Soundgas at Strongroom – The Report

Soundgas Studio Services – Live Access!

Echoes in Space – Matt Morton, the Apollo 11 Soundtrack & a Binson Echorec

Soundgas London Event – June 6th 2019

Careful With That AKS Eugene… Pin Park Live Broadcast From Soundgas Studio

Pin Park are Maciek Polak and Maciek Bączyk; they make music using (almost exclusively) EMS synthesizers and effects. We were delighted to invite them for the inaugural live broadcast from the Soundgas Studio a couple of weeks ago as part of their recent UK mini tour. Below you will find the video of their performance.

It was a real thrill to see a pair of Synthi AKS set up back to back (with additional sounds and loops courtesy of their Boss RC-505 Loop Stations). Maciek B usually uses the RC-505’s onboard delay and asked if we couldn’t find him something more interesting for the show: a super clean Binson Echorec 2 T7E freshly-modified with our super slow varispeed motor fit the bill nicely. Maciek P (of our brothers in vintage gear Analogia) uses an EMS 8 Octave Filter Bank live to ‘tune’ the reverb from a Boss RV-6 which is incredibly effective.

Those who may think that music made exclusively on Synthis is likely to be niche/experimental and lacking melody and structure are in for a surprise. Pin Park’s music is warm, comforting and utterly beguiling: it confidently references classic krautrock (without ever veering towards pastiche) and more contemporary electronica; one of the new album tracks is reminiscent of Kraftwerk in their pomp. Another standout track for me features haunting and ethereal whispered vocal samples (run through Maciek P’s EMS Vocoder 1000) which are recordings of Maciek B’s daughter talking in her sleep.

The gig was a great success, and it was a privilege to watch as the two Synthi masters weaved their enchanting soundscapes, undeterred even when our newly-installed Calrec desk joined in noisily mid-track with a failing opamp on one channel. New technology was comprehensively shamed by the 45-year-old Synthis which operated flawlessly, unlike the iPhone and Apogee One which refused to play ball for the live Instagram Live broadcast resulting in a restart using the onboard iPhone mics. The show has been mixed and edited by our engineer Ben Hirst and is now live on our IGTV channel (embedded below!). Later this month we’ll be featuring an interview with Pin Park where they describe some of the fascinating processes involved in recording with EMS Synthis and effects and also the VCS-3.

 

 

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We’d like to thank the two Macieks for visiting and getting our studio live broadcasts off to a flying start – we’re all eagerly awaiting the new album and are limbering up for a Soundgas remix later this summer.

The recording of the new Pin Park album is complete and it is currently being mixed. Their first album, Krautpark, is available now on bandcamp (see below for YouTube stream).

For more of my own musings on delving into the Synthi AKS, check out “Machines With Soul“.

 

Our Berlin Trilogy: Innervisions – Shonky – Nils Frahm @ Funkhaus

(Re)Building the Ark

Soundgas at The MPG Awards 2019

We went to the MPG Awards for the first time (as sponsors no less!) – this our report on what we heard, what we saw, and why we support the work that the Guild do.

The Soundgas Team at the MPG Awards: L to R – Tony & Jo Miln, Joel Kidulis, Declan Kitts

At Soundgas we’re very keen to support good causes and as well as our giving impacts, we seek to help and encourage artists, engineers and the music community at large. The MPG (Music Producers Guild; see below for more info) is an organisation that celebrates and recognises the diverse range of talents working in the UK music scene and is a progressive force for good in our industry. We were proud to attend this year’s MPG Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel In London and to sponsor the Studio Of The Year Award. This was our first visit to the MPG Awards and was a great occasion to meet up with friends old and new and spend an evening in the company of like-minded individuals. Suffice to say, there was a great deal of nerdy gear/production talk amongst the banter.

The evening was presented by Shaun Keaveny who was on fine form, and I found myself seated next to Georgie Rogers – BBC 6 Music’s roving reporter and a presenter in her own right. We discussed how vital 6 Music is to the scene, and how it seems scarcely credible that it was nearly axed a few years ago. I bent Georgie’s ear with my gripe that there’s not enough new blood being allowed through: large chunks of the schedule remaining dominated by the same people (who have been there playing the same music since the beginning and were originally shuffled over from Radio 1). I believe fresher talent should be allowed more airtime and often find I enjoy guest presenters more than some regulars. It requires great energy to spend a decade or more presenting the same show and to remain vital and current.

Soundgas at MPG Awards

Dec & Joel try Strongroom’s award for size…

Diversity in the music business is improving, but studioland seems to still remain a male-dominated environment. It was very heartening to see more women amongst the attendees, nominees and winners; there was an all-female shortlist for Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year (won by Dani Bennett Spragg) which bodes well for the future.

