By Darth Fader
Those of you born before the Second Great Schism may not realize that back in the day there was no such thing as “off-the-shelf” recording gear. Most recording equipment was custom-manufactured to spec by studios for their exclusive use. Abbey Road Studio’s engineering department was at the forefront of such design. Developed in association with Abbey Road, Waves’ Abbey Road Collection is a suite of plug-ins that emulate the famed studio’s recording consoles, tape machines, EQs and microphones. Included in the Collection are five plug-ins: J37 Tape, REDD, Reel ADT, RS56 Passive EQ and The King’s Microphones. All of these are available individually but purchasing them as a bundle saves you a few hundred dollars. Since they cover quite a bit of ground, we’ll examine the plug-ins one at a time.
Manufactured by Studer, the J37 analog tape machine recorded 4 tracks on 1-inch tape. In the mid-1960’s Abbey Road Studios purchased four of these machines, and they were used on countless classic recordings until approximately 1969 when they began using 8-track machines. These J37’s — combined with special tape formulas developed by EMI specifically for use with them — were part of the signature sound of recordings made at Abbey Road during the 1960’s and 1970’s. EMI manufactured three different tape formulas for the J37: 888, 811 and 815, each of which possessed its own frequency response and distortion characteristics. Those formulas are all represented in the J37 Tape plug-in.
There are quite a few controls in J37 Tape including input gain, tape formula, tape speed, bias current, wow, flutter, and noise. Those who never set foot in a recording studio before the Battle of Bothawui will need some background information. “Tape saturation” refers to the way tape stores magnetism. There comes a point where tape becomes thoroughly magnetized and can hold no more magnetism. Increasing the recording level beyond this point saturates the tape, causing a pleasing type of distortion. This distortion varies with the tape formula. Back then the goal of the formula was to reduce distortion (and noise). Abbey Road’s engineers probably never imagined that many years in the future we’d want to add this distortion. Different tape speeds produced changes in frequency response and noise level (in general, faster speeds produce less tape hiss), and unintentional variations in tape speed known as wow and flutter resulted in minor pitch variations (AKA modulation).
All of these parameters are modeled in J37 Tape, enabling you to create an extremely wide range of effects. For example, adjusting the delay time while a sound is being run through the plug-in produces a smooth shift in pitch, the same as it would if you changed the speed of an analog tape machine while a sound was being run through it for delay purposes (on the ‘Cool Scale’ the J37’s tape reels start and stop with your DAW playback). Wow and flutter controls let you dial in the sound of a tape machine that is misbehaving and — given my past experience with misbehaving tape machines at Darth Plagueis’ first studio — take my word that it sounds authentic. Adding this type of effect to an acoustic guitar or piano track delivers an instant retro sound.
The presets furnished with J37 Tape are generally unique and useful, especially the stereo ones so make sure to try them either on a stereo audio track or in a stereo aux send/return loop. Check out the preset Sea WAVES (awesome) and make sure to use it in stereo. Spinning Tin Can and TapeD Lay lay remind me of when I first discovered all the weird things you could do with a Lexicon 224 XL. The Kick Drum Warmth preset could have accurately been called Kick Drum Girth because it added size and bottom to a kick drum track.
Some people like to use plug-ins like the J37 to emulate the sound of recording to tape, but I liked it even more for the modulation effects. You may find that you never need another modulation plug-in.
I See REDD
Abbey Road’s REDD.17 mixing console (originally built in 1957) was nothing short of revolutionary, featuring EQ on each of its eight channels. It became so popular with studio clients that Abbey Road’s R&D department immediately began work on the REDD.37, shortly followed by the REDD.51 (which lowered distortion and increased headroom over the .37). Waves was given access to these unique, classic mixing desks so that they could study and model the audio properties of the consoles for creation of the REDD plug-ins. A complete discussion of the Abbey Road REDD plug-ins can be found HERE.
[This particular element of the Abbey Road Collection may not be the easiest for Padawans to grasp — especially those who missed the 20th Century Technology seminar I gave at the Jedi Training Academy. Understanding how a tape machine operates is a huge plus so stay tuned for a primer on analog tape.]
The concept of ADT or “Artificial Double Tracking” certainly was pioneered at Abbey Road, and may in fact have been invented there. ADT refers to using a secondary tape machine to double a track (often a vocal), as opposed to making a musician perform the song again — which wasted time and another track. At the time track count was precious. You young ‘uns think you can do this by duplicating a track in your DAW and shifting it slightly along the timeline. Think again because that’s a lame excuse for doubling. If you were to look at the head block of a pro tape machine you’d find three separate heads: erase, record and play. The tape is pulled across the heads in that order. If you record a sound (at the record head) and listen back (from the play head) there’s a slight delay because it takes time for tape to travel the path from the record head to the play head. The slight delay time between the record and play heads is easy enough to model but shifting a duplicate track does not simulate the minor variations in tape speed (intended or otherwise) that result when a track is recorded to a second tape machine and simultaneously played back into the mix. Reel ADT is very good at creating this effect.
