Just a touch can add so much
Sometimes, less is more. The most common solution to a dry, sterile sounding tone is to add just a touch of reverb. But, even if you have a stellar sounding amplifier that tiny little short-decay embellishment can tip your tone over the edge into blissful territory. Much like a singer prefers to track his or her vocals with a flattering smatter of reverb to blend into a mix, it is a phenomenon that the player can feel as much as hear. Almost like a little safety net for each note to fall on, a little reverb tail can even help you steer your string bends into pitch by offering that perceived extra sustain.
If you are an amplified acoustic guitarist, a little bit of reverb might be the only effect you need to use. Take a hint from a master-picker like Tommy Emmanuel on this one. He uses subtle reverbs from his old 80’s Midiverb II rack unit to enhance the percussive aspects of his playing and help arpeggios and notes within chords blend together. This same principle could be a revelation to electric guitar players without built-in amp reverb who may not know what they are missing. If this is all your style requires, try picking up T.C. Electronics little one-knob-wonder, The Hall of Fame Mini Reverb and stick it in your favorite amp’s effects loop, or make it the last little link in your pedalboard chain. A touch of verb could be the sonic adhesive that binds your whole tone together.
Distance equals depth
This legendary old recording maxim/technique was famously employed by Jimmy Page and the concept was to close-mic an amp in a small room and record the same source simultaneously with another mic at a distance. During mixdown, he would blend the two to create bigger sound. This organic approach still yields fantastic results and the art of mic placement has been refined to near perfection by the likes of Steve Albini, who’s extensive microphone collection and flattering ambient wonderland known as Electrical Audio Studios have birthed some of the most acoustically 3-dimensional records of all time.
Now most of us could only dream of laying down tracks or rocking out live in these tuned, reflective environments, but in most scenarios we will be using technology to mimic the grandeur of realistic space. Fortunately, with today’s technology you can recreate this sense of space and depth with a reverb pedal and there are two simple ways to do so. Let’s start with a mono setup. Many modern reverb pedals have a pre-delay knob (EHX Cathedral and Strymon Big Sky come to mind). If you tweak this control to delay the onset of the reverb by a few milliseconds and set your decay control to a minimum, you will be awarded by a slap-back that is akin to a room reflection. If you have a tone control on the pedal simply tune the “room” to bright or dark to blend or stand out. Now let’s consider some stereo options. If you have a stereo reverb pedal like a Nuenabar Wet or a T.C. Electronic Trinity then put it last in the chain, send it to your two favorite amps and season to taste. But let’s say you have a simple little EHX Holy Grail and want to create a big, wide sound without buying a new pedal. If you have a stereo pedal in front of your mono reverb box (maybe a stereo chorus or even the Boss TU-3 tuner) try running one output to an amp before the reverb and the other through it to the second amp. Viola! You’ve got a poor man’s stereo reverb.
Method to the movement
Modulated reverb is often associated with a ghostly, vaporous and otherworldly sound. Just listen back to Kevin Shield’s liquid-lava guitar sound on My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless (and the belated 2013 follow-up MBV) or Nick McCabe’s beautifully drenched torrential tone on The Verve’s 1993 album A Storm in Heaven and you can see how these pioneers re-thought reverb.
Up until recently you had to track down old rack units to conjure up crazy reverse or modulated reverb sounds, but now you can enjoy exploring the outer limits of sonority with Eventide’s Space, the aforementioned Strymon Big Sky, Hardwire’s Ambient Verb and Mr. Black’s Supermoon Modulated Reverb. Adding these little miracles of modern science to your pedalboard could inspire you in ways you never thought imaginable and you could have just as much fun sculpting new sounds as you would applying them to songs.
Modulated reverb can also be used for a more subtle effect. How many times have you wanted to emulate the slightly lilting beauty of a Johnny Marr riff but just couldn’t nail it down? You chuck your chorus pedals aside because they may just sound too dated or impose too much unnatural triangle wave movement to your tone. Maybe you want some tremolo-dipped embellishments to flourish but you don’t have a trem unit on your guitar? The answer could be hiding in a modulated reverb pedal. Try adding just a touch of movement from the modulation control and turn down the decay and blend. You now have that natural little sine-wave-slice-of-magic that you always had in your head but not on your board.
Sustain without gain
Before heaps of gain or compressor pedals were available to guitar players, the only way to externally add sustain to notes on a fretboard was to crank up that tube amp, add some dripping wet spring reverb to your signal, or both!
Back in the day, the spring was the thing and there was a golden-strat-armed king who commanded the airwaves (and the real waves) of America with aggro-staccato riffage. Enter Dick Dale, The King of the Surf Guitar. There are moments throughout guitar history where a player and an effect become synonymous and King Dale helped make the splashing beauty of the spring reverb unit a mainstay that is still arguably the most popular effect used by guitar players.
Even if you don’t have a Fender amp with a long-tank reverb built-in, 2014 has been somewhat of a spring reverb renaissance with excellent pedal emulation options abound. Choose from the Malekko Chicklet, Mad Professor Silver Spring Reverb, Boss FRV-1 or SolidGold FX Surf Rider Deluxe and don’t be afraid to add a touch too much. Next time you want to achieve an epic, sustaining sound, try replacing your trusty dirt box or compressor with a long reverb. It could put an original slant on things or turn a traditional heavy riff passage into a psychedelic experience.
Going full circle to a more simple application of the often-overlooked reverb pedal, let’s consider the most common logic of not having one. The biggest deterrent besides pedalboard real estate is the age-old argument of “you are always in a room, so why do you need a reverb pedal?” Well, what if the room sounds horribly shrill or is completely dead when people fill it? This is where a good room reverb pedal (such as the excellent, tube-driven T-Rex Roomate) can be a godsend. As mentioned earlier, a touch of reverb can be an enhancement you can feel as well as hear, and a room reverb with a tone control or hi-cut knob will enable you to diffuse harsh reflections in an unflattering ambient environment, or even double as an extra tone- shaping device.
Now that we have explored some of the various alternate and obvious uses for the “pedal that nobody needs”, consider the ever-evolving versions of reverb popping up on the market. Even if all your other stomp boxes take priority space on your pedal board, don’t be afraid to use the Gaffer Tape Velcro method to secure your favorite verb pedal to your amp (it will also be closer to your effects loop) and enjoy some flattering reflections.