Being asked by Premier Guitar to write an article about lesser-known vintage spring reverbs was like a chocoholic being asked if he’d like to become head taster for Willy Wonka. As the founder of Soundgas Limited, my self-proclaimed remit over many years has been to seek out and explore vintage and unusual recording gear, with a particular emphasis on effects—especially electromechanical echoes and reverbs. Based in Derbyshire, U.K., Soundgas supplies a unique range of classic, esoteric, and exotic music-making equipment to a stellar international client list. As soon as the remit for the article was confirmed, I set about sourcing as many vintage spring reverbs as I could find in the limited time available.
If, like me, you grew up in the pre-digital age listening to music radio, you’ve heard countless examples of classic spring reverbs in action. From subtle sweetening ambience to canyon-esque magnificence and surf-drenched tsunamis, popular music is awash with the sound of the spring reverb.
I was a music-hungry teenager when I first became aware of the spring reverb as a distinct entity. The mid-to-late-’70s U.K. music scene was enriched by the coming together of punks and dreads, united by common bonds of alienation and exclusion. The Clash were my introduction to reggae legends Junior Murvin (Police & Thieves) and Willie Williams (Armagideon Time). We became aware of Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, and marveled at the exotic and otherworldly sounds of Jamaican sound-system culture. This was to have a profound and lasting influence on my future life: Without dub music there would be no Soundgas. The wild, rolling repeats of endless tape echoes, deep organic phasing of guitars, hi-hats, and organs, and of course the thunderous crash of abused spring reverbs—sounds that, to this day, are manna to me.
Prepare to Reverberate
Ever since the introduction of outboard spring reverbs, classic models that are commonplace in the U.S. have been about as common as hens’ teeth in the U.K. Even with the advantages of the internet, these are difficult to acquire for comparison’s sake without exorbitant cost. The most glaring omission you’ll find here is the original, tube-driven Fender Reverb—although plenty has been written about this fantastic unit elsewhere. We did have the British answer to the Fender in hand, in the shape of a rare, nicely restored 1963 Vox Echo Reverberation Unit. In total, I directly compared over 25 vintage spring reverbs and half-a-dozen modern pedal options.
Before we dive into the springs, I have to confess that I cannot fairly describe myself as a guitarist. I enjoy making noises with guitars and effects, and have had a lifelong passion for all things guitar related, but it’s unlikely I’ll be interviewed in these hallowed pages about the secrets of my technique and tone. Sound is my thing: The studio and its myriad sonic playthings are my instruments, and spring reverbs are a particular passion—the weirder and less known, the better. For the purposes of comparison, I used a loop pedal with guitar parts played by a member of the Soundgas team, Joel Kidulis, to ensure there was no deviation in playing.
Along the way, there were a few surprises, with some units completely confounding my expectations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some springs we rate highly for studio and mix use fared less well with guitar, having not been designed for that type of input. Others have very short springs and are more suited to vocals. Some that we prize for their unique character sounded noisy and uninspiring with guitar. As a result, I edited my original selection down to the highlights. I’ve given some background on particular units and brief notes on performance, but please check out the sound examples for the real lowdown.
While this article is not intended to be a definitive guide to all things spring, some background history and technical detail is necessary to understand the nature of the various units on test.
The first spring reverbs were large, oil-filled devices developed by Bell Labs to simulate the delays caused by long-distance telephone cables. In 1939, Laurens Hammond employed this new technology to add church-like ambience to his organs. Over the years, Hammond engineers improved and refined the company’s spring reverbs, reducing them in size and weight, until in 1959 the Hammond (later Accutronics) Type 4 was born. Featuring two long springs inside a 16" metal case, the Type 4 soon became the industry standard. Hammond licensed the design to other manufacturers, including Leo Fender, who used it in his 6G15 Fender Reverb in 1961. In 1963, the Fender Vibroverb became the first guitar amp to feature onboard spring reverb.
Evolution of the spring tank: The original Hammond Type 4 tank (top) has a brass-like hue on the underside of its welded chassis, while sister company Gibbs’ version (middle) is almost identical save for the sharp corners, and the competing O.C. Electronics Folded Line Reverberation Tank (bottom) (with its famous “Manufactured by beautiful girls” label, inset) houses its innards in a tray made from a single piece of bent metal.
Initially, Type 4 tanks were produced in-house at Hammond, with production moving in 1964 to Gibbs Manufacturing, a Hammond-owned facility in Janesville, Wisconsin. In 1971, it moved to another Hammond company, Accutronics, in Geneva, Illinois. One of Accutronics’ biggest competitors—formed by ex-Gibbs employees—was O.C. Electronics, whose Folded Line Reverberation Tank was used in Roland's Space Echo series and bore the legend: “Manufactured by beautiful girls in Milton, Wis. under controlled atmosphere conditions.”
Spring reverbs can be divided essentially into two camps: those that passively mix the spring output with the dry signal, and those that use a make-up amp or buffer circuit to add gain to the signal. The two biggest factors in the sound quality of a spring reverb are type and design of the drive circuit and the tank. Most units feature two or three springs. Two sound more fluttery and “vintage,” while three tend toward a richer, smoother, fuller sound with more low end.
Listening to the clips, you’ll find that some of these units are capable of creating way more than ambience. Whether driven by germanium transistors, 4558 op amps, or discrete preamps, vintage spring ’verbs tend to have a wealth of tonal colors lurking beneath their surfaces. Pushed hard, many can get properly nasty. And sure, they’re not exactly pedalboard friendly, but the tones from their drive circuits can rival some of the most coveted vintage overdrive and fuzz pedals.