Controls in the ADT plug-in include independent Drive, Pan, Mute, Polarity reverse (Ø) and Level fader for the Source and ADT effect. If you’re using Reel ADT in an aux send/return patch, you’ll probably want to bring down the Source fader, but inserting Reel ADT on an audio track let’s you take advantage of the Drive control, which adds distortion independently for the source or the double. If you’re looking to dirty up the original sound, crank the drive and mix it in at a high level.
ADT’s Varispeed control deserves explanation. Tape machines from that era generally used AC synchronous motors, meaning that the motor speed (and therefore the tape speed) was locked to the frequency of the AC line electricity. In the UK this was and is 50 Hz. Pay attention: the time it takes for a piece of tape to move from the record head to the play head is determined by tape speed. Translation from Tribal Tongue of the Ewoks: the delay time of the ADT signal is determined by tape speed. Some tape machines were capable of running at more than one speed, for example 15 inches per second (“IPS”) versus 30 IPS. So you might be able to make a coarse adjustment in the delay time of an artificial double by switching between tape speeds (not recommended on the fly), specifically if you double the tape speed you halve the delay time. The only way to vary the tape speed in a more subtle manner (say by a few percent) would be to vary the frequency of the AC that drives the motors.
Abbey Road’s engineers (cagey Yaka that they were) knew this and figured out a way to circumvent the stability of tape speed. They created a method by which the oscillator generating the 50Hz line frequency could be varied, thus changing the speed of the tape machine. This was called Varispeed. The Varispeed control on the ADT plug in allows you to subtly alter the speed of the tape machine or if you intentionally moved it back and forth, to make the tape speed warble. In the ADT plug-in, make sure that the LFO is turned on, so that the Varispeed, well… varies. If LFO is off there is no modulation and you’ll basically get a subtle delay (which is kinda’ boring).
Varispeed is not the same as wow and flutter, which are unintentional, erratic variations of tape speed and are caused by things like friction of the tape against the heads and guides. Wow is a slow unintentional variation in tape speed while flutter is a quick unintentional variation of tape speed. All of these characteristics of tape contribute to the sound of ADT, where you want the small variations of tape speed that produce changes in pitch and timing similar to those occurring when a musician doubles their part (vocal or otherwise). If you grab the Varispeed control in real time and manipulate it, ADT responds like an analog machine and does not produce digital ‘zipper’ sounds, which means you can automate the Varispeed control in your DAW without generating unwanted artifacts.
Rate is the modulation speed. You can compare Rate to how fast you might turn the Varispeed control back and forth to make changes in tape speed. LFO range is like the mod depth or how severe the modulation (how far you’d turn the Varispeed control). Random makes the modulation happen at random intervals like a busted tape machine and higher range numbers cause the ADT to sound more out of tune. One interesting characteristic of the ADT plug-in is that you can drag your mouse across a few controls and they will change simultaneously with one swipe.
The ADT plug-in was my least favorite of the suite though some of the presets are pretty impressive. Vocal Rock Ghost was downright scary on a Beatle-esque lead vocal while Subtle ADT was also very nice. Classic ADT was generally a bit too distorted for my taste but it was interesting to try on lead vocal tracks in some mixes I was doing.
RS56 Passive EQ
Developed in the 1950’s, Abbey Road’s RS56 Universal Tone Control was intended for mastering purposes, but eventually engineers started using the device while tracking as an alternative to the simple bass and treble controls built into mixing desks of the time.
The RS56 is a three-band, passive EQ. A passive EQ does its thing via attenuation as opposed to boosting a frequency. For example if you were to boost at 500 Hz, what’s really happening is that the remainder of the audio band is cut, leaving your chosen ‘boost’ frequency unchanged. Downstream, makeup gain is applied. This is sonically very different from an active equalizer that works by boosting particular frequencies.
Each band of the RS56 has four frequency settings and six different filter types. Frequency points are 16,400, 11,600, 8,192 and 5,800 Hz for the Top Band; 4,096, 2,048, 1,024 and 512 Hz for the Treble band; and 256, 128, 64 and 32 Hz for the Bass band. Boost and cut are applied in 4 dB increments ranging from -20 to +20 dB. Unlike typical parametric EQs, settings for the width and shape of the curves are designated Low End, Blunt, Med Blunt, Med Sharp, Sharp and High End.
