Shimmering Reverb: Presence and Absence

photo from @EARTH_PICTURES

photo from @EARTH_PICTURES

TJ Eckleberg has devised a clever a method to achieve a shimmering ‘tuned’ reverb. This is detailed in an audio-video demo piece found here.  I can imagine situations where this would work a treat, as it does in his Emm Collins/Celemony example at that post: layering a chord, grabbing only the newly created notes and sending those to the reverb – lush. TJ of course acknowledges the Eno-Lanois ancestry and this effect, but kudos to him for detailing and demoing this method. Surely Celemony can invent an algorithm that encompasses these multiple processes to create a new audio plug-in, that might even be called…Eckleverb.

TJ’s ‘shimmer-verb’ method, by way of contrast, draws our attention to the operation of ‘standard’ reverb. This being that standard reverb is much less ‘tuned’, (dependent of course on the nature of the input source, among other things), or at best is one that achieves a smearing of pitches. It is this ‘un-tuned-ness’ that separates the reverb from the rest of the track, that allows space to be defined. This becomes a rather unique sonic position in the mix, given that everything else in the mix is tuned. (Although, this distinction is not that clear given some sounds, e.g. percussion etc, lack an easily discernible ‘note’.) In any case, if every other element in a track is tuned, a tuned reverb has to then compete in that dense tuned space. I’m not suggesting that such a sound would be unappealing, (quite the opposite), but I want to make the point that this new tuned-reverb becomes subjected to the challenge that all mix engineers encounter, that of trying to clarify and separate elements in a mix. As in TJ’s online demo, the sparser the setting, the more this tuned shimmer-verb becomes a lush and engaging element. However, one could argue that the act of creating this ‘shimmering’ already puts the reverb on the path of separation, away from our finessed and habituated listening to the qualities of standard reverb. Yet, what is of more interest to me is the very nature of all reverb itself, that a shimmer-verb allows us to highlight, that has implications for our sense of presence and absence in a sound world.

Initially, this leads me to think about another way of achieving reverb: the piano-sustain-pedal-method. This is one of my favourite acoustic experiences: press down on a piano’s sustain pedal, then simply shout at the strings. What is heard are the freely resonating strings; some in sympathy with the pitched parts of a shout, and others (I assume) reacting to the pressure waves of air. This shout (the cause), activates the ‘tuned’ piano strings (the result), where the moving air is translated into a tuned response by the piano strings. Ok, an electro-magnetic transducer, (mic or speaker etc), is much more impressive, and what I detail is an obvious (if a little unconventional) analog technique, but it does reveal that individual sounds have tuned components, and that any untuned components can be transduced as pitch. But there is a deeper transduction taking place in the use of reverb in sound production.

The beauty of TJ’s method is that it isolates the tuned-ness of the source, creates new harmonic layers, and shoots those new portions only to a digital reverb. And here is the point: this operations creates a ‘presence of something that is absent’. One transduces an absence into a presence by appealing to space, to a bouncing-back, to reverb. In simple technical terms, what we ultimately hear  in TJ’s demo is the ‘wet’ reverb only (the result). We do not hear the ‘dry’ pitch-shifted signals (the cause), for they are not put into the mix. It is not just the sensual texture of the resulting shimmer-verb that is engaging. For me, this operation creates the strong feeling that something can exist without any clear, direct, (or even conscious) referent or access; that only a remnant of something, in itself often hard to define, becomes present in the soundscape. Like a haunting memory of an event we are unaware of, or even the residue of an event we have never witnessed. It is this psychological effect, or rather the psychoanalytic effect, and certainly the psychoacoustic effect, (in this case more appropriately ‘affect’) that becomes overriding in the creation of a deep and reactive sonic space. A new emotional resonance is created by the predicament of a distinction between presence and absence.

It is this predicament that has always engaged me. The piano piece Berceuse, (from my album Verdigris), offers a rather extreme sonic example of this presence/absence binary, to the point where ‘absence’ becomes the privileged term. In this piece of music, the original cause, the piano, is absent. Only the many treated manipulations of that piano remain, that include variations of shimmering reverbs. A lush orchestral enormity replaces the small singular piano part. In this way, the piano becomes so much more than it could ever be, but only by its removal. To me ‘Berceuse’ is an example of, and clearly suggests that, results of an event can become so much larger and absorbing than the original cause; that features of the result are not present in that cause. Furthermore, it suggests that sometimes the original cause cannot be decoded, or retro-interpreted, from any resultant artefacts. The original cause becomes much less important (or at least much less sonically complex and interesting) than the result, and that only the remnant can take on new proportions and new meaning.

I think that we hear some of this predicament in TJ’s Emm Collins/Celemony demo. I suggest that one is responding to the situation, (consciously or not), whereby the source of this shimmer-verb has no presence in the dry sound world; that it becomes a ghosting from an imaginary event, and that a new and much stronger emotional power is created precisely by this separation, by rendering this distinction audible. One could even remark that this shimmer-verb allows us to hear the ‘potential’ of the lead vocal line, that is only expressed in the ‘actual’ reverb. I, like many others, have always found reverb astounding.

I think I’ll go and shout into my piano.

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