REFLECTIONS ON REVERB: ON A PLANE OF SPACE AND PLACE
In terms of materiality, I would contend that reverb falls into two categories, each with their own two sub-categories. On the one hand, there is the real-life, natural atmospheric sounds inherent in the relationship between physical spaces – i.e sound-waves that bounce/reflect off walls and other physical structures on the way to our ears. On the other, there is the process of digitally synthesising and emulating reverb, and even particular spaces and places – i.e digital reverb inside a computer VST/audio-unit. These two categories are by no-means mutually exclusive in that sounds from the real world can be used digitally. This is sometimes done by recording an impulse response (usually a sine-wave sweep from low-frequency to high) in a place and converting them into convolution reverb using algorithms. Conversely, sound can be played into a space and the natural reverb colouration can be recorded. The two subcategories of this ‘real’ reverb are, firstly, the reverberation of a place, room and so on, and secondly the reverberations of a physical object – such as plate reverbs or springs. This second subcategory is what I mean by articulated-material means reverberation. I would contend that the two subcategories for digital reverb are those produced electronically by a hardware audio-unit, such as the Alesis MicroVerb 4 or the Electro-Harmonix ‘Cathedral Deluxe’ footpedal, and those created by digital VST (Virtual Studio Technology) or audio-effect plugins used in Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s).
Categorisation aside, what all forms of reverb have in common is their emulation or framing of sound within particular spaces as well as the ways in which they are articulated by individuals experiencing/being positioned within them. Individuals gain an understanding of the external world through their senses, lending to an understanding of their place in space, and therefore I would posit individuals gain an even deeper understanding of the world around them through reverberation; a long decay implies a large space. To this end, reverb operates as a kind of feedback loop between the person making the sound and the room they are in: a person plays a sound and this reverberates, the person hears this sound and perhaps changes the sounds they are making in accordance with it. Sound informs our understanding of a space and our position within it.
We can assert that people gain an understanding of their physical relationship with the world through their interaction with it – and for our purposes, through the the diffusion of soundwaves, what we have identified as reverb. We exist within natural ecologies of sound. Thought does not occur solely in our minds, it takes place in our bodies, senses and environments. The extended mind thesis suggests the ‘active role of the environment in driving the cognitive processes’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). Reverb, therefore, offers a rich and subtle way for us to interact with our environment, via sound (the feedback loop mentioned earlier) in a way that allows us to think with, and beyond, the room or space we inhabit. This active externalism suggests that, in some ways, we exist beyond our brains and that tangibility is important in our understanding of the phenomenological world. The senses operate as five portals to the material universe, and it is possible to interpret sound as a symptomatic of a social situation.
The anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that our lived-spaces, the world we experience in a Heideggerian sense, are thought of before they are built. They are conceptualised and designed before they are enacted. This ‘dwelling perspective’ suggests that humans are dwellers: to build is to dwell and building is an expression of dwelling rather than a precondition of it. Humans impose order on their physical landscape. An ideological transformation occurs as a result of a material one. What happens when the composite elements of bricks – clay and shale – are placed against the empty space of ‘nature’? Do we get reverb? Our built environment underwent significant research through countless generations of design and enaction prior to our being present in it. Humans learn through making, and our process of becoming is a process making. Making something physical, holding it and experiencing it, changes our thought processes. It enables us to think with the body and the senses.
In conducting my research into reverb I have tested several methods (material and nonmaterial/digital) and forms (identified as physical, articulated-means material or digital emulations) and I have sought to introduce new methods for producing reverb by utilising the MAX for Live patch ‘Convolution Reverb Pro’.
The earliest of these experiments was conducted in February in Köln, Germany. The apartment where I was staying had a small veranda overlooking the neighbouring gardens. At the bottom of the garden was the main trainline into the city centre. One evening, sitting on that chilly veranda, I made two field-recordings of the trains as they passed by. These sounds, when used as samples for the Convolution Reverb, create a very percussive, echoey effect, with a long atmospheric decay and massive frequency range.
