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EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio

EMT 251 at Sabella Studios

EMT 250My experience with the EMT 250/251

When I started my first internship at Sabella Studios, the place was littered with strange things I’d never seen before. But nothing looked as strange as this black and red box that looked more like a spaceship control panel than recording equipment. That box was our EMT 251 that had been sitting in the corner of the control room and had built up an impressive collection of dust. We’re a small studio with a lot of vintage equipment, so it’s not uncommon for a piece of gear to be temporarily out of service, but this was different. No one was sure if we’d get this thing ever to work again. We could send it out to the one specialist in California who knew how to fix it, but it would cost us $1,500 just to have it looked at. As a small studio, we pride ourselves on doing just about everything in house, including the maintenance and repairs for all of our equipment. It’s how we’ve been able to survive for so long.

Opening the front of the unit to see hundreds of ICs doesn’t make the task of repairing it seem any easier. To make things even more difficult, EMT, the manufacturer of the box, scratched off any identifying part numbers to keep the ingredients of their mystical digital reverb a secret. Help came from an unsuspecting place: an intern led us to his father, an electronic technician, who was originally from Russia and didn’t speak any English. Fast forward a week or two, and he was at the studio with his oscilloscope trying to figure out what was wrong with our 251. He decided to take it home to look at it further, and within a week we had it back up and running.

It’s hard to imagine that the first version of any digital technology could be the best. It’s easy to see why earlier analog gear sounds better as there were better manufacturing techniques, lower cost of goods, and easier availability of materials which contributed to better overall build quality. In today’s digital world everything eventually has a newer, bigger (or smaller), better, and more powerful upgraded model. The first version is never the best. How is it that the sound of the first digital reverb unit can still surpass even the most complex and expensive modern units?

I didn’t know, but I needed to find out…

Digital Audio

Digital audio is something everyone uses, from the home recording hobbyist to the professional recording studio. Recording digitally is built into the standard workflow when creating every genre of music. There was a time when nothing was digital, so how did the world go from entirely analog to just about completely digital? In modern music production, you don’t need to use any analog audio processing at all if you don’t want to.

The original reason people started to explore digital audio was for one reason: time based effects. Early in the history of recorded music there was never an easy way to make delays and reverbs, except with expensive and large tools like reverb chambers, plates, and magnetic tape machines. There was a very limited amount of flexibility when it came to time based effects, which had become paramount to every single song on the radio since 1947 when Bill Putnam decided to put a speaker and microphone in his studio’s bathroom. Nowadays we fire up whatever plugin we want, but before digital audio, you had to run it through a piece of hardware or mic a physical space. Now how does it go from microphones in bathrooms to recording 48 tracks simultaneously into your laptop with a different digital effect on every track?

The EMT 250 was essentially one of the first plugins. It’s like if a Waves or Slate plugin you just bought came with a computer, interface, converters, and was all built into one box with the sole purpose of running that plugin; and with a $20k price tag, it certainly wasn’t cheap.

Dr. Barry Blesser

A Conversation with Dr. Barry Blesser

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Barry Blesser, who is considered one of the grandfathers of digital audio. In 1974, Dr. Blesser oversaw the creation of the algorithm, and some of the hardware, for the first ever digital reverb unit.

Dr. Blesser was kind enough to speak with me and explain the history of digital audio and his involvement. He began the interview telling me about Manfred R. Schroeder, a German physicist who worked at Bell Labs during the 1950s. Schroeder was the very first person to attempt digital signal processing. During this time, computer technology was so slow that digital was completely impractical. Processing a 3 minute piece of audio could take 24 hours. Although Schroeder’s experiments at this time were not of any practical use and were done completely out of curiosity and proof of concept, it did show that digital audio was possible.

Dr. Blesser then spoke of a chance encounter with Francis F. Lee, who would become the founder of Lexicon. “I was working in the MIT Labs at 3 in the morning because that was when I could get access to the minicomputers, and Frances Lee walked in. He was in the computer world; he didn’t know about anything digital audio. And I was in the [analog] audio world, so we bumped into each other at 3 in the morning and started brainstorming about how to merge these two. That’s how Frances Lee got started with Lexicon.”