It was great to see David Wrench win Mix Engineer Of The Year (again) for his work on the XX and David Byrne albums (amongst others) and Dilip Harris and I were laughing at the incongruity his being named Breakthrough Producer after so many years. Damon Albarn delivered a very refreshed presentation to UK Producer Of The Year James Ford (Arctic Monkeys Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino) and national treasure Jarvis Cocker was on hand to present Mandy Parnell with her richly-deserved award for Mastering Engineer Of The Year (again). Jo and I were delighted to announce Strongroom as winners of Studio Of The Year presented by Talvin Singh OBE. Soundgas plan to make a special presentation to Strongroom later this year in recognition of the vital role the studios play in the UK music scene and we’re looking at making an additional presentation for breakthrough engineer of the year.

Soundgas & Strongroom at MPG Awards

Strongroom & Soundgas

There were many notable guests and presenters, and I nearly fell off my chair to learn that Carlos Alomar was on Hugh Padgham’s table and had flown over especially to see Hugh pick up the Outstanding Contribution To UK Music Award presented by Peter Gabriel. I later spent a good twenty minutes talking studios and gear with Hugh at the after party (unsurprisingly there was a surfeit of gear/studio talk all evening – nerd heaven!).

The undoubted highlight of the evening was Kingsley Ward’s speech on behalf of his family and Rockfield Studios on receiving the Special Recognition Award. He informed us that they’d never won an award and that he had sixty years of acceptance speeches to cover in two minutes. A feat he spectacularly failed to achieve, only reaching 1973 by the time he was relieved of the podium following hilarious tales of he and his brother (a pair of Welsh farmers) journeying to see George Martin at EMI in London to play him their demos. They took their own reel to reel tape machine with them (not realising that he might already have such a facility). The good humoured reaction of the crowd inspired him to go well beyond the allotted two minutes, and I believe we’d have kept applauding and encouraging him to continue had he not been somewhat forcibly-removed by his wife and family. I wasn’t the only one doubled over in mirth; Shaun Keaveny nearly fell off the stage at least once during Kingsley’s speech.

This award and acceptance seemed to sum up the vibe of the MPG event for me: there was a great deal of warmth, and mutual respect and admiration amongst attendees. For a full rundown of who won what, see the MPG website, and if you’re eligible, I urge you to lend your support to their work while you’re there.

For further information about the Music Producers’ Guild (MPG) see below (from their website):

Who Are We?

The Music Producers Guild was conceived and is supported by producers, mixers, recording engineers, re-mixers and programmers who are passionate about all aspects of making and recording music. It is a not-for-profit company and is run by volunteers from the membership.

The achievements of this creative community are celebrated through the annual MPG Awards event, and we hope to stimulate development and evolution through the discussions and debate at our events and via the website.

We see it as providing a community for us to share our collective experience and collaborate with other like-minded people.

What Do We Do?

Formed as a Guild rather than a Trade Association, MPG has no party political agenda, but we do represent our community to government so that our voice is heard. We actively engage with other music industry organisations, to develop a dialogue about, and exert an influence upon, matters of mutual interest and benefit to our members and our industry.

We are…(amongst many others…):

Brian Eno  Cameron Blackwood  Catherine Marks Ethan Johns

Flood  Gil Norton  Jake Gosling  Mark Ronson

Mick Glossop  Nile Rodgers  Paul Epworth  John Leckie

Tom Dalgety  Tony Platt  Tony Visconti  Trevor Horn

Charlie Andrew  Mandy Parnell  David Wrench  Mark ‘Spike’ Stent

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Save Our Culture! Abbey Road, Strongroom & Maida Vale

When it’s gone it’s gone. A recent meeting with the man instrumental in saving Abbey Road Studios from being flattened for development gets Tony thinking about what can be done to prevent other irretrievable losses of cultural history.

Last week we had the pleasure of meeting Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley from Such Sweet Thunder when they visited Soundgas. The pair met while working at Abbey Road and are legends in the world of mixing sound for picture (2012 London Olympics – the largest multi-track recording ever made, assorted Harry Potters and Hobbits, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics…).

Peter was the first engineer at Abbey Road to be recruited from outside EMI and was responsible for helping them see the value in their heritage at a time when they were hell bent on discarding old tech. One of the first things he encountered on his arrival there was a Fairchild being used as a doorstop.

He told us how he tracked down EMI’s last remaining TG desk; abandoned in three pieces in their Hayes storage facility. It’d been used by EMI Classical for recording concerts before being mothballed as being out of date (not the only time eyebrows were raised amongst the old guard techs when he asked to reinstate ‘obsolete’ gear). EMI pretty much ‘gave away’ the TG12345 MK IV from Studio Two used to record Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (recently sold at auction for $1.8 million) and also the original Mk1 desk used to record The Beatles’ Abbey Road, amongst many other classics.

