The Moral Dilema of Reverb

May 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Some believe that all recorded music is a lie. There is truth to this extreme opinion - there is a massive difference between experiencing music as it is created and listening to a document after the fact. This is why so many artists fall into the category of "better live." Negotiating this difference is the principal challenge of the record producer or engineer -- the technician responsible for capturing a drummer's intensity or a guitar amp's power or a front man's charisma on a microphone.

Perhaps the most stark change from a band-on-stage to band-in-earbuds is the sense of space that come from the reverberations of the room, a phenomenon that is most commonly tackled in recordings by the effect we know as reverb.

Imagine Pet Sounds without the halos surrounding Brian Wilson's voice, or Dark Side Of The Moon flattened into two dimensions, and you can hear a world without reverb, a place where modern acts like Fleet Foxes, Best Coast, or Bon Iver might not even exist. Inversely, this effect poorly executed is a staple of the bad modern, fake recording. If all documented media conceptually lives in a gray area of the truth, reverb is a primary factor of a recording's honesty.

Reverb lies to us, makes us hear sounds with false enormity. A distasteful amount sometimes comes off as arrogant, an aural stamp of the inflated self worth of an artist who views its work as larger than it truly is. Over-reverberation can also read as shy, a lack of confidence causing one to bury her own voice in a haze.

This is not to say reverb makes an artist or engineer a liar. I'll be the first to stand up at a Reverberators Anonymous meeting and say, "Hello, my name is Ryan and I am a user." Reverb, like the MP3 or the band Facebook page, is a necessary evil. In the recording process, the microphone is generally within inches of a singer's mouth or an instrument. This closeness is needed for individual clarity, but does not represent the way sounds bounce around the walls of any given room before landing in your ears.

If the reasoning behind reverb is a determination of a recording's internal merit, the method used is another issue. The tradition of reverb dates back to the most primitive recordings. Limited technology forced multiple musicians to play into the same microphone, the incidental sound of the room being unavoidable. Over time, engineers used the ability to capture sound from multiple sources to recreate spatial depth; listen to a jazz record from the 1950s and you can hear the placement of the players in the room.

Eventually, recording environments were built with less natural echo; reverb became an aesthetic choice. The effect was outsourced echo chambers, large rooms of concrete or stone or ceramic with a speaker at one end to send the sounds into the chamber and a microphone at the other end to catch the meandering waves. The last few decades have seen recording technology become cheaper and easier, which has been great for the democratization of music but terrible for the quality of reverb. Those who are unable to build a massive underground echo chamber (let's call that demographic "the 99 percent") usually settle for reverb effects created digitally by computers or guitar pedals. The worst of these are harsh, their fading trails fizzling like an unsatisfying bottle rocket. While the digital versus analog debate is larger than this specific article, the conundrum boils down to artificiality. Original reverb techniques captured real sound in real rooms, a phenomenon digital reverb can only approximate with algorithms.

Reverb is a moral issue, but it is vague. Not every person making a record has an angel on one shoulder saying to leave it off and a devil on the other urging you to crank it up. (That angel's harp would probably sound better sweetened up with a little 'verb anyway) It is merely another of the myriad of ways one's music defines one's self. Those who abuse reverb might be careless souls with little attention to detail. Those who are hesitant to use it based on stigma may be insecure. Those who adamantly do not use any based on principle might be manifesting the same egotistical tendencies of the chronic over-reverberator or the close mindedness of a Religious fundamentalist. And those who use reverb only because their favorite artists used it are exercising an entirely different brand of disingenuity.

In the great musical tradition of solving a problem by transcending it, some have used this gray area as a jumping off point for further artistic or technical exploration. DIY folks make reverb units out of Slinkys and AC ducts. Home recordists put microphones in showers and blast sounds into the bathroom. Icelandic group Sigur Ros achieves its sprawling ambience by recording in an empty swimming pool.

Just as there are no limitations on what makes a song great, there is no steadfast conclusion to the moral reverb dilemma. The only rule in recording is that there are no rules - except don't make the harmonica too loud in the mix. But other than that there are no rules. Whether your reverb is digital, analog, or something else entirely, I urge you to not lose yourself in the ambient fog and, above all, to keep it real.