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Creating Reverse Reverb

Tips & Tricks By Paul White
Published December 1998

Paul White conjures up a nostalgic tape effect using an MIDI + Audio sequencer.

Back when we used open‑reel analogue multitrack machines, creating reverse effects was easy. Admittedly it isn't the kind of thing you need to use that often, but it's a spectacularly eerie effect that far surpasses anything you can get ready‑made from an effects box. The reason it's so eerie is that the reverb actually starts to build up before the sound that created it — something that quite obviously can't happen in nature without the aid of a tachyon pulse generator and a Star Trek script writer. The treatment is particularly good on vocals, but it's also been used to good effect on guitar solos, percussion and so on. Though often associated with the hippie era, reverse reverb lends itself nicely to dance music, especially trance, and it's also used extensively in sci‑fi and horror drama productions.

With tape, all you need do is flip the tape over so it plays backwards, feed the track into a reverb unit and record the result onto a spare track, (remembering that the track numbering is reversed when you do this). When you rethread the tape the right way around, the new reverb track will now have a reverse characteristic where it builds up slowly before the sound that created it, then it dies abruptly, as shown in Figure 1. It's all very psychedelic, but how do you do it in an MIDI + Audio sequencer, where there is no tape to turn over?

I tried this for myself using Logic Audio and it turned out to be pretty straightforward. I used the inbuilt 'native' reverb, but you could use an external reverb unit if you prefer. After recording the audio segment to be treated, I selected it and reversed it — virtually all sequencer‑based hard disk recording systems include a reverse function. You could use any sampler with a reverse function if you don't have a hard disk recorder. Once the dry sound was reversed, I applied what felt like an appropriate amount of reverb and then used the 'Bounce to Disk' function to create a new audio file with reverb (with a sampler, you'll need to resample the original reversed sound with the reverb). If you have tracks to spare, I'd suggest doing a completely wet reverb mix at this stage so you can combine it with the original dry track and adjust the balance at your leisure, but if not, just set up a reverb balance that's slightly on the wet side of normal and it should be OK — you can always try again if you don't like the result.

In a world where pre‑packaged effects tend to make more and more records sound similar, it's little tricks like these that help get you noticed.

Before you can use the new file, it must again be reversed to get it playing the right way, and if you intend using the dry track as well, you'll also need to re‑reverse this to restore normal playback. The result was an effect identical to that achieved by reversing analogue tape, and if you haven't heard this done before, I'd really recommend you try it. It's nothing like the reverse reverb effects in multi‑effects units, where what you hear is really just a gated reverb with an envelope that fades up and then stops. Variations to experiment with include adding repeat delays to the reverb or using a very coarse reverb so that the individual reflections are well pronounced.

Because this is such a dramatic effect, it's best to use it sparingly. It works well on a vocal intro or bridge section, and I've also used it on a single, clean guitar chord where it produces an effect almost like the build up of a cymbal played with felt beaters, before ending in the chord itself. If you like playing with stereo effects, try panning the 'reverse reverb only' track hard to one side, then add a little normal reverb to the original track and pan that hard to the other side. This way the sound will built up at one side of the mix, the original sound will happen, then the reverb will tail away at the other side of the mix. Obviously this reverse trick only works when the effect you're using has an element of delay or reverb in its makeup, but there's no reason not to experiment with combination effects such as reverb and pitch‑shifting. In a world where pre‑packaged effects tend to make more and more records sound similar, it's little tricks like these that help get you noticed.

Reverse Reverb's Greatest Hits

You can hear this distinctive effect on the following classic — and not so classic — tracks:

  • Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 'Boston Tea Party' and 'School's Out' (on the outro).
  • The Beach Boys, 'Feel Flows' from Surf's Up (on the lead vocal).
  • Pink Floyd, 'Wish You Were Here' (on drums).
  • The Only Ones, 'Miles From Nowhere' from the LP Even Serpents Shine (on the drum fill in the instrumental section — a particularly over‑the‑top example!).
  • Depeche Mode, 'Personal Jesus' (on the opening vocal).