Reverb vs Echo: Understanding the Difference
If you’re an award-winning bathroom singer like myself, you’ve probably noticed that your shower performances sound better than when you’re in a regular room.
Understanding the bathroom effect is key to understanding the difference between echo and reverberation, also known as reverb.
If you don’t already know the difference, you’re not alone. The echo vs reverb debate has spanned decades. Many people use both terms interchangeably when talking about sound, despite both words referring to different phenomena.
Before we proceed to learn the differences between echo and reverb, we should first learn about the similarities.
How are echo and reverb similar?
Remember the movies that depicted characters with supersonic abilities? It turns out they were only slightly exaggerated about how sound works.
Sound travels in waves of energy, albeit invisible to the human eye. These waves change the motion of the air particles they interact with, pushing them outwards. They also interact with other items in the surrounding until they hit your eardrums - when you hear them.
Sound waves undergo similar effects to other kinds of waves. Some of these effects include reflection, refraction, diffraction and absorption.
For the sake of this echo vs reverb conversation, the effect of concern is reflection. Reflection happens when a wave hits a surface and bounces back towards the source. It is what happens when you point a light source at a mirror. The image you see in a mirror is also another kind of reflection.
Echo and reverberation are similar in that they are both caused by the reflection of sound waves. Both effects require that the sound source is surrounded by materials that do not absorb sound. So how are they different?
What are the differences between echo and reverb?
Echo and reverberation are reflections of sound in that sound from a source hit a surface and bounces back towards the source.
The best place to observe an echo is an open space with few structures, for instance, a mountain range or a canyon. If you wear to yell “bananas” in a mountain range, you would hear a distinct secondary sound come back to you. That sound is an echo.
Echoes are easy to identify because of the distance and time it takes the sound to travel before bouncing back towards the source. Typically, echoes can only be heard when the distance between the person producing the sound and the reflecting body is more than 50 feet.
Since the speed of sound is well known, echoes can easily be used to calculate the distance of the reflecting body to the source of the sound. Depending on the design of the structure(s) where you are, you can even get multiple echoes.
Reverberations are more nuanced than echoes. The easiest way to think of reverberation is as a series of echoes happening in quick succession such that the ears cannot pick them up. They occur in much smaller spaces and, because of that, are much faster.
The sound reflections in a reverberation pile up on one another, increasing the volume of the sound and altering it slightly. The brain perceives reverb as one continuous sound as opposed to distinct echoes.
Reverberations are a significant part of the world-class shower performances that you put on every other day. Most shower walls are made of tiles that do not absorb sound. Instead, the sound bounces off all the surfaces in quick succession to form something more wholesome.
You can also notice reverb when in a room that has not been filled with furniture. Or the humming of a guitar string after it has been plucked.
Reverb vs echo in the studio
For sound producers, reverb and echo are interesting effects that can significantly improve the quality of sound. Both can be added digitally to a sound recording to alter it.
Reverb is typically added to a voice to fill it out, i.e. make is sound more pleasurable. However, if you have too much reverb on the voice, it can sound distant, making it difficult to mix.
Echoes can also be used to create interesting effects with sound. They are popularly used in creating dub music. Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen features some heavy panning - an effect created by using echoes.
Most rooms have some level of echo or reverb in them, and it can affect production. Recordings with echo or reverb are more difficult to edit. Hence, you should have a dry recording (i.e. no reverb or echo) and add the effects later on.
To achieve dry recording, producers can use acoustic foam panels to pad their walls. Remember that sound reflections occur as a result of sound getting bounced off surfaces. Acoustic foam panels absorb sounds and prevent them from bouncing back into the recording mic.