If you’re not a musician or familiar with music production, you probably won’t know what I mean when I say ‘reverb’ or ‘delay’. But if I ask you if you’ve walked into a church or a giant cathedral and felt like the sounds were bigger, lusher or “spacey”, you probably know what I’m talking about.
Reverb and delay are effects that are used in music production to simulate and manipulate the reflection of sound (links at the end of this post if you want a short history). You don’t sound the same in all the rooms of your house. Even if you might not notice it, you do. Certain instruments and vocals sound right or fit into a mix well when they are recorded in certain rooms. This is why the studios that bands like the Beatles used to record their music are often talked about as having the potential for the creation of a certain kind of sound.
But as technology has developed over the years, people have tried to make it possible for you to infuse the songs that you make in your bedroom with the magic of spaces far far away.
I can put a certain reverb/delay effect on my song and make it sound like it’s being played in a cathedral on a Sunday morning. But that’s not the only mind-blowing thing here. You can listen to my song as if it was being performed in a certain space without actually being in that space. This was not possible a little more than a century ago.
I can sit in my small bedroom and listen to the latest Contemporary Christian Music release, which is usually full of lush reverbs and delays, and I can hear what I’d only hear in a much bigger space naturally.
What does that mean for the experience of music?
Well, there’s a reason why Cathedrals are the way they are. You walk into one hosting a choir or a morning service and you feel like you’re walking right into God’s chest. You feel small and insignificant but you also feel like you’re part of something larger than life. Concrete branches arch and meet above you as if you were walking in a forest encrusted in cement. Like the sun breaks into a thousand lines at the tip of leaves covered in morning dew and seems to displace itself to your arm’s length, light breaks in through the coloured glass and brings God right to you. And as you stand within reach of what seems like the great intersection of life and light, the sound of angels wash over you like a wave. The air feels wet and the ground grabs hold of your feet.
Part of me feels like reverb and delay belong where I can not only hear them but also see them. But sitting here at home, isolated from the rest of the world with walls that seem to close in, I feel like my favorite shoegaze albums are the only way to push back against them.
I think the difference, for me at least, is that when I can see the sound I am aware of where my skin ends but when I can’t see it, it feels like it comes from within. In the latter case, it is a force to be reckoned with; one that can push back the walls of my room.
On that note, here’s a song from one of my favorite bands that does some pretty cool stuff with reverb and delay: