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9 books you need to read about the most famous and influential music producers

9 must read books about the lives of famous music producers

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick

Here There and Everywhere My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick -- 9 books about the most famous and influential music producers

Whether or not you’re a fan of the Beatles, if you’re into audio or music production, you need to appreciate the groundbreaking recording and production techniques used at Abbey Road. Geoff Emerick is the audio engineer who was behind the console while the Beatles were recording many of their most famous tracks. His memoir gives a first-hand account of what it was like to work with the four mop tops in the heyday of their popularity. His life story is fascinating, having begun working at EMI studios when he was just 15. By 19, he was tasked with recording the biggest band in the world, eventually becoming one of the most influential audio engineers of all time.

Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More, Hardcover Book by Ken Scott with Bobby Owsinski

Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust by Ken Scott and Bobby Owsinski

Ken Scott was another one of five people that had the privilege of standing behind the desk for the Beatles. He also was responsible for engineering David Bowie’s famous Ziggy Stardust and has worked with artists like Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Elton John, Supertramp, The Rolling Stones, Harry Nilson, Kansas, Lou Reed, America, and many more. Like Emerick, Scott rose to prominence as a staff engineer at Abbey Road and was displeased with Emerick’s portrayal of The Beatles and their producer George Martin which led to him refuting some of his stories in this book.

Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Faces. . . by Glyn Johns

Glyn Johns was one of if not the most sought after audio engineers in London during the 1960s. Johns specialized in working with the original artists and finding a sonic character that complemented their music. He was also a pioneer in creating new techniques and, most notably, for his drum mic technique, which many engineers still use today. This book is as close as it gets to be a fly on the wall in some of the most famous and monumental recording sessions there ever was. 

Are We Still Rolling? Studios, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll ‑ One Man’s Journey Recording Classic Albums By Phill Brown

Are We Still Rolling? Phill Brown

Phil Brown might not be as well known as some of the others on this list. Still, his story is not any less impressive. Brown started his career as a junior technician in 1967 and learned by working under such audio geniuses as Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer. Eventually, he was recording some of the most prominent artists such as Mott the Hoople, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Talk Talk, Steve Winwood, Dido, and Robert Plant. The book covers much of Brown’s time spent in the studio, including techniques and gear that he used. The reader is also given an intimate look into an audio engineer’s life during this time period. Brown talks very candidly about his struggles with balancing his home life, drug abuse, and dealing with the industry’s challenging social and political aspects.

Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music by Al Schmitt

Al Schmitt is a living legend in every sense of the word. A true master of the craft that is respected by every single person in the industry.  His incredible story begins in New York City as a young kid visiting and eventually working at his Uncle Harry’s studio. He went on to apprentice under the godfather of audio engineering, Tom Dowd. His first real session was with Bing Crosby when he serendipitously was the only engineer available to run the session. You can only imagine everything else this man has seen and been a part of– He has worked with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Paul McCartney, to name a few. Schmitt has engineered over 150 albums and has over 20 Grammy awards, more than any other engineer or producer. He was also the first person to win both the Grammy and Latin Grammy for Album of the Year.

Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music By Phil Ramone with Charles L. Granata

Phil Ramone has worked with everyone. Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Billy Joel, Paull McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder. He established one of the earliest independent recording studios, A & R Recording, with Chief Engineer Bill Schwartau in 1959. He was sought after for his impeccable sounding records and innovative use of technology. Ramone has been nominated for 34 Grammys and won 14 of those, including a Technical Grammy for a lifetime of innovative contributions to the recording industry, Best Engineered Recording, he’s produced the Album of the Year, the Record of the Year, and in 1981 won Producer of the Year. In his later years, he transitioned into an executive role for The Recording Academy.

Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album by Ken Caillat with Steven Stiefel

Ken Caillat Making Rumours The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album

Ken Calliet was the man behind the glass and turning the knobs when recording some of the most significant songs ever produced. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors sold over 45 million copies and went 20 times platinum. Making Rumours gives you an insider look at what it was like to work in Los Angeles with the Mac in 1976. On top of the musical significance, there was no shortage of drama, as sex and drugs were aplenty. There was also some drama stemming from multiple romantic relationships between band members ending shortly before the recording of the album started. Calliet tells his side of the story and gets into the more technical information about the recording and mixing process. If you’re a fan of this album (and you’d be crazy not to be), you’ll enjoy the read.

Tony Visconti: The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti

Tony Visconti The Autobiography Bowie Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

Learn about how a young kid from Brooklyn moved to the UK and becoming a pivotal part in launching an entire genre known as Glam Rock. Visconti was one of the most influential music producers of the 1970s. Most famously is known as the producers behind David Bowie’s records, he has also worked with other famous artists such as T. Rex, Moody Blues, Joe Cocker, Thin Lizzy, Morrisey, Paul McCartney and Wings, and many more. Visconti’s nonjudgemental, honest and straightforward storytelling makes this one of the most readable memoirs on this list.

The Latin Hit Maker: My Journey from Cuban Refugee to World-Renowned Record Producer and Songwriter by Rudy Pérez

Rudy Perez The Latin Hit Maker

If you’re not familiar with Rudy Perez’s name, you’ve without a doubt heard some of his music. Perz has produced over 70 albums and written over 1000 songs, of which over 300 have reached the top 10 charts. He has worked with world renowned Latin artists such as Julio Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Luis Fonsi, and mainstream artists such as Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and many more. His music accolades aside, he has a fascinating and true rags to riches story. He was born in Cuba and fled the country to escape the political regime. His family eventually made it to Miami, where they were forced to live in a refugee camp before they were able to settle in Florida. He quit school at 15 and worked his way up to working with some of the most prominent artists of all time. This is one that you’re guaranteed to enjoy, and it will be difficult to put down.

Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music Paperback by Templeman

Ted Templema A Platinum Producers Life in Music

Ted Templeman, who is most famously known for working with Van Halen, The Doobie Brothers, and Aerosmith, was a hitmaker for Warner Brothers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Templeman generated worldwide sales approaching 100 million albums. Templeman’s story has an appropriate amount of sex, drugs, and of course, rock and roll; he’s also able to sprinkle in plenty of the technical information of the recording process.


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What the f*ck is a Baxandall EQ?

What the f*ck is a Baxandall EQ?

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Dangerous BAX EQ

You’ve probably seen plugins, guitar amps, or stereos that replicate a Baxandall circuit, or maybe you’ve heard of the popular Dangerous BAX mastering equalizer. Peter Baxandall designed the Baxandall tone circuit or EQ in 1950, and they were then implemented into millions of audio systems around the world.

So what is a Baxandall equalizer circuit, and what makes it different than other equalizers?

The Baxandall equalizer is a shelving EQ, but unlike traditional shelving EQs, which have a steep rise or fall above the set frequency, the Baxandall shelving curve has an extremely wide Q curve, which creates a gentle slope. The broad curve can adjust a large portion of the frequency spectrum, but the gentle slope allows for a more natural sound and minimal phase distortion. The minimal phase distortion enables users to make more drastic boosts and cuts without imparting negative artifacts into the signal. This results in a wide, open sound that enhances the source’s sonic character that’s already there rather than imparting its own sonic character. These equalizers offer a subtle yet remarkably effective way of adjusting the frequency spectrum, which is why you’ll often find them being used on the mix bus and for mastering.

History

During World War II, Baxandall consulted for the Telecommunications Research Establishment in the Circuit Research Division. It was there he spent his time working on many different types of projects, including frequency transformers, powered loudspeakers, oscillators, high-speed tape duplicating equipment, high precision microphone calibration methods, among many more things. His hero, Alan Blumlein, who you might know for his stereo micing technique, also worked for the TRE.

Peter Baxandall

Lucky for us, Baxandall was enormously generous and patient with passing on his knowledge. He was also remarkably good at conveying very complicated topics in a simple and easily understandable form. He published his tone circuit in a 1952 article in Wireless World magazine. Have you ever seen the Bass and Treble knobs on a stereo? That’s likely a Baxandall EQ circuit. He never collected a single royalty while even a minuscule percentage would’ve made him an extremely wealthy man. This might be the greatest testament to his generosity; he genuinely wanted the world to sound better.

More History

The term equalization was likely derived from the various operators’ requirements at the time (phone, motion picture, broadcast, etc.) that were attempting to get their audio back to a flat frequency response or equal. Equalization, or filtering as it was also called, has been part of audio equipment since the beginning of the technology. Early radios came equipped with high frequency or top cut filters to remove unwanted noise or artifacts. Early telephone lines used equalizers to put back the high end that was lost in transmission. These equalizers were not fully adjustable like the parametric equalizers you’ll find in your DAW today.

