Whether you’re shaping the tone of your guitar onstage, mixing drum tracks in your recording software, or processing live vocals, delay and reverb are two invaluable effects to have at your disposal.
Although delay and reverb are often grouped when discussing audio effects, there are many significant differences between them. Indeed, they both affect the timing and add a sense of spaciousness to a sound, but they do this by using contrasting means.
In this definitive guide, I’ll break down the delay vs reverb debate so that you can gain an understanding of these popular effects and use them to your advantage when recording, mixing, or performing live. For those of you who want a short explanation of the differences, here it is.
Reverb simulates the soundwaves of your instrument bouncing off of a surface, which causes some of those soundwaves to make it back to your ears. Whereas delay effects take a digital snapshot of your notes and play it back. Both are time-based and create a desired echo-type effect.
The Delay Effect Explained
If you’ve ever used a delay pedal or opened up a delay plugin in your chosen DAW, you might be under the impression that it is a complex effect with many different facets.
There are indeed many sophisticated aspects of delay as an audio effect, but at its core, it is very simple and easy to understand. Delay is essentially the practice of causing a sound to be repeated after the original signal is played.
The time between the original sound and the delayed copy is what makes this effect so versatile. With delay pedals and VST plugins, we can intentionally control the timing of the delayed sounds, and modify a range of other aspects such as their dynamics, pitch, tone, and the length of their repetitions.
The Reverb Effect Explained
Like delay, reverb is an effect that affords the user many opportunities for customization. For that reason, it too has a reputation for being a little complex. However, it becomes simple once you understand the basics of how it is produced.
Reverberation is strongly linked to reflection. It is caused by sound waves traveling through the air and coming into contact with other objects. Furthermore, reverb is occurring around us all of the time, but we tend not to notice it until we are in a setting where it becomes exaggerated such as a cathedral or a large arena.
When sound waves reflect off surfaces, this creates very slightly delayed sound waves to travel back into our ears. These delays are so close to one another, that the human ear cannot differentiate them. The collective sound of the delays is known as reverb.
In the same way that we can adjust the timing, dynamics, and tone of a delayed signal, we can also adjust the attack, decay, release, and sustain of the reverb effect. Other aspects, such as room size and EQ can also be tweaked to change the way the reverb sounds.
The Key Differences Between Delay & Reverb
Technically, reverb is a type of delay effect. Modulation effects, such as flangers and chorus are also based on the principles of delay. Nevertheless, when discussing the processing of sounds, reverb and delay have their individual qualities and aspects which make them different from one another.
This video provides a detailed breakdown of the key differences between delay vs reverb effects:
Reverb and Space
Reverb pedals and plugins are designed to reproduce the sounds of a space or room. It emulates the way that the original sound source reflects against surfaces, and then the reflections quickly fade out.
Reverb is used to create space within a mix. It can add a sense of depth to a dry, lifeless sound, and it is compatible with all types of instruments and vocals. When used effectively, it has the potential to transport the listener to a new place, and completely change the underlying feel of a sound.
Delay and Time
The concept of time is inherent in the delay effect. Unlike reverb, delay causes the sound source to be repeated back once or many times, shortly following the original signal. Delays can last for short times, or the signal can be repeated infinitely in a loop.
One of the key differences between delay and reverb is that delay can be used rhythmically, while reverb is used simply to impact the immediate decaying of the reflected sound waves.
It can be used in many different ways, whether a guitarist wants to create the illusion of double-tracking or to make a snare drum repeat over and over before gradually fading out. Despite the similarities between delay and reverb, both can be used together to create the desired sense of spaciousness and timing in music.
The Different Types of Reverbs
Depending on the acoustics of the space in which the original sound is made, the nature of the reverberations caused by the reflections differs in terms of dynamics and timbre.
These distinctive reverb sounds are categorized based on the way they are produced. Most reverb pedals or VST plugins will include each of the following presets so that musicians can shape their desired reverberated tones.
Spring reverb is commonly used in guitar amps and has been for many decades. It is created using a spring mechanism as the name suggests, and has a unique, distinctive sound compared to other types of reverb.
To create this type of reverb, a transducer is placed at one end of the spring, and a pickup is then positioned at the opposite side. In some cases, multiple springs are used, but the effect can be achieved by using one.
Sonically, the spring reverb is bright and clean sounding. The springs take up very little space, which is why guitar amp manufacturers chose to include this type of reverb in their valve amps dating back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Spring reverb is therefore synonymous with spacey rock guitar tones from that era.
Room reverbs recreate the sound of the reflections in a compact space. They add a natural ambiance to a sound, which is similar to the reverb we hear in everyday situations when we’re indoors. This type of reverb is an effective way to make a dry sound livelier.
One of the main qualities of room reverbs is that they are easy to blend into a mix, without drawing too much attention from other instruments or sounds. They’re compatible with the majority of instruments and vocal tracks due to their unobtrusive nature.
Concert halls are renowned for their incredible reverberations, which are characterized by long-lasting decays due to the huge size of the space. In some cases, hall reverbs last for a few seconds, which is a long time compared to other types of reverb.
