With powerful synth-making tools like Native Instruments Reaktor, it is becoming more and more common for creative minds to independently develop their own programs and plug-ins — and Sonic Flavours' R66 reverb is a perfect example of this creative freedom. The R66 story goes like this: Martijn Zwartjes, a composer from Germany via the Netherlands, was building a complicated synth called SteamPipe using Dr Sync's Sync Modular (a modular soft synth for Windows discontinued in 2003) when he decided that his synth needed a reverb. Because Zwartjes hadn't found too many reverbs that he particularly liked, he decided that rather than relying on the design of previous reverbs, he would use his own smarts to build a reverb algorithm from scratch. Although the SteamPipe synthesizer had been his main project and was well-received by those who tried it, the merits of its component reverb were soon getting lots of attention.
Zwartjes contacted his colleagues Leo Degen and Gregor Theelen, and with the expertise of Degen, a gifted guitarist and well-respected expert on music technology, Zwartjes soon had an early C/C++ version of the R66 digital reverb. Theelen, an experienced professional composer and owner of the Netherlands-based company Sonic Flavours, heard an early version of R66 and liked it so much that he decided to sell his Lexicon 480 the same week and pick up the new product. So what makes the R66 tick, and how does it compare to what's out there already?
R66 is a stereophonic reverb with 22 controls. The sleek interface is divided into eight sections. The first four sections cover initial processing and the size of the reverb. Like with other reverbs, the user can specify the length of time that will pass before the processed signal is applied; this occurs in the first section. In the next three sections are the controls for room size. There is an Early Reverb, a Late Reverb and a crossfader to control their levels proportionally. The user can combine two room spaces each with their own properties of symmetry (the stereo properties of a reflection) and diffusion.
The fifth and sixth sections both relate to decay. Of course, there is the decay time itself, which is adjustable from .01 to 100 seconds. Also present is a frequency modulation that varies the pitch of the decaying late reflections and makes the reverb sound richer and thicker, almost like a chorus. There are two Decay Damping knobs: one for low frequencies and one for high. The Frequency knobs, located below the Damping knobs, control the frequency below or above which the damping itself is applied. This gives the user control of which frequencies will decay for longer. Finally, the last two sections cover EQ and Wet/Dry. The EQ section has a Lo Shelf and a Hi Shelf knob, each with a corresponding Frequency knob underneath it. The Lo and Hi Shelf knobs adjust the volume, in decibels, of the frequencies below or above the break frequency that is specified by the corresponding Frequency knob.
PICKING THE RIGHT ROUTE
To test any insert effect, you have two options, depending on what kind of information you're looking for. If you want to know how the effect sounds over your favorite loops, samples or synth patches, then, obviously, the best test is to try it over them and see how it sounds. If, on the other hand, you're more interested in the fine details of what the effect does to process your signal, the best test (especially for reverbs) is an impulse frequency response (IFR) test. In case you're new to the game, the impulse frequency is basically a loud, abrupt snap or pop. This pop gives a profile of what changes occur when the signal passes through a device such as a reverb or delay. For this article, I used multiple instrument sounds and IFR tests to measure the R66 against a couple of its closest competitors: Waves' TrueVerb and Wave Arts' MasterVerb.
These three programs are not top-shelf reverbs by any means — setting the standard in reverberation today are the expensive, CPU-munching convolution reverbs that use an entirely different process to model space. For Theelen, using an algorithmic reverb instead of a convolution is a bit like using a synthesizer instead of a sampled sound. With a synthesizer, you have a tremendous amount of control of many parameters of a given patch because the sound is actually being generated each time you hit a key. With a sample, you may have control of filters but not the sampled waveform itself. Convolution reverbs rely on an IFR test to obtain a spatial profile of rooms, halls or famous acoustic spaces like Carnegie Hall. Once a convolution has the IFR information, it can produce an immaculate reproduction of that space. With some convolution reverbs, you have limited control of spatial parameters, but by and large, you're limited by what you start with, hence the similarity to a sampler. By contrast, R66 uses a flexible set of parameters capable of generating a much broader array of reflections and is therefore more like a synthesizer.
TRANSPARENCY AND WARMTH
I tested the reverbs through two M-Audio BX8s, running them on Ableton Live 4.04 and Steinberg Cubase SX 3. After a lot of testing, R66 has shown itself to be an extremely versatile and breathtaking reverb. The sound from just about every preset was unique and pristine. Predictably, MasterVerb didn't quite measure up to R66 or TrueVerb but was low on CPU usage and, for most types of room shape, got the job done fine. TrueVerb gives R66 a little more of a run for its money in terms of sound quality. Without getting too experimental, both R66 and TrueVerb seemed to be pretty well-matched. There was no metallic resonance (unless desired) from either reverb, and for the most part, both sounded rich and natural. R66 was, however, distinctly superior in its bass and midrange frequency response.
The main thing I noticed with R66 was that in relation to the unprocessed signal, I was able to get a lot of low and midrange frequencies in the reverb's tail by setting the Lo Shelf knob to high values and watching where I stuck the corresponding Frequency knob. The frequencies in the processed signal were easy to balance and, because of the separated Lo and Hi damping sections, were controllable in terms of duration. All of this (and perhaps more that Sonic Flavours has buried behind its GUI) translates directly to sound quality. R66's sound is robust, balanced and downright gutsy.