Do you want to try a Baxandall EQ?

These plugins are available for free,
Acustica Audio Coral Bax-ter EQ
Kuassa BasiQ
Fuse Audio Labs RS-W2395C Baxandall EQ

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Classic recording consoles: SSL, Neve, and REDD

Recording console

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Classic recording consoles SSL, Neve, and REDD

Classic recording consoles are extremely sought after for the hands-on workflow and larger than life sound quality. There’s nothing like riding the volume of a vocal, having your fingers on a real fader while being able to easily reach to an immaculate sounding equalizer and compressor on every channel. With all good comes some bad, and using a console has its fair share of cons. For starters, they are huge. It requires a lot of space, energy, and patience to run and maintain such an enormous piece of gear properly.  Still, the ability to touch a console with your fingers and express your sonic desires physically, moving faders, twisting knobs, and pushing buttons, cannot be emulated with a computer or touch screen.

Everything started with analog gear and recording consoles, and today’s DAWs take direct influence from the past. Large format consoles have thousands of switches, transistors, capacitors, relays, and other components that make the elaborate device work. These large intricate, and complicated tools are true marvels of electrical engineering. Today it’s easy to take for granted just how remarkable consoles are. Techniques previously only accomplished with a console, tape machine, and meticulous editing are now easily done within a computer.

I’m not here to debate if analog or digital is better, I’ll leave that to Gearslutz and Facebook groups (spoiler alert: it doesn’t matter, and you should use whatever works for you), but I am here to honor the great recording consoles that paved the way for modern recording techniques. I made a list of some classic consoles that have been heard on countless hit records (and even more that weren’t hits) and decided to write about their history and what makes them unique. Some people like to experience the nostalgia of classic cars, clothing, toys, or art; well, I like consoles and audio gear.

SSL 4000-E/G

Classic recording console SSL 4000B

Solid State Logic, better known as SSL, was founded in 1969 by Colin Sanders. The company’s first products were switching systems for pipe organs that used FET switches to communicate between the keyboard and the electromechanics of the pipes. These switches replaced older unreliable relays, solenoids, and thick interconnecting cables.

Colin began designing and making consoles for his studio in his home village of Stonesfield, Oxfordshire, England. The first console he made was called the “A” series, and it was continually improved upon until he decided to build six to sell to other studios and institutions. These became the 4000 B series, and he eventually sold them to studios around the world, including Townhouse Studios in London, where it was used to record the famous drum fill (and the rest of the song) for Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. The B Series was the first desk to integrate a studio computer system with a console.

They continued to revise the 4000 series and, in 1979, changed the game with the breakthrough 4000 E series, which was unlike anything the industry had seen before. It was the first console to have a dedicated dynamics section, which added a compressor/gate/expander on every channel. It also included the company’s famous fully parametric equalizer, which allowed engineers to boost and cut frequencies with incredible detail and accuracy. These two things, coupled with the console’s flexible routing was the catalyst for what I consider a renaissance in the art of mixing during the ’80s. These feature-packed consoles allowed engineers to explore new creative techniques to hone in on more modern, polished sounding productions. Gated toms, reverbs, scooped mids, a ton of compression, and layering were all new techniques that were only possible because of SSL consoles new features. This flexibility gave access to a whole new palette of colors for engineers to paint with and changed the way music would be heard forever.

In 1987, the company introduced the 4000 G Series console, which had a slightly different EQ section. The G Series equalizer used steeper filter slopes and incorporated a variable proportional-Q design, which automatically adjusts the Q value as you boost or cut.

In this video, Tony Masteri compares the Waves version of the two types and describes the G to be more midrange forward and better for rock and roll and the E to be rounder sounding and better for Pop, R&B, and Hip Hop.

Over the years, the company has gone through multiple owners and now resides as part of the Audiotonix Group along with Digico, Calrec, Allen & Heath, and Digigrid brands. They continue to make consoles, although they have put more effort into live and smaller hybrid analog/digital consoles.

Neve 80’s series

Very few people have had as great of an impact on music technology as Rupert Neve. Every single recording studio has some form of Neve clone, plugin, or original preamp or compressor. The name alone has become synonymous with high quality, extremely musical sounding pieces of recording gear. Their consoles have something unique about them. Whatever the magic is, there’s no arguing that Rupert Neve had an incredible ear and genius for designing audio gear. Preamps, equalizers, and compressors designed by him have lasted the test of time and are still extremely sought after.

