The Moral Dilema of Reverb

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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.

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