Need some Eno/Lanois flavour? A touch of epic 80s ‘verb? If your dreams are made of Blade Runner pads and wet as an otter snares, you owe it to yourself to try one of these retro FX boxes.
As many of you know, the first reverberation techniques did not involve effect processor units as we know them -ie: racks or pedals-. These were often achieved via the use of simple ambient mics, or by feeding the mixer’s sends to some speakers placed in actual rooms, to be later picked by mics in order to add some extra ambiance (these spaces were often called “echo chambers”). This method was not always convenient -for obvious reasons-, and it didn’t offer much control other than EQing the sends and returns, moving the mics/speakers, or acoustically treating the room. It also needed a dedicated space just for reverb, unless stairwells or bathrooms were re-purposed as temporary reverb-chambers (no pooping on mixdown allowed!!).
German firm EMT -ElektroMessTecknik- was one the first companies that sought to solve this problem, and turn the need into a business opportunity with the EMT 140. These first dedicated FX processors were analog, and not only analog but also electro-mechanical. Spring reverb, originally developed by Bell Labs, soon found it’s way in instruments like the Hammond organ as early as 1935; later appearing in guitar amps -from the likes of Fender or Vox- and even synths -like ARP’s 2600 or EMS’ Synthi line-. But springs were quite “boingy” and unrealistic, which made them unsuitable for many studio situations -like adding reverb to snares-, a characteristic apparent even in advanced designs like AKG’s BX line. In 1957 EMT tried a similar approach to Bell Labs but with metal plates instead of springs, and thus the EMT 140 was born. It had a much smoother sound -compared to springs-, and it could even achieve different tail lengths by physically damping the plate.
But this was still quite cumbersome, as plates were still huge in size, metallic sounding and very limited in control. Something smaller, more convenient and more versatile was needed, and EMT came to the rescue again. With the aid of David Griesinger, they designed the first electronic reverberator, the legendary EMT 250. This 100% digital device (that looked like a Dalek) would later prove very influential in subsequent designs -from better known firms like Lexicon’s 224 or Eventide’s SP-2016-, with its use of tuned delays, all-pass filters and chorusing for tail softening. In the late 80s and early 90s, DSP microprocessors, converters and digital memory became increasingly affordable, and more budget-friendly racks and pedals came along (Alesis with their Midiverb line is a fine example, and a favourite of many 90s Warp artists).
Reverb effects have come a long way since then, with convolution technology arriving first to hardware (via modern classics like the Sony DRE-777 and Yamaha S-REV1), and later to software platforms within our DAWs (in the form of premium plugins like Altiverb or freeware alternatives like SIR). And, while these can approximate almost any sound with the right impulse response, many of us still miss the vibe and programmability of the old digital ‘verbs. Companies like Relab or UAD have resurrected ancient flagships like the EMT 250 or the Lexicon 480 in plugin form. Others like Valhalla have created amazing new plugs (like VintageVerb) with a heavy influence from the original units. But… what happened to hardware? Are reverb FX processors a dying breed?
Fortunately a few -mostly small- companies still care enough to put the vintage experience at your fingertips. Software is great when total recall and multiple instances are needed, but the pleasure of hands-on tweaking, and the need for hardware in certain situations (like in console-centric studios or live performances) is still a driving force.
So if you like slutty gear and retro-style digital reverberation, look no further. Here’s the list with our top picks of -currently available- hardware reverbs with a vintage vibe.
After taking the world by storm with their overnight hit product “Biscuit” -the legendary, yet sadly discontinued, bitcrusher/filter-, french company OTO devised an equally stylish trilogy of effects for every need: BIM, BAM and BOUM. The BIM is a stereo digital delay with a touch of analog spice, while it’s red brother BOUM is described as a “warming unit”, featuring fully analog compression and distortion circuits. The yellow fellow in the trio is the BAM reverb unit; a “space generator” whose algorithms are based on vintage racks like EMT’s 250, Quad Eight’s CPR-16 and Lexicon’s 224. But the BAM’s strengths are not only in the algos, the unit also features a fine-tuned analog input section (one of the secrets of classic hardware) plus lo-fi conversion. All of it is packed in a small table top device, sporting MIDI and a generous dose of knobs, similar in size to most old reverb remote controllers. I personally LOVE this thing, so much that I actually have bought one (and it has become my go to verb for synths).
You can get the BAM here.
EVENTIDE SP-2016 REISSUE
FX specialists Eventide recently revisited their first dedicated reverb, the SP-2016, releasing a plugin of this very scarce piece. But the “new” plug is actually a software port of a previous hardware reissue of the 2016. Released in ’04, the SP reissue is still available -if you have the dough-, with it’s unparalleled vintage sound and hands-on control; all kept inside a very stylish and modern interface, full of led-ringed knobs (a cool choice for a preset device, much like the Moog Little Phatty or the Nord Lead 3). The 2016 is indeed a very nice reverb that’s better suited to studio or FOH use, given the fact that, much like its ancestor, it was made to live in a rack.
Another rack unit, the PCM-96 is the last flagship reverb from Lexicon (after the discontinuation of the 960L), and we’re still not sure if there will ever be a worthy successor to it, since Harman (Lexicon’s parent company) seems to have lost interest in the brand. But the 96 is still alive and kicking, so whether you need classic Lex verbs (with their recognizable chorused tails) or modern pristine sounds (with algorithms like their new “Room”) in hardware form, this PCM is the ticket. The downside to the unit (much like in older Lexicons) is its menu-heavy interface, but deep programming comes at a cost! It also has a controller plugin available, but that might defeat the purpose of buying a hardware ‘verb (you could always buy Lexicon’s Native Plug instead). Definitely, a modern classic.
There are many great reverb pedals today from the likes of Strymon, Eventide or Meris (to name a few), but most of them are fairly modern sounding. While the RV-500 might not seem as fashionable of a choice, it’s actually a very serious verb with a fair dose of vintage factor! Much like its competitors, the RV-500 has a nice collection of algorithms: plates, halls, rooms… But the cool thing is that it also features emulations of the RE-201 Space Echo, plus one of Roland’s own vintage digital verbs: the SRV-2000. Originally released in ’84, the SRV-2000 is a sleeper classic used by artists like Daniel Miller, J-Mascis or Klaus Schulze; and it works wonders on percussion and vocal tracks. It’s emulation in the RV-500 is even better, since it can now be easily tweaked on the fly with its knobby interface.
TIPTOP AUDIO Z-DSP + HALLS OF VALHALLA CARD
It’s not news that the eurorack format is on fire. The amount of oscillators, filters or sequencers available for the format is bordering on crazy, but there’re not as many reverb devices -so it seems-. If you want something “Lexiconish” you can’t do much better than this: Valhalla, the plugin specialist responsible for VintageVerb or Shimmer designed an algorithm card for TipTop’s Z-DSP platform, and it even comes bundled with it! If you want a classic ‘verb for your modular synth, and love CV control, this is it!
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.