Rupert Neve learned how to build and sell radios from a very early age. During WWII, while serving with the Royal Signals, he was able to hone his skills building radios and pa systems further. He went on to build a mobile recording studio in a US Army Dodge ambulance where he was able to record hours of opera concerts, music festivals, and public events directly to 78 RPM lacquer discs.

Classic recording console the first ever Neve desk
The first Neve console

After working for a few small radio and transformer manufacturers, he started making bookshelf loudspeakers and selling them. In the mid-1950s, he was commissioned to build a console for Desmond Leslie, a professional composer of Musique Concrete. This new experimental style of music required the use of multiple tape recorders that were playing loops with different pre-recorded sound effects. Leslie needed a way to mix his tape machines, thus giving a reason to commission the first-ever Neve console.

Pictured is German Musique Concrete composer Karlheinz Stockhausen
Pictured is German Musique Concrete composer Karlheinz Stockhausen

In the 1970’s Sir Rupert Neve entered his golden years where he was designing and producing some of his finest consoles. The 80’s series consoles are what most consider when referencing a vintage Neve console. There were many iterations of 80 series consoles through the 1970s and 1980s; each console was custom made to order, specifically for their buyer.

The majority of the 80 series consoles included entirely class A mic preamps; the 8028 included the famous 1073b while the 8058 and 8068 included 31102 mic/pre EQ modules, which are very similar to the 1073 with a few design differences and some additional hi-frequency EQ points.  Many of these consoles included the very sought after 32264a compressor/limiter. Like all Neve compressors, these use a diode bridge circuit based design, which outputs a very desirable thick, warm, smacking tone.

The 8058 and 8068 are almost the same except for an additional four channels on the latter. Another key feature that sets these desks apart from earlier consoles the company made is having eight aux sends, allowing for more flexible routing. These consoles were staples of some of the best studios in the 70s and 80s.

Classic Recording Console Neve 8058
Neve 8058

1978 saw the first 8078, which their first large format console and featured up to 72 channels. The 8078 is the last hand-wired analog console to be produced in the 80’s Series. These consoles usually come loaded with varying numbers of 31105 microphone/line preamp and EQ modules.

If you want that Neve sound and don’t have $5,000 to shell out for a single channel of the original, you can buy one of the bazillion clones that vary drastically in price and quality. If the price is not an issue, the BAE 1073’s are some of the best around. If you’re on a little bit of a smaller budget, check out the Vintech X73i. And if you’re on an even smaller budget and have a Universal Audio interface, check out the UAD unison plugin version.

REDD.17, REDD.37, and REDD.51

Beatles Abbey Road Classic recording console REDD.17
REDD.17

The Record Engineering Development Department (REDD) was established in 1955 by Abbey Road Studios’ technical engineer Lenn Page. Within a year, they had produced the REDD.1 console, which was their first dedicated stereo mixing system. At the time, EMI/Abbey Road made just about everything in house. Mass-produced consoles didn’t exist yet, so everything was designed and built for their specific needs.

The REDD.17 console was developed in 1958 and was one of the first modern-style consoles. Interestingly, this was also around the same time that Tom Dowd was in America at Atlantic Records, wiring up his first modern style recording desk. It’s up for debate as to which one came first, but the consensus is they both created these desks around the same time independently. Therefore, both should be credited.

The REDD.17 was designed by Peter Burkotwitz, who was based in EMI Electrola in Germany. This console was created in sections and pioneered modular designed systems that just about all large format consoles use today. The entire console could be broken down and shipped in five individual pieces.

The REDD 37 was the second version of the console, and only two were ever made. This new model added outputs needed to accommodate the studio’s new four-track tape machines. There were 8 inputs, 4 outputs, and treble and bass EQ adjustments on each channel.

All REDD consoles are vacuum tube-based, and the 17 and 37 models used Siemens V72S preamps. The V72S is a tube preamp that has a fixed gain level of 40 dB. Suppose you need less gain than you’ll have to move the microphone or use an attenuator. The REDD 37 is commonly known as the Beatles board; however, it was only used until 1964 and then again on their Let It Be album (when Magic Alex conned the band into commissioning him to build a console that was never completed).

