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New Plugin Recreates Classic Beatles Reverb Sound

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.”