Guitar pedals explained (Part 4): Delay and Reverb

Guitar pedals explained (Part 4): Delay and Reverb

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Everybody knows how delay and reverb effects are like. In fact, they try to reproduce the sonic effect that occurs naturally to any sound that propagates within a closed environment.

Wether you play in a bathroom, in a concert hall or in a cathedral, you will experience how these type of environments affect the decay of the signal, as the (many) echoes bouncing back from every direction (from walls, ceiling, floor) add up to the tail of the signal, expanding its decay.

Depending of the nature (and number) of echoes adding up to the dry signal, you will have what is call reverberation or delay:

  • Delay. You can see the delay as a repetition of the sound delayed in time, either a single repetition or a higher number of them, spaced in time, decreasing in volume over time.
  • Reverb. Reverb is similar to the delay, but with a lot of repetitions, shortly delayed in time. The more delayed the echo is, the lower its volume. All the echoes are blended together, giving a continuous tail to the sound.

Delay pedals

As said before, delay is a natural effect. Now, how this effect is obtained by means of a guitar pedal depends on the technology.

Vintage tape delays were the first artificial means to generate this effect, but when it comes to stompboxes, delay pedals can be classified (roughly) in two groups: analog and digital delays.

  • Analog delay. You experience echo in the natural world when you  clap in proximity of a hard, flat, somewhat distant wall, and hear the sound come bouncing back to you at a delay determined by your distance from the surface. This effect generates echoes using analog circuitry, adding a little change in the tone of the repeats. Analog delay pedals are limited to relatively short delay times and number of repetitions.
  • Digital delay. The evolution of digital circuits allowed generating more complex type of delays, by adding more functionality and increasing the delay time and maximum number of repetitions. Some pedals even include a built-in looping function that allows you to record short (or sometimes pretty long) riffs and repeat them infinitely, playing over the top.

A little history…

Empress Tape Delay
Empress Tape Delay

The early implementation of any means of delay (artificially generated) was again by using electromechanical devices. By recording the signal in two tape reels, you could adjust one of them to be delayed in time with the other, obtaining a delay effect. This is how old tape delays worked. They allowed a new way of playing in the fifties, setting the bases of rockabilly and early rock&roll.

Some guitar players find the tape delay as the pure vintage tone. That is the reason why most manufacturers include in their catalogue modern versions of tape delay pedals. They are obviously not like real tape delays, but they model (either analog or digitally) its sound electronically. Empress Tape Delay is a great example of a great modern tape delay.

As always, the evolution of solid-state electronics allowed reducing the size and complexity of delays. Thanks to the Bucket Brigade Device (BBD) chip, delay pedals became very popular in the seventies. They also added more versatility to guitarists thanks to the controls they implemented and the longer available delay times.

They increasing capabilities and lower prices of digital solid-state technology brought small and affordable delay pedals in the early eighties. The first commercially available digital delay pedal stompboxed was the Boss DD2 Digital Delay in 1984.

Digital memories allowed to increase the delay time up to a couple seconds. Modern digital pedals feature infinite number of repetitions. Some even include a looper function, allowing you to record a phrase, and then play along while the recorded phrase is looped over time.

Every pedal manufacturer (even most of boutique brands) include at least one delay pedal in their catalog.

You can dig deeper in the history of delay by checking out  these articles, one by the great high-end pedal manufacturer Effectrode and the other by Wikipedia.

Controls and features

The number of controls of delay pedals is different depending on the type of delay that it targets.

An analog delay pedal will be simpler than a digital delay modeling workstation. Here the possibilities are endless.

You can be sure that you will find, at least, three knobs in any delay pedals: Level, Time and Feedback. However, there are a lot of different delay pedals in the market, and you will find a few of them implementing the following controls:

  • Level. As always, this knob changes the presence of the effect. You will be able to go from a completely dry sound to a fully blended, only-delayed signal.
  • Mode. Some pedals target different types of delay: ping-pong (in stereo stompboxes), analog delay, digital delay, echo, loop, tape, reverse, etc.
  • Time. With this knob you can change the delay time. A lot of pedals also have a Tap switch, with which you can change, by stomping on it, the time of the delay, adjusting it to the rhythm of what you’re playing.
  • Feedback. Feedback accounts for the number of repetitions. With this knob at its minimum, you’ll only hear a single repetition. Turn it all the way up and you’ll have infinite repetitions (in a digital delay). The delay sound is usually faded out with the repetitions.
  • Tone. Some pedals allows you to change the tone of the delay, especially analog delays. Some analog delays also include a little modulation in the repetitions.

Do I need a delay pedal?

Just like I sed with Overdrive pedals in the Part 2 of this series, I will say Yes, no doubt here.

You do need a delay pedal. Or two (one that you will have always on and the other just for playing with other sounds). It is very common to have a delay pedal for short delays and another one for longer delays.

Reverb pedals

Reverberation can be defined as the persistence of a sound after it has been produced. Reverb is commonly experienced in an empty, unfurnished room, or really in any chamber with walls,  where multiple short echoes with long delays build up to an atmospheric recurring delay in the sound created in that room.