EMI originally wanted eight of these desks built, but only three were actually completed. One console wound up as a prototype and found a home at Kingsway Hall, another EMI recording facility. The other two were slightly upgraded models of the prototype and became actual production models. Those both landed at Abbey Road in Studio One and Two.

REDD.17 Beatles Abbey Road Recording Console
REDD.51

In January of 1964, EMI replaced the REDD.37 console in Studio Two with the brand new REDD.51. The main difference between the 51 and previous models is the amps used; instead of using the V72s like the 17 and 37, this console used REDD 47 amps. These new amps were built in house and offered lower distortion and more headroom than the V72s. Only four REDD.51 desks were made, and they were eventually phased out in the late ’60s for the transistor-based TG series. Today there is only one known REDD.51 in existence, and it is located at British Grove Studios in London.

Both the 37 and 51 featured 14 painton quadrant faders (and yes, those are the ones that look like space ship levers). The levers controlled the eight mic channels, two aux channels, and the four central faders controlled the master outputs to the 4-track tape machine.

Also found on the console are dedicated echo sends and returns, different styles of pan pots, and a unique spreader control, which allows for adjustment of the stereo image.

If you’re looking for that vintage REDD sound, you’re in luck, Chandler Limited has cloned the preamps very well. A-Designs also makes the super fat sounding REDDI tube DI box, and Kush has a great plugin version of it.

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Recording in paradise: AIR Studios Montserrat

Air Studios in a dilapidated state

AIR Studios control room
(c) Shane Thoms

In the modern recording era getting clients to travel more than an hour is a big ask, but in 1980, not so much. After a trip with his wife, George Martin decided to open up a secret studio in the rural, nonmodernized, secluded island of Montserrat. Recording artist flocked to the island to not only record in one of the most sophisticated studios in the world at the time but also to enjoy the peace and tranquility the island offered. Most of us could only dream of getting the chance to take a trip to an exotic island with the sole reason of creating the best art possible. For over ten years Air Studios hosted artists such as Dire Straits, The Police, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Eric Clapton, just to name a few.

AIR Studios Montserrat in its heyday

In 1989 disaster hit the island when Hurricane Hugo destroyed over 90% of the island’s buildings. This included Air Studios, and it was shut down, liquidated and boarded up. In 1995, disaster struck the island again when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted and left only a small piece of the northern tip of the island habitable.

The remnants of Air Studios resides right on the border of the exclusion zone; an area covered in ash, mud and overgrown trees and considered too unsafe to have open to the public. However, this hasn’t stopped numerous adventurous tourist from trespassing so they could experience a piece of what’s left of the extensive history. Over 75 albums were recorded at Air Studios in Montserrat, yet there is little information or pictures in existence. The best documentation of the studio and island is in Sting’s music video “Every Little Thing You Do Is Magic.”

Most of the information I could find about the studio on the internet is from people sneaking in while it was already in a dilapidated state. Shane is an urban exploration photographer from Australia who visited the island of Montserrat last year. He was kind enough to let me use his pictures. You can visit Shane’s website here.

(c) Shane Thoms

After the hurricane, there were discussions of turning what was left of the studio into a museum, but it never materialized. Air Studios still sits at the edge of the exclusion zone, almost symbolic of a better time for not only the island of Montserrat but the music industry. Million dollar budgets and tropical recording gateways are a thing of the past. On the bright side, you can take a laptop and an interface or midi controller on vacation and experience a similar feeling.

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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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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones

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The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones

Frank Sinatra and an RCA 44 Ribbon Microphone

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RCA 44B
RCA 44B

Harry F. Olson is most likely an unfamiliar name, but I’m sure you’ve heard of one of the 100 plus inventions Olson has patented. His patents include the cardioid microphone, sound absorbers, and the first programmable music synthesizer. He was directly responsible for the RCA 44 and RCA 77 ribbon microphones. In the early twentieth century, there was a surge in innovation and technology, and Harry was at the forefront exemplifying the ingenious spirit that embodied the people of the time. Olson spent 40 years working with RCA, where he was in charge of their acoustic research department and many of the great inventions that came out of it.

You can’t mention ribbon microphones without mentioning RCA, and you shouldn’t mention RCA without mentioning Harry Olson. Ribbon microphones were the last of the four main microphone designs invented. These microphones quickly grew in popularity and eventually into legendary status for their smooth, warm, and natural sound. RCA used their resources to provide an extensive research and development effort that was unrivaled by any other company at that time.