Vintage ad for a later model of the Delta T-101

The result of this encounter was the first ever digital signal processor, the Delta T-101, released in 1971. Lee had been working on a digital heart monitor and, from Dr. Blesser’s suggestion, experimented running audio through it. After a lot of experimentation, the result was a 100 ms audio delay line which could be used to help overcome live sound propagation delays or used as a pre-delay for plate reverbs. You put audio in, 100ms later it comes out. That was it. It was revolutionary at the time, but by today’s standard seems like just a step above useless. Steve Temmer owner of Gotham Audio commissioned Lexicon to make 50 units that he could release under the Gotham Audio name. A second version the T-102 was eventually released under the Lexicon name with an improved signal to noise ratio.

Throughout the 1960s, Dr. Blesser worked with EMT on many of their analog audio products. “They rejected the idea of doing real digital audio until Francis Lee started Lexicon. After Lexicon was successful with the T-101 they got pissed, and they said, ‘ok, we want to be in that business.’”

Peter Bermes, an industrial designer, working for EMT, recalls the initial meeting to plan and brainstorm the EMT 250 involved nine people seated at a roundtable. The meeting, which went on to be the catalyst for the first reverb, Bermes says, took only 4 hours. The meeting took place in 1974, at the EMT plant in Kippenheim, Germany. Among the group were Erich Vogl, Karl Bäder, Barry Blesser, and Peter Bermes. Dr. Blesser, along with a team of engineers, went to work on developing an algorithm they could use for practical digital reverberation. Only having the 100 ms delay box and Manfred Schroeder’s experiments, Dr. Blesser’s team built a simulator that could be programmed to run different reverb algorithms for testing purposes. After about two years of research and development, the EMT 250 was ready, and 250 units were produced.

So that doesn’t explain why the reverb still holds up in today’s world of endless digital options and newer upgraded algorithms and more advanced convolution technology. It comes down to the sound. It just sounds good. Forget all of the pioneering and innovation that took place to develop this device. Even if this unit was introduced tomorrow instead of in 1976, it would still hold up as being a great sounding reverb, and that’s just a testament to the designers, most of all they made sure it sounded good.

Luckily, you don’t have to spend $20k to get the amazing sound of a 250 anymore. Universal Audio had Dr. Blesser reverse engineer the whole algorithm so they could model it in their 250 plugin. Although Dr. Blesser said that he did not hear it for himself, he was told it was completely bit accurate.

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Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.

I turned 28 a few months ago, and if, at age 18,  you had told me my audio career would be where it is at this point in my life, I’d have been extremely disappointed. I’d imagined I’d have at least ten gold records by now and I’d have been to the Grammy’s at least three times. Well… that didn’t happen. It’s not that I’m not happy with where I am, I just had big dreams that didn’t exactly pan out the way I had imagined. I definitely didn’t think I’d still be struggling to find a way to make a living doing what I love. The delusion was thinking that I could go to school, learn how things are done, meet a few people, intern at a studio and BAM… my career would magically take off. I’m not saying something like this can’t happen, but it’s pretty damn rare.

So it turns out that getting into audio engineering at the time I did probably wasn’t the path of least resistance, but I didn’t care then and I am sure many of you don’t care now. I always saw myself doing something creative and technical, whether that was web design, graphic design, video production, programming–  something that required using both sides of my brain. Initially, I fell into video production because I took a production class at school, but found myself gravitating towards the audio side of things. I also took up a new hobby of recording my own music and the music of my friends.

At the time, my thought process was “I like recording music” and as far turning that into a career, it didn’t go very far beyond that. There are some people out there that naturally have the ability to self motivate and see a clear path to their goal right from the onset. That’s not me. I think the world was just a big cloud of fog up until about a few years ago when I realized that if I wanted to do something I enjoyed that I had to put in the work which would require both strategy and effort. No more shooting from the hip. That could probably be considered my life motto up until that point: shoot from the hip and hope you get lucky.

