Creative Uses of Reverb
Guest Contribution by Ian Palmer
There are a lot of technical articles on Designing Sound so I thought I’d try to balance that with this month’s theme of Reverb. We all know that reverb is used to create realism. Adding the correct or appropriate reverb to ADR will instantly make the dialogue fit better into a scene and remove the artifice of the replacement. However, we can use reverb in a creative way and in a wide variety of techniques. We must remember that what we do with sound always serves the narrative. Here is a small collection of examples in no particular order.
I’ll begin with a well known example from Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993). After an argument over a building’s foundations, the camp commander Goeth orders the execution of a Jewish engineer. A guard pulls out his pistol and shoots the woman in the head, instantly killing her. We hear the initial bang of the gunshot very clearly, we are also fairly close to the incident. Immediately after, we hear the gunshot bounce around the hills that surround the camp. Obviously, guns are loud but would a small pistol really create so much echo? I would argue that the echo is at least enhanced and deliberately exaggerated. The reason is that this is a very shocking and emotional moment and the echo exaggerates the shock that the audience will feel. This is a heightened reality where we are focused on a single element of that event through the sound. This link will play a clip of that scene, skip to 2:50 for the execution.
There is a really fun effect that is very effective and quite simple to do, it also involves no plugins at all so anyone can do it. It has been called Preverb by some, a term I like as it describes the result as well as the method of its creation. Here’s how:
1. Take the audio file you want to use, duplicate it and reverse it.
2. Apply a reverb with a long tail.
3. Reverse that file.
4. Sync that file with the original.
This picture demonstrates the different stages. You can clearly hear the beginning of the sound happen before the main event. A nice example of this technique is the UK Television show Merlin. Merlin has frequent conversations with the Dragon in the large cave he has been imprisoned in. An extreme example can also be heard in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) when the Borg Queen finally meets Picard in the flesh.
We can use convolution reverb plugins for more than than their original purpose of modelling real life spaces. Any sound can actually be used an Impulse Response. This means we can create new sounds or alter sounds by combining two together. HERE you can listen to a random sample of a woman talking and HERE is that same file that has been altered using a small motor sound. You can combine any sounds like this to create a plethora of effects and new sounds.
A great way of being creative is to do the polar opposite of what is obvious, in this case a complete lack of reverb. There is a lovely moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) when Dumbledore covers for Harry’s “army”. Dumbledore is threatened with being sent to Azkhaban so he escapes in a flash of phoenix flames, which collapses in on itself. The final collapsing sound is clearly closely mic’d and completely devoid of any reverb. Why is this? As it seemingly goes against our expectations, as prior to this event the reverbs used match what we see. It is my opinion that this dead sound reflects the absence created with Dumbledore’s sudden and unexpected departure. His warmth and security has been suddenly removed from the room (and school), it is abnormal and uncomfortable for the audience. He is, after all, the most powerful wizard and also the only wizard that can stand up to Voldemort. Skip to 1:30
This technique is a classic, or cliche depending on your point of view. Reverb has an emotional affect on an audience. Narration is a frequently used device in film and normally heard with no effects on it at all. It is acoustically dead and disembodied from the diegesis. The cliche is adding reverb to this device. Instantly the narration has become internalised in the memory of the character speaking. Using reverb to signify memory is very common and has become somewhat of a cliche. While it has become part of film language, it is a fairly dull and almost too simple an effect for it not to be consigned to the past. However, you can hear numerous examples in more recent films where the same idea is used, but has been made a little more complicated and interesting. A very good example is the mind-meld scene in Star Trek (2009). Spock gives us a lot of exposition about past events that make the current time period narrative make far more sense. The sequence also features lots of flashback imagery as Spock tells the story. As soon as Spock touches Kirk, the reverb on the cave is changed. His voice then becomes dry and disembodied. We then hear numerous effects being used to alter Spock’s voice as the story unfolds; reverb, delay, preverb, pitch shift, EQ and time stretching. I am unsure if there is meaning behind any individual effects but the overall meaning is one of a stream of consciousness being absorbed with immense speed from Spock’s mind into Kirk’s. This dilation of time is why the effects used are heard in the manner which we hear.
As you can see (or hear) there are a so many ways to do interesting and creative things with reverb. It is not simply the preserve of the mixers out there. So go forth and make some glorious noise!
This article was graciously contributed by Ian Palmer. If you have an article you’d like to share with the rest of the community, contact shaun.at.designingsound.org