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8 Unique Uses of Reverb in Popular Music History

by DJ Pangburn, iZotope Contributor April 18, 2019

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Just as food can be improved with a little hot sauce, so too can songs be enhanced with a bit of reverb. From surf rock and techno to trap music, ambient, and even religious choirs, the shimmering echoes of reverb tails are all over modern music.

Indeed, the songs featuring quality reverb are too inumerable to catalog. So, we’re going to take a look at some of the most unique uses of reverb in popular music history. No common reverb mistakes here.

As always, many worthy tracks will be left off this list. Ideally, these tracks will get us all thinking about how to approach reverb for various musical genres.  

1. Drake “Marvin’s Room”

In terms of reverb in hip hop and pop music in the more general sense, Drake’s 2016 single “Marvin’s Room” is unusual. It’s slow, dreamy, atmospheric, and very psychedelic. It’s not that no one was exploring this sound before Drake, but he, along with The Weeknd, certainly helped drag this experimental aesthetic into the mainstream.

After a static-y sample of a telephone call, a deep moody bassline, electronic noises in place of snare hits, drones and later a kick can be heard, all coated in various layers of reverb. Even Drake’s rapping is drenched in long, cathedral-like reverb tails. The way the reverb on the individual instruments and Drake’s voice coalesce creates a ghostly effect, as though the song is coming out of a void, or vanishing into one.

2. Talking Heads "Once In a Lifetime"

Thirty-eight years after the release of Remain in Lightit’s a bit difficult to separate the catchiness of the Talking Heads’ tunes from the utter strangeness of the production. As with the two previous Talking Heads records, Brian Eno produced Remain In Light, and his electronic wizardry is all over the sound design.

“Once In a Lifetime,” which is easily one of the most well-known tracks from the album, is notable for its reverb. After Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz drop that iconic bassline and drum beat, respectively, swirling and sparkling synthesizers can be heard throughout the verse, and they’re full of wondrous reverb.

3. NIN "Hurt"

When someone thinks about reverb, chances are they won’t immediately think of NIN’s musical oeuvre. And that is fair: Trent Reznor’s industrial rock outfit is known more for its abrasive abroach to sound than any exercises in reverberation. But on “Hurt,” Reznor crafted one of the all-time great instances of reverb in a pop song.

The drone that can be heard throughout the song, but most notably in the beatless moments of the track, has a sort of hollowed-out type of reverb. It sounds as if Reznor ran static through a convolution reverb. But reverb can be heard on the piano notes and synth stabs, as well in the startling sustain of the fuzzed out guitar and the drones heard in the outro.

4. Enya "Orinico Flow"

Quite frankly, Enya is the queen of reverb. And if you don’t like Enya, well, then you don’t like reverb. Any one of her tracks could be a case study in the epic ambience of reverb. But of all her tunes, “Orinoco Flow” has to be one of her finest reverberative moments.

The way reverb is used on Enya’s vocals and the synthesizer pads and percussion creates a sense of endlessness without completely muddying the sonic waters. And now, thirty years later, the single makes dreampop acts like Beach House and The Chromatics sound almost provincial in comparison.

5. Björk "Joga"

Björk could really be celebrated for all manner of things. But here we must applaud the Icelandic artist for her work on the track “Joga” from the 1997 album Homogenic. Made during the heyday of 1990s electronic music, it features many of the hallmarks of ambient techno, IDM, braindance, or whatever one wants to call it—irregular beats, strange textures and timbres, strings, and a great deal of reverb.

It’s worth noting that during this period Björk was working with Mark Bell, one part of the duo known as LFO, sonic pioneers at Warp Records, alongside Autechre, Aphex Twin, Plaid, and B12. Bell’s production work is all over “Joga,” and his sense of reverb is most notable at the 2:31 mark, when abrasive IDM sounds shift the track into another dimension.

6. Jamie xx "Gosh"

Like the UK dubstep and jungle from which it descends, Jamie xx’s epic track “Gosh,” from the 2015 album In Colour, isn’t afraid of some delicious reverb. The song starts with a deep, reverberative sub-bassline and snare and handclap samples that are similarly awash in reverb.

This track, to be honest, is one of the most tasteful deployments of reverb in modern electronic music. When the synths come in at about the 2:28 mark, the song reaches a sublime state, thanks in no small part to the reverb on them.

And since Jamie xx is one part of the indie trio The xx, that means it got some serious radio and streaming plays, infiltrating the mainstream in a way that many underground-sounding dance tracks are unable to do.

7. Roxy Music "Avalon"

Like his old compatriot, Brian Eno, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry knows his way around reverb. Where Eno is exceedingly experimental, Ferry’s sound design is more classy and elegant, but strange in its own way.

Listen to the “More Than This” off Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon, and one can hear splashes of reverb on synthesizers, guitars, drums, and of course Ferry’s vocals. The same can be said for Avalon as a whole: the production is like a great love note to reverb, but reverb at the service of synthesized art pop.

Without “More Than This” and Avalon, it’s hard to imagine the French musical sophicastes Air ever existing in the first place. It’s sexy, evocative, lush, and gorgeous. In a word, it is perfection.

8. David Bowie “Heroes”

With “Heroes,” off of the 1977 album Heroes, David Bowie created one of the most iconic pop songs of all time. Co-written with Brian Eno (a likely suspect, huh?), it has a wondrously fuzzed out wall of sound, with Bowie’s vocals gradually increasing in volume throughout the track. But, Bowie’s vocals are notable quite apart from their incremental rise in volume. Producer Tony Visconti utilized a completely novel technique to make Bowie’s voice large and reverberant.

Since Bowie and Visconti had used 23 other tracks to record instruments, they only had one track for the vocals. To get that expansive sound, Visconti set up three microphones in a hallway: one directly in front of Bowie, another halfway down the hallway, and the third at its very end. Gates on the two distant microphones gradually opened as Bowie increased in volume, recording reverberations as he sang.  

As a result, Bowie’s vocals on “Heroes” are really unlike anything heard in popular music before its release, and in the following four decades of pop music.

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