The most common use for hall reverbs is orchestral instruments, simply because that’s what concert halls were designed for. They sound incredibly thick and are made up of several layers of reflections, so it’s important to use this type of reverb sparingly to avoid overpowering the rest of the mix.
Chamber reverbs produce a similar sound to the aforementioned hall reverbs, but they tend to be clearer and more defined. This type of reverb was often created by sound engineers in high-end recording studios, by setting up a mic and a speaker inside a highly reflective space, such as a bathroom with tiled walls, or at the bottom of a large staircase.
Legendary recording studios like Abbey Road have gained a reputation for their chamber reverb sounds, and this effect sounds great on everything from strings to drum kits.
In this video, you can find instructions on how to easily create your reverb chamber for recording:
The Different Types of Delays
Now that we’ve covered the most common varieties of reverbs, it’s time to compare them to the different types of delays. Like reverb, the delay has many different sub-categories which produce vastly contrasting results when applied to an instrument or vocal track.
Slapback delay, or slapback echo as it is also sometimes called, is relatively quick and sharp sounding. It was popularized by singers in the formative years of rock n’ roll, with legendary crooner Elvis Presley perhaps the most notable example.
This type of delay resolves faster than other longer delays, which produces a more subtle effect. It’s a great way to add resonance to a vocal track or an instrument and is featured on most modern delay pedals.
Before the invention of DAWs and effects pedals, recording engineers had no digital technology to rely on when producing delays. Analog tape machines were used in the 1950s and early 1960s to create a unique type of delay which continues to be popular in the modern era.
Tape delay was produced by causing tape machines to record a track, play it back, and then erase the audio that was sent to the device. This caused a delayed waveform of the same sound to be played shortly after the original.
Nowadays, producers and musicians can emulate the authentic sound of tape delay using presets within VST plugins, or on their effects pedals. The warm, distinctive sound of analog tape delay is very compatible with guitars and drum tracks.
As digital technology simplified the process of adding delay to sounds, new innovative types of delays were invented through experimentation. One type of delay which has revolutionized live performances is looping, where the musician can create continuously repeating sounds that can be edited and tweaked to their liking.
Looping is different from other forms of delay in that it doesn’t necessarily fade out after a certain number of repetitions. Loops can be created and then played back infinitely, whilst the artist adds new sections or plays over the top of their created loops.
Looper pedals are essentially delay pedals that can record a certain number of tracks and play them back instantly. This allows solo performers to use different instruments, sounds, and effects to add new sonic elements and make their live shows more captivating for the audience, as is demonstrated in this video:
Doubling delay or echo sounds almost identical to slapback delay, due to their similar feedback times. However, a key difference between them is that the delay time of doubling echo is significantly shorter than that of slapback echo.
In many cases, the effect of doubling delay is so subtle that it’s hard to notice consciously. Nevertheless, it adds thickness and depth to a sound that is felt by the listener even if it’s not prominently heard by their ears.
Delay & Reverb Effects Pedals
For many years audio effects like delay and reverb could only be produced using outboard equipment or certain recording techniques. Effects pedals made it possible for musicians to instantly access delay and reverb onstage and in the studio.
Delay and reverb pedals use digital technology to emulate organic sound reflections. Additionally, they allow musicians to tweak specific aspects to create effects that exceed the limitations of natural acoustics.
Signal Chain Placement
Despite their similarities, it’s common for guitarists to incorporate both delay pedals and reverb pedals into their signal chain. These two timing-based effects are two of the most commonly used stompboxes available to musicians.
There are many different opinions on the best placements for the delay and reverb pedals in the signal chain. The conventional method is to position them at the very end, as this prevents them from making other effects sound muddy, which would likely be the case if they were positioned earlier in the chain.
Most commonly, reverb pedals are positioned after delay pedals. This is because reverb tends to have the most transformative effect on the guitar’s tone, whereas delay sounds cleaner. Placing delay before reverb ensures that the decaying reflections don’t cause the clarity of the repeated delays to be compromised.
Many guitarists choose to experiment with unconventional signal chain placements to create unique blends of effects. Placing delay and reverb pedals earlier in the signal chain is likely to give you access to sounds that you didn’t even know existed!
Delay & Other Effects
Delay is highly compatible with other types of effects. From a technical standpoint, many modulation effects are a form of delay. Chorus, for example, is produced by a slightly delayed copy of the original signal being played back after the original with a slight modification to its pitch.
Mixing delay with modulation effects is a great way to create ambient tones. The swirling effect of phasers and flangers, which is caused by an LFO, can be enhanced by adding a rhythmic delay into the mix.
Reverb & Other Effects
Out of all of the most popular guitar effects, there’s a strong argument that reverb is the most compatible with other effects. Whether you’re altering a fuzzy guitar riff to give it a vintage tone, or attempting to add depth to an overdriven chord sequence, reverb will do the trick.
Most recorded tracks have at least a small amount of reverb present, whether it’s added during the mixing process or naturally occurs due to the acoustic of the recording space.
