(Re)Building the Ark

Lords Of The Springs – Premier Guitar Article

Last week saw the publication of my ‘Lords Of The Springs’ article for Premier Guitar. Being invited to write for such a finely-crafted publication was an honour and quite some education. I received a six-page document on correct writing practices for the house style, and another that detailed ethical guidelines (don’t be afraid of giving a bad review; no free or discounted demo units to be kept by reviewers; check all facts thoroughly). This was clearly a publication with very high standards and I didn’t want to let the side down.

My first piece was for the June 2018 edition on the subject of vintage spring reverbs, with particular emphasis on less-common units: definitely firmly in Soundgas territory. I found the process of researching and writing to be utterly-absorbing and the original remit of 1500-2000 words proved decidedly inadequate. I’m grateful to Shawn and the team for going with my flow and allowing the whole article to be published. We even got the cover shot – kudos to our in-house design/photography ace, Declan Kitts for his great work.

The article covers over 20 units with many audio demos featuring a guitar sample courtesy of Soundgas’ resident axe-slinger, Joel Kidulis. It’s available now from all good magazine sellers, or via the Premier Guitar site.

List of units involved:

Airline Reverb
AKG BX-5
Bandive Accessit Stereo Spring Reverb
Bandive Great British Spring
Danelectro 9100
Fisher Dynamic Space Expander
Fostex Reverb Unit Model 3180
Grampian Reverberation Unit Type 636
Guyatone Flip FR 3000V
Hawk HR-101, HR-202
Kawasaki Reverb Mixing Unit KEA-105
Klark Teknik DN-50
Korg SE-300 Stage Echo
Lafaytte LRE Echo Verb II
Telefunken Echomixer
Pioneer SR-101, SR-202, SR-202W
Roland RE-201 Space Echo
Roland RV-100
Roland VX-55 Mixing Amplifier
Shin-ei ER-23 Echo Reverb Master
Simms-Watts Mixer Unit Hammond Reverb
Vox (JMI) Echo Reverberation Unit (1963)

Audio demos:

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

Space and Chorus Echoes: An Introduction

We sell Space Echoes. We love Space Echoes. We sell quite a few Space Echoes, but that’s OK because we love them quite a lot. In fact, I’d be very surprised if there’s anywhere else in the world selling more serviced Roland tape echoes than Soundgas (not just serviced, but guaranteed – more on that later). Along the way, we’ve learned a few things, some of which I want to share here.

First love

I fell in love with the sound of tape echoes a long time ago, and over the years filled my studio with as many examples as I could lay my hands on. Initially, we had no budget for such luxuries and our first real tape echo was a very intermittent Melos – they use a small Apollon cartridge and (to be kind) sound ‘characterful’ – when they work. I recall working on a dub mix for my friend Tim ‘Love’ Lee’s Peace Feast label and using the digital delay in our Studio Quad when the Melos died (or just sounded too ‘characterful’) – running the wet signal hot into a cassette recorder to get the sound I was after. Later we acquired our first Space Echo, which sounded terrible – probably hadn’t been serviced from new – it was swiftly replaced by a very clean RE-501 that gave many years’ service and was later joined by my second RE-501. I ran both up until very recently, having fallen for the sound of the amazing RE-201s serviced by Doctor Huw here at Soundgas.

Not all Space Echoes are equal.

A brief search online reveals that there are usually cheaper options if you want to buy a Roland tape echo than buying from Soundgas. Why are ours more expensive? Aside from the usual reasons – we are a real business, employing staff, paying rent/taxes etc, not just some guy in a shed (though that’s how I started out – so no offence to anyone quietly fuming in their shed). We put a lot into our echoes – heart and soul – plus a wealth of experience and knowledge gained over decades of working with these machines. When we say ‘serviced’, we mean thoroughly-overhauled, not just a squirt of switch cleaner and a new tape.

The Doctor will see you now

A post shared by Soundgas Limited (@soundgasltd) on

Are you experienced?

So we sell a lot of Space Echoes, so what? An immediate advantage to you when buying from a business selling as many as us is we are constantly refining our machines. We guarantee everything we sell (more on this later) so it costs us a great deal if something goes wrong with one of our echoes after worldwide shipping – but we’ve learned what to look for and our return rate is now almost zero percent. Over the years, we’ve seen just about every possible issue arise and have improved our service schedule to iron out preventable faults before they leave our hands. Huw’s experience keeping echoes performing at their best on the road and our extensive knowledge of the pitfalls of sourcing and sending gear all over the world – combined with our shared studio experience – means our machines not only work well on arrival with our customers, but they also sound great, and should continue working without issue for many years to come.

 

[insert gratuitous echo mountain shot here]

Our guarantee

Our machines are not only generally in excellent cosmetic and physical shape (if we say ‘mint’, we mean factory fresh), but they come backed by our six month guarantee against mechanical failure (for non-smoking home/private studio use). Any problems* within that six month period, we’ll take care of it.

[Our guarantee]

We are human, and vintage gear is full of surprises: things can and do go wrong no matter how much care we lavish on these machines. It’s how we deal with problems that I hope sets us apart – we aim to have your machine repaired and back to you with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience to you. This means you can get on with making music, rather than figuring out how to fix your tape echo.

Tape: The Never-ending Quest…

Link to tape post…………

RTFM

A couple of years ago, a customer asked us if we had any replacement instructions in English for his Japanese machine – as a result we created our Soundgas replacement instructions. We also now have repro RE-201 tape replacement instruction stickers (courtesy of EchoFix) for those of you who don’t speak Japanese).

[link]

*conditions apply

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

Grampian Type 636 – Believe the hype…

We recently had the Grampian 636 you see below come up for sale by sealed bids. This blog post is about that unit, as well as some history and technical information about these superb, legendary machines.