As chief engineer, he was instrumental in getting the studio and iconic zebra crossing listed as historic buildings, which helped save the studios when they were threatened with being sold off for residential development. It was a personal pleasure for me to shake the hand of the man who’d helped avert this potential act of cultural vandalism; a reminder of what occurs when businesses involved in the arts are in the hands of people who only see today’s bottom line rather than the wider picture. Peter also helped develop the excellent range of Abbey Road hardware manufactured by Chandler Limited, as well as working with Waves to create the Abbey Road range of plugins.

Tiring of the politics and meetings with bean counters, he struck out to set up Such Sweet Thunder with Kirsty, basing their set-up around a console of their own specification which sounds like it owes a debt to the first principles tech of Abbey Road, being based around a ‘simple’ analogue signal path (I hope to learn more about this soon). Given their background, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to find they both embrace and value analogue so highly, but these days one tends to expect those in film sound to be working purely in the digital domain. Their enthusiasm and enjoyment on encountering the vintage gear caverns and studio at Soundgas was evident and they were soon at work in the studio comparing some Soundgas gear for possible use on a forthcoming project.

For me, Peter’s background and experience is about as fascinating as it gets and I could have listened to his stories of Abbey Road for a good deal longer than we had time for (we barely touched on the subject of working from original Beatles master tapes). I’m looking forward to their next visit very much.

#savestrongroom

The subject of closing important creative spaces is very dear to my heart. The UK has already sleepwalked into allowing too many precious and historic studios and venues to be demolished to satisfy developers’ insatiable appetites. That Abbey Road was once under this type of threat seems scarcely credible, but the current planning application that is casting a shadow over Strongroom’s future, and the BBC’s announcement last year that they are to abandon Maida Vale to development, are two further examples of myopic decision making that blight our musical landscape and heritage.

 

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WE NEED YOUR HELP! https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-strongroom (link also in bio) Some of you may have heard the news that we received word of a planning application submitted to Hackney Council, proposing the construction of a giant 6-storey block along our joining wall at 118 Curtain Road. The proposed demolition and construction is estimated to take 18 months. 18 months of dust, debris, endless drilling and of course loud noise and low frequency vibration. This level of disturbance would almost certainly put our studios out of business, displace the many wonderful producers and companies we have based here and the finished construction would cast our beautiful courtyard in a constant shadow. Having aided the regeneration of Shoreditch in fierce support of independent businesses, we remain strong and defiant, protective of our wonderful community and thankfully busier than ever. Does Shoreditch really need another ugly office block to benefit a Guernsey-based corporation? We ask you to stand with us and save culture over big business. Save communities and support creativity. With your help we saved AIR Studios, and now we ask you again, please #SAVESTRONGROOM What can you do to help? ↓ Sign and share this petition to absolutely everybody you can: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-strongroom (link also in bio) Read more about the threat over at the Financial Times (https://on.ft.com/2MOIr2X) and Resolution Magazine (https://bit.ly/2KMDCq3) and share those articles. Many thanks to both publications for standing with us. Join us in lobbying the following to protect longstanding, independent businesses: Hackney Council, Sadiq Khan Mayor of London, Diane Abbott MP for Hackney, Matt Hancock – Secretary of State for DCM&S, James Brokenshire – Secretary of State for GLC, Greg Clark – Secretary of State for BE&IS Use the #SAVESTRONGROOM hashtag to help us gather all your support and keep the conversation growing. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Strongroom

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The campaign to #savestrongroom is ongoing and still needs your support on twitter, and instagram: if you haven’t written to object, please do so now – an email is fine…

 

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It’s not too late to #savestrongroom – the deadline to email your objections to Hackney Council about planning application 2018/0363 is tomorrow. . Please act to help avoid yet another act of cultural vandalism – unless you feel London needs more luxury flats and less places to record and produce music… . DO IT NOW!!! . Dear Sirs I wish to object to planning application 2018/0363 which threatens the future of one of this country’s most important creative centres: Strongroom Studios. Music contributes hugely to the UK economy and to our cultural identity and sense of community. Strongroom is a vital part of this vibrant and essential national industry. To replace such a valuable asset without due consideration to wider implications would be grossly-irresponsible and I urge you to refuse this application Yours Tony Miln Director, Soundgas Limited

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#saveMaidaVale

The status of Maida Vale is less clear as I write. When the BBC announced their plans to close this important space, there was a brief outcry and reports back in 2018, plus a campaign to #SaveMaidaVale on Twitter supported by Nigel Godrich and Geoff Barrow; but as I searched for fresh information online today there is precious little to be heard from many people, beyond this tweet that sums up what is at stake so well (note there was no reply from BBC 6 Music’s Mark Riley to what Nigel said…):

nigel godrich save maida vale

At the time BBC Director Lord Hall said, “I understand how much our musical heritage at Maida Vale means to us, to artists and to audiences,” – words which ring pretty hollow when you actually start to look at what has happened to this space.