For Top, Treble and Bass, the following settings exhibit fairly traditional behavior of a peak/dip EQ: Blunt, Med Blunt, Med Sharp and Sharp. These settings vary the Q from it’s broadest to its most narrow (respectively). For the settings labeled Low End and High End, the behavior becomes much more interesting. Starting with the Bass: when this band is set to Low End, the control acts as a shelf EQ, boost or cut. When it’s set to High End, it becomes a high shelf boost or cut with a very low turnover frequency of 32, 64, 128, 256 Hz. The High End setting in the Bass band has a gentle shape.
When the Treble control is set to Low End, it becomes a low shelf cut or boost but its action starts in the midrange (!). It looks more like a very broad filter. Set to High End it becomes a high shelf boost or cut above the selected frequency.
When the Top control is set to High End it’s a high-shelf boost or cut. When the Top is set to Low End, it has the curve of a gentle filter but boosts from the selected frequency on downward. Don’t worry too much about the explanations; just plug ‘em in and listen.
The Presets furnished for RS56 are quite useful. Lead Vocal 1 pops a vocal right through a crowded mix. The snare presets were a bit too obvious for my taste but a bit of Top End boost goes a long way in making cymbals sparkle or adding a bit of air to overhead tracks. On a tenor vocal Med Blunt in the Bass range with a boost of approximately +6 dB added some warmth and size, making the vocal more intimate.
While I found the RS56 useful for individual tracks, it really shines on the L/R bus for polishing your mixes. A few dB of boost in the Top band at 11,600 Hz opens up a mix nicely, brightening it without creating harshness, and because the EQ curves are so gentle it makes the track sound louder. Ditto in the Bass range where setting the curve to High End seemed to make a mix louder as much as it added low end. I ran some of my older mixes through the RS56, added a bit of Top set to Low End, frequency at 8,192 or 11,600 Hz, +4 and it sounded like a new mix. A few dB in the Bass band (Low End/64 Hz) gave kick and bass presence that had been sorely lacking. RS56 generally makes mixes sound better and that’s a good thing because a lot of EQ plug-ins can carve up a signal but doesn’t necessarily sound good. Evidently this is why engineers borrowed them from the Abbey Road mastering suites. You can get the midrange to crunch if you so desire by setting the Treble control to 2,048 or 4,096, Med Blunt or Blunt, and adding 20 dB but even that doesn’t give you the crappy crunch of lesser EQs.
The King’s Microphones
Imagine you’re working on a film that features speeches delivered by King George VI. Back in the day, his Majesty would have addressed the public using a microphone engineered by EMI specifically for his voice. Imagine that microphone still exists, and is in storage in the EMI Archive Trust. Imagine that they’d let you use it to make recordings for the movie. That’s exactly what happened to engineer Peter Cobbin while he was working on the film The King’s Speech (see the Waves web site for more detail). EMI actually allowed Cobbin to use three microphones that had been designed for and used by King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Given the realism achieved by using these microphones for the film, Cobbin thought that a plug-in emulating their sounds would be useful for other engineers attempting to capture the sonic properties of microphones from that era. Enter The King’s Microphones, which models the sound of three microphones, named simply for the aforementioned royalty who used them. Each model has three settings for proximity and though they are certainly useful on voice, Waves encourages experimentation with a variety of sources.
Each mic has three settings: Close, Ambient and Natural. The Close setting models the proximity effect of the original. The Ambient settings really don’t add any room ambiance, but sound more like the mic was moved away from the person speaking. All three microphone emulations employ a fair amount of low-frequency cut so you probably won’t want to insert these on tracks that contain a lot of low frequency information. For example, inserting Queen Elizabeth on a bass guitar made it too thin, so I tried it in an aux send/return patch, which added some gnarly attitude to an otherwise boring bass sound.
No doubt, any of the King’s Microphones provide an instant ‘retro’ sound to a vocal and will be especially useful for voiceover effects. The King George VI, Preset 1 worked great in an aux send/return patch on a male lead vocal to add some body. When I tried this same setting on an acoustic piano it became apparent that there is definitely compression happening the King’s ‘plugs in addition to the change in timbre, which makes their processing action all the more interesting. Anyone who does a lot of voiceover work or likes twisting normal sounds into something different will definitely want to check out the King’s Microphones.
As we’ve come to expect from Waves, the Abbey Road Collection is an excellent suite of audio processing tools. For me the home run is J37 closely followed by the RS56 but they are all eminently useful and definitely recommended.