Difference Between Echo, Delay and Reverb
Spatial awareness from your pedals
We love pedals here at Dawsons. Pedals are good. They give us the ability to add tone, colour, texture, space, and madness to our sounds. And for that, we give them praise.
We’ve also been spending a lot of time lately comparing, contrasting three different, yet similar, styles of pedal. Step forward reverb, delay, and echo. Three distinctly different, yet overlapping, tools which have a huge impact on your tone.
The overriding thing we noticed, however, is that there seems to be some confusion over what the key differences between the three. Things are made difficult by the fact that, in some situations, each individual pedal can do a decent enough job of mimicking the effect of the others. However, used ‘correctly’, they are very different beasts, with very different attributes and capabilities.
Allow us to explain, in this echo vs delay vs reverb pedal shootout.
We’ll start by spending a bit of time looking at reverb. It is, after all, the oldest guitar effect in the book. Reverb, short for ‘reverberation’, essentially mimics the effect of your guitar signal being played out into a particular physical space. It does this to add space, warmth, and texture.
Imagine, if you will, standing in a huge cave. It’s dark. At the centre of the cave is you, with your guitar plugged into a clean amp. Strum a chord, or play a note, and the sound will bounce – or ‘reverberate’ around the space making it last longer. The sound you hear after the note is played is called the ‘tail’ and is very important when comparing different reverb types.
Typically, you’ll find a few types crop up fairly often. Spring reverb, often built into older amps, actually plays a bit of your signal through a metal spring in the back of the amp before it hits the speaker. This causes the spring to vibrate, which extends the sound’s tail and gave it a characteristic ‘close’ reverberation.
Plate reverbs follow a similar principle, albeit with the signal directed at a metal plate. This causes the plate to vibrate, which can give a far longer tail depending on the size of the plate.
Finally, there’s ‘room’ reverb, which is pretty much as it sounds. Here the effect mimics the result of playing your guitar in rooms of differing sizes or dimensions. This could be a studio, a church, or even the aforementioned cave.
Modern reverb pedals pack in all kind of different styles on top of this, along with the ability to chain in other effects. A popular style here is ‘mod’ reverbs, where the output signal is blended with a modulator like a chorus or a phaser effect, or the much-in-vogue shimmer effect.
Shimmer, essentially, takes a part of the reverberated signal, and feeds it into a pitch shifter notched up 12 semitones. Then feeds this back into the reverb. The effect is often compared to a choir of angels singing along to your guitar. It’s instant, epic and great fun to play around with. A great example of the shimmer effect is found in the superb Strymon Blue Sky pedal, and the Electro Harmonix Canyon.
Another famous old effect, particularly in the guitar world, is delay. When you explain delay to a non-musician, they often look at you like you’ve gone mad. Why would you want to play a note, and then repeat that note back at you?
The simple reason is that it sounds amazing. Delay has been used in countless ways over the years, but its predominant purpose is to thicken up or add colour to a sound. Think about the main guitar line in U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and you’ll know what a delayed guitar line is.
Most delay pedals offer a couple of settings as mandatory; time and feedback. Time indicates how long after you’ve played your note or chord do you want the repeat to play. Feedback tells the pedal how many times you want it to keep playing.
Over and above this, certain delay pedals like the Boss DD-7 incorporate additional effects like modulation and reverse delay, to add extra creative potential.
And finally, the meeting of minds. In its simplest form, echo is a juxtaposition of the two previously mentioned effects. It has both the space-expanding potential of a reverb, and the repeated notes of a delay, yet is neither. And both. All at the same time.
In practice, echo pedals tend to have a slightly different utility. With an echo pedal, you’re generally looking at a shorter, thicker, darker reverberated sound. This is because echo pedals are modeled on old studios where an echo sound was achieved by physically repeating a section using tape.
Tape, being a physical object, naturally degrades over time and brings in its own unique characteristic ‘wobble’, like an old audio tape which has been taped over too many times.
The Strymon El Capistan is the best example we’ve come across of this effect. It features controls for exactly how old you want the tape emulation to be, and how much ‘flutter’ you want as the repeated signal fades away. It’s pretty unique in this. However, purists are more likely to be tempted by the Boss RE-20 Space Echo, which is modeled on a physical unit.
Similarities and differences
It’s when you sit down with a few examples of each type of pedal and start tweaking that you notice there are some evident similarities between each effect type. Indeed, it’s possible to cover two (or even three) of these bases using a single pedal.
For example, you can create a really tight reverb sound to mimic a double-tracked guitar or a small space with all three pedals. The reverb and the echo pedal do it naturally. However, by vastly lowering the ‘time’ control of a delay pedal, and limiting the feedback to a single repeat, you can essentially achieve a similar effect.
Likewise, for example, an echo pedal does a reasonable job at being a delay pedal by virtue of the fact they share a few key characteristics.
There are however examples where the similarities end. While we’ve established that echo pedals can imitate delay pedals, they are limited by typically lower repeat rates and tonal artifacts. A digital delay, like the Boss DD-500 could hypothetically repeat the same note ad infinitum, with crystal clarity, if you wanted it to.
Likewise, while a reverb pedal could produce a passable echo sound, it’s again limited by some of its inherent characteristics. You’ll get the effect of space but without anywhere near as much control as a dedicated pedal.
Each of the pedal types we’ve discussed has its own place in musical history. From the rich warmth of a good reverb to the pristine predictability of a quality reverb, via the unique characteristics of a vintage echo emulator; these pedals are all valuable tools in the arsenal of any player. And not just for guitars either; we did a blog looking at the best pedals for synths too.
Our advice? Try a few different effects out – and combinations of – and see what works for you. Each has its own benefits, and while there is crossover in places, a dedicated pedal will always give you more of the tonal capability, potential and excitement that you’re looking for.