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Shi Blank explains the difference between reverb and echo, and how the latter is used in trip hop music to help create a hypnotic effect.

It took me a while to understand what echo sounds like in the context of audio and sound art. For a while, I mistook it for the reverb effect, like singing in the bathroom where no one’s watching (or hearing) you.

And then there’s the dictionary definition:

echo (noun)

  1. a sound or sounds caused by the reflection of sound waves from a surface back to the listener.

  2. the deliberate introduction of reverberation into a sound recording

There’s that word again—reverb. Except echo is not quite as one-dimensional, is it?

It might be a little easier to imagine it this way: where reverb is like singing in the bathroom, echo is when someone responds back!

Reverb can give an impression of room size. It could sound like you’re in a small cupboard or a large hall. Echo is the delayed playback of the sound you just made. Put those two things together and you can create wonderful and strange effects in a piece of music or audio sample. It can bring life to a track, making it sound dramatic and fuller.

The interactive Echo Machine created as part of the Sonic Futures project gave us three settings to play with: Time, Feedback and Level.

I spent some time immersing myself in these settings individually so I could understand what they did.

Time sets the delay length of the original sound. As you move the slider to the right, the larger the delay.

Feedback sets the decay of the original sound. Moving the slider further to the right creates a warbling, ping pong effect.

Level sets the length of the echo effect on the original sound. Move the slider to the right to increase the amount of echo.

Individually, the effects are easy to constrain, but the fun bit comes from experimenting with all three sliders—the resulting chaos can be delightfully unpredictable!

As a child of the 90s, I benefited from the vast and diverse genre of music of the time. Trip hop’s dark and melancholic sound was music I could relate to—its creation originated in Bristol, many thousands of miles away from where I lived. I was particularly drawn to sample culture and utilising voices as another instrument, rather than tracks where lyrical singing was the focus.

Here are some of my favourite tracks using (what I believe to be) echo effects.

In them you’ll hopefully hear echo effects used extensively as textures, giving the tracks a hypnotic feel.

DJ Krush and Toshinori Kondo, ‘Fu-Yu’

Massive Attack, ‘Angel’

Tricky, ‘Hell Is Round the Corner’

And here is a short interaction I recorded using the Echo Machine: Toot 1.

I particularly enjoyed the real time feedback of the interactive echo unit and how it records and playbacks what it sees. It would be interesting to see this used in a live performance on multiple devices, using each recorded piece as tiny loops. This project has allowed me to understand this particular audio effect and given me some thoughts about how to start using echo effects in my own sound projects.

Thank you to Nina Richards for creating the Echo Machine and Alex De Little for organising!


Visit the Echo page to find out more about Nina Richards’ Echo Machine and try it for yourself. You can also read more about the Sonic Futures project.

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