Zen of Recording

Reflecting on Reflections

HEAR360 dishes up an amazing plate reverb plugin that looks back and forward at the same time.

Ecoplate

As the saying goes, “If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Placing philosophic assumptions aside, the answer is a somewhat resounding “Yes.” This is because soundwaves are a physical entity, displacing air molecules as they travel outward from the source. (Yawn.)

The fun begins when they hit things and start to bounce around, creating “reflections” that eventually make their way back to us. Our brains use this information to determine the sense of space around us. Clap your hands in a church. Snap your fingers in a parking garage. Yell into a canyon. Flush a toilet. All of these actions create a distinctly different sound as their vibrations interact with their surroundings. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as reverberation, or reverb for short.

Since the beginning of music (as well as the recording of it), the space in which it occurs has been an intrinsic part of it. Cathedrals and theaters have been designed to use reverberation as a way to amplify music for listeners. Music chamber rooms were built with the intention of complementing the timbre of the performances within them and as anyone who’s ever attended a concert in an arena can tell you, sometimes it takes just as much effort to tame down the effects of excessive reverberation, too.

At the turn of the 20th century, the earliest recordings inherently featured the environment in which the performances occurred as part of the sound. Depending upon how close the microphone was to the source, a balance between the ambience and the performer would provide listeners with a mental picture of the space it was in, contributing to the listening experience.

Things pretty much stayed this way until 1947, when audio visionary Bill Putnam converted the bathroom at Chicago’s Universal Studios into a reverb chamber. Chamber reverb is essentially achieved by piping music into a particularly reverberant environment through a speaker and then picking up that sound with a single or multiple microphones and blending that effected sound back into the original, to taste. This meant that some things in the mix could be enhanced selectively while leaving others alone, broadening the possibilities for added depth and dimension. You can check out those initial results on the Harmonicats version of “Peg o’ My Heart” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BIuX7IsdE8&t=80shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BIuX7IsdE8&t=80s

Chambers quickly became the primary studio reverb effect through the ’50s and ’60s and are featured most famously in recordings from Capitol Records (Frank Sinatra!), Abbey Road (The Beatles!), and Motown (The Four Tops!).

Almost concurrently, the Hammond Organ Company had begun to integrate its spring reverb invented in the ’30s into its organs during the ’40s. True to its name, spring reverb utilizes a spring (or several of them) suspended in a metal box, where a transducer “excites” them with your audio signal and the resulting “audio tremors” are added to the sound at the output. Things really got boing-y in 1960 when Hammond began licensing this technology to companies like Fender Guitars, which promptly fitted them into its Vibroverb and Twin Reverb amplifiers. Surf Rock, anyone?

All of these technologies saw action in hundreds of recordings in some form or another, but each had its strengths and weaknesses. Chambers were pretty much an as-is sound with little or no way to change its basic sonic character. Materials could be mounted onto studio walls for absorption of excess room reflections, but that just led to dead-sounding environments on drums especially (see the 1970s). Spring reverbs were best used sparingly and limited to use on things like electric guitars and keys, although there are some amazing sounding full-size units like the one at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, which still imparts a mysteriously darker, thicker vibe to things.

It is the EMT 140, a plate reverb from German company Elektromesstecknik that provided a landmark breakthrough with its introduction in 1957.

This plate reverb was/is made up of a large, very thin piece of sheet metal suspended from a frame by clips at each corner. A speaker-like electrical transducer is mounted to the center of the suspended plate, causing the plate to vibrate. The sound then bounces around off all the sides and corners, just like a two-dimensional room, which creates a very convincing reverb effect. One or two (mono or stereo) pickups are also mounted to the plate, returning the reverb-effected audio back into the mixing board, where it can be EQ’d and balanced to taste. Additionally, a servo-controlled “damping plate” facilitated shorter or longer adjustments to the reverb time. The whole unit weighed 600 pounds and was the size of a really skinny Volkswagen. So, yeah, not everybody had one, or room for it.

The tonal properties of the plate reverb are uniquely bright and exciting at first, with a beautifully flutter-free smoothness and ever-darkening decay, making it prefect for vocals in particular, but it also tastes great on drums, electric guitars and just about anything else. The fact that it’s not constantly splashy or harsh keeps things focused and uncluttered, making it an easily integrated spatial element to just about any mix.

EMT continued to make improvements to the electronics of the 140 up until 1976, when they created the first digital reverb unit, the EMT 250. The great irony of the 250 (and soon afterward, the multi-featured 251) was that these early digital units are still regarded some of the best sounding artificial reverb units ever made, despite decades of technological advances since then.

Nowadays, reverb effects are an ubiquitous presence in the digital landscape, with every DAW (digital audio workstation) providing at least a couple of flavors like Room, Hall, Chamber, and yes, Plate. Most of these utilize a combination of mathematical algorithms, impulse response modeling, and comb filtering to achieve their desired sound and while some come pretty darn close, most fall short to experienced ears.

Enter HEAR360 (https://www.deptofsound.com) with a surprise that few saw coming: ECOPLATE ($149, currently $99), a plugin model of the Ecoplate I, a great sounding descendent of the plate reverb, circa 1980. Ecoplate I was and still is beloved by scores of engineers and producers for its ultra clean sound, which shimmers like a hi-fi halo around anything it touches, i.e., the snare on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or George Benson’s vocals on “Give Me the Night.”

True to its pedigree, ECOPLATE plate reverb plugin sounds fantastic and I dare say, even a bit better than the original to my ears. This may be due in part to the host of feature additions and refinements made possible by working within the digital domain, so it’s worth a rundown of them.

A tempo-synced pre-delay helps clean up vocals and rhythmic elements by delaying the onset of the reverb’s attack by either musical subdivisions (16 ths, 8th note triplets, quarter notes, etc.) or variable milliseconds. There are low-pass and high-pass filters for cutting off the frequencies you’d like to remain un-effected either pre or post reverb, as well as a four band tone section for finer control of the reverb’s EQ. There’s also an analog model profile including the original’s noise and an added saturation control to impart a bit of “attitude” if desired. The width of the reverb can also be adjusted to suit your tastes. There are also plenty of metering options, letting you know how much you’re driving the inputs and outputs of the unit. Most of these features would have required extra outboard gear to address these tasks, so it’s really smart of HEAR360 to include them in the plugin’s interface.

Additionally worth mentioning is that the original hardware unit has a big lever on its face for selecting the length of the reverb time, which is included here, as well as the more familiar (-) and (+) click-style scale. There’s even an Analog Efficiency Mode for lower CPU usage.

Ultimately, the bottom line with any digital audio plugin is how does is sound?

In a word: like butter, baby. Maybe that’s more than one word, but let me just say that the ECOPLATE is the first and often only reverb I reach for at the start of every session. It simply kills! Never have I ever been so consistently satisfied by any one plugin as I have been since I started using this one.

Straight spatial magic. Get it while it’s still on sale at a third off!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an independent record producer, recording artist, singer, and songwriter. kaspro7@gmail.com

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