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23 September 2010


Try sitting in an anechoic chamber. I bet you’ll be calling for the ambience within hours, such is the unsettling nature of a non-ambient space. Reflected sound is all around us and it feels unnatural when missing. From the extreme of bawling your head off in the Grand Canyon to singing in the shower, humans are accustomed to acoustic feedback from the environment and without it, we get uncomfortable. When producing music, ambience presents its own set of posers. Close-miked acoustic instruments sound unpleasant because mic pickup is usually too tight to capture sound bouncing off the walls of the recording booth. Electronic instruments fed straight into the desk, or deployed as in-the-box plugins, are as dry as a recovering alcoholic, and just as interesting to listen to. More whistle-whetting is the special brew of the RP-Verb.

It’s obvious from the way preachers modify their voices to enjoy the gravitas induced by the acoustics of a church interior, and from the way vocalists go ga-ga to the gigantic acoustic of a stadium performance, that people like acoustic reflection. Discrete reflections are called echo, while the mulch of multiple reflections, best served by irregular hard surfaces, make for reverberation and it’s the Holy Grail of music production to arrive at a natural-sounding reverb that pleases human sensibilities. That’s what Rob Papen’s RP-Verb aims to achieve.

Papen has quite a reputation when it comes to virtual instruments, with Albino, Blue, SubBoomBass and Predator (slated for forthcoming MuzoBlog interrogation) garnering fans galore. RP-Verb is the developer’s only virtual effector, although an echo plugin is just on launch (scroll to the base of this post for Important News on something... New and of Great Import). So, has obvious expertise in tone generation slopped over into audio manipulation? Well now, have a listen and decide for yourself. I’ve a selection of audio files featuring an initial phrase recorded dry, then lightly dusted with RP-Verb. I say ‘lightly’ because, unlike some reverb plugs that smother a signal, typically to knock the dreadful warbling of a crap vocalist back in the mix where it can do less harm, Papen’s plug is subtle as you like. Scrape out the ear-wax (don’t eat it, mind) and listen up...

Ambient Acapella

A phrase recorded dry, then doused in the ambience of live evangelism

Hall Snare

First a rimshot, then a snare-hit, are given a splash of subtle reverb

Distorted Drums

RP-Verb’s Distortion adds oomph to a simple drum pattern

Vocal Variants

Starting dry, this vocal lick gets a short, then long-tailed reverb treatment

Don’t let him be

Reverb with pre-delay brings a vocal performance into the real world

Souped-up Speech

A spot of speech receives two doses of slightly more extreme, almost echoey ambience

Told you it’s subtle. While some of the examples are more obvious than others, most are quite musical in that they’d sit transparently in a mix. You can hear a bunch more audio examples on the RP-Verb MP3 page, including its effect on the otherwise dry tone of a piano. In my view, vocals are where RP-Verb excels, adding just enough lushness to make a singer sound as if they’re in a real space and not in a metal box, or singing with a ringing bucket on his or her head. Not that it did Buckethead any harm, but then Mr Carroll is more guitarist than singer.

The neat thing is that you don’t have to think too hard when seeking the ideal ambience for the part. RP-Verb ships with a wealth of preset configurations and there’s a Quickly Browse entry in the selection menu with useful descriptions of what each preset is good for. Recently Browsed and Favorites make recalling settings a breeze and you can rename presets if Papen’s nomenclature doesn’t suit your way of thinking. Alpha-types, however, will want to move swiftly beyond what they’re served and get busy twiddling knobs and clicking buttons for perhaps more extreme reverb treatments. The good news is that RP-Verb is very easy to use. You’ve rotary pot control over early reflections, while the central Reverb section enables you to define one of 15 space types, including the intriguingly monickered Hall Swirl and Space Orbit. Sound space colouration extends from clean to the aforementioned swirl, while control of space size, reverb length, diffusion and damping are mere knob-tweaks away, as are high and low-pass filters to further help nestle the effect comfortably into the mix.

Late reflections are catered for, with control over length and damping, and we’ve a three-band overall EQ (Low at 10Hz, Mid at 4kHz, High at 8kHz) that can be applied either before or after reverb processing. A useful extra is a, albeit simple, tube-saturation distortion function for added warmth, while various parameters can be subjected to a latch-able attack-hold-release envelope - a quite unusual find on a reverberator, but which brings gated and non-linear reverbs, as well as SFX, readily to cursor. And let’s not forget the somewhat understated Ensemble function, which is actually a subtle, multi-voice chorus effect. Bonus! While testing, the RP-Verb didn’t seem to over-stress the computer’s processors, but the High Quality setting can be switched out should your machine end up running out of steam.

Once you’ve arrived at the ideal setting for the programme material, you can save configurations as .fxb files for later recall - a boon for those studio engineers who must cater for the capricious whims of multiple artistes. One professional user who positively enthuses about RP-Verb is musician, producer, engineer and two-time Grammy nominee Carmen Rizzo, a man whose collaborator roster includes Seal, Pete Townshend, Alanis Morrissette, BT and Paul Oakenfold. I’m not sure whether he’s being paid for the following slice of, somewhat fulsome, video promo for the Rob Papen plug (although he is an audio engineer, so go figure...), but he does seem genuinely chuffed with the thing, as you shall doubtless discover...

Available boxed or as a download from UK distributor Time+Space, RP-Verb may appear a little pricey. And, for a solid installation, you’ll need a Syncrosoft dongle on which to store the licence, which is yet another USB socket gone. Or, at least, that used to be the case. See the base of this article for updated knowledge on new and exciting developments emerging from the Papen laboratories.

Getting around to some kind of conclusion, I’ve spent an age tracking down and auditioning reverbs, both hardware and software, and RP-Verb ranks among the very best of them. If I want swampy shit, I know which devices can deliver subtle-as-a-brick ambient glorp by the bucket-load. But to encounter a truly musical, transparent and suitably flexible device, and which can extend to silly stuff when pushed, is a rarity and a joy.

One MuzoBlog visitor recently suggested that I’m paid to write these reviews. Well, I’m not an engineer, hence I’m being paid Bugger All to say that RP-Verb is on my top-buy list. You can’t produce polished, pro-sounding recordings without placing instruments in an ambient space and this plugin provides an ideal environment for so many elements of a mix. RP-Verb may not make my compositions and arrangements any more coherent, but it’ll sure ensure they sound like they’re being performed in the real world and not in the sterile environs of a studio soundbooth or a computer’s guts.

The above article is based on RP-Verb 1.0.2 for OS X Leopard. It transpires that this reverberator has been upgraded to v1.5 and ships with RP-Delay included, all for the same price. A freebie, then! We likes those. Registered RP-Verb users can download RP-Delay for nowt, although RP-Delay is available as a separate product if you're already wedded to another reverb plugin.

Also, the copy protection system now means dongle-free authorization, so you can free up a slot for... Another MIDI controller? External hard drive? USB-equipped defibrillator? Whatever you so choose. Stay tuned in readiness for the MuzoBlog microscope to focus on RP-Delay just as soon as a copy finds itself betwixt slide and cover strip.

A free demo version is available from the appositely named UK distributor Time+Space. Time? Space? Echo? Laugh, I nearly did. Just head for Time+Space and use the product finder to search on 'papen' to view this developer's entire product range. There's some rather tasty stuff to be had...

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