Zen of Recording
The Unbreakable Realm of the Digital Domain
There is a favorite conversation I immensely enjoy having. A riff, really. Sometimes, it takes on the awkwardly difficult to explain the appearance of a good-natured tirade. It’s about my generation. Weirdly, I feel older writing that sentence than I do listing the plethora of developments, accomplishments, and first-hand observations of the way things used to be…
I was born in 1962. For context, I’m the same age as the Space Needle in Seattle. Technically I’m considered a Baby Boomer, but I always felt a bit removed from that broadly stroked pigeonhole. Maybe it’s because lots of boomers can remember a childhood that looked a lot like the one portrayed in black-and-white episodes of Leave It to Beaver or My Three Sons, while mine was more like the vividly colored Brady Bunch and Partridge Family, the televised idyllic improbability of both eras notwithstanding.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must also admit to being guilty of absolutely, positively hating the implicit ignorance and disrespect that is machine-woven into the preemptively dismissive phrase “Okay, Boomer.” This is mostly because anyone using this phrase simply doesn’t know shit about shit.
I can remember a world without quick answers. One where information wasn’t literally available at one’s fingertips in an instant or custom-filtered to their liking. On the occasions where there might be disagreements among people over the factual integrity or interpretations of this data, discussions, however spirited, might well ensue. If consensus could not be reached by the end of this verbal exchange, folks often just simply agreed to disagree. We didn’t block or flame each other or employ myriad means to publicly discredit anyone who held an opposing view and believe me, unfriending someone was a very serious matter indeed.
Still, there seems to be an expectation of instant gratification inherent within the current model of customer satisfaction, one that has carried over from the legions of us who spend much of their time shouting down a well and listening for the gratifying validation of their own voice returning.
It’s not their fault, they just don’t know any better.
Just as I should have known about the Italian-made Binson Echorec, an analog-delay processor introduced in the late 1950s. Effects geek that I am, dozens of artists from Via Satellite, Waterline Drift, and Peter Bolland to “Goodbye, Blue Monday” could regale you with anecdotes that feature me leaping from my chair onto the floor in front of them and wildly spinning knobs and pounding buttons to summon otherworldly cacophonies from their somewhat expensive delay devices, as they looked on with nervous bemusement.
Tape-based echo or delay was first achieved by monitoring the playback head while recording. The magnetic tape would be imprinted by the Record head, then make its way across the playback head a couple of inches further down the tape path, resulting in an echoing of the original sound. A cursory listen to Gene Vincent’s 1956 hit, “Be Bop A Lula,” is an iconic example of that sound, often referred to as slap-back delay.
Artists and engineers drove the demand for more portable solutions, which led to the development of the Echoplex and many other tape-based solutions, which provided excellent sound but required near-constant maintenance and repair. The Echorec’s delay is produced using a metal magnetic drum, providing more stable timing and higher fidelity sound. The unit was every bit as mechanically finicky though, in different ways. In fact, it’s been suggested that EMI’s Abbey Road studio had one, but the Beatles never used it, presumably for this reason. That didn’t stop Pink Floyd from making them an integral part of their sound, nor did it preclude Led Zeppelin from adding it to the stairwell drums of “When the Levee Breaks.”
The new Echorec ($99 Win/Mac, AAX, AU, VST 2.4, VST 3) plugin from French upstart Pulsar (www.pulsar.audio) delivers all of the idiosyncratic beauty of the original Echorec 2, with even more modern functionality and absolutely none of the gluteal discomfort of the original hardware design.
When you first instantiate the plugin, you are greeted by a gorgeously authentic-looking GUI, replete with a realistic spinning drum on the top of the unit, indicating current disk speed or tempo. While leaving one aesthetic foot in this relative antiquity, the other steps firmly into the present day, adding a wealth of new tricks the old dog just couldn’t do.
The upper left knob controls the Wet/Dry mix ratio, so it’s suitable for use on individual tracks or on an effects buss. Below it, a Disk Speed knob gives access to modulated delay effects from moderate to extreme. To its right, a Host Sync switch has been included, which transforms the disk speed into a note value selector (1/16, 1/8, 1/4T, 1/1, etc.), based upon your DAW’s current tempo. By contrast, the original only had four preset delay times, based upon its four magnetic heads. For those who dig a slightly less digitally perfect vibe, there is also a Tap Tempo button provided. The Feedback knob lets you dial in the exact amount of tasteful repeats the mix requires or lets you recklessly careen into self-oscillation effects. The Delays knob completes the left side of the interface, utilizing different combinations of the four heads to create an assortment of rhythmic delay patterns from which to choose.
The right side facilitates tone shaping of the echoes via its excellent replication of this device’s prized preamp, with knobs for Drive and a bass/treble Tone control. Another selects delay types: Echo is a standard one tap slap-back delay; Rip stands for “repeat,” a classic feedback delay; Swell uses all four heads with much tighter timing, to create more reverb-like reflections. Volume just basically turns up the output of the unit and the stereo drift knob allows the delay to slowly pan to the left or the right over time. There’s also a green glowing Magic Eye tube replicating the crude level monitoring of the original unit, as well as an on/off switch, but I’ve purposely saved my favorite two features for last, because they are just too freakin’ cool.
In developing the Echorec, the engineers at Pulsar listened to several of these increasingly rare units and ultimately “modeled the Echorec in three states of wear,” which can be selected by the Condition knob: Mint is a faithfully maintained unit in excellent condition, while Good is a slightly used one. Used has worn out tubes and its magnetic heads are a bit out of adjustment. I can’t express enough how creatively useful the inclusion of these three states of wear are, other than to say I’ve used them all, several times over.
Remember that spinning drum on top of the unit? You can “touch” that with a mouse click, as if you were pressing your finger on the flange to create authentically old-school modulation effects! What?
This is by far the most fun, easy to use, and best sounding plugin I have seen in quite some time. From the psychedelic swirls of the ’60s and ’70s to the textural soundscapes of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois or simply setting a vocal perfectly into any mix, this will be my go-to for the foreseeable future.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is a producer and recordist with several hundred credits. Kaspro7@gmail.com