Using Delay & Reverb in the Studio
Recording with Pedals
Many guitarists choose to use the effects on their pedalboards when laying down tracks in the studio. The main advantage of using delay and reverb pedals in this way is that it ensures that your recordings are consistent with the sounds produced by the effects in a live performance setting.
Delay and reverb pedals can either be recorded by sending the output into an amplifier and placing a microphone in front of the speaker or you can send the output directly into the input on your audio interface.
There are several pros and cons to each of these methods. Firstly, using an amplifier with your delay and reverb pedals produces a more authentic sound, and you can control the tone using the settings on the amplifier.
Plugging the pedals directly into your audio interface means that the sound can be processed more easily in retrospect because the recorded audio is cleaner and doesn’t have any of the added colorations from the amplifier.
Analog tape machines are highly sought after by musicians and producers who love authentic vintage delay sounds. They may not include all of the adjustable parameters found on a digital delay pedal, but there’s something very unique about the sounds you can get from these machines.
Most tube amplifiers produced by Fender and other notable manufacturers have their own onboard spring reverb tanks. There’s also a wide selection of reverb outboard equipment for creating spring and plate reverb organically in the studio.
VST Plugins & Onboard Effects
DAWs have revolutionized the way we record and make music. VST plugins are virtual instruments and effects that can be used within the recording software, and there are many brilliant options in the delay and reverb categories.
One of the most useful aspects of delay and reverb plugins is that they can be automated within a piece of music so that the various parameters and settings change as the piece progresses.
This is why reverb and delay plugins are used heavily in electronic styles of music. The producer can be very deliberate with the way the effect changes and moves after it has been applied to the chosen recorded track or sample.
Delay vs. Reverb – Instruments & Vocal Comparisons
In addition to the shared qualities I’ve outlined throughout this guide, another reason that delay and reverb are so useful to musicians and mixing engineers is that they are compatible with so many different instruments or vocal styles.
Delay can be used with an electric guitar in many different ways. When delay pedals are paired with a tap tempo footswitch, the guitarist can match the rhythm of the delayed signals to the pulse of a backing track or the rest of the band.
By adjusting the delay time and rhythmic properties of the effect, guitarists can create complex dotted delays which continue playing after they’ve struck the original note or chord. This gives the illusion that they are playing faster than they are.
Reverb is also a popular effect for electric guitarists. It can be used to add spaciousness to a clean tone and increase the decay time of the notes or chords played by the musician. Long-decaying reverbs are also great for ambient electric guitar textures.
Keyboards & Synths
Delay is heavily used by electronic musicians to create immersive keyboard and synth sounds. For example, they may play a single chord on a keyboard, then use delay to cause the chord to repeat every eighth note before it gradually fades out.
Reverb can also be used in many ways to add depth to synths and keyboard sounds. Soft drones are often created by playing a single note then adding reverb, lowering the attack, and increasing the decay to cause the reflections to continue long after the original sound has been triggered.
Drum samples often have delays applied to them, especially in hip-hop and other electronic genres. The rhythmic nature of delay makes it a perfect companion for hi-hats, snares, and other percussive instruments.
Reverb is equally as important to the sound of an acoustic drum kit as other staple effects, such as compression and EQ are. Each drum is likely to benefit from a different type of reverb, depending on the tone and the intended decay time.
Looper pedals, which are a unique form of delay, are very useful tools for acoustic guitarists. They allow the musician to essentially accompany themselves by creating sections that repeat after a certain amount of time so that more tracks can be added in as the loop progresses.
Acoustic guitars also blend beautifully with many different types of reverb, and the vast majority of recordings made with this instrument utilize this spacey effect.
Finally, vocals are also highly compatible with delay and reverb. Shorter varieties of delay are often used to thicken the sound of a vocalist, such as a slapback or doubling. In more experimental styles, musicians may use complex rhythmic delays to make their vocals sound otherworldly.
Reverb is also heavily used on vocals, both in the studio and in live performances. In the same way that we all think our signing sounds better in the bathroom, vocalists use reverb to soften the imperfections of their singing voice and make it sound less dry and more natural.
After reading this detailed comparison between reverb vs delay pedals, you should now have all of the information you need to start using these two popular timing-based effects in your music.
Experimenting with the seemingly limitless possibilities that delay and reverb offer is a highly enjoyable experience, and it will help you to create your unique tones and sounds moving forward.
My name is Chris and I’ve had a passion for music and guitars for as long as I can remember. I started this website with some of my friends who are musicians, music teachers, gear heads, and music enthusiasts so we could provide high-quality guitar and music-related content.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and am an avid collector. Amps, pedals, guitars, bass, drums, microphones, studio, and recording gear, I love it all.
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My background is in Electrical Engineering, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. With my engineering experience, I’ve developed as a designer of guitar amplifiers and effects. A true passion of mine, I’ve designed, built, and repaired a wide range of guitar amps and electronics. Here at the Guitar Lobby, our aim is to share our passion for Music and gear with the rest of the music community.