Strymon blueSky Reverberator - Not Your Dad's Reverb
Submitted by inmyhands on Thu, 07/12/2012 - 07:58
Whether the result of natural acoustics or man-made, reverb is probably the most applied effect to the sound of all musical instruments, and it is certainly the case with the electric guitar. In the early days, reverb was just a natural product of playing the guitar in a room that had hard surfaces which reflected the sound. That is, the sound reverberated. The larger the room, the larger the reverberation effect. It was not lost on musicians that their instruments sounded more natural and alive in a nice club or hall than in dead-sounding recording studios.
So in the era before reverb units, musicians sought to capture this sound by micing an ambient room. Studios of the 1940s and 50s began incorporating acoustic chamber rooms designed for this purpose. The engineer would place a microphone in front of the guitarist's amp and then one or more microphones positioned to capture the reflected sounds from the walls. These were then mixed together to create reverb on the recording. The issue that confounded players of this time was finding a method of reproducing a desirable reverb consistently when playing live. No two venues have the same acoustics. The inventive mind of man and the belief that all problems have a solution now came into play.
The folks over at Hammond Organ had been wrestling with this problem as far back as the late 1930s; trying to recreate in living rooms, the huge pipe organ sounds their customer's heard in churches or concert halls. They incorporated a signal delaying device created by Bell Labs made up of multiple springs and oil filled tubes. While this worked fine with the large home organs the four foot tall reverb tank wasn't practical for guitar amps.
In 1957 German company EMT provided the first break through with its development and introduction of the EMT 140 Reverberation Unit. Unlike the spring based version used by Hammond, EMT's version was much smaller and relied on a transducer to create vibrations in a metal plate and a pickup to capture the vibrations. Delay time was adjusted with a damping pad of acoustic tiles. Move the pad closer to the plate and the reverb time becomes shorter. The EMT 140 is recognized as the first plate reverb.
In 1960 Hammond engineer Alan Young came up with what would become the industry standard. Hammond had already solved the size problem with a device called the necklace reverb, but the unit also produced unwanted loud crashing sounds if accidentally bumped or moved during use. Young eventually built a spring reverb that could fit in his brief case, called the Hammond Type 4. One individual who noticed his accomplishment was Leo Fender. Alan's Hammond Type 4 was installed in a new Leo Fender amplifier model named the Fender Twin Reverb. The rest is history. Players today know Alan's creation as the Accutronics Type 4 Spring Reverb.
The ages of Analog and Digital Reverb arrived in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. In the beginning the goal was to recreate the sound of one or more of the three reverb types listed previously. Results varied, but some pedals came close to the mark. For a time Analog reverb became a special class of its own and there are those who collect Analog reverb pedals. Digital reverb, like the other initial digital effects, didn't fair well at the onset. Players thought them too sterile – without much warmth or soul. But like all things digital audio, they got better with time.
Blue Skies Ahead
Today there are boutique effect builders achieving success with well thought-out designs based on Digital Signal Processing chips. Strymon is one of the leaders in this field and has produced an excellent array of guitar effect pedals. The blueSky Reverberator is just one of many fine examples they've produced. The blueSky Reverberator is a modern, true-bypass, stereo reverb pedal that uses a powerful SHARC DSP chip to simulate Plate, Spring, and Room reverbs.
For each reverb mode, you can choose a Normal setting, a Modulated setting, or a Shimmer setting. For the Plate reverb, Shimmer adds regenerative octave up pitch shifting in the tank for a reverb trail that rises into the clouds with a plate. For Spring and Room reverbs, the shimmer regeneratively adds an octave plus a fifth. Along with the expected Decay and Mix controls, the features that really take the blueSky to the next level are the Pre-Delay, which lets you tailor a more natural sounding reverb, and the damping controls that let you separately control the highs and lows in the reverb decay trail. With these three settings, you can really sculpt your reverb tones to taste.
Additional functions include a plus or minus 3dB Boost / Cut (hold down the Favorite and Bypass switches while turning the MIX knob to achieve a +/- 3dB) and a Favorite foot switch for the go-to setting you prefer the most. I also like that you can run it in stereo with both left and right inputs as well as outputs. For an effect like reverb that's going to be at or near the end of your pedalboard's signal path the stereo inputs are a godsend.
Not your Dad's Reverb
Most pedal manufacturers strive to duplicate the magic of the vintage reverbs. They tweak this and that until clean tones seem to shimmer in a wonderful way. While a standard definition of reverb is: a delay of less than 35 milliseconds with randomly dispersed regenerations, vintage guitar reverbs added a bit of this and that to give clean guitar tones a wonderfully spatial, ambient quality. But if you watch demos of reverb pedals (including the blueSky) on YouTube, you'll notice that reviewers rarely demo crunchy distorted tones. Why? Because the inherent problem in most vintage reverb circuits is that they usually don't work well with for crunch tones when run from the guitar input of high gain amplifiers with cascading gain preamps such as Mesa Rectifiers or JCM800 and later Marshalls. Yes, you can run a rack mounted reverb unit through an amp's effects loop and get somewhat better results, but reverb pedals have never adequately addressed crunch tones.
Here, the blueSky surpasses expectations. Naturally, it does a great job with cleans, but the blueSky is not just another take on vintage reverb pedals. It is a different animal, designed with higher fidelity to suit the needs of the modern players. Perhaps even more importantly here at the Home of Heavy Guitar, the blueSky may be the first reverb pedal designed to address the crunch tones of modern high gain amps – even when you run it from in front of the amp through the guitar imput!