The BBC’s Maida Vale complex housed the Radiophonic Workshop and is where the Dr Who theme was composed. It is where countless bands have played seminal live performances for broadcast including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Radiohead. The history of the Peel Sessions recorded there for John Peel’s Radio One shows alone are a powerful reason to preserve this space as a place artists and fans alike can come to soak up the atmosphere, but it’s not just about history. In a city besieged by developers building properties that will contribute little to the cultural life of London, this great venue has a vital role to play in today’s music scene. Do we want a desolate cityscape, devoid of inhabitants and patrolled by security vans protecting empty properties, or a place where our music and culture can thrive? Because this is one area that Britain can still, right now, lay claim to the epithet ‘Great’.

The BBC have form on sketchy decisions to axe important and valued institutions – it seems scarcely credible today that they considered ditching the influential and popular radio station 6 Music back in 2010. It’s disappointing that more musicians and presenters (whose careers have benefited from playing Peel or other Maida Vale Sessions, and from BBC Radio support) have not been more vocal in their opposition, but perhaps it’s a case of not biting the hand that feeds…

In fairness the BBC are far from free of government pressure; they have to be seen to be modernising, the operating hours of the complex are already constrained by its location, and they have to balance the books (renovating the building and removing asbestos would not be cheap); but surely there’s an opportunity and cultural value that goes far beyond the base value of Maida Vale’s real estate?

Today it seems inconceivable that we nearly lost Abbey Road and 6 Music; and it’s beyond tragic that we’ve already lost so many special recording spaces like Olympic and Townhouse. Fast forward twenty years and imagine explaining to the next generation how the buildings that housed the Radiophonic Workshop, where so many seminal recorded performances took place, and which were a source of such cultural enrichment, were allowed to be turned into yet more dead investment properties.

For more about Maida Vale the Sound On Sound article is full of good stuff. And for a recent, intimate look behind the scenes, look inside this remarkable building – this blog from Mark Urban from Monochrome Set is well worth a look. This photo below is from that post:

bing crosby maida vale

Over 10,000 people have signed a petition to save Maida Vale on Change.org, but this should be many more.

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Thanks for reading. Please take the time to help out these campaigns. And if you know of similar things happening where you are then get in touch via social media or the comments below and we will do what we can to spread the word!

Peter Cobbin Kirsty Whalley Soundgas Studio

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

The People’s Polysynth: Tony Miln shows some love for the Roland Juno

I first laid hands on a synth in 1981 – a very brief ‘go’ on an older boy’s MS-10 (I was shown how to do the intro to Silver Machine by Hawkwind – great excitement). However, living in rural Derbyshire, transport was more important to this teenager than playing space rock anthems, and funds went on a succession of motorbikes and cars. My pals in Sheffield with its 2p bus fares could spend any spare money on wondrous noise making devices.

In 1987, I wandered into Carlsbro Sound Centre in Mansfield to finally buy a synth: I was sold a Yamaha DX21 for around £350. It was a very long way from the synth I had in mind to make crazy whooshing space noises, but I was very green and was firmly ‘advised’ that it was the best on the market. I was told that the new Yamahas were more advanced and that everybody was trading in their old synths to get one (with a derisive gesture towards a pile of abandoned keyboards that’d be a treasure trove today). Had I been more savvy, I could have picked up a VCS3, Synthi AKS or Jupiter 8 for the same price – or less – but I duly walked out of the store with my new technical marvel. After I’d got over the initial excitement of these shiny new sounds available at the press of a button, I began to try and edit noises. It gradually dawned on me that this sleek design, reliant on the absence of old fashioned sliders, switches and knobs, was at the expense of the user’s enjoyment. The DX thwarted my synth explorations for a further 4 years…

Roland Juno-106

I’ve never really forgiven Yamaha for the DX range – sonically or for being so obtuse. I finally, grudgingly, admitted that I ‘got it’ after we had a pristine ex-Abbey Road DX-1 in here at Soundgas, and I’m starting to think I might buy a Volca FM, but I remain firmly in the pre-digital camp when it comes to synths. I still find the (admittedly few) new synths I try somehow lacking after getting past the initial wow of those first presets. Joe Mount of Metronomy said in an interview that old synths know their place and leave space in a track, whereas new ones don’t sit well with ‘real’ instruments.

Returning to synths in the early 90s, we kitted out our studio with an MS-10 (though I always wanted a 20) and Moog Prodigy (alongside the inevitable JV2080), but it was my finding an old Roland HS-60 (cheaper Juno 106 with speakers made for the domestic market) that at last started the ball rolling for me and synthesis. I’m not the most technical of musicians, preferring to feel my way with an instrument; only RTFM if I have to (hard copy – analogue all the way!). Finally, here was a synth that even I could understand – and one that seemed unable to make a bad sound – no matter how ham-fisted the ‘player’. It didn’t matter that my playing was terrible – we could edit and sequence it via Midi and an Atari computer; it even had Midi control of the sliders for recording and playback of filter sweeps etc.

