In his 2014 book The Art & Science of Sound Recording, former EMI engineer Alan Parsons and his co-author Julian Colbeck quoted Bill Putnam Jr. of Universal Audio on the topic of adding artificial reverb to a recording. “What artificial reverb has done is decouple the reality of the performance space for a number of different ends. One is to re-create something that sounds realistic but may be different than the environment that it was recorded in, but another is to create abstract spaces that aren’t necessarily based in reality, and which are used purely as an interesting musical effect.”
The new Abbey Road Chambers plugin joins the already expansive line of EMI-licensed plugins by Waves Audio Ltd. recreating in digital form the classic effects of the Beatles era. Although in this case, it’s a recreation of an effect that predates the arrival of the Beatles to Abbey Road by some years. It’s a high-tech recreation of the original source of artificial reverb on studio recordings. As Parsons and Colbeck wrote, the first artificial source of reverb on a pop recording was created by recording studio owner Bill Putnam, Sr. in 1947. As his son (who heads one of Waves’ rivals, Universal Audio, Inc.) explained to Parsons, “Essentially, what he did was use a bathroom at the Opera House. His recording studio was in Chicago at the time, and he just put a microphone and a speaker in there—a kind of forerunner of echo chambers—and captured the reverb from that.”
Test for Echo
In the mid-1950s, Les Paul, pioneer of both the electric guitar and multitrack recording would design the echo chambers in the basement of Capitol Records’ Los Angeles recording studio. Around that same time, EMI engineers Henry Clark and Stuart Eltham would create the three echo chambers in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, a sound that would appear in the following decade on virtually every Beatles record. The echo chamber most used by the Beatles was simply a heavily tiled 21’ by 12’ room just off Abbey Road’s famous Studio Two. As Parsons and Colbeck wrote, echo chambers “are highly reverberant rooms, either by design or by accident, that produce lots of reflections of sound. They’re like big freezers with concrete, plaster, or tile walls, with a speaker or maybe multiple speakers receiving the sound to be echoed and a couple of microphones around the room pick up the result. A carefully placed pair of mics will produce a very pleasing stereo reverb. The highly reverberated sound is mixed back with the original dry sound to simulate the instrument or vocal actually being produced in the chamber itself.”
By the late 1950s, echo chambers in large studios were being supplanted, but not entirely replaced, by mechanical plate reverbs, such as the classic EMT plate reverb, of which Abbey Road would eventually have four in one of their machine rooms. But as Howard Massey wrote in his 2015 book, The Great British Recording Studios, “It is worth noting that EMT plates were largely viewed by many of EMI’s engineers as supplemental sources of reverberation; they yielded a warm, dense sound that was pleasing but not considered quite as natural as that coming from the acoustic echo chambers.”
During the late 1970s, digital reverb began to enter the scene, first from dedicated hardware units such as the pioneering units by Lexicon, and eventually plugins, as PC-based digital audio workstations (DAWs) largely replaced tape-based recording methods beginning in the 1990s. Waves’ new Abbey Road Chambers thus brings things full circle, being a digital recreation of the first method of adding additional reverb to a recording.
The GUI of Waves’ new Abbey Road Chambers features a simplified overhead recreation of the Studio Two echo chamber, allowing for a variety of virtual mic and speaker placements. It shows five of the original eight glazed sewer pipes that were placed in the real echo chamber by Abbey Road’s Stuart Eltham. “The curved surfaces of these pipes allowed extreme dispersion of the sound waves generated by the chamber’s monitor speaker, which was angled slightly upward and faced a corner of the room (with a single short sewer pipe directly in front),” Massey wrote in his history of EMI’s studio. Two other echo chambers are also available in Waves’ plugin, Studio Three’s “Mirror Room,” and stone room based on an echo chamber at London’s Olympic Studios.
At the bottom left of the plugin is a recreation of what the Abbey Road engineers dubbed STEED, which, depending upon who you talked to, stood for Single Tape Echo/Echo Delay or Send Tape Echo/Echo Delay. STEED was an EMI BTR2 monophonic tape machine, used to add a pre-delay to the reverb chamber to add additional clarity to the reverb. As Massey wrote, “What made the STEED system unique was that it allowed for an internal feedback loop, whereby controlled amounts of the delayed signal could be fed back into the BTR2’ s record head, thus creating multiple echoes and thereby diffusing the chamber signal further still. The end result was a pleasing ‘thickening’ of the sound coming back from the echo chamber.”
One of the coolest uses of the effect was as the vocal “spin” at the end of each chorus of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” single, with the engineer letting the STEED machine feedback, and then pulling the dial back before the next verse, an effect that Waves’ plugin can emulate. (There’s even a similarly named preset in the Waves plugin.) As a Waves copywriter notes in a piece written last week titled, “Top 4 Classics with Abbey Road Chamber Magic,” “The addition of the subtle but noticeable S.T.E.E.D. feedback loop [on ‘Paperback Writer’] not only elongated the reverb tail beyond the physical constraints of the echo chamber – it created a unique, one-of-a-kind effect that’s at once completely natural-sounding, due to the real physical reverberation of the chamber walls, yet also creative in a way not achievable by the chamber alone.”
John Lennon loved the effect of what he called “Elvis echo,” which is why STEED can also be heard prominently on the beginning of the Beatles psychedelic opus, “A Day in the Life,” Waves notes that “Because of the rather sparse instrumentation at the start of the song, the shimmering effect of the echo chamber combined with tape slap back echo can be heard in relative isolation, and it is especially easy to hear it at end of each of Lennon’s lines.”
The Beatles themselves would on at least one famous occasion record inside the echo chamber itself. Some of the sound effects on the Beatles’ 1966 sing-along “Yellow Submarine” were recorded by John Lennon looning about inside the echo chamber, as Geoff Emerick, who engineered that session recounted in Massey’s history of British recording studios:
“At some point, somebody said, ‘Let’s make it sound like we’re actually in a submarine,’ so that got me thinking about how claustrophobic it was inside Chamber Two. Maybe instead of feeding sound electrically into the chamber, we should try actually putting people in there! John Lennon was especially excited about the idea; I remember him running in as soon as I went to open the door. He immediately began doing his ‘Captain, Captain, drop the cable, cut the cable’ bit, which had everyone in hysterics, and then a number of the others followed him inside. They immediately began looning about, shaking chains and all that.
Big Sound, But Big Memory Hog
There are some downsides to the Abbey Road Chambers. The biggest is something of a paradox – while it’s a recreation of the first and simplest artificial reverb effect, Waves’ new plugin is something of a memory hog. It’s not the sort of low-footprint plugin that can randomly be dropped onto individual tracks or tracking software synths or guitar amplifier modeling plugins, both of which require low-latency when recording. The Abbey Road Chambers are designed to be used a bus effect at mixdown, with, at the most, a second Chambers plugin on the lead vocal. Perhaps that also explains why there isn’t a balance control, to create that cool effect on early Led Zeppelin and Van Halen records, where the electric guitar is hard-panned to one channel, and its reverb is hard-panned to the opposite channel. Fortunately, that effect is easy to recreate if your DAW’s bus channels have their own stereo controls, which most if not all, do.
Assuming your PC has sufficient RAM, given its current introductory price of $29.00 (eventually the plugin will be listing for $199, though Waves has frequent sales on their plugins), Waves’ Abbey Road Chambers is a great way to bring a classic effect from the golden era of pop music into your DAW.