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Cheap Reverbs

I did a quick shootout of a few $50-and-under algorithmic reverb plugins. $50 is an awesome value for any of them, and they do make me wonder just what it is about the “big names” that justifies their pricing.

About 5 years ago, Logic released “Space Designer” as a default plugin with Logic. While it wasn’t the first convolution reverb, it was the one that launched a reverb arms race – suddenly, convolution reverbs were all the rage, and everyone had to have one.  Not only did reverb plugins appear, but samplers and synths started coming with their own convolution reverbs built-in.

And you know what? Convolution reverbs are great. They’re awesome for creating realistic room sounds (and for doing other things, too. They’re remarkable flexible).

Of course, there’s one problem – realistic room sounds aren’t always good room sounds.  People still pined for the oft-grainy,  sizzly, but often lush sounds of an old-fashioned algorithmic reverb, because quite often, they just sounded nicely musical.  Certainly, hardware units by Bricasti and Lexicon weren’t exactly losing tons of sales.  Plus, finding an impulse-response recording for just the exact room you wanted wasn’t always easy.   And convolution can get processor intensive – not a problem if you’re recording a 5-track band, but for those with high track counts and differing spatial needs for each one, it could add up quick.

So the algo-verb started making a comeback.  Lexicon, unspurpsingly had a few entries in the market, as did Eventide.  Then players like Native Instruments got in on the game with their Softube partnership.  Many of these were emulations of classic hardware units. Most clocked in around $200.

Then a strange thing started happening, or at least, strange for the world of audio plugins.  A few vendors cropped up offering high-quality algorithmic reverbs, not modelled on any specific units, for startlingly low prices.

Two in particular have caught my eye – ValhallaDSP and AudioDamage.  AudioDamage has been around for a while, and are known for making a wide variety of unusual, interesting effects and synths that you didn’t know you needed until you bought them.  ValhallaDSP is just a guy who likes doing DSP.  The interesting crossover here is that AudioDamage’s algorithmic reverb plugin was in fact partially written by Sean Costello, who went off to found Valhalla.  So there’s some DNA shared here.

I did a quick shootout of several of these plugins, all grouped by the fact that they each cost $50.

ValhallaDSP ValhallaRoom: a more traditional room-simulation reverb.  It comes with a startlingly large variety of spatial algorithms, including some cheekily-named spaces called “Sulaco”, “Nostromo” and “LV-426.”  The user interface is large, colorful and friendly, and looks like something from a Star Trek control panel (that may not sound like a big deal, but a straightforward UI  makes a big difference in the time it takes to dial in a sound.

ValhallaDSP ValhallaVintageVerb: VVV is probably closer to the “classic gear” emulator.    In addition to its array of emulation algortihms, it has three separate “colors” – “now”, “1980s” and “1970s”, which simulate the reverbs of the respective eras by truncating the bandwidth of the reverberations and changing the modulation.  1970 is more band-limited than 1980 or now, and has a grainy quality; 1980 is darker with a slightly more digital edge to it, and “now” is smoother and fuller  but with less character.  This was clearly designed less as a “space simulator” and more as a “character” addition to a track.

AudioDamage Eos: the first of the low-cost algorithmic verbs to really it the virtual shelves, It combines a simple, straightforward UI with some novel approaches to reverberation.  It sports only three modes – P1 (mono plate), P2 (stereo plate) and “SH” (Super Hall).  I’ve used Eos a lot on the latest record,  and while superhall is the big selling point of the plugin, the Plate sounds remarkably good and has that lovely whooshy graininess that’s perfect for echoey trance stabs.

To my ears, ValhallaRoom comes out on top as the most useful “swiss army knife” reverb processor.  It’s clean, smooth and lush without being overwhelming or artificial sounding. VintageVerb is excellent, but inhabits a strange space of cool-sounding effects that won’t work for everyone, but work extraordinarily well when they do.  Eos is a ittle more bread-and-butter but also a bit harder to control and a slight bit more artificial-sounding; perhaps a better comparison would’ve been the superhall with the valhallaDSP “ValhallaShimmer” plugin, which is a more, well, shimmery Brian-Eno-ish large-space simulator.    Frankly, though, any one of these plugins are kind of ludicrously well-valued at $50.  They hold their own against  more expensive products and even sampled reverbs.  This does raise the question of just what you’re getting when you spend $200 for an algorithmic reverb plugin.  The cynic in me thinks the name on the badge is an extra $100 right there.

I recorded a brief snippet, a piano loop through each reverb with roughly the same settings – it’s impossible to match them 1:1 but I tried to come pretty close – large room, 10s decay, 30ms predelay, 50% mix, approximately the same cutoff and boost values.  First is ValhallaRoom, followed by VVV in each of “now”, “1980” and “1970” modes, followed by Eos, then Logic’s stock “PlatinumVerb” and Space Designer (using a 10s synthesized IR).

EDITED TO ADD: This has stunningly gotten picked up by a few places I didn’t expect to even notice it.  And, unfortunately has gotten a bit more, uh, hyperbolic language surrounding it than I expected either.  Just for the record, this is by no means a comprehensive shootout, nor am I comparing them directly with more expensive reverb units – just demonstrating that there are a bunch of good $50 reverbs out there that sound pretty damn good, and can hold their own against some of the more hyped ones. Nor is the audio file supposed to be comprehensive, just an example so you can hear the reverb tails.

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By Eric Oehler

Senior Engineer

Founder and owner of Submersible Studios, Eric enjoys talking about microphones and buying audio software he doesn't especially need. He also spends an awful lot of time with a RTA and a reference mic trying to get the acoustics of the studio juuuust right.