My first sign that R66 was truly something special occurred when I discovered that a long decay setting with an undamped low end and a damped high end could make a single impulse frequency sound remarkably like a jetliner taking off from the runway. Upon hearing this, I used a compressor to subdue the clipping and smooth things off; it sounded amazing. I had to listen to it fade out completely five or six times before moving on. This set the tone for the testing, and it quickly became apparent that R66 was full of some distinct and unique advantages.
R66 gives users the freedom to manipulate two different acoustic spaces, Early and Late, the latter of which modifies the reflections of the former with additional reflections. After understanding how each parameter works, it is easy to think about how to model acoustic spaces with the reverb. The signal is reverberating in two spaces, a small one and a large one. Each space has its own symmetry and diffusion controls. Essentially, this amounts to the ability to use the Late Size strictly as a delay and have an untampered reiteration of your Early Reverb, or you can alter the Late Size's diffusion and symmetry and have these parameters alter the diffusion and symmetry of the early reflections in a cumulative manner, thus providing the opportunity for more complex late reflections. Even if this isn't too significant a departure from conventional reverbs, it was a feature that I found myself craving when returning to MasterVerb and TrueVerb.
Another big advantage of R66 is the Late Size's maximum setting: a whopping 666 meters. Usually, this sounds best when combined with the Early Size via the crossfader above R66's logo. The large-size setting is a great advantage for a specific reason: Sometimes, it is nice to be able to enrich a lead line or pad using a continuous reverb running in the background. If you're using a reverb with a long decay setting to achieve this effect, it's a good idea to keep the processed signal to a minimum, lest your sound gets swamped with high-frequency noise. Having such a high maximum value on the Late Size enables the user to create a large atmosphere with lots of complexity and not a lot of noise. This is so because it isn't the decay alone that is contributing to the length of the reverb; it is the additional late reflections. The high Late Size lets you keep more processed signal without the noise that usually accompanies a long tail. Currently, there aren't any other reverbs with such huge sizes.
The Modulation controls beneath the Decay knob can also yield some rather unusual effects. For example, I found that if I set the room sizes to lower values with low diffusion settings, the predictable metallic tunnellike reverberation would occur. Setting a medium decay time, I cranked up the modulation and listened to the results with an IFR test. This produced a metallic reverberation with an undulating frequency, which sounded even nicer when the edge was taken off the metallic reflections with some diffusion. One could obtain a similar effect by chaining a chorus or a modulated pitch shifter to the reverb, but it would take some careful routing to achieve the same subtlety that results from having a decay modulation within the reverb itself.
A SECOND OPINION
Because R66 hasn't had too much exposure, I decided to get some expert help in assessing it. I asked a local producer and collaborator of mine to give the reverb a try on his system: a 2.6GHz Athlon with 512 MB of RAM. He reported that with 16 instances of the reverb open in his sequencer, his CPU chugged happily along using only about a quarter of his processor power. He enthusiastically approved of the sound quality and operation, claiming that he would happily re-edit all of his tracks with it.
But not all of the reactions have been completely positive. A co-worker who has been doing professional studio recording for quite some time and has a good deal of experience with reverbs of every sort conceded that, yes, the reverb sounded good, but he remained skeptical about whether having it would warrant selling one's Lexicon. His main complaint, which will no doubt be echoed by others, is that the interface is devoid of helpful graphics. This is one area in which TrueVerb and MasterVerb win out over R66. Even though the R66 interface is stylish, graphic representations of what is happening to the signal help the users sort out their parameters and make manipulating the effect a little more predictable. Also, because Zwartjes designed the reverb using a new type of algorithm, some of the nomenclature may be foreign to users who are familiar with conventional reverbs. This may add a bit of a learning curve for more novice users.
Soundwise, this is an amazing device. R66 is a rich and complex reverb capable of a vast array of unique effects. After hearing what it can do, I am convinced that it will get plenty of commercial attention. Although I have been convinced of its merits, some industry pros may be inclined to disagree. It would be nice to see a DXi version in the future; for now, R66 only does VST. It is not clear whether the reverb will someday give you a graphic representation of the effect that it is applying to the signal. This is a fortunate trend in soft-reverb GUIs, and it would certainly be a plus for R66 to have one. A Mac-compatible version is alleged to be on the way later in the year.
R66 is still a fresh, innovative reverb that is not as restrictive or taxing as a convolution but steps beyond conventional algorithmic reverb synthesis on a number of counts. Its quality, versatility and wide-open-space sound make it a good middle ground if you are looking for a high-quality reverb that is reasonably priced. Like that old stretch of highway where many of the country's finest jazz players first made their names, the reverb that is its namesake is bound to see plenty of traffic.
R66 > $295
Pros: Exceptionally warm and transparent. Full automation on all parameters. Simple, no-nonsense user interface. Support for all VST-compatible hosts. No noticeable bugs.
Cons: No DXi support. Lacks explanatory graphics. No Mac version currently available.
Intel-compatible/600; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/XP; Windows-compatible soundcard