Who is Harry Olson?Harry F. Olson

For over 40 years Harry Olson worked for RCA innovating and developing new products, mainly for their acoustical research department. Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa in 1901, Harry was technically inclined from an early age and showed a strong interest in science and technology. His parents catered to his scientific spirit and built him his own laboratory;  he spent time there making things like a steam engine and wood fired boiler. After graduating at the top of his class from the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering, he received a scholarship to attend graduate school and earned his Master’s Degree in acoustics.

After graduate school, Harry moved to New Jersey and joined RCA’s Research Department, and it was there that he worked on the wide range of products for which he became most famous. During World War II, just about all American companies switched their focus to military technology, and RCA was no different. Olson led a group that worked on military projects with a strong emphasis on underwater sound and antisubmarine warfare. This work included improving sonar transducers and voice communication transducers that could be used in noisy environments.

When the war ended, Olson went back to working on his research in sound reproduction. He famously conducted an experiment that would determine the preferred bandwidth for reproduced music. Before this experiment, studies had shown that listeners preferred a high frequency cutoff of 5 kHz. Olson didn’t believe this to be true. He was sure that if the sound was free of the imperfections that were common of the time, such as added noise, hiss, harmonic distortion, then the listeners would prefer full frequency sound reproduction.

To test his hypothesis, he set up an orchestra with the listeners positioned in a way that a physical acoustic screen with a low pass filter could be open or closed. This experiment proved his theories to be correct– the majority of the audience vastly preferred full frequency reproduction. It was because of this experiment that high fidelity sound equipment gained increased popularity. This ultimately impacted everything from record players to amplifiers, speakers and tape recorders.

Ribbon microphones

The first commercially produced ribbon microphone (also known as a velocity microphone) was released in the early 1930s. A ribbon mic works like a dynamic mic except instead of using a moving coil as the transducer, it uses a ribbon. The ribbon picks up sound much like the way your ears do naturally. This is because ribbons are designed similarly to the way your ears pick up sound. Most ribbon microphones are open on both sides, which naturally gives them a figure-8 polar pattern. Interestingly, this made them very popular with the film industry as they could place the camera in the null area of the microphone and minimize the amount of camera noise bleeding through.

The RCA 44 and 77

Without a doubt, the two most famous ribbon microphones are the RCA 44 and 77. Both invented and patented by Harry Olson. The 77 microphone was the very first ribbon microphone designed and introduced by RCA. It was rumored to have been in development as early as 1929 but wasn’t officially announced until 1932. The first 77 model was the rarest of all RCA microphones and featured two ribbons and an “acoustic labyrinth” which allowed it to be uni-directional.

The 44A was a smaller and lower priced version of the 77A. The lower price point was a significant contributing factor to this microphone’s success and popularity. This is the microphone you think of when you picture Elvis or Frank Sinatra or an old radio broadcaster. The look of the microphone might even be more legendary than the actual performance. The 44B/BX were both a slightly larger version of the 44A. The BX has the ribbon mounted further towards the back giving it a smaller figure 8 pickup pattern on the rear side.

The BBC noticed the 44 being used in American broadcasting and wanted one for themselves. The only problem was it would cost them £130 ($8500 in 2017). This was way out of the BBC’s budget, so they decided to make their own ribbon microphone. F W Alexander who worked in the BBC research department invented the Type A whose successor the 4038 is still being made by Coles Electroacoustics.

Coles 4038
Coles 4038

Ribbon microphones today

Today, ribbon microphones vary in price. Modern technology has made it, so the manufacturing cost is low enough to make entry level ribbon microphones possible.  There are also companies like AEA based out of Pasadena, CA that are work tirelessly to make the most accurate reproductions of the classics. One of their newer ribbon microphone designs is the R88 which is a stereo microphone that looks likes a huge RCA 77 and sounds breathtaking. You can hear it being used to mic an entire band on the YouTube channel “One Mic.”

The RCA 44 was discontinued in 1957, yet they are still seen in studios all across the world and are still going for thousands of dollars on eBay and Reverb.com. Harry Olson’s impressive legacy has left us with these indispensable tools that have dramatically and significantly impacted the history of audio.