I make sure to tell all younger engineers that if you want to make a living in this industry, you’re not going to have a regular job. You’re not going to be able to wake up go to work at 9 and get home at five every day. You’re not going to get hired at a studio and work your way up the ladder small promotion by small promotion. That just doesn’t happen anymore. The truth is it’s going to be hard to do anything, but freelance and gigs and income will come in many different shapes and sizes. I used to look at someone with a day job as a failure, as someone that didn’t make it and gave up. Well, here I am someone who my 18 year old self would consider to be a failure. What I realized is, having another job or form of income while you’re trying to do what you love doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you smart, and it makes you strategic. I just want to do what I love and supplementing my income with other things outside of music provides me that luxury. I hope one day I’ll be able to support myself solely on music, but that’s not my only reason for doing this. I’m not here to own some meaningless achievement of supporting myself on music. The reason I’m doing this is that I love the feeling of making something great, of pouring my heart into something, something that other people connect with. I shouldn’t let anything else get in the way of that.

I used to get very jealous of friends and people I went to school with that seemed to be doing well for themselves. I’d make excuses like, “it’s because of his dad” or, “he just got lucky.” The truth is that people do get lucky, and people do get jobs because they know someone. But those things don’t affect me, and I’m not losing that job because they got it.

I was trying to protect myself, and I was in denial. I didn’t want to have to feel like a failure because other people could get jobs and I couldn’t. Instead of owning up to the fact that maybe they were better or putting in more effort than me I’d just go back to making excuses. I thought making excuses would be a way to keep my ego in tact still and prevent me from feeling how I geniuely felt…. Like shit. I wish I had just sat in that feeling. That I could just accept that I felt like shit rather than try to make myself feel better with excuses that were never going to make me actually be better.

In today’s world, it’s hard not to look at Facebook or Instagram and see how well everyone else is doing. This highlight reel facade we call social media only further cements that idea into our heads. The truth is, most of us are struggling, and most of us aren’t exactly where we want to be.

So, here I am. 28 years old, some experience under my belt, and some tricks up my sleeve but still not anywhere near as successful as I want, or would have hoped to be, at this point in my life. I’m slowly realizing… that’s okay.

I wish we lived in a world where I, and others like me, could be more open about our insecurities rather than see them as a sign of weakness. This is my reason for writing this, to remind other audio engineers, musicians, songwriters (and myself) that it’s okay to accept the struggle. It’s part of the process and the journey. If it were easy, it wouldn’t feel as good when we are able to see a project through to completion.

My unreasonable expectations have only made me feel worse about myself and hindered my growth. All I can do is keep moving forward, keep doing things that will make me a better version of myself and doing things that will give me a better chance at being successful… and maybe getting lucky.

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What’s more important microphones or preamps?

What’s more important microphones or preamps?
Sennheiser MD 421
“A good preamp can make a bad mic sound good, but a bad preamp can make a good mic sound bad.”

What do you buy first, a good mic or a good preamp? If you’re a new engineer looking to start building your studio, this is a question you’ve likely struggled with. If you’re a more experienced engineer and you haven’t asked this question yourself, you’ve probably heard it asked on one of the many audio message boards, forums or Facebook groups.

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that purchasing a good microphone is a better idea than sinking your money into a preamp. This seems to make the most logical sense, especially to an inexperienced engineer. The microphone is the one capturing the actual sound waves, and it has to be the most important! The preamp is only adding volume, how much can that really improve the sound?

Your budget is a huge factor in the answer that I would give you. Though I believe the preamp is the more important stage of the signal path, a microphone may be the better choice for someone with a smaller budget. You can improve the sound more, with a more modest investment in a microphone, than you can in a preamp.

A cheap Radio Shack mic through a cheap preamp is going to sound significantly worse than a Shure SM58 through that same cheap preamp. You only had to spend $100 to gain a significantly better sound. Now let’s go back to just having the Radio Shack mic, say you decide to buy an 800 dollar Neve clone preamp. You spent $800, yet I’d bet that the SM58 through the cheap preamp sounds better than the Radio Shack mic does through the $800 Neve clone. It’s going to take a lot more money to make that Radio Shack mic sound good with a preamp then it would by just purchasing a new microphone. But the Radio Shack mic through a $4,000 vintage Neve 1073, might sound pretty cool, the price tag is just a tad bit out of most of our budgets.