Juno-106

I eventually sold my HS60-badged 106 after a couple of happy decades of faultless use (though two voice chips failed after I opened it up to take photos for the listing and decided to vacuum out the dust inside beforehand!). I’d found an earlier, less technologically-advanced Juno and had fallen for it completely. The Juno 60 became the one for me: an arpeggiator is more important than Midi to me now, and there is a warmth to the sound that suits my taste.

The Roland Juno is a very democratic synth: I brought a 106S (Japanese version of the HS60) home this Christmas and my 8 year old son loves it. As do I – I’ve been noodling away on it with a little Korg SQ-1 (to make up for the lack of arpeggiator) and it has reawakened my love for the 106. You can find your way on a Juno without any fear – or prior synth knowledge – and happily stumble across stunning sounds. A great instrument inspires you to create; it encourages and elicits better performances from you: a Juno is a truly great synth. Whichever model you choose, be it 6, 60 or 106, I guarantee it will always bring a smile to your face – they are a joy to play.

Thanks for reading. More to come soon, going deeper into the Juno family.

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All the Juno-106s pictured are examples we have sold. We can source excellent examples, and they are supplied serviced and future-proofed with all voice chips replaced, power supply recapped and set up for 120 or 240v use.

We usually have a 106 listed or being worked on – if you don’t see one available here on our site, get in touch now to discuss your requirements.

Roland Juno-6 Juno-60 Juno-106

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Nils Frahm Live Rig Tour

In which Tony meets Nils Frahm and his Junos and RE-501s, and Nils meets a Soundgas Binson, and The Magic Typewriter…

UPDATE: since this was published we also met Nils in Manchester. Scroll to the bottom for a couple of new videos from that trip. And then we followed that up by taking him up on his invitation to visit him at Funkhaus in Berlin – read all bout our Berlin Trilogy now.

Barely a day goes by when I don’t consider how lucky we are to live and work in the hills of Derbyshire; beautiful countryside, peaceful villages, miles away from the noise and pollution of urban life. But being a hundred-plus miles from London does have its disadvantages: we miss most of the one-off gigs and special events that tend to only happen in the metropolis. Not so this month: a week ago last Friday I got to hang out with Mike D, Adrock and Mixmaster Mike at the brilliant and funny Beastie Boys Book event, courtesy of our good friend and customer, Phillipe Zdar of Cassius/La Funk Mob (who produced their album ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ and had just been recording Hot Chip at his Motorbass Studio in Paris). And last Wednesday we were back in London at the Eventim Apollo to meet Nils Frahm before his second London show. So much for the quiet life…

Having kids, spending less time in the city (and on the dancefloor) has led to a growing appreciation of less frenetic music than a decade or two ago, and a label we love here at Soundgas is Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes. We all love the label’s RE-501 and Juno 60-meister himself, Nils Frahm, and his music is on regular rotation on our office and home listening. So his purchase of a finely-restored Roland SH-5 from Soundgas was met with great excitement, even more so when he got in touch to say he wanted to talk Binsons and suggested we meet before his show at the Apollo last week ‘for a chat and personal gear tour.’

As Soundgas has grown from one-man-in-a-studio to a team of twelve across two buildings, I’ve ended up spending more time in the office at a computer, rather than getting out making personal deliveries and meeting our customers, so I jumped at the chance offered by Nils’ warm invitation. Jo and I duly set out with a boot full of gear early last Wednesday, bound for the Hammersmith Apollo (as it used to be known).

On arrival we were warmly welcomed by Nils and his team and soon found ourselves treading the hallowed stage for a close look at Nils’ incredible live set up. Nils bought his first Roland Juno 60 aged 14 (for 100DM – about £50) and they are much-loved for their distinctive arpeggiator and sound (though ‘not the Chorus II setting’!) and I knew there’d be one on the stage, but wasn’t prepared to see three – ‘the best-sounding out of the nine I’ve owned’. One of them has a distinctive custom finish in white; this courtesy of the Royal Albert Hall where a mishap resulted in one of his 60s requiring replacement with this one.

I was of course aware of Nils’ preference for the Roland RE-501, but was amazed to count no less than five of the venerable Chorus Echoes (he owns eleven!) carefully-positioned around the stage. He explained that he relies heavily on his tech, Sebastian, and on Shane Fritsch’s Echo Fix tapes and parts to ensure his 501s run smoothly.

Nils Frahm live set up

The piano tuner, Carsten, was nearly done tuning the Yamaha grand piano (fitted with a Helpinstill piano pickup as well as being mic’d up) and Nils asked if we’d like a demo? I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Within moments, I was being given a run-through of how everything links together and we were getting a personal performance. Definitely one of the best ‘I love my job’ moments I’ve had.