If you are looking to buy a Grampian or have one to sell in any condition please get in touch.

We also compiled all the demos of this Grampian into this Youtube playlist.

UPDATE: Much of the information in this blog has now been updated and expanded in our new Grampian Type 636 section. Head there for all the history, links to resources, and (soon) information about the first production of our Soundgas Type 636 clone…

I first encountered one of these unprepossessing grey boxes while trawling ebay many years ago. As ever, I was looking for inexpensive old effects that would sound different to the run of the mill stuff everyone else was using. At the time, plug-ins were taking advantage of greatly-increased computer processing power, and the rise of impulse response-based plug-in reverbs saw people starting to ditch their ‘obsolete’ hardware units. Always a good time to pick up quality gear if it’s deemed to be going out of fashion. The engineer who was mixing my album was getting good results using a variety of reverb impulses; one of his favourites was of an old spring reverb. It didn’t sound much like a spring to me. I’m sure he’d have been horrified had I suggested we use a real one – they were very much out of favour at the time – deemed too crude and noisy to have any place in a self-respecting ‘modern’ production.

This set me thinking about springs – my love of reggae dates back to the time when punk and dub formed an unlikely alliance and I’ve always had a fascination for the sound of early dub pioneers such as the great Lee Scratch Perry. My Roland RE-201 Space Echo had fallen our of favour since I’d acquired a pair of very clean RE-501s (tape echoes were also quite unfashionable by then – too noisy/unreliable – and could be picked up relatively cheaply). The 501 is very clean-sounding and is great for synths, or for late 70s or early 80s guitar tones (think Wall-era Floyd or the Police) – but wasn’t going to deliver the grit and character I’d got in mind.

I spotted a Grampian Type 636 on ebay – it looked ancient and I had no idea what it was or what it did, which immediately sparked my interest. A quick search via Ask Jeeves or Yahoo! (this predated Google’s ubiquity) suggested that the great Pete Townshend had used one back in the mid/late sixties for his guitar distortion. This persuaded me to bid and it was soon mine for the princely sum of £52.

Here’s one of several shots of Grampians in Pete’s set up that I subsequently found:

When it arrived, it was in ‘vintage’ condition and my first challenge was to locate a store that could supply me with the massive and almost obsolete lantern-type battery to power it up. This accomplished, I marvelled at the massive amount of noise and minimal amount of signal produced. It was some time before I could find someone who’d attempt to repair this strange antiquated box which had no schematic, and which appeared to have been somewhat haphazardly hand-built. The germanium transistors were noisy; finding the right NOS components that had fared better over time than those in my Grampian again took time.

Eventually it was returned to me by a tech muttering curses and advising I never again darken his door with another one of those monstrosities. He also was less than complimentary about its noise floor, performance and build quality and suggested I’d wasted my money and his time as it was about as useful as the proverbial cocoa-derived fireguard.

Back in the studio I again marvelled at the unwanted noise and began to think he’d been right. Until I ran a synth through it. And then a guitar. Boom. Yes, it was hellishly noisy (it’s less-so now as I later found a tech better-equipped to get the best out of it), but that glorious, richly-harmonic distortion was like warm fuzzy sonic crack; I was hooked. Thus began a quest for things germanium that continues to this day.

Not only does it do humungous distortion/overdrive (use the different inputs for various degrees of filth), the amazing timbre of the spring tank just nails that vintage spring tone that you’ve heard on countless classic dub sides. It’s probably the most effortlessly-authentic dub spring reverb you’ll ever hear. The reverb combined with distortion, and the limiting circuit that uses the overload lamp to draw current, can yield rich new sounds and tones, transforming wimpy weakling signals into gargantuan sand-kicking-in-your-face behemoths.

I later found a second, mains-powered 636, that sounded very different, but still very good. It’s entirely-likely that no two units will sound the same today (and possible that they never did) – at least that was my excuse for keeping one of each. That and the fact that they weren’t too costly.

Sadly, the days of finding these previously well-kept secrets at pawn shop prices seem long gone. It’s been over three years since we last sold one – to Al Breadwinner of the Bakery Studio, who promptly posted his Grampian Dub live dub mix on YouTube –

– which is perhaps as convincing a reason for their subsequent rise in popularity and scarcity as the fact that Lee Perry used one in his Black Ark Studio in Kingston, Jamaica.

I asked Pete Townshend about his original Grampian 636 last year and he told me he still has two – both modified for him with balanced ins/outs by Pepe Rush in 1967 (and no, he wasn’t selling either).

Buying this Grampian:

A Grampian 636 is the most requested item on the Soundgas Gear Wanted List – we have a long list of people eager to get their hands on one. So when a long-standing customer asked us if we wanted to sell his for him, we jumped at the chance and felt the fairest method outside ebay was to sell by sealed bids on this serviced and fully-working Grampian 636 – that process has how happened and the unit is sold, however if you are interested in hearing when we get another then get in touch with any questions via the contact page. Demos of the unit, one of which is below, were posted to our Instagram feed.

Tech Spec:

The mic input has both balanced and unbalanced input options, and there are two auxiliary channel inputs – the 10mV/50k ohm input is great for guitar and also for maximum distortion levels – the second input is 500mV/1M ohm. Output is rated at 1V 600 ohms. There are controls for on/off via a toggle switch, Reverberate which controls the spring reverb level, and input gain controls for the Mic and Aux Channels linked to the Overload lamp circuit. This unit is 240v mains powered, some run on 9v ‘lantern’ type batteries.

The Soundgas Snare Springathon on YouTube compared 14 different spring reverbs and featured both of our battery and mains units – and you can also read the full Spring Reverb blog here.

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