To put it simply,

A good preamp can make a bad mic sound good, but a bad preamp can make a good mic sound bad.

Does that mean I’d rather record with a Radio Shack mic and a 1073 over an u87 and Presonus preamp? No, not at all. But it does mean that I give higher importance and priority to the preamp than I would the microphone.

I think we all agree, like with everything in audio, different scenarios call for different answers. But generally speaking, If I could only have a really good mic or a really good preamp but not both, I’d take the preamp.

Related articles:
The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones
5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

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8 things that will help your mixing that have nothing to do with mixing

Having a clean workspace

An organized space reduces stress and helps you to focus entirely on the task at hand…. making good records. Clean up your desk, throw out that old McDonald’s cup and Doritos wrapper, pick up that gross pair of underwear. You’ll be amazed at how clearly you can think when you have a clean work area. Spending just 5 to 10 minutes prior to mixing making sure you don’t have a messy desk and floor is a great way to get your brain ready to focus.

Organizing sessions

I’ve mentioned this in my post 5 mixing mistakes I used to make and how to avoid them, but it’s so important that I feel it’s worth stating again. Make sure you’re set up for the session before you even get started on mixing. Bring up your tracks (preferably on a day you’re not going to be mixing) and set things up as if you are you’re own assistant. Label and color code tracks, make sure your edits are clean with crossfades, print tracks you need printed, set up your effect returns, and your busses. You should have all of this done prior to getting started. This is easy when you have a mix template set up and ready to go.

Preparing beforehand

Make sure you know you won’t have to do anything during the time you set to work. I also like to set a start and stop time. This helps me keep myself disciplined as well as safety protection for overcooking a mix. I know I do my best mixes within 4-5 hours. Since I know this, I like to stop after 4 hours and take a long break so I can reevaluate the mix after with fresh ears.

Most of us mix at home in our bedrooms, working at home is difficult because you’re at home and you’re easily accessible to all your distractions. Your roommate calls for you, your kid starts crying, your favorite TV show comes on… things can be distracting but not if you make sure you put away all of these things beforehand. Which brings us to…

Turning off distractions

Turn off your phone, TV, lock your door, barricade yourself in– whatever you have to do to make sure that there is nothing there that can distract you. It’s a luxury to get to work in a separate studio environment. Having a separate room to work in lets your brain know that when you’re in this room, you are going to be working rather than working in a place like your bedroom where you eat, sleep, and do “other” things. Your brain likes habit, and if it’s used to working in one place, you’ll be able to focus better.

Getting plenty of sleep

It’s easy to take sleep for granted. The older I get, the harder it is for me to go without sleep. The more sleep you get, the easier it is to focus for more extended periods. You’ll also have more stamina which will allow you to work longer and in turn, will make you more productive.

Taking breaks

Every hour or two I like to take a 5 minute break and step outside and give my ears a break. I like to freshen up my ears by listening to new sounds and hearing something a bit different. I don’t listen to music or like to talk too much but if it’s nice out, listening to the birds chirping or even just the cars passing by allows me to reset my ears so I can get back a fresh perspective.

Minimizing your sound intake before

Other than reference tracks, I try not to listen to music on a day I will be mixing to keep my sound intake to a minimum on mixing days. I don’t listen to the radio, and I tend to make sure I keep volumes low for everything until I’m ready to start mixing.

I will admit, I like to start mixing louder than most people. I like to feel the drums and bass when establishing initially levels. Eventually, I’ll switch over to NS10s and lower the volume to a more reasonable level to fine tune and do a majority of the tweaking.

Setting the mood

It might sound a bit silly but dimming the lights, turning on your lava lamp or lighting a candle can do wonders for the mood and vibe of your studio or mixing space. This allows you to feel more creative. I’m not a superstitious guy, I don’t believe in ghost or aliens, but I do believe in being able to feel and sense a vibe. Mixing is all about feel and making sure you have a good mood set with appropriate lighting, scent, or whatever it else it is that really helps you connect and feel the music. A better enivorment will allow you achieve better mixes.

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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
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