The second of these experiments was conducted in the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln, and was my first attempt at building a plate reverb. However, we were not using a steel-plate, as is conventionally used, we were using the steel spiral-staircase which led up to the studio’s control room. My host/co-producer, Azhar, and I devised and constructed an elaborate system, or ecology, to make the staircase resonate using a vibration speaker, which we borrowed from the university’s medical department. To record it, we used a stereo-pair of Neuman’s positioned right up against the staircase, two repurposed guitar pickups (Nic Collins’ Inductive Coils) which were conveniently magnetised, and a conventional contact microphone and preamp. Despite myopically not running any impulse responses through the staircase to preserve the spatio-acoustic properties for later use, the Steel Spiral-Staircase reverberation unit was, to my mind, a success; we had taken disparate components and combined them to give our track a new sense of ‘place’ which would have been unattainable by purely spatial means.
When I arrived back in Newcastle I was inspired to experiment further. In Germany I had gained first hand experience of making an articulated-means material unit for myself and developed a way to use unconventional samples as Impulse Responses. So far the samples include; the sound of Atlas V rockets taking off; the otherworldly sounds of an electrical storm on jupiter and the sonified Northern Lights; A World War II era air-raid siren; which has a 230 second decay time and was inspired by a symposium on the history of the air-raid siren in music; The sound of bursting balloons in my flat in Newcastle; preset drum loops taken from a library of cheap vintage keyboards.
In terms of articulated-means material reverbs, I conducted an experiment based on the staircase reverb using a radiator as the plate. However, I took a more conventional approach in that I used a purpose built vibration speaker and only a single contact microphone and preamp. As well as this, I tried a different microphone placement technique; mid-side.
A NOTE ON MID-SIDE MICROPHONE TECHNIQUE:
Mid-side seems to be the best technique for recording the airwaves around plate reverbs, due to the enhanced stereo-spread. The set-up for mid-side recording generally comprises a cardioid microphone as the Mid, and a figure-8 pattern microphone as the side. The side mic is placed roughly 90° off-axis from the source, and the two microphones are placed as closely as possible to one another and the source. This produces a centre recording which is clear from the mid microphone, while the side-mic adds ambience and directionality.
Running an impulse response sweep and then using it directly as a sample (ie the sound of the sweep moving through an object as captured by the microphones) causes an interesting, unexpected effect. With the example of the radiator, the decay carries on as a long, ringy swell long after the sample itself has stopped playing. Finally, it is important to note here that extra equalisation may be necessary in the processing signal-chain due to the fact that metal cannot support bass frequencies as readily as high ones. As a general rule, cutting some of the reverbs mid-EQ by ~3dB at 1k works well.
The portfolio I have constructed consists of audio examples with and without the convolution reverb applied. The portfolio contains:
EXAMPLES 0-2, Keelin: Piano played by Caoilfhionn Birley and recorded by Dario Lozano-Thornton; an arrangement composed by sampling the recordings (which puts to use the reverb portfolio), as well as examples of the outro of the track with and without Köln 1 reverb.
EXAMPLES 3-5: George Barony: Piano played by George Bruce, which I recorded in live in the Barony Pub, Broughton St, Edinburgh. These tracks feature the enveloping Köln 2 reverb dry, at 50% and 100%.
EXAMPLE 6: An extract of this portfolio essay; with Köln 1, Balloon Bathroom and Balloon Kitchen reverb applied to my voice at various levels.
EXAMPLE 7: An extract from Mouths, which I recorded in Köln with Azhar; the audio is what was being picked up by the XY-stereo microphones on the staircase reverb.
EXAMPLE 8: A standard 4/4 rock drum-beat – dry, with bathroom, kitchen and living room reverb added respectively, at 62% wet/dry.
CONVOLUTION REVERB PRESETS:
‘Impulse Response’ (IR) to be used in MAX for Ableton Live’s Convolution Reverb effect (.adv files) and .wav files for use in preferred VST/DAW;
Air Raid Siren;
Balloons being burst in my living room, bathroom and kitchen;
An electrical storm on Jupiter, the launch of Atlas V rocket (taken from the NASA sound archives);
field-recordings of trains I made in Köln;
Impulse Response sweep sent through a radiator acting as a ‘plate’;
Clapping-rhythm at 66, 85 and 97 bpm sent through a radiator acting as a ‘plate’;
Cheap Synth Library, Tango preset drum-beat at 88 bpm.
The portfolio is available to download at: