We get hands-on with the most unusual device yet to spring forth from the IGS workshop.
In a world where more and more mix processing is done inside the computer, a large, rackmount, all-analogue four-channel spring reverb is a pretty bold product to bring to market! Unlike, say, a preamp, EQ or compressor, it’s not something you’d normally go out of your way to use when tracking most sources, and when it comes to mixing there are plenty of high-quality in-the-box reverbs — and for this money some serious outboard processors too. So when I was invited to review IGS Audio’s not-exactly-budget Springtime I was intrigued: what could it offer that conventional springs or software emulations could not, and how best could I incorporate the formidable-looking unit into my current workflow?
With its imposing 3U 19-inch rackmount form factor, plentiful large, solid-looking knobs and pleasingly large VU meter, the Springtime looks striking. It feels solid too — it gives you the definite impression of no-compromise quality. Despite the number of controls, it’s laid out nicely, and everything’s thus very easy to digest.
Inside are two pairs of physical springs, one ‘short’ and the other ‘long’. Each is fully independent of the others, so each pair can be configured as one stereo channel or two mono ones. You could have up to four separate mono reverbs, then, and, as each channel has its own balanced input and output on XLR, you could also choose to cascade the springs.
The four channels all have their own dry and wet controls, hard bypass and, impressively, a bypassable three-band EQ for the wet signal, with Low, Mid and High controls to allow you to ‘focus’ the reverb sound as you wish. All channels share that big VU meter, and there’s a chicken-head switch to choose which feeds the meter.
When contemplating how I might work with the Springtime in my own studio, it dawned on me that the vintage AKG BX5 and Great British Spring reverb units we have here at Half-Ton Studios haven’t been getting much exercise of late, even though I generally enjoy the characterful results when I do dig them out. Usually, I’ve turned to those devices for a mono and distinctly lo-fi effect, but the Springtime is too well-crafted and too serious an investment to be merely an occasional character piece. With that in mind, I decided to put it through its paces as a main mix reverb, before exploring how it might add further value in other ways, such as during tracking, or for more experimental effects.
When I took receipt of the review unit, I had a mix project on the go which had a minimal Talking Heads-style vibe. It seemed ideal for a bit of spring-reverb treatment, so I patched the Springtime in and configured it to operate as two stereo hardware sends in Pro Tools. (When using the unit like this, you need to set the wet control all the way up and the dry all the way down.)
Using primarily the short reverb in this track, it was a lovely moment when I first heard it applied to a sax part; it immediately added a sense of space, depth and fullness that required very little messing around with to sound, well, fantastic — so I swiftly dished the same effect out to other elements in the mix. Despite the effect not being as obviously transformative for other sources, it certainly added a richness that seemed to work perfectly for this song. Listening to the snare track in solo, it had that classic ‘boing’ that only spring reverb can give you. It sounded great when used subtly on this song and I think this effect would excel on a snare in a sparse dub or reggae track.
Playing with the EQ controls on the short channel, I found I had to get quite ‘stuck in’ for it to have a really noticeable impact on the tone. That said, it was great to have the option of seemingly being able to use more of the effect by dialling back the top and low end, and towards the later stages of the mix I found myself fine-tuning the EQ rather more.
The difference between the short and long springs wasn’t as dramatic as I’d anticipated, with the longer spring offering an ever-so-slightly longer decay. It also has a slightly darker sound, and a slightly different character that’s difficult to articulate. This long spring seemed to really work well on sources that benefited from a little thickening; a female vocal, for instance, or a clean electric guitar part. It was while using the long reverb on vocals that I felt I really began to extract some value from the EQ. For example, it felt like I was shaping much more than the tone of the effect when I pushed the mid out and dialled back the ‘high’ frequencies a little on a soft female vocal track.
Over the review period, I got the chance to use the Springtime in a few different recording and mixing scenarios. I took the opportunity to experiment with it as an insert effect, mainly trying to incorporate the reverb along with some additional outboard mix processing I was using on a few different styles of vocal. When used as an insert, you set the dry control to 100 percent and blend in your desired level of effect with the wet control. For me, the latter typically ended up between 10 and 20 percent.
I created a really nice effect using the long spring on a female rock vocal and had fun increasing the wet level in the choruses. Spring reverbs and guitars are the firmest of friends, of course (they’re often tracked with an amp’s spring reverb engaged) and running some clean guitars through a combination of long and short reverbs in mono worked a treat. While stereo reverbs can often sound lusher, it’s really refreshing to use a mono reverb sometimes, as it means you can apply it very generously and then place it where you want in the mix, perhaps in the same place as the source or perhaps panned opposite the source signal if you want stereo width.
I also used the Springtime on a guitar tracking session, for which I had the reverb set up such that we were monitoring with the reverb engaged, but recording the dry and wet signals to separate channels, to give some room for manoeuvre in the mix. Did it sound any better than the reverb that was on the Fender amp we were recording? These things are highly subjective of course, but the guitarist certainly enjoyed the results and it seemed to give a great deal more richness to my ears, not to mention greater control over the result, courtesy of the onboard EQ.
