kind of in reverse. Rather than send images racing towards your face, it recreates the sounds of a room and gives them depth.

Harmonies are richer with reverb. The quavering voice conveys even more emotion. The sinister sounds more sinister.

John Lennon, in his latter years as a Beatle, and especially during his solo career, became a reverb junkie, especially where his voice was concerned.
Sam Phillips, the ex-wife of T-Bone Burnett, once recorded a CD with no reverb on her vocals as an "innovative" technique to give the music starkness.

There are particular songs that are hard to imagine without their reverb component. Roger Daltrey's scream near the end of "We Won't Get Fooled Again" would not achieve its incredible crescendo. Every song by the Doors gets its creepy feel from reverb. "Sympathy For The Devil" would not have a rich, percussive opening without it. Patsy Cline might not have a career.

Try listening to the two songs above. Both have heavy reverb. One works, I think. One doesn't. On every song I've ever heard from Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval's voice is drenched in reverb; I have three of their cds. It is, without a doubt, the main signature of their sound, that plus the downer, minor key nature of the vocals. But I think it works. It gives her a kind of gothy/emo vibe to a sound which, stripped of everything else, is actually kind of country in its simplicity and its chord changes. But if you listen to her a lot, or if you just listen to this most popular of their offerings, you know she's going to take a mopey, depressed attitude toward whatever she is singing about. "I think it's strange you never knew," she sings, and the music echoes that strangeness.

Harrison's song, by contrast, is a peppy, up-tempo religious number. It's a song I like, but in its live version. "Just chant in the name of the Lord and you'll be free," he sings. It's a happy song, but it sounds like it sounds like it was recorded inside a hookah (or Davenport Gym). In his arrangement, which has a lot of instruments, everything is swamped in reverb. By using the reverb effect to push all of the instruments and all of the background vocals deeper into the mix, Harrison (or his producer, if it isn't him) creates mud. Too much reverb + too many instruments creates a mess where individual performances become part of a "wall of sound," to use the Phil Spector label.

Maybe it worked with the Ronettes, when you had Ronnie Spector's powerful, immediately-recognizable voice as the basis for a song, but Harrison's voice is thin and weak, and he gets as lost in the mix as everything else.

Arguably, more than anything else, it is the use of reverb that distinguishes the rock sound. Other recordings before rock based their recordings on the sonic qualities of the room, choosing a room, or hall, or other space that would be sympathetic to the sound that a performer was trying to create. But when rock and roll dropped the "and roll," and even before, and became a bigger, richer sound, the most effective way to give everything from the snare drum to the power chords the guitarist was playing some depth was to attach a bit of reverb to it.

Not too much now, unless you really know what you are doing.

1 comment:

troutking said...

Very informative. Thanks!