Grampian Type 636 - Believe the hype... by Tony Miln

Jun 30 2016 0 Comments Tags: Distortion, dub, Grampian 636, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Pete Townshend, Roland Chorus Echo, Spring Reverb, The Who

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.

UPDATE: we compiled all the demos of this Grampian into this Youtube playlist.

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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