It can be imperceptible in an open space or a crowded and fully carpeted chamber,  and you can really notice its effect in a cathedral or a big cave.

Even though reverberation can be considered as a unique effect that occurs when some number of different echoes (at different delay times) add up to the end of the sound you play, reverb pedals try to emulate different types of reverbs.

Here are the most common types included in many reverb pedals:

  • Room. Room reverb try to emulate the kind of reverberation you may have naturally in a chamber. That is, in a relative small closed space, where you don’t expect to have long reverb times.
  • Hall. In this case, this reverb accounts for bigger spaces. Imagine yourself playing the guitar in a cathedral, or in a big cave. Similarly to the Room reverb, Hall emulates a reverberation that occurs naturally.
  • Plate. Plate reverb was an electromechanical way to reproduce natural reverberation in the late fifties. By using an electromechanical transducer, they create vibration in a large plate of sheet metal. A pickup captures the vibrations as they bounce across the plate, and the result is output as an audio signal.
  • Spring. Spring reverb is kind of similar to the plate reverb, because they also use an electromechanical transducer to create vibration in a spring (or more than one). A pickup captures again the vibrations of the spring. A lot of vintage tube amplifiers had built-in spring reverbs in them.
  • Shimmer. It is a kind of reverb that introduces additional notes (usually an octave up) that gives you a choral sensation. It is a sort of ghost-like effect that will give you a strange (but sweet) sustained tone.

A little history…

Electro Harmonix Cathedral reverb
Electro Harmonix Cathedral reverb

The first artificially generated reverberation was made thanks to spring reverberators. Spring reverbs are bulky electromechanical devices that utilize a transducer and a pickup to create and capture vibrations within a few metal springs, creating a very peculiar effect.

After spring reverberators, plate reverberators were used in the sixties to generate reverb in recording studios. They a similar to spring reverbs, but in this case they capture the vibrations along a metal plate, producing a different sound.

In the guitar world, spring reverb became mainstream due to the fact that most vintage tube amps started to incorporate built-in reverbs. Some of the most mythical devices being made by Fender in the sixties (i.e. Fender Princeton Reverb, Fender Deluxe Reverb, etc.).

Apart from modern reissues of vintage tube amps (of any brand), modern amplifiers include built-in spring reverbs. On the other hand, the history of reverb pedals (as stompboxes) is shorter, due to the fact that most of them use digital technology, and everybody was very happy just using proper spring reverbs…

It was in 1985 when the first reverb pedal appeared. The DOD FX45 Stereo Reverb (perhaps along with the Arion SRV-1 Stereo Reverb) the was based on analog technology and preceded the first digital reverb pedal ever made: The Boss RV2 Digital Reverb.

Nowadays every manufacturer incorporates some reverb pedals in their portfolio. They are great units, some trying to emulate spring-based vintage sounds, some others allowing you playing with endless types of reverb sounds.

Controls and features

All reverb stompboxes are digital. Therefore, the functionalities of these pedals are countless. However, most of them try to emulate real environmental sensations.

There are pedals for a single kind of reverb. This way, you can find spring reverb pedals with a single control on them, just like some amps have built-in.

However, some other pedals have infinite possibilities do to the amount of controls they include. Take as an example the Strymon BigSky, without any doubt, the best reverb pedal ever made.

In any case, you may expect to play with these controls in most reverb pedals:

  • Level. As in most guitar pedals, the level knob in your reverb pedal (also called Mix, Blend, etc.) changes the volume of the reverb. If you turn this knob at its minimum, you’ll only have the dry signal (without any reverb). Turn it all the way up, and you’ll only hear the reverberated sound. This knob will allow you to dramatically change the presence of your guitar, whether if it feels at the very front (dry) or behind any other instrument (fully wet).
  • Mode. Some pedals implement different kind of reverbs. With this knob, you’ll be able to change the type of the reverb.
  • Time. With this knob you will control the decay of the reverberation, i.e. how long does the sound takes to vanish. With less time, the reverb will emulate smaller spaces, whereas larger times stand for larger environments.
  • PreDelay. This knob controls the time until the reverb sound happens.
  • EQ. Some pedals implement different means to equalize the tone of the reverberation.

Do I need a reverb pedal?

My answer is yes. In fact, looking for a reverb pedal for me was the reason to start this website.

Everybody will tell you that there is nothing like natural reverberation. Just play in a good sounding room, and that will be the best reverb for your tone.

In addition, if you are playing live with your band, the sound engineer will tell you to play dry so he will ad reverb to the whole mix (if necessary). The same applies to the studio. When recording, just play dry, the reverb will be added afterwards.

Well, that is ok, but a reverb pedal may give you the possibility to change the presence of your guitar when playing live, and it can also change how your amp sounds like at different volumes.

You may also think: “my amp already has a built-in reverb”. Yes, you’re right! But you will have to stick to a single (and very peculiar) kind of reverb: spring reverb.

If you want versatility, and you like to create different kind of sound ambients by using reverb, you better get a good digital reverb pedal.

You will enjoy it just playing alone. you will sound different. You will sound great.

Here is the complete list of posts of this “pedals explained” series:

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