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How two guys in New Jersey created the most desirable equalizer: Pultec EQP-1A

The most desirable equalizer Pultec EQP-1A

Pultec is the holy grail when it comes to equalizers. But, the reason why Pultec is so great can seem elusive if you asked someone why their answer would be solely their opinion. You could attribute their success to the transformers, the tubes, the Q curves, or being a byproduct of the times, the place, or the people. But really, it was all those things that created the perfect storm for genius. The fact that it’s still one of, if not the most, sought after audio equalizers ever made is even further testament to that.

Pultecs will always hold a special place in my heart. If I had to list the most important things to me, it would go, my family, Pultec EQP-1A equalizers, and then my girlfriend… Okay… Maybe it’s not that extreme, but I do love the things. I started interning at Sabella Studios in Long Island, New York, in my sophomore year of college. The first time I walked in, I immediately noticed the rack of 9 foreign looking blue boxes taking up the whole wall. I’d never heard of a Pultec, I’d never even seen an equalizer that looked like that, and I certainly didn’t know what made them or the fact that there was a whole wall of them so special. The more I got to use them, the more I grew to love them and started to understand what a privilege it was just to use even one, let alone a wall of 9 of them.

If you took a trip to Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1955, you just might run into Gene Shenk and his longtime friend, Ollie Summerlin, tweaking what would become one of the first Pultec EQP-1 equalizers. Gene and Ollie… they were Pultec. The whole operation was never more than three people, and the majority of the time, they were responsible for everything, including engineering, designing, marketing, and producing each and every piece of gear by hand. These two guys in New Jersey left their mark on the recording industry forever, and not many people even know their names. You can’t go into a recording studio without seeing an original Pultec or a clone of an original or a plugin emulating one.

Ollie and Gene met studying electronics at the RCA Institute (now the Technical Career Institute College of Technology) in NYC. After school, Gene spent 14 years working for RCA while Ollie enlisted in the Navy. After WW2, Ollie ended up at Capitol Records as an engineer and sold Ampex tape machines before meeting with Shenk to form Pulse Techniques. Pulse Techniques was the formal name for the company that produced the Pultec EQP-1A.

Starting in 1953, the two man team of Ollie and Gene made every single item to order by hand. When people say, “they just don’t make them like they used to…,” they are right. They don’t make them like they used to. You couldn’t make an equalizer today with the same components as an original. Even if you did have an unlimited amount of money, some components are no longer available. Many people claim the transformers on the input and output are the reason for much of the magical powers of the unit. This point is emphasized when you just run audio through the unit in bypass. You can hear the difference even with no EQ engaged.

Listen to these samples — the first is a dry vocal track with no Pultec, the second is the same vocal track that is being run through a Pultec but with the bypass engaged.

Dry Vocal

Bypassed Pultec Vocal

The company first made variable filament supplies for tubes and stepped oscillators. In 1956, the first version of their equalizer, the EQP-1, was seen in the Pultec catalog. They were advertised to the broadcast industry, and the main unique feature and selling point was the tube make up gain which allowed it to be engaged without the signal dropping in level.

In 1961, the EQP-1 was replaced by the updated EQP-1A, which had added frequency selections. The new 1A model had added a 20 Hz boost and attenuation, 16 kHz boost, and a 5, 10, and 20 kHz attenuation. In 1981, Shenk was finally ready to retire. He tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the company and eventually ceased production and shut the doors for good.

A common myth is that the Pultec passive circuit designs were licensed from Western Electric. This is not true, the manual states, “licensed under patents of the Western Electric Company,” but that is only for the use of negative feedback and has nothing to do with any of the actual circuit designs.

After closing down in 1981, Gene Shenk received a call from NYC Power Station owner Tony Bongiovi. Bongiovi wanted to place an order so large that Gene couldn’t say no. Eventually, 24 units, mainly the smaller 2U rack version of the 1A, the EQP1A3, were produced for the last ever production run made by Gene Shenk.

Nile Rogers Pultecs
Nile Rodgers sitting in front of the racks of 24 Pultec EQP-1A3s in Power Station’s Studio C

Interestingly, the Q curves on a Pultec are so broad that adjusting 30 Hz can affect frequencies up to 1kHz. Also, the manual explicitly states, “do not attempt to boost and attenuate simultaneously on the low frequencies,” yet this is the very thing for which this EQ is famous. Boosting and cutting simultaneously may seem counterproductive, but doing so makes the curve dip before the boost starts, which results in what can only be described as magic.

