Reverb is vital. It’s such a useful audio effect because it’s incredibly flexible.
Why do those vocals sound so heavenly? How is that guitar tone so dreamy? Why do I feel like I’m being transported to an actual space where these instruments exist??
It’s because of reverb.
This audio effect is as much a technical tool, as it as a creative one. Reverb creates emotion, a vintage feel, space, depth and even punch (check out no. 7)! It’s used to craft both natural sounding spaces and totally surreal atmospheres.
So to celebrate the tracks that refuse to take reverb lightly, here are 8 tracks of different genres that use reverb in masterful and original ways. Get inspired, then hit the knobs!
1. King Tubby “Dub You Can Feel”
Osbourne Ruddock a.k.a. King Tubby was a key figure in the Jamaican soundsystem culture of the 50s.
His production and sound engineering work was pivotal to the development of dub and reggae in the 60s and 70s. He’s well known for his innovative technical work and for essentially inventing the concept of the remix.
Reverb is one of Tubby’s signature secret weapons—and what makes dub sound so special. Jamaican 45s often press the main track on one side, and an instrumental “version” on the other.
Reverb is one of Tubby’s signature secret weapons—and what makes dub sound so special.
When producing a ‘version’ without the vocal track, Tubby would take a lot of creative liberty. He’d accentuate this or that instrument, add some delays, echoes and reverb—a major innovation at the time. This would soon be known as remixing.
A perfect example of Tubby’s deft touch for reverb is present on the track “Dub You Can Feel.” Listen for the reverb on the snare — it’s the classic spring reverb “boing” effect common in dub music.
2. Joe Meek “I Hear A New World”
Joe Meek is a notable British sound engineer, record producer and songwriter active in the 50s and 60s. His experiments with effects like overdubbing and sampling are also foundational to space age pop and psychedelic outsider music.
In his cult classic album I Hear a New World from 1960, Meek uses various types of effects including pitch shifting, panning and natural reverbs.
One of Meek’s most famous techniques was using different reverberant spaces in his studio and house for recording instruments with natural room sound—like under his staircase or in his bathroom.
Listen to the different kinds of spaces he creates with various reverbs, especially the uniquely spacey reverb on the backup vocal line: ‘I Hear a New World.’
3. Led Zeppelin “When The Levee Breaks”
This Led Zeppelin song masterfully uses multiple effects.
The drum performance is central to the track. It was famously recorded on a brand new Ludwig kit in the hallway of a three story staircase at Headley Grange. Two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones were placed at the top of the stairwell for the recording. This gave it its distinctive natural sounding ‘big room’ reverb and muffled sound that makes it standout from other drum recordings.
Listen to the end of the song for the famous ‘swirly’ effect achieved with a reversed harmonica, a backwards echo, phasing, flanging and panning. This gives the impression that all the instruments are spinning around Robert Plant’s vocals which remain in the middle.
4. Grimes “Venus In Fleurs”
Reverb and vocals work well together, especially in the ethereal dream-pop side of things.There’s no better way to add a dramatic, angelic effect to a vocal track.
Canadian producer, songwriter and vocalist Grimes has undoubtedly popularized this style of vocals in experimental pop of the 2010s. For this approach to production, understanding what the lyrics say isn’t the focus. It’s all about the feeling and the ambiance created by the vocal melody and reverb.
It’s all about the feeling and the ambiance created by the vocal melody and reverb.
In ‘Venus In Fleurs,’ the reverb places the vocals in the background, almost as a far away ambient layer. The reverb on the drone guitar adds to the washed out distant effect.
Grimes epitomizes a generation of bedroom producers from the last decade who’ve taught themselves the ins and outs of DAWs, intentionally pushing effects to the max and creating their own stylistic mark. This is the punk approach to pop!
5. The Drums “Down By The Water”
The sound of Indie Pop band The Drums is modern mix of The Beach Boys, The Smiths and Joy Division. Their track “Down by the Water” is an especially beautiful example of what reverb can do for a performance.
Everything in “Down By the Water” is essentially drenched in an enveloping hall reverb that glues it all together. The transients of the snare, tambourine and vocals linger with a dreamy, intentionally muddy quality. This gives the track a vintage sound and intensifies the emotion of the song. Listen to how the song ends: a long reverb tail lingers until it fades and comes back reversed.
Everything in “Down By the Water” is essentially in an enveloping hall reverb that glues it all together.
This song exemplifies a certain kind of indie pop sound from the 2010s which revisits New Wave and gives it a dream pop quality, soaking up your tears with 100% wetness.
6. Shinedoe “Cosmic”
Chinedum Nwosu a.k.a. Shinedoe is a DJ and producer based in Amsterdam. Channeling the melodic richness of Detroit techno and Chicago house, she crafts lush tracks that create a sense of depth and weight.
With clear dub influences in its rich reverb, the track “Cosmic” makes an interesting use of the effect on synths pads, vocal samples and claps. The decay extends the harmonic content of chords, turning them into an enveloping ambient layer. It glues multiple synths together and creates a cohesive whole.
The decay extends the harmonic content of chords, turning them into an enveloping ambient layer.
In the club, reverb is the purveyor of transformative and enveloping club experiences—from dub techno to psytrance. Nice reverb heard on a Funktion One? Anytime.
7. Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight”
This chart-topping pop hit by British singer-songwriter and drummer Phil Collins is the most famous example of gated reverb. This type of reverb has a very short decay trail that enlists the help of a noise gate.
The gated reverb heard on “In the Air tonight” gives a punchy, big sound (listen for it on the snare and drums) that remains tight and clean.
The cool thing about gated reverb is that it doesn’t try to replicate a natural sounding effect—It would be impossible to find a reverb like this in a real space.
Instead, it lends epic drum solos incredible power. Thanks Phil, for giving us the most melodramatic drum break ever.
8. Blake Mills “Shed Your Head”
Blake Mills is a guitarist, songwriter and GRAMMY award winning producer. He has credits on albums by the like of Sky Ferreira, Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, John Legend and Perfume Genius.
The track “Shed Your Head” from Mill’s solo record Heigh Ho is an impressive example of re-creating realistic space with organic reverb. The reverb on the song creates convincing room subtlety.
The reverb in this track places all the instruments in a natural sounding space, adding a warm texture to the entire performance.
It goes to show that reverb does not always need to be blown out or excessively wet for effect.
Mill’s guitar tone sounds so much richer and velvetier with that reverb on it. The reverb in this track places all the instruments in a natural sounding space, adding a warm texture to the entire performance.
As Mills recounts in an interview “Guitar has such a history of flashy playing. I was impressed by it too…”
But after spending more time with records by Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk, he soon dropped his desire to be an ‘impressive’ player: “I just wanted to be a moving player.”
Could part of this magic also be the right reverb?
Many Shades of Reverb
As these examples demonstrate, reverb is extremely versatile—whether you’re making techno, rock, pop or experimental music.
Reverb knows no genre boundaries and it’s as much a technical tool as it is a creative one. It’s the ultimate shaper of moods and spaces.
Get inspired by these songs, artists and their unique take on reverb to test out all the flavours of the effect in your own productions.
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