What defines a “good” reverb? The recording engineer will define it one way, the concert pianist another, and the guitar player yet another. An engineer craves a myriad of options and a super-low noise floor, and these days, probably integration with their DAW of choice. A concert pianist or opera singer merely desires a realistic representation of an outstanding acoustic environment. But we guitar players are a curious lot. For many of us, the term “reverb” produces an unusual evocation; one formed by the equally unusual effect of audio passing through long metal springs. Unusual or not, the now seemingly archaic practice of producing “reverb” by sending a guitars signal happily bouncing down a long spring produces more than just a sound that emulates a large acoustic space; it produces magic.
Some accounts credit Laurens Hammond of Hammond Organ Company fame with inventing spring reverb in the 1940’s; other accounts contend that Hammond was second to Bell Laboratories, who rumor has it was experimenting with the concept as early as the mid 1930’s. Just exactly who and when doesn’t really matter; what matters is this: the distinctive sound of spring reverb is literally as old as, or even older than, the electric guitar itself. Those original Hammond reverb tanks were things of aural beauty, and they were really “tanks”; with comparatively huge springs hanging literally in tanks of oil.
It was, of course, Leo Fender who introduced the greater guitar-playing world to the magic of spring reverb, and his “tanks” were made by the Hammond Organ Company in good old Illinois, USA.
For the most part, when discerning guitar players talk in hushed tones about the hallowed golden sound of spring reverb, it’s those wonderful vintage US made tanks from the 1950’s and 60’s they hold in such high esteem. The warm-fuzzy golden goodness of vintage spring reverb is undeniable. Also undeniable is the fact that for most gigging guitarists these days, such vintage reverberation is just not particularly feasible. Not only are vintage reverb units or vintage amps that contain vintage tanks expensive, they can be unreliable. No one can blame a delicate little spring that’s been banging around under tension for decades for not being able to keep up with the rigors of the road, and so most vintage units are now enjoying the rest they so exhaustively earned, living a pampered life of luxury in a studio or honored vintage collection.
So where does that leave us? Where do we turn to get our reverb fix? For most of us this has been a difficult question. Once you have basked in the glory that is vintage spring reverb, it’s hard to accept anything less. The current production spring tanks don’t sound as good as the old ones, are still prone to damage, and can, of course, still make some really offensive noises when jostled about. For those of us who on occasion are required to travel with only a modest pedal-board the problem is particularly poignant. And so the decision is made by most guitar players: we need a reverb “pedal”.
Those of us old enough to remember the pre-digital days also remember the pre-digital “reverb” pedals, which were not really reverb at all. These things were actually the product of a bunch of short analog “bucket-brigade” delays. The sound produced was, well, interesting; but it was most decisively NOT reverb. When switched on, these things hissed like a serpent, and when switched off they sucked all the high-frequencies plumb out of your tone. To add insult to injury, these behemoth pedals also generally required a proprietary 18-volt (or higher) power supply, too.
The late 1980’s ushered in the first “digital” reverb pedals. Like their analog forerunners, these things were generally large, power-hungry beasts; they also hissed like mad and sucked tone even when switched off. The “reverb” was at least approaching the sound of true reverb, but compared to a good spring tank … well … there just plain WAS no comparison. Even the reverb pedals of the late 90’s and into the early 2000’s left much to be desired. Generally the evolution of digital pedals went the same direction as all digital “revolutions”; they just kept heaping on features. Once you convert a guitars signal into a stream of ones and zeros, it’s pretty much possible to rearrange those digits to mangle the result in any number of ways. The problem is that most folks don’t actually like the sound of rearranged ones and zeros. To a discerning guitar player this digital process can bring about grave consequences. Cheap pickups, bad tubes, inexpensive speakers; these can all provoke a pretty objectionable tone, but they don’t hold a candle to decomposing a signal into representative ones and zeros, rearranging those ones and zeros, and putting them back together. This is exactly what most digital reverb pedals do.
If the story were to end here, it would be a sad story; but it doesn’t, and it isn’t. As of this writing, at least one company, Wampler Pedals, is producing a digital reverb pedal that accomplishes everything we want a reverb pedal to do, while avoiding those things we strongly require it to not do. The Wampler “Faux Spring” reverb pedal uses a very advanced and proprietary digital spring reverb emulation circuit that is among the finest available, one which bears absolutely no resemblance to the digital reverb “chips” commonly found in reverb pedals. This complex circuit was not designed to mangle ones and zeros in a nearly infinite number of ways. This circuit is designed with one solitary goal: to provide true “spring” reverb. And, as for that terribly distasteful process of taking your guitars signal, converting it into ones and zeros and spitting it back out, this pedal avoids that digital carnage by NOT Converting the guitars dry signal at all, the non-effected (dry) signal remains pure in its analog form. The reverb may be digital, but the guitar tone most certainly is not.
Is this the final chapter? That’s hard to say. Once Leo Fender discovered the magic of the spring reverb tank, it remained the sole source of reverb at Fender throughout his years of ownership. However, if Leo was alive and at the helm of the company that bears his name today, I can’t help but feel he would be giving this “faux spring” thing some serious consideration. Likewise, if the Brian Wampler’s of today continue to tinker and innovate, it seems inevitable that the state of the reverb pedal will continue its upward trajectory. Personally, I’d like one that is super-tiny, self-powered and needs no batteries or external power source, and … oh … sounds JUST like the reverb in my vintage blackface Fender Vibrolux.
To a few of you, the very term “scatter-winding” may be new. It was to me not long ago. I was introduced to the term while reading the Book: The Fender Inside Story by Leo Fender’s right hand man, Forrest White. Forrest pointed out that those highly sought after “pre-CBS” pickups were wound entirely by hand without the precision of modern machine-winding techniques. Those pickups were “scatter-wound”, or in other words, they weren’t perfect. The windings did NOT fall neatly, one nestled tightly to the next. This scatter wind was not a design intention; it was simply a natural result of the human process.
Another interesting tidbit from Mr. White’s book: Leo made those pickup winding machines himself. As was the case with so much of what Mr. Fender was doing in the early days, he was breaking new ground in winding pickups. There was no commonly accepted “correct” way to do it. And so Leo sourced the motors he thought would work best, concocted his own apparatus for cradling and directing the wire and for holding the pickup bobbins in place. His celebrated drive mechanism: a rubber-band. Turns out there were no drive belts available that had the right amount of “give” for the delicate wire he was using.
And so it is that young ladies, often seamstresses by training, wound pickups on machines driven by rubber bands. That would not really be much of a story if not for this fact: they were not just ANY pickups, they were THE pickups. The pickups that defined early American Rock & Roll. The pickups of the “surf” sound. Buddy Holly’s pickups. James Burton’s pickups. Jimi Hendrix’s pickups. You get the idea. This list has no end. These are the pickups that reside in some of the most valuable and desired guitars the world has ever known, or likely will ever will. Holy Grail tone? In a word, yes.
Today there are a few small American companies winding pickups by hand the way Fender did in the “Golden days”. Leo would be flattered by the hefty prices those pickups demand. To Leo, hand winding pickups, with the resultant “scatter” winding was not just one of several options; it was the ONLY option.
Scatter-winding is more than mere folk-lore; there is some real indisputable science to it. The inductance between wire windings laying tightly parallel to one another is indeed quite different from that of the same windings scattered willy-nilly to one another. The modern method of machine-winding pickups may be yet another instance of newer not being better. Sure a programmed machine can wind a heck of a lot more pickups in a day than even a highly competent human can, but with a yardstick delineated by quality rather than quantity, my money is (quite literally) on the human.