Below the white Juno 60 was a mystery keyboard that Nils explained was a midi controller used to trigger the samples of a wind organ that his team had built for live use but was unsuited to life on the road – ‘and the samples sound pretty much as good’. This has been carefully programmed with a recreation of his beloved Juno arpeggiator, and the Junos have also been modified so he can quickly switch between internal and external control of the arpeggiator to great effect. Below these is his ‘Mellowtron’ M400 which has various modifications to the motor, not only to improve tuning stability whatever the temperature, but also to select between one octave up or one/two down (which sounds stunning), as well as having an onboard LFO for modulation.

Nils’ live sound is, as with his recordings, all about attention to detail – I suggested ‘perfection’, but he answered ‘perfection from imperfect things?!’ I am so often sonically disappointed seeing live shows – so many artists go to great lengths to create stunning-sounding records, only to opt for the convenience of software or digital emulations rather than the real thing and the results are almost invariably a sonic ‘meh’. With Nils, every single detail is a joy to hear and the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts. I’d expected it to sound good, but was completely blown away by just how powerful the massed ranks of acoustic and analogue gear sounded in full and glorious flight. To witness, at close quarters, Nils dancing and diving about his equipment – clearly a master of his instruments – was mesmerising: his hands and fingers a blur of movement as he twisted and tweaked settings and played accompanying riffs on the Fender Rhodes.

I was struck by how superb the reverb sounded and asked what he was using; he pointed to a rack underneath the Rhodes – an EMT 245 with a Dynacord VRS-23 above it! No wonder it sounds so staggeringly good! In my position as champion for the Good Old Stuff, my bias is undeniable, but ears don’t lie and this was a reverb sound to die for. I understand more than most why many artists don’t risk using esoteric vintage equipment live, but when they do the results can be outstanding. We saw Arctic Monkeys recently – their set up was almost exclusively vintage gear that most would only countenance for studio use (including Alex’s trio of amps supplied by us, and three RE-201s that we ended up servicing before they headed out to the US). And they sounded great.

Nils Frahm, Tony Miln, Binson Echorec

It soon became apparent that Nils and I we were kindred spirits with a shared love of and appreciation for the sounds and feel of real instruments and effects that predate the modern era of gear built to a price point by machines. The combined sound of a stage full of individual pieces with soul and personality is unforgettable, and all too rare today. I’d been curious as to the source of Nils’ drum sounds and spied the bank of twin Vermona DRM1s alongside his mixing desk. The warm 808-esque kick, triggered by foot switch, came from a diminutive (in stature rather than sound) MFB analogue drum machine. Next to the foot switch are his Moog Taurus pedals. Above this, and between the two Juno 60s, is a Roland SH-2 synced to the other synths, receiving plenty of tweaking attention to great effect.

Nils Frahm - Binson Echorec

All too soon, the whirlwind display was over, and we set to showing Nils a couple of Soundgas Binsons which he demoed using one of the onstage Juno 60s. Unfortunately, the only super-slow varispeed Echorec 2 that we had available hadn’t yet reached a satisfactory conclusion: it had undergone a good deal of work, but it transpired that nothing short of a total rebuild was going to yield the performance we expected. So Nils had another varispeed Echorec 2 to try out and immediately commented that it sounded way better than his own. A quick listen to our studio Super Slow Baby Binson was enough to demo the principle and we resolved to find the right Echorec 2 in future.

 

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Great to meet @nils_frahm and his crew at the @eventimapollo this afternoon; fascinating to see his set up. Here he gets acquainted with a Soundgas Binson Echorec 2… #nilsfrahm

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Then it was time for the ‘Magic Typewriter’, our Dynacord Echocord Studio, modified by Dr Huw with Super Slow Varispeed. I explained to Nils and Sebastian that we are still working on further mods, on a second machine, that incorporates being able to lift the erase and record heads from the disc, thereby allowing both Sound On Sound effects as well as looping. We also hope to be able to reverse the motor for backwards looping effects. This was something of a revelation – nobody had seen an Echocord Studio before and it’s fair to say that this machine was of great interest.

 

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Nils meets The Magic Typewriter… 

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Nils Frahm live set up

All too soon it was time for the soundcheck and for us to leave the crew to continue preparations for the gig. That night we witnessed a staggering live performance, full of drama (thanks to the Vermonas which wiped their Midi CC memory and had to be restored in the middle of an impromptu piano piece), wit and energy, and we reconvened for a lively after show celebration until it was time for everyone to get back on the tour bus. An unforgettable night, with many new friends made and plans to meet again in February when the tour hits Manchester: perhaps with the SH-5 installed as part of the live show…

Our thanks to Nils, the crew and also to Robert Raths and all at Erased Tapes for their warmth and hospitality.

Nils Frahm live

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!

