Dressing up the Sound: The importance of the Reverb
Today I’d like to introduce a topic, which due to its vastity, I’ll treat in more than one post. The topic under exam, as I stated in the title, is the reverb. This topic is also part of my Audio Mix course, which I teach in several institution.
I decided to take and analyze the reverb on a more philosophical way since the internet and books are full of technical information about it. This should give you a better understanding of this powerful tool, and hopefully make you a better user of it!
What is the reverb? Technically it is that acoustic phenomena linked to the sound reflection, describing the time that the intensity of a sound needs to decay of 60db compared to its original emission. Academically, despite its thoroughness, is a very dry definition. It does not give us a complete picture of all connotations that the reverb can have in Music and Sound Production, enriching the Corpus Mysticum and the Corpus Mechanicum of a given opera.
We already know, also thanks to the studies conducted by Alfred Tomatis, the importance of sound in the psychology of a human being. Amongst the numerous things discovered, it has been observed that the reverb is strongly connected with the emotion of a person, radically altering the perception of the sound.
Unfortunately, from the ’80s we can assist to a fact that slowly and constantly demeaned the role of the reverb, especially in music production. For the people there are not from behind the scenes, the reverb assumed the connotation of a mere effect, often confused with another effect: the echo. It can be said that there is some truth in it, even if it is an exaggerated simplification: the reverb in fact is just a finite series of echoes, very close to each other, so close to give us the illusion of one sound, the infamous tail.
Thanks to the bullet-list, I’ll try to clarify the various context in which a reverb can take shape. These considerations are purely personal. After years of experience and personal studies, I hope they could be the foundation for someone else to develop and expand these considerations.
Let’s see how one could use the reverb:
- Description of the sonic context (Architectural):
One of its main usages is the construction of an hypothetical acoustic environment, with precise and determined features. It usually contributes to the Corpus Mysticum of an opera, adding to it connotations that can put the audience in a precise space. We can decide to make the song sounds as if it plays in a cathedral instead of a cave, or even in an empty hall of a crowded club, giving psycho-acoustics meanings from time to time, reinforcing a meaning or creating a contrast. In the case of a movie, this approach is used to recreate the sound of a particular space to match it with what is happening on the screen.
- Placing of the sound sources (Spatial):
The reverb, together with other tools and techniques, can also be used to place various sound sources in various points of the soundscape, giving us the skills of moving the sound sources around. By tweaking parameters like the Time and the Pre-Delay, we can move sounds from the background to the foreground and vice versa, establishing the depth of those sounds.
- Emotional recall (Subtext or Intimacy):
So far as is needed to highlight or enhance the emotional content of a sound source, the reverb assumes a crucial importance because, with a correct usage of it, the reverb is possible to create and establish a degree of intimacy between the listener and the sound (or a group of sounds). This operation can happen in an evident way, or act straight on the subconscious levels of the listener. Is an important contributor of the Corpus Mysticum, because approaching to the reverb in this way will allow us to add extra meanings to the song, meanings that for example are not evident in the lyrics.
- Sonic dough (Amalgam):
Given two or more sound sources (for example the music instruments of a pop song), is crucial to enhance the blend of all these elements, enclosing them in the same sonic context (which is not architectural!) and mix them further. To do this is often advisable to use one or more reverbs (in strict correlation, of course) to create sonic tails which will pleasantly enhance the relationships of all the sounds in a soundscape.
I’d really want to emphasize on one aspect: all these elements aren’t exclusivr, but as often happens in the art, they work together, with different degrees of importance. The post is over, but let me leave you with one example for each of the four usages of reverb, so that you can understand better.
Song: Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby
Artist: Cigarettes After Sex
The reverb in this song is used to build a precise sonic location. The long tails and the balance which is clearly favoring the Wet signal over the Dry one, describe something like an empty warehouse, and the sparkly frequency response of some of the instruments is even suggesting us some materials used in the building of the space. I can personally feel iron sheets and wooden beams. The choice of the architecture is adding up on some non evident meanings of the song. Why don’t you try to find them and give your answers on the comments of this post?
Song: Sunday Morning
Artist: The Velvet Underground
As the song goes, section by section, we can notice an increase of the reverb on the voice. This technique, here used in an evident way, is suggesting to us that the voice is moving towards the background, sliding far from the listener. Don’t we all feel like that on a Sunday morning, when we keep dozing off in our beds, letting all the sounds slide far away from us?
Subtext or Intimacy:
Song: Post Break-Up Sex
Artist: The Vaccines
Most of the times post break-up sex is an experience that leaves one with a lot of regrets and discordant emotions blowing up in our heads as narrated in this song. But wait, in the lyrics there is no place where the singer is clearly talking about voices in his head. The unnatural reverb here is mostly symbolizing that: the thought and the feeling of the main characters, just letting the words die before they reach his mouth. Using the reverb in this way helps to create an intimate connection between the artist and the listener, by putting this one
in the singer’s thought and obviously adding other meanings which are not verbalized in the lyrics. It is also interesting to notice how the reverb on some elements is contrasting with the reverb on some others, enhancing the discordance between tangible and intangible.
Song: With or Without You
The main function of the reverb on this song is aiming to create a well defined and contained sonic dough, conveying its connotative and denotative elements in fluid flux, acoustically correlating all the sound sources. Furthermore, the creation of these sonic tails also fills possible arrangement gaps, giving a sense of continuity of that flux.
That’s all for today! Have a nice listen and stay tuned 😉