Why is this important? Because plugging most reverbs into the guitar input of a high gain tube amp usually interferes with the distortion and causes a rattle like sound. Smooth leads sound a bit shaken up, and crunch tones get mushy and lose their edge. To get around this issue, full-featured modern amps use effects loops to bypass the preamps. That's fine if you have an amp with a loop, however, many of today's increasingly popular, small, low-wattage tube amps (such as the Orange Tiny Terror and similar) do not have effects loops. Owners of such amps have been pretty much out of luck for running reverb from their pedal chain. For such amps, the blueSky provides usuable reverb options for crunch tones that work from the amp's guitar input. This is a key differentiator between the blueSky and most other reverb pedals.
Pick Your Reverb
Of the three available reverb types, the blueSky's Plate reverb setting retained a crisper and more dynamic effect sound when using drop tunings, and sounded better than Room or Spring reverbs going into a driven preamp stage. The plate reverb had that typical metallic edge that plate reverbs seem to have, and reminded me of that shimmery sound a large vintage sizzle cymbal – the type that has loose rivets staggered around it.
Again, note that the Plate reverb setting sounded good whether I ran it through the front of the amp through the guitar input or through the amp's effect loop. The Plate setting also sounded the best of the three reverbs when paired with higher gain amps that don't have effects loops. It sounded great through both the guitar input and effect loops of a Mesa Mark III and an F-30, as well as through the guitar input of a Dr. Z Mazerati GT (no loop). When I tried it through a Fender Concert, the shimmery sound became too pronounced. Even with the mix dialed back it had an edge that just wasn't to my taste. Also of note, single coils sounded better during high gain testing, while humbuckers sounded better clean.
The Room reverb didn't sound like room reverbs I've used in the past, possibly due to the fidelity of the blueSky. While it was warmer than the Plate and Spring settings, it wasn't as warm as I am used to from vintage reverb pedals. During testing I found I could make up much of that warmth by increasing / decreasing the damping controls to bring up a rounder low end and cut the highs off a bit sooner. After these adjustments I found the room reverb went nicely with a clean amp and worked especially well for playing backing rhythms behind a deep male voice. Jazz runs also sounded very true. I don't normally use reverb for jazz but I could see myself using this particular room reverb. Unlike with the Plate reverb, I found the blueSky's Room reverb sounded much better through the amp's effect loop than through the guitar input. The best tones were achieved using the Mesa F-30 or Fender Concert clean channels. The Dr. Z Mazerati GT, lacking an effects loop and having no cleans on tap, was sent packing. The Mesa Mark III clean channel sounded good, but not to the level of the F-30 or Fender Concert. Humbuckers, sounded truer to my own concept of room reverb, perhaps due the blueSky's high definition.
A digital recreation of a physical spring reverb tank is not likely to fool an experienced player in a side-by-side A/B test. So while I still prefer a real spring reverb to the digital representation, I must admit that the blueSky has the best sounding digital spring reverb I've played through. The Mix and Decay controls let you go from a 50s rock & roll rhythms to that lost- in-space, surf rock sound. It has a very ear-catching quality about it when played through a clean amp and more perhaps importantly, it is capable of handling the crunch channel of a Marshall. In fact, while testing the blueSky, it occurred to me that if Marshall wants to use a digital spring reverb on their JVM series they should think about about licensing this one.
To recap the three reverbs, the Plate setting works best with high gain, the Room reverb is warm with clean tones, and the Spring reverb sounds high-fidelity rather than vintage (less bounce and more space.)
The blueSky's Pre-Delay control allows the picked note to hit the speakers with all of its power and definition before the reverb engages. High gain tones produced with a reverb signal right on top of them sound undefined, empty and lack balls. Having the picked note out front provided both the emphasis on the note your attempting to produce, and a tail of ambiance similar to a post studio reverb. The Low Damp and High Damp controls are specific to the selected reverb type. You can add or reduce that high frequency ambient quality or thicken the reverb signal so the darkness of your signature tone remains true.
When reviewing a product, I generally like to make a head-to-head comparison with similar products from other manufacturers. That's not really possible here because the blueSky is a new type of reverb. It really doesn't have any directly comparable competition. If your experience is with more vintage sounding reverb pedals, you will find the blueSky crisper and cleaner than what you're expecting. So long as you understand it was not designed to produce vintage sounding reverbs, there is nothing here with which to find fault. (Those seeking a more sonically vintage reverb pedal from Strymon should check out the Flint pedal).
As mentioned, it is comparatively easy to provide a reverb pedal that sounds good on clean tones. It is much harder to provide a good-sounding reverb for crunch tones. Along with its overall high quality, the blueSky's two KEY selling points are that it responds well with higher gain amps, AND it provides usable, pedal-based reverb options from the guitar input jack for non-loop-equipped amps. As such, hard rock and metal players should give the Strymon blueSky a good hard look. It is perfect for these applications.
If you spend some extra time with the Plate setting, you will be rewarded for doing so. During testing for this review I found it to be my favorite of the three reverbs offered – particularly for high gain amp tones. That said, the Spring setting did articulate the crunchiness of the Mark IIIs channel two and my old Marshall DSL 401. Some might find the sound a bit edgy, but I've played more than a few JVM models and the blueSky's spring reverb is definitely a step up from those.
Lastly, be sure to play around with the Shimmer mode with the Plate reverb selected. This is a strange, but cool addition to the voices the blueSky provides. I have no idea what it's doing on a reverb pedal, but with the guitar set clean you can get almost a synth pad-like effect. To me, it sounds like a rising sun of chorused octaves one might use to communicate with the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Consider it a free trip. That's how my generation would have taken it.
The blueSky is a fine example of creating something new from something old and succeeding. It does everything the manufacturer claims and adds some cool new things to the tonal palette. As with the other Strymon products I've seen, the build quality and components are all top notch. Overall, the Strymon blueSky reverb pedal gets five out of five stars. Nice job, Strymon.
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