In 2018 our intrepid explorer Gid ventured to Bradford to delve beneath the Science & Media Museum as part of a workshop on ‘Objects of Electronic Sound and Music’. At the museum they have begun, as of two years ago, a collection of music tech covering everything from recording to live performance and, although it’s still early days, they already have some very interesting pieces. When we heard what they were doing and were invited to see inside the stores, and to be part of working out what to do with it all, we definitely wanted to help.
Thanks to museum curator Annie Jamieson and Dr. James Mooney of Leeds Uni for inviting us and hosting the day (and to Tom Smith from Leeds’ MAP Charity for the original hook up). Learning about the challenges, limitations and possibilities of music tech in museums shed a different light on what we do at Soundgas, but also definitely reinforced for us that our focus on training new techs, sharing skills, documenting what we do, and passing on what we are learning, is the right way for us to go. And we also found common ground between us and the museum and ways we can help them in their goals. We’ll have more news about how we are getting involved as it happens, but for now here below are a few of the highlights.
Resident for a period of time at Abbey Road, and apparently fully functional apart from the light pen (although we weren’t allowed to turn it on…), and complete with all the leads, discs, cartridges, and the huge, barely-touched manual. In fact, it is this that perhaps best illustrates one of the challenges with such an instrument in a museum – these were used not by studying the manual, but by skilled musicians who dove in, spent many hours experimenting, and using them in recording situations. It is that knowledge and experience which the museum somehow need to capture and preserve if they are to truly show what something like this could do, as well as keeping the actual machine working!
The start of the Fairlight manual is also particularly good…
From the BBC. Rare sound effects version of a Mellotron – has a different control layout to either a Mellotron I or II. This was working… but the last time they switched it on they got blue smoke. So it needs to be fixed, right? Well, only if it is going to be used, otherwise it’s not necessarily the best use of limited museum resources that could be spent on other equipment. Given that it is already possible to hear what one of these could do, perhaps it would be better to let visitors hear the sounds and see the machine and the tech, but spend money fixing or buying something else? More dilemmas…
This is the control surface for the second ever Neve DSP-1 desk to be made (the first fully-digital sound desk to be produced). Ordered by the BBC in 1985, this was The Future, however apparently the Radio 1 engineers didn’t much fancy getting to grips with The Future, so it was mostly used by Radio 3 for opera (heavy Glyndebourne action) – plus also Genesis at Wembley. Only the console is there beneath the museum – all the processing for the desk is on five pallets(!) in a warehouse.
We did warn you. Didn’t make a note of what film this was used for. Was too busy going wtf?
And finally, and possibly the coolest thing for readers of a certain age was this unassuming wooden box tucked on a shelf.
It’s the “Audience Reaction Monitor” aka The Clapometer – the actual one! – from Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks (for younger readers that was the original X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent which was on telly while Simon Cowell was still in short (but no doubt still terrible) trousers).
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.
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.
Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.