On the 17th of February this year we met up with Nils again, this time before the show at Manchester’s Albert Hall. We took more Binsons and other gear for him to try, he totally fell for our ’73 Minimoog, and we got some pretty special footage of part of the soundcheck. We’ll add some more photos and video when we do a part 2 to this blog, but that needs to wait until we’ve been and seen his studio in Funkhaus Berlin (soon…). For now here are a couple of the videos from the Manchester trip:

 

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Big piano. Tiny piano. Junos, 501s, a Mellotron & an EMT 244… Last one from Sunday’s Manchester mission. At some point we’ll do a blog about some of what we found as we got to poke around in this monster set up, as well as what we discussed with Nils and his engineer including his studio, Moog vs Roland, and modifying Roland Junos and tape echoes. Huge thanks go out to him and his tight-knit tour family for making us feel so welcome. . #nilsfrahm #vfgear #synthstagram #vintagesynth #juno60 #soundgas #supersonicgear

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’73 Minimoog. Game over. . . #moog #minimoog #vintagesynth #synthstagram

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Dynacord Echocord Studio: In Search Of The Magic Typewriter…

Welcome to Story Time with Tony…

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. I’d heard whispered rumours of a Dynacord echo that with a flat spinning disc instead of tape, but as my searches yielded no further information, I put it down to being just another vintage gear tall tale.

That was until a year or two later, when I happened upon what appeared to be a very stylish sixties typewriter, housed in a modest two tone carry case. Where a typewriter would ordinarily have a set of keys, this elegant machine had but a handful of buttons and knobs. A symphony of understated sixties German design, sporting classy curved lines with only discrete symbols denoting the various controls’ functions, it bore the legend, ‘Dynacord Echocord Studio’. My search was over and this beast was mythical no more. It was, however, in a pretty bad way and unlikely to be of much practical use without a full overhaul and even then there was doubt as to whether the disc/heads would pass muster.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

The Echocord Studio and I are of a similar vintage. Introduced in 1966, it remained in production for two years, during which time only around 500 units were made. As it cost about a third of the price of a Volkswagen Beetle, this was certainly not a machine designed to weather the rigours of life on the road. It’s serious demeanour is a testament to its purpose as a high end studio piece.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Here at Soundgas, singular rare electromechanical devices requiring specialist attention tend to languish in Dr Huw’s waiting room for very long time. This is especially true if they’re most likely to be retained by me for our studio ‘research’ purposes. Soundgas service department resources are stretched thin (if only you could clone techs), so anything we are considering keeping in the studio ranks below gear for our customers. So I was about to resign myself to a long wait to hear a fully-functional Echocord Studio when I was almost immediately offered two more that were in excellent condition. Better than busses it seems, Studios come in threes.

This was an exciting development: three examples made it worth investing Dr Huw’s valuable time in the Echocord Studio project, and they were duly entered on his medium term projects list. The second two units were in quite exceptional condition and, following initial inspection, it was reported that they could indeed be viable for restoration.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Discrete Germaniac

Even so, this proved a not inconsiderable task for our echo doctor: the Studio is a discrete device dating from the mid sixties, and the many boards are populated with capacitors that are well past their sell by date (see photos at the end of this article to see original caps bulging away). Some machines use all germanium transistors, and later ones a mix of germanium and silicon. While germanium transistors are much-lauded for their sound, especially when pushed into distortion, the passage of time has taken its toll and many are out of spec and very noisy. While none of this is beyond the good doctor’s wit, the flat ferrous oxide-coated disc with six heads resting lightly on the spinning recording medium, is a unique design and spare parts are unobtanium.

A Bad Case

Fortuitously, or perhaps not, we were about to receive a whole machine’s worth of spares. As one of the mint condition units was being carried over to our tech department, the carrying handle of the original case gave way, rudely introducing the very heavy and delicate machine to the tarmac of our car park at some velocity. The results were a completely smashed irreplaceable plastic lid, somewhat twisted outer casing, and a very red-faced junior technician who was suitably mortified at the carnage. Over the years, by accident or error, I’ve caused more damage to vintage equipment than most, so was sanguine about the mishap and told him not to worry as we now had a fine selection of spares to restore the other two machines. This proved especially handy when we later acquired a fourth unit, again in need of extra parts. The moral of the story is don’t ever trust old carrying handles…

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Rise From Your Grave

Here at Soundgas, it’s not uncommon for restorations to be measured in years rather than weeks or months, especially if the gear is very old, unusual or just in a particularly bad way. It’s one of the hardest parts of running a business specialising in crumbling edge tech. Tying up much-needed cash in such gear for long periods makes little sense from a pure business perspective, but it is what keeps things interesting and is very much part of our raison d’être. There is more than financial value in granting an operational reprieve to a fine vintage machine such as an Echocord Studio – rather than consigning it to an electronic graveyard; and being able to add it to our roster of possible future rescues and repairs is always cause for quiet celebration. This is at the heart of our mission: to search the outer reaches of vintage gear and discover and bring back the otherwise irredeemable.

See the photos at the end of this post for a selection of shots from the restoration process.

