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What is Reverb, and Why is it Such an Important Effect in Music?

Ever wondered why singing in the shower sounds so good? Or why choirs sound so powerful in church performances? It’s all thanks to reverb – and your lovely voice, of course. When sound waves emit from a source, they reflect from surfaces and objects around a room, colliding and building up to create tons of echoes. Depending on the size of the room, the reverberation can be rich, long and ethereal, or short, snappy and bouncy. 

If you clapped your hands right now, you’d hear the sound bounce around the room you're in and return to you within a few milliseconds – that’s reverb. 

Reverb can complement vocals, guitars, drums, and synths, and is a wonderful tool for intricate sound design. Reverb exists naturally, but musicians and producers have found ways to categorise and cleverly apply the effect to recorded music. Whether producers and artists are capturing the reverb of a room or using software to create an artificial sense of space, it can almost always enhance the mood of a track. Thanks to the clarity of your Nura device, you’ll have no problem hearing how reverb influences the emotion and energy of your favourite music.

How is reverb applied to an instrument? 

Reverb is applied in two ways: naturally or artificially. Musicians and producers can place microphones around a space to naturally capture the reverberation heard in a room that an instrument is playing in. Otherwise, they may choose to use software and hardware reverb effects units to add the element of space to an instrument. 

A Room reverb is based on small spaces that we’re familiar with in the real world – bedrooms, studios, tiny music venues, and so on. Capturing this naturally can be as simple as setting up a microphone away from a vocalist, instrument or speaker but there is plenty of software dedicated to emulating the sound of a small room. Punk music was iconic for its use of natural room reverb to intensify the chaos in a small venue – when loud sound is literally bouncing off the walls that quickly, it can be intoxicating. You can even hear it in the recording of The Runaways’ Cherry Bomb. 

Hall is similar to Room, but is based on the sound of gigantic concert halls, often with a decayed sound of several seconds – perfect for orchestras and singers. Pop on your headphones and listen to the reverb following Dua Lipa’s singing below and you’ll hear how the reverb tail brings extra depth to her vocals and makes for a more moving performance.

Chamber reverb is still capable of the same washy, rich, prolonged reverb as a Hall, but with a little more clarity from the source sound. Renowned studios such as Abbey Road and Capitol Records would create an echo chamber in the building, where a speaker and a microphone were positioned in a reflective room. Instruments, vocals or entire tracks can be sent into the chamber and recorded with a luscious reverb – a sound that The Beatles loved. Just listen to John Lennon’s vocal in A Day In The Life and hear how the reverb makes it sound more psychedelic and dreamy, and how the string section is made more dramatic with an intense, huge space from the plate.

Plate and Spring reverbs are more mechanical than the others we’ve mentioned. Plate reverb relies on a large metal sheet and a magnetic driver. Audio signals vibrate the plate and the resulting sound is captured with a contact microphone. Spring reverbs use physical springs to breathe space into a track. A Spring reverb tank comprises several strings where an electrical audio signal is sent through one side and captured by a pickup on the other, much like a guitar has pickups to capture the vibration of a string. Spring reverb is a huge part of dub music, and can be heard prominently on King Tubby’s Dub I Can Feel. Those snare drums should give you the perfect idea of how this reverb left its mark on plenty of dub records.

How reverb created iconic recordings 

Some music has been made unforgettable thanks to reverb being applied in all the right places. It’s been the driving force of entire genres and has often taken some songs up to new levels and made them timeless.

If Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight was absent of reverb, the raw fury of Collins’ voice would have been lost; the guitars would have been void of melancholy. And the drum solo? Forget about it. This particularly epic piece of music is even more significant to the art of reverb than you might think. Collins and his producers created an entirely new type of reverb effect while making the song, now known as Gated Reverb. It’s since been used to amplify the impact of drum hits, even by electronic music pioneers such as Deadmau5. 

Motown was prolific in its use of reverb – echo chambers and plate reverbs were vital to its sound. We need only look to one of the greatest motown tracks of all time to hear it in action – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. In this track, you almost feel in the same room as Marivn and Tammi, as if the sound is reverberating off the wall and heightening the energy and passion. How can this sound possibly be recreated? Ask Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse. They used reverb in Back To Black to throw it back 40 years and make Amy sound straight out of the motor city. Here’s a clip of her recording it cleanly in the studio before any reverb was applied and how it sounds after the fact. It would be impossible to feel the same emotions without any reverb on this song. 

Tycho uses reverb to make everything sound dreamier and relaxing. He uses long, decayed reverbs to keep the notes hanging in the air, as if they’ve floated up and bouncing on clouds. Even his signature sound relies on reverb. Speaking to MusicTech, he said:  “Creating chords using reverb is kind of my signature. I’m not playing these big complex parts. It’s just the reverbs and delays overlapping with other notes to create these engaging sounds.”

Reverb can be used to totally transform the vibe and genre of a song, too. An entire movement erupted online where people would slow down chart-topping tracks and drench them in reverb. The result is stunning – making every track more cinematic, moving and dramatic. You’ll never listen to Childish Gambino’s Redbone in the same way ever again. 

You’ll hear reverb everywhere now – and that’s not a bad thing. A world without reverb would be a world without emotion. So immerse yourself in it, and see if you can feel how your favourite music is made that much sweeter with a bit of space. 

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