In the early 2000s, electrical engineer Steve Jackson decided to try and recreate Pultec with some guidance from Gene Shenk himself. Jackson secured the rights to the name and started producing EQP-1A3 again. Many others have tried to copy, clone, and emulate the Pultec EQP-1A. Many will argue that some do it quite well. Still, to most that have had the pleasure of using the original units, there’s an undeniable magic that just can’t seem to be captured in an algorithm or with modern components and manufacturing techniques.

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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones

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The best designed and most enjoyable effects unit ever: Eventide H3000 UltraHarmonizer

Letter Brian Eno wrote to Eventide in 1992

When one of the most influential and well regarded electronic musicians praises your effects unit as the best, it should hold some weight. Not only did Brian Eno love his Eventide H3000, but he loved it so much that he actually took the time to write to Eventide to congratulate them on designing it.

Eventide started in the basement of the Sound Exchange, a recording studio located in midtown Manhattan. Their control room wasn’t big enough to fit a tape op so studio owner Steven Katz commissioned Richard Factor to create a device that would allow him to locate the tape to a specific time. Eventide was born.

In 1974 they developed the H910 Harmonizer, one of their most notable products, which was the first digital pitch shifting device.  From the H910, the H3000 would be born. Interestingly enough, the H910 Harmonizer was first used to speed up the dialog of older sitcoms, like I Love Lucy, without changing the pitch of the voice.

In 1986, Eventide released the H3000. But what makes it so special? Before this unit, if you wanted to speed up time, you also had to speed up the pitch. This one significant advancement inevitably leads to tools that are paramount to modern recording like Auto Tune, Melodyne, time stretching, etc.  I think to truly grasp the full magnitude, you have to consider the period during which it was released. Up until that time, every effect that anyone ever heard was produced through hardware. There were no plugins. The majority of the time there was one piece of hardware that did one specific effect.

If you could design the most perfectly laid out effects unit, with what seems like unlimited capabilities, the H3000 would be it. With only 7 buttons, a jog wheel and number pad, finding and altering your favorite presets is quick and easy for even the most novice engineer. The H3000 could not have been better received and it wasn’t long before every studio had an H3000 in their rack. The H3000 was the first unit to offer true diatonic shifting or shifting that stays in key, but other features include*:

  • Dual Shift –  Two separate pitch shifters
  • Layered Shift – Two pitch shifts from one input
  • Stereo Shift – Mono-compatible stereo pitch shifting (maintains stereo imaging)
  • Reverse Shift – Backwards-talking pitch shift
  • Swept Combs – Six sweepable delay lines, with stereo panning
  • Swept Revere – A dense reverb with smooth sweep capability
  • Reverb Factory – A full-featured reverb with EQ and flexible gating
  • Ultra-Tap – Twelve delay taps with full control over panning, level, and delay, Includes a diffuser to generate dense gated reverb effects.
  • Dual Digiplex – A stereo delay with smooth delay change
  • Long Digiplex – A 1.5 second delay with smooth delay control
  • Patch Factory  – A “modular” effects program which lets you design your own effect. “Patch” together delay lines, filters and pitch shifting to create never-heard-before effects.
  • Stutter – Get that st..st..stutter sound – effortlessly
  • Dense Room – Our densest reverb, with unique front/back position control
  • Vocoder – This is our version of the classic vocoding effect
  • Multi-Shift – Two six-octave pitch shifters, two delays, panning, and patchable feedback paths make this program incredibly useful.
  • Band Delay  – A multi-tap delay line feeding eight resonant bandpass filters make for some sounds like you’ve never heard.
  • String Modeller – This program lets the H3000 double as an extra voice in your MIDI rack
  • Phaser – A wonderfirlly thick, smooth, phase-shifting effect that is hard to beat

*List source: Vintage Digital

It’s over 30 years after the release, but the H3000 is still found in countless studios across the world. Through all the changes in technology the unit and its effects not only hold up, but many would argue still surpass anything made in the modern era.

Eventide has given engineers a cheaper option– they released the H3000 plug-in for $350. I can’t vouch for how good it sounds or how it compares with the real unit, but you can download the demo here and try it for yourself.

Below are samples I’ve recorded of vocals going through our H3000:

Dry (no H3000)

Dual Shift

Stereo Shift

Flanger

Pitch Quantize

DigiPlex

Big Vocal Plate

Tight Room