By Brandon Smith
It’s still a classic effect today – and a ubiquitous part of reggae, dub and other genres. It’s probably the simplest analog effect device in existence. You send sound down a metal spring and pick it up on the other side. Presto…..reverb! If you go to the dollar store there’s a very good chance they’ll have those cheapo “echo mics”. It’s really an acoustic spring reverb – you talk into a diaphragm attached to a spring and the spring in turn vibrates the diaphragm creating an echo effect. The only difference between this and a studio spring reverb unit is the size, number of springs and electrical circuitry.
When dubbing was first developed in the 1960s, the palette of effects to use was pretty limited. Reverb and delay were a given - with perhaps some EQing from the mixing console. These were 100% analog effects that took quite a bit of effort to make sound good. Back then reverb was usually achieved one of 3 ways: a live echo chamber, plates or springs. Echo chambers were literally just big sounding rooms with a speaker at one end and a mic at the other. Some engineers still use this method as it gives a very nice room sound. A plate reverb consists of a thin steel plate that has something similar to a speaker called a transducer attached to it. The transducer vibrates the plate and the vibrations are received on the other end by a pickup transducer. Plate reverbs were very popular in major recording studios because they sounded great and were easily controlled. The actual units were quite large though and would often be housed in a separate closet, basement etc. Many of them had dampeners where you could adjust the size and decay of the reverb which is much harder to do in a live echo chamber.
Spring reverbs were by far the most economical option. Originally they were developed for electric organs (to simulate the reverb inside a church) but would become common in everything from guitar amps to home stereos and PA equipment. A spring reverb works by sending a sound impulses down a spring with a pickup at the other end, much like a plate reverb. This results in a surprisingly good reverb sound with multiple reflections. They do have a distinct “twangy / sproingy” kind of sound – which is why you can still find them in use today. The metal housing that reverb springs are mounted in is typically called a reverb “tank”. Over the years many variations were developed. Early Hammond Organ spring reverbs were called “necklace” reverbs because they just hung freely inside the organ. Necklace reverbs had a pleasing sound but was incredibly sensitive to outside vibrations. Later tank designs included shock absorbing springs to minimize outside vibrations. Tanks can be found with anywhere from 1 to 3 or more springs inside. The length, tension, material of the springs etc. all affected the sound.
Because spring reverb tanks were so widely used they are easy to find and add to your effects arsenal. Many standalone spring reverb units were built over the years, and routinely pop up on online second hand retailers for reasonable prices. There are of course the rare sought-after models (particularly tube based ones) and new boutique versions that still cost big bucks. One of the cheapest options is to find an old PA mixer with a reverb tank. Many of these old PAs made by Tapco, Traynor, Yamaha and others can be found for next to nothing and often have spring reverb built in. A good clue to look for is a “reverb” knob on the channels. A bonus of doing it this way is that the sound of the mixer itself will help add that vintage colour – essentially repurposing it as an effects device.
Some folks have taken to constructing their own spring reverbs. Dead old organs, guitar amps etc. can be a cheap or free source of these reverb tanks. All that is needed is circuitry to drive the tank and recover the reverberated signal. There are many simple designs on the web, as well as some fancier ones. The company Paia Electronics makes an excellent kit called the Hot Springs, which comes with everything you need (minus the case) to build a high quality dual-tank spring reverb. I have built one myself and highly recommend them.
The spring reverb is not only an effect processor; it can become a sound source in its own right. So many beautiful boings, twangs and all manner of noise can be had just by exposing a tank’s springs and hitting them with your hands, sticks etc. Sometimes rock musicians would give their guitar amp a good boot on stage to create the “reverb smash” effect. Things get even crazier when the reverb tank is further processed by other effects.
If this article has piqued your interest and you want to experiment with these sounds yourself then look no further! Beat Drop has assembled a collection of spring reverb boings, twangs and other noises already cut up and conveniently set up as an Ableton Live pack called THE TANK. Two different reverb tanks were used – a dual and a triple spring version. The tanks were connected to the phono input of an old Gemeni DJ mixer. This bumped the signal up to a useable level and also provided “kill switch” EQs to isolate lows, mids and highs. The signal was then fed into a Boss Super Feedback Distortion guitar pedal to add some dirt and more gain. It was then run into the external input of a Novation Bass Station II for further processing. There are a variety of sounds, from sharp and percussive (good for layering with drums) to long drone-ish sweeps. To download THE TANK enter your e-mail address below. Enjoy the springy goodness!