On their web site, IGS suggest trying the unit on a whole mix, and their examples seem to work really well, but this tactic seemed a little heavy handed for the tracks I had to hand. The fact that I’d have been quite happy to run a whole mix through the unit, however, is testament to its high sonic quality, and when the reverb is bypassed, the sound remains immaculate. Oh, and it also does that very cool thing that spring reverbs do if you give it a gentle slap (don’t worry, IGS, I was very careful!); as the spring vibrates it can create some quite dramatic effects.
I thoroughly enjoyed using the IGS Audio Springtime and when I employed it as a main reverb on the right material it sounded nothing short of fantastic. But it offers plenty of other creative applications, both when mixing and when recording, and the choice of multiple mono or stereo channels, combined with the onboard EQ, offers flexibility. Like many people these days I mix primarily in the box, so unique and high-quality gear such as this poses something of a dilemma: after the honeymoon period I always enjoy with new toys, would I really continue to use it? I’m not entirely certain of the answer, but using the unit during a few mixes has reminded me that mixing entirely in the box can breed a little laziness, and that it’s really not that hard to incorporate a few pieces of choice equipment into my workflow. And I remain convinced that a few of the tracks I worked on came together a little more quickly and easily than they usually would, which has given me food for thought.
I performed a few quick A/B comparisons against some spring-reverb plug-ins I use regularly, and I was left in little doubt that the hardware offered a greater sense of depth and space. Perhaps this difference would be a lot less noticeable on consumer playback systems. But on the other hand, now we’re all using similar effect plug-ins, maybe several such small differences could add up to create a very big one?
The elephant in the room, of course, is the price. The Springtime is a superb piece of equipment that oozes quality and sounds immaculate, but all this comes at a significant price — and I suspect that it could prove difficult to persuade many people to part with such a chunk of their hard-earned cash for as quirky a device as this.
When making significant gear purchases for the studio, I always have one eye on the likely future resale price, and that’s one reason I often choose ‘heavy-hitter’ brand names — I know that if I change my mind or end up using it less than I’d envisaged (or need to free up funds to invest in a crazy spring reverb...) I’ll be able to recoup a lot of my initial outlay. This unit’s likely depreciation is quite tricky to gauge, although the quality and the fact that vintage spring reverbs command quite a decent price means you should get a fair chunk back.
It occurred to me that there may have been a few design options that could bring the price down, or result in more for your money. I’d certainly be intrigued by a single stereo/dual-mono version with only one spring-length option, and maybe even without the EQ (most people contemplating buying this will have other EQs available). Alternatively, if the EQ could be made accessible separately from the reverb, that might increase its utility. But, given that you need a certain amount of physical space to house real springs, going ‘all in’ like this does make a certain sort of sense from a design point of view. Only smaller manufacturers such as IGS have the creative license to be able to stick their neck out with a unique high-cost, low-volume product such as this, and I think it’s wonderful that they’ve made it happen.
The high price doesn’t make the Springtime poor value for money. My initial reaction that the whole thing was, frankly, a little bonkers changed when I investigated its charms in detail. Not only does it sound unique and wonderful, but it forced me to reconsider some aspects of my mixing workflow. It left me wondering if, where the material is suitable, such a device could have a greater positive influence over my work than, say, spending a similar amount on new software effects and processors.
Spring reverb certainly isn’t an effect that works on every mix, but I enjoyed using the IGS Springtime. It’s a well built, great-sounding and versatile spring reverb and while the price will be an issue for many people, IGS may just have identified a large enough niche market to make it viable.
In case you’re curious about the sound, I’ve supplied a number of audio examples, which you can find on the SOS web site (http://sosm.ag/jul16media), but if you can find somewhere to audition the IGS Springtime on your own material I’d suggest you grasp that opportunity with both hands. If you already work with outboard or material where spring reverb works particularly well, and have the funds, I can highly recommend it.
There’s nothing quite like the Springtime. That said, vintage AKG spring reverb units such as the BX10, BX15 and BX20 can offer a nice vibe, as could a vintage Roland RE301. Plenty of guitar amps and tonewheel organs feature spring reverbs, of course, and there are plenty of stompbox and software simulations. But in terms of currently available genuine spring reverbs, you could check out the Vermona ReTubeVerb Tube Spring Reverb, the Furman RV-1 and the Demeter RV-1D Real Spring Reverb.
The audio files available on this page accompany my review in SOS July 2016 of IGS Audio’s Springtime four-channel spring reverb. For each source, I have included a dry example along with ‘short’ and ‘long’ spring sample options. I’ve been deliberately generous with the amount of reverb in order to help illustrate the differences. The audio filenames should give you a hefty clue as to what each one contains!