EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio

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 to ever work again. We could send it out to the one specialist in California who actually 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–  there was 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 intricate and expensive modern units?

I really 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 completely 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 initial 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 very limited amount of flexibility when it came to time based effects, which have 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 plug in we want, but before digital audio you had to actually 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 plug- ins. It’s like if a Waves or Slate plug in you just bought came with a computer, interface, converters, and was all built into one box with the sole purpose of running that plug in; and with a $20k price tag, it certainly wasn’t cheap.

David Silverstein

David Silverstein began engineering at the age of 14 when he purchased a Fostex four track cassette recorder. After high school he enrolled at Five Towns College where he graduated with a Bachelors of Professional Studies in Business with a concentration in Audio Recording Technology. He has worked under renowned engineers and producers Jim Sabella (Marcy Playground, Nine Days, and Public Enemy) and Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Spacehog, The Ramones and The Lemonheads). David currently works out of Sabella Studios in Roslyn, NY.

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