Curb The 'Verb


I was plowing through boxes of archive material the other day, when I came across a box of tapes from near the very start of my career (in the sense of an uncontrolled headlong plunge, you understand) in theatre. Mostly, they were copies of show tapes, but one instantly sent me back to a recording session that I did for a friend living an "alternative" lifestyle in a remote part of Wales. For the geographically curious among you, Wales is a self-governing region of the United Kingdom on the western edge of our little island and was a haven for those seeking to escape the rat race back in the 1960s. For everyone else, it is the birthplace of Tom Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan Thomas, Anthony Hopkins, and Richard Burton.

My friend Dave, a rather fine guitarist, had moved there with his new wife to live a self-sufficient existence in a small mobile home, and had struck up a friendship with another musical couple who played and sang in the local clubs and pubs. Dave decided that, together, they had a future as a band and rang me to ask if I could make a demo tape for them.

What I most remember about the session are the frequent trips that I had to make outside to clear my head of the fumes from the alternative smoking material, which was the main reason that what should have taken a few hours actually took all night. In spite of that, the recordings, though I say it myself, were pretty good, considering that I was overdubbing by bouncing between two stereo tape machines running at 7.5ips via a cheap little mixer. They still sound crisp and clear, but what stands out is the rather tasteful application of reverb. I had just acquired what was, for me anyway, the current state-of-the-art reverb unit, a Grampian 636 Spring Line. Beloved of The Who's Pete Townshend for the way he could drive it into distortion, and revered by me as far superior to the homemade unit that I had cobbled together from a couple of ex-army surplus headphone drivers, an electric fire element, and an 18"-long cardboard tube, I applied reverb to almost everything for a couple of months after I'd bought the 636 second-hand from a local studio. Luckily, this coincided with a string of experimental works in the studio theatre and plays with scenes in cathedrals, dungeons, and other reverberant spaces in the main house. Then reality set in, and I learned how to use reverb with restraint and to reasonable effect.

From then on, I developed a sort of reverb-lust; the Grampian was good, but the big studio that I sometimes used had an EMT 140 plate, something that I could afford about as much as I could lift—a huge beast in a wooden enclosure that sounded very sweet on vocals but wasn't exactly portable or affordable for theatre work. Gradually, I worked my way up through bigger and better spring-line units, the various MasterRoom models and eventually an AKG BX20, the biggest, spring-iest spring-line of them all.

Actually, I got the BX20 pretty much for free after a significant event in the world of reverb, which was the arrival of affordable digital reverbs from Yamaha. There had been others beforehand, including the astonishing EMT 250—the demo model of which I managed to break at an exhibition in 1976—which looked like a cross between a floor-standing radiator and the flight-deck of the USS Enterprise and cost an arm and several legs, and the AMS RMX16 in 1981, famously loved by Phil Collins, hated by George Harrison, and lusted over by gear-heads everywhere but still hugely expensive. Then came the Yamaha units. Starting with the Rev1 and the R1000 in 1983 and followed swiftly by the Rev7 and the SPX90 in 1985, high-quality digital reverb was available to anyone with a reasonable budget. From then on, progress was astonishingly rapid, and the market was glutted with multi-processing digital devices.

The theatre sound world was awash with racks of these things being applied to every situation possible. Echo-y dogs auto-panned around auditoria while flanged thunder crackled overhead; Macbeth's witches and Peter Pan's Tinkerbell were pitch-shifted out of all intelligibility; pit bands were stuck in concert halls, drummers in stone chambers, and vocalists plated to within an inch of their lives; and, for me, the lust for reverb faded. I began to loathe the over-produced sound of many musicals, to dread the reverb-laden ballad, and to fear the gated-reverb of the drum pattern that preceded the inevitable key change, and I retreated into a more or less reverb-less world, only coming out for occasional forays in extreme circumstances.

I had a major falling out with one star of the musical theatre, when he took me to one side just before the technical rehearsals and informed me that he didn't care about anyone else, but he wanted massive reverb, bags of compression, and high levels of vocal feedback during his numbers. I told him I didn't think that would quite fit in with the nature of the show and was told in no uncertain terms, that "the audience is coming to see me, not the show." Eventually, the producer, who came in after the press night and threatened to fire the operator if he didn't carry out the star's instructions, overruled me, and the star's numbers were totally out of keeping with the way the rest of the show sounded, much to my disgust. Actually, it turned out that the audiences had come to see the show, not the star, and his reviews were rather insipid, so I felt somewhat vindicated.

I only ever worked with that producer once more and had to be restrained from physical intervention when his diagnosis of what was wrong with a musical that concerned suicide, murder, and generally degenerate behavior was that there wasn't enough reverb on the leading man's solo number, a bleak and introspective song with a solo acoustic bass accompaniment. Luckily, the director, composer, arranger, musical director, and actor all agreed with me, and the song returned to its spare state, but for many producers, I have a horrible feeling that "more reverb" has joined the ranks of "louder and brighter" as the cure-all touchstones for an ailing show.

It's all too easy to add reverb these days, with the plethora of digital effects available as part of the operating system of digital mixing boards, and I've found a regrettable tendency among my younger operators to "improve" the sound by surreptitiously adding more reverb to my ascetically restrained mixes. Many a wrist has been slapped for sneaking toward that auxiliary send control. What eventually pulled me back into the world of reverb was the appearance of convolution reverbs, first in hardware units and then in software in the shape of AudioEase's Altiverb program, with a set of impulse responses captured from a vast number of spaces and devices that seemed to me once again to give possibilities for a high degree of subtlety and realism, rather than simply being applied for effect. In fact, I can now have the sound of many of my old favorite hardware reverb units sitting in a folder on my laptop alongside castles, cathedrals, sports halls, and caverns, which is a rather special thing. I still use reverb sparingly, but the high quality of the impulse responses does make me wonder how we ever thought that the reverb patches in those earlier digital systems were anything like the real thing. The first time I used Altiverb on a show, a composer friend of mine rushed around backstage to see me. I asked him what he thought of the show, and he replied, "Never mind that. What's that reverb you're using? It's superb!" Of course, there are other convolution reverbs out there, along with some great hardware from the likes of Lexicon and TC Electronic, and life would be very dull if we all used the same things, so don't take my word for it; start exploring the modern world of reverberation; just do it in moderation.

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.

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