Spinning Wheel

To receive the first fully-functioning unit back from Dr Huw less than six months later was a joy, and vindicated the decision to gamble on that first unpromising machine. It was also very much a revelation: I’ve had many electromechanical echoes over the years, including several other designs using a coated disc rather than tape (or a Binson’s wire-wrapped metal drum), and they have all had a unique and enjoyable sound, but this was in another league entirely.

Dynacord Echocord Studio

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The Echocord Studio’s combination of discrete circuitry, germanium preamps and sixties Teutonic over-engineered build quality, add up to a very special and truly unique machine. The four playback heads can be used in various gratifying combinations, and the two-speed motor – engaged by a large switch on the right hand side with a very pleasing action – offers an excellent range of echo possibilities. The little black and white dial on top of the disc, visible through the small circular viewing window atop the unit, offers a delightful visual representation of the machine’s status.

Blink And You’ll Miss It

The sound of this first unit was stunning: it possessed all the qualities one could wish for in a good analogue echo, with a reverb-like swell as well as excellent repeats and sounding superb when overdriven, thanks to those now-tamed germanium transistors. Dr Huw had done a fine job; it was not noticeably noisier in operation than other good examples of well-restored tape echoes, and I was utterly-captivated. The ability to mix four input signals with individual control of bass and treble (via wheels above the input sockets), and the dry and wet amounts for each channel, made for a flexible and powerful processor.

Sadly, the insatiable demands of a cash-hungry growing business meant it was for sale and sold within a matter of days, and it was to be another year before Dr Huw’s schedule would permit the next machine to live again.

Go Slow

It’s been quite a tumultuous and hectic twelve months at Soundgas, with many rapid changes in our evolution that have impacted on our ability to deliver the very best in vintage gear. One of the most significant being the decision to invest a great deal of Dr Huw’s precious time in developing and improving our Binson restorations, including our super slow varispeed motor modification. As a result, the remaining two potentially viable Echocord Studios have stood neglected all this time.

Finally, a month or so ago, we were able to recommence Dr Huw’s Echocord Studio restoration project, but this time with the exciting news that it could be possible to modify the next one with the same super-slow varispeed motor option as used in our Binson Echorecs. Again this required a good deal of extra bench time to bring to fruition, but the result was well worth it. Dr Huw’s carefully thought out design niftily incorporates the varispeed control into the original side-mounted switch which controls the rotary pot from on/off through very slow to faster repeats. The finished machine was duly tested to great approval and offered for sale via our weekly mail out.

There Can Be Only One

Having listed the finished machine, we immediately set it to work in the Soundgas Studio on a session, using it to add detuned ambience on some dark string parts being processed for a soundtrack. It proved an absolute joy to use; the varispeed implementation is seamless and feels integral to the original design (which it surely would have been had the technology at the time allowed).

After only an hour at work, it became very apparent that we had something truly special in our hands: a one-of-a-kind sound-processing device that is as pleasing to play as it is sonically. There was a chance that this initial soundtrack session could develop into an ongoing project: how could we sell this machine that was, at that moment, the star turn?

Here are two more instagram posts featuring that machine:

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Soundgas It! Your sounds through our gear… . Before and after… . @wayoutgentleman and @pipe.uk working on @ethermachines’ beautiful string parts from series one of Dark. . Gear at work includes the Publison Infernal Machine and our unique Dynacord Echocord Studio. 

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This Dynacord Echocord Studio has had a total rebuild and very nifty super-slow varispeed modification by Dr Huw here at Soundgas. The next batch of our PsycoX Syncussion clones are nearly ready.

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Out Of Reach

It’s not an easy decision to remove from sale something that is the result of eighteen months’ investment, but it had to be done. So this extraordinary individual Echocord Studio now resides in the Soundgas Studio as part of our armoury of very special sound processing devices that are at our customers’ disposal via our remote studio access facility.

This is not the end of the story: we still have one viable machine, currently on Dr Huw’s bench and well on the way to completion with a full varispeed modification (and wet-only output) which should be available via the mailing list very soon: sign up to be informed when it’s ready. You won’t regret it – I rate the varispeed Echocord Studio as one of the finest and most playable echo machines I’ve had the privilege of using.

And if you have an odd cream-coloured typewriter-shaped device languishing unused in a forgotten corner, please do get in touch: we’d welcome the chance to acquire further examples for Dr Huw to work his magic on. We regret however that the amount of work required to resurrect these machines means we are currently unable to undertake service work on machines other than our own.

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Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

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Those electronically-minded individuals who wish to know more about the design, can find the schematic here.

All photos and information Copyright Soundgas Limited 2018 – if you want to repost some of what is here please ask and we will usually give permission if credit is given. And if you link to this post then tell us and we will give you a mention on social media!

More shots of the internals and restoration process below. This first one is just some of the out of spec capacitors that Huw had to remove from one machine!

Caps from Dynacord

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

 

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio

Dynacord Echocord Studio