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Using reverb

I am a bit of a reverb geek. Back in the day when a nice sounding reverb was a Veblen good, I spent a lot of money to get a Lexicon PCM-90. I always found its sound a little thin, albeit much better than the low-cost reverbs I used up until that point.

Recently, my PCM-90 starting having hardware problems, so I had to find a replacement for it. I found one: Sean Costello’s Valhalla Vintage Verb (VVV) Right now, I am recording the rest of my album using nothing but the “Smooth Random” algorithm in VVV.

I am very deliberately limiting my options, because I am becoming as familiar as I can with this particular reverb algorithm, and because it’s too easy to fall in to the trap of spending all my time designing sounds instead of making music.

This one algorithm can sound really nice as everything from a small tight drum room, a large canyon, or even an huge ambient wash which is great for making space music.

The big disadvantage of VVV is that I have to use a computer to have it; this doesn’t mean I have to record “in the box.” I can hook up the computer directly via USB to my Roland JP-08 or JD-Xi and have VVV directly add its reverb to the output of the synthesizer (NOTE: To enable this on the JD-Xi requires setting a hidden menu option), or I can hook up my Scarlett 2i2 to my computer and have the computer act like a traditional reverb on a send. The VVV is quite light on CPU; I can use it in 24/96 mode (to decrease latency) on an eight-year-old Thinkpad I have in the studio which I use as a dedicated reverb processor.

For the kind of space music I am making, there really is no such thing as too much reverb. With the bigger washes, I really have to “print” the reverb: Record the synthesizer to my multitrack with the reverb already added to the sound, instead of adding the reverb when I mix the sound. This way, the sound of the reverb directly affects the texture of the sound and how I play it. This, in fact, is common practice using a modern digital synth with a built-in reverb.

For people who prefer not to use a computer, Sean Costello makes, for the Z-DSP, Halls of Valhalla and Valhalla Shimmer. There’s also, not from Sean, the Strymon Big Sky and the Eventide Space (my favorite musician loves the Space pedal).

I personally find, listening to YouTube demos, that the Big Sky has this way of imposing its sound on a synth texture in a manner that VVV doesn’t. VVV can create a huge wash, but the wash generally preserves the texture of the synth going through it.

Since I use VVV in its “1980s” mode, there is some noticeable grunge in the reverb’s sound; I think the grunge adds a character to my music so it doesn’t sound sterile, but it does sound a bit dirty. If not desired, using the “Now” mode appears to reduce it.

Next time the reverb discussion comes up, I might descend in to a discussion about how a digital reverb is made: All pass filters, Fourier convolutions, Feedback delay networks, and the difference between an early reflections processor, input difussor, and main reverb tank. But that’s another discussion for another day.

See also