Over on Gearslutz, AstralPStudios asked an interesting question:
When it comes to reverb, is there close relation to distortion in some ways? I guess when I’m listening to big verbs with high decay times it makes me wonder that because at times a big, wet verb can have some distortion-type characteristics.
The distortion observation is a good one, as this can often be heard with very long decays in algorithmic reverbs. In some cases, this is due to the high signal levels of the output. Increasing the decay time means turning up the internal feedback gains, and this often results in an output sound with a very high RMS level. However, even if the output level is reduced to a level that isn’t clipping within the DAW, sometimes various forms of distortion and noise can be heard. This can be explained as a consequence of the feedback nature of the algorithms, and how feedback causes the characteristics of the loop to be magnified exponentially.
Algorithmic reverbs tend to be made up of short delay lines, with LOTS of feedback applied. A good rule of thumb is that the average delay lines in a reverb are 0.1 seconds or shorter in length. In order to get a 30 second decay out of the reverb, the sound will be going around those loops (30.0/0.1) times…or 300 times. So any little quirk in the feedback path, like interpolation noise or fixed point distortion, will be increased on each pass through the feedback loop.
The earliest “long” electronic reverb sounds were based around tape delays, possibly running into a spring or plate reverb. Listen to “Creation du Monde” by Vangelis for an amazing “reverb” sound that comes from 3 RE-201 Space Echos:
The wow and flutter of the tape units, and the distortion added by tape saturation, results in a sound that is far more ethereal than 3 clean digital delay loops run in series or parallel.
The Lexicon 224 is an early digital reverb that was well known for its spacey, extra long decays (up to 70 seconds). Again, Vangelis was an early pioneer of the extra long decays using this unit, most famously in the Blade Runner soundtrack:
The Lexicon 224 used a fixed point processor, with a 16-bit word size, and a 20-bit saturating accumulator. Translated into English, this means that the 224 had about 24 dB of headroom internally (4X the max input volume) before things started clipping. HARD, digital clipping. The allpass delays used by the 224 also had fairly high internal gains, especially with long reverb times. This results in clipping at various points in the digital reverb network. Strangely enough, adding clipping into the nodes of a Lexicon-style reverb network doesn’t end up producing the classic tape echo runaway feedback at most settings. Instead, it tends to produce a somewhat higher noise floor with broadband audio signals (i.e. music as opposed to test signals).
The modulation in the Lexicon 224 also produced distortion, but of a different sort. The 224 had a quirky multiplier, which resulted in the linear interpolation being quantized to fairly big subsample chunks (I think it was 32 or 64 chunks per sample). This resulted in a “halo” of noise around reverbed signals, where the noise was less signal dependent than the clipping noise described above. The linear interpolation also results in attenuated high frequencies above 1/2 the sampling rate. Since the sampling rate in the 224 was pretty low in the first place, the attenuated high frequencies were quite audible with long decays. The noise and high frequency attenuation will increase every time it passes through the reverb network, and a 70 second decay time results in a few hundred passes through the allpass delays.
EDIT (1/24/2013): Since I wrote the above, I have spent a lot of time studying the Lexicon modulation. I think that the modulation source in the older Lexicons had a lot more to do with the noise performance than I had originally thought. The modulation in my PCM70 is noisy as all get out. The results of my studies can be heard in my latest plugin, ValhallaVintageVerb. In the 1970s and 1980s modes, I make use of this noisy modulation, which can really be heard on long sustained synth notes going through longer reverbs. The Concert Hall and Bright Hall algorithms are the best showcases of these “old school” artifacts.
Today, reverb plugins are usually programmed with floating point math. 32 bit floating point avoids most of the distortion issues found in the older fixed point processors, and 64-bit floating point can be used if absolute precision is desired. Generally speaking, 64-bit math is useful for very low frequency higher order filters, and for precise control of attack/decay times for dynamics processing – otherwise, 32-bit floating point has an amazingly high SNR. In addition, the last 3o+ years have seen a great deal of progress in delay interpolation techniques, so you can have modulated delay lines with lower SNR and less high frequency attenuation. If a DSP engineer wants to throw a bunch of cycles at their algorithms, they can come up with very clean reverbs, even with extremely long decays.
At Valhalla DSP, our philosophy is that a little noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that the artifacts of the older reverbs often added some nice mojo to the signal. The high frequency attenuation of linear interpolation can result in a far less “glassy” high end than modern high fidelity interpolation techniques. ValhallaShimmer makes use of this in the “dark” color mode (the “bright” mode makes use of a more modern interpolation style).
The new Dark Room mode for ValhallaRoom deliberately introduces noise into the linear interpolation, and downsamples the entire reverb algorithm, to produce more audible noisy artifacts. As the noise is very signal dependent, and the algorithm is true stereo, this will result in different noise signals in the left and right channels, which increases the decorrelation of the algorithm, producing a very spacious feel. With short decays, the noise won’t be that audible, as it will only pass through the delays a few times before decaying away. With long decays, the noise floor builds up, resulting in a big, washy block of “spectral plasma,” to borrow a term from Christopher Moore. The other ValhallaRoom algorithms are fairly clean, but I felt it was important that users had the choice between modern clean and vintage dirty.