Soundgas Type 636 Update

(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.

Down To Earth: Korg Stage Echo SE-300 & SE-500

Soundgas head honcho, Tony Miln, digs into some of the history and features of superb Korg’s tape echoes, and also some useful information if you are asking yourself “Should I get a Korg Stage Echo or a Roland Space Echo?”.

Comments are on! Let us know which echo you use and how/why. Interesting tales and useful tips may be used (with credit) in future articles.

Korg Stage Echo SE-300 SE-500 Roland RE-301 RE-201 Space Echo

Roland’s black, green and silver (and later black and orange) Space/Chorus Echo units are familiar to nearly everyone who’s been involved in music-making over the past four decades – they are iconic and ubiquitous. Korg’s echoes are more down to earth – in livery as well as name. Swapping Space for Stage and jazzy colours for the muted – almost gothic – dark grey/black contemporary to their synths, Korg Stage Echoes are much less common than their cosmic cousins and, as a result, there are many yet to encounter them.

Korg started out as beatbox pioneers Keio, later developing their first MiniKorg synth at the same time as Roland were working on the SH-1000 (the latter securing its place in history as Japan’s first synth in 1973 – Roland had the drop on Korg’s 700 only by a matter of weeks). The MiniKorg’s success spawned a long line of unusual and groundbreaking synths under the Korg banner, many of which are rightly regarded as classics, while some remain comparatively well-kept secrets.

Given Korg’s deserved reputation for innovation, it may come as a surprise to many that the Korg Stage Echo SE-500 was only launched in 1977 – a full four years after Roland’s first Space Echo, the RE-100. Korg was certainly playing catch up when they entered the echo market; the mighty RE-201 had been in production for three years and was proving a very successful and profitable product for Roland.

One advantage of following in Ikutaro Kakehashi’s footsteps was that Korg were able to marry many successful elements of the Space Echo with features that would please both their synthesizer customers as well as guitarists and studio users.

Korg Stage Echo SE-500

For the synth and studio heads, there was CV control of the delay time – this allows users of Korg’s flexible semi-modular MS series synths (and others with CV out) to get creative with their repeats with suitably freaky results. Guitarists and keyboard players could have fun layering their instrument using the Sound On Sound feature (Brian May anyone?). Mike Battle’s Echoplex EP-2 was the first tape echo to feature Sound On Sound back in 1970; coincidentally, Roland only added SOS to their tape echo range in the same year as the SE-500’s debut with the RE-301 Chorus Echo.

In addition, the SE-500 had a long delay feature with repeats up to a whopping 1500ms – impressive for a tape echo at the time (remaining so to this day). The long delay and three other playback heads could be switched in and out independently or in combination for a range of patterns. The Stage Echo’s compander-based noise reduction system made for a cleaner-sounding tape echo – certainly more HiFi than those that had gone before. The addition of balanced inputs/outputs on XLR sockets reinforced the SE-500’s position as a serious studio machine for the professional user.

Korg Stage Echo SE-300

The SE-300 launched a year later, in 1978, offering spring reverb and very flexible mixing and routing options between dry/delayed signal and the reverb tank. This was also the year that saw Roland launch their first BBD chip-based analogue echoes (the DC-30 and DC-50), whose maintenance-free reliability and portability were the beginning of the end for tape echoes. Given the fateful timing of their release, it’s hardly surprising that Korg’s Stage Echoes are harder to track down than their celestial Roland cousins, having been produced in much smaller quantities.

However, scarcity is far from the only reason to seek out one of Korg’s Stage Echoes; their alternative approach to Roland’s staple fare offers the discerning echo enthusiast additional menu options to whet the appetite.

They are highly-regarded by those looking for a cleaner, more hifi echo sound than the earlier Space Echoes (while remaining distinct from Roland’s own cleaner-sounding RE-501/SRE-555). Personally, I love the flexible mixing options between on the SE-300: three uncomplicated balance knobs make this machine unique. The controls are:

They offer immediate and complete control over the balance of the dry/echo/reverb signals enabling you to position the signal in the soundfield; as gratifying in use as it is simple in concept. If you want to push the repeats further into the distance, add some reverb to the echo signal only; or add reverb to dry/wet signals and adjust the balance to taste. Clumsy to describe in writing, simplicity itself in practice!

So why would I choose a Stage Echo over a Space Echo, and what are the main differences between the Korg and Roland machines? Below I list a few questions that point towards which machine might be most suitable for you.

Korg Stage Echo SE-500 Roland RE-301

Do you want a classic delay/reverb that’s been heard on countless recordings from the early seventies onwards?

If yes, you most likely want a Roland RE-201 Space Echo (or if your budget is tighter and you can live without the spring reverb, the RE-101). The RE-150 has no spring reverb and only two replay heads (as opposed to the 201/101’s three), but they have a great sound and are a good option to get the Roland Space Echo sound on a tighter budget.

If you want a classic delay/reverb, but also yearn for Roland Chorus and the sound on sound (but are not looking for classic dub delay patterns), then the Roland RE-301 could be for you. The head spacings are different on the 301 (compared to to the 201), so while dub aficionados may find it less-gratifying, guitarists and keyboard players love the less-common 301. I bought my 301 from Dave Formula of Magazine: it was used on several of their albums (and on the Visage albums) – you can see it behind Dave on the cover of Magazine’s live album, ‘Play’.

Are you looking for a cleaner, more high fidelity sound to your repeats? If you are, then the choice is between the Korg Stage Echoes or a Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo (or SRE-555 which is simply a 501 in rack format). The later Rolands incorporated a noise reduction system (as well as chorus, sound on sound and of course spring reverb) which made them sound a good deal cleaner. I’ve always thought of them as being the Roland Echo to buy if you like the sound of the late seventies or early eighties (a strat through an RE-501 gets you pretty close to the sound of Andy Summers of The Police or David Gilmour on Pink Floyd’s The Wall). I used two very clean 501s in my studio for many years as my main go-to guitar/synth echoes, partially because they worked faultlessly, but also because they seemed to just sound ‘right’ whenever we used them. I’ve latterly grown more fond of RE-201s (and eventually sold my last 501 when I bought Dave’s 301); this is down to just how good they sound when they’re less-worn and well-serviced. The Roland RE-501/SRE-555 and the Korg SE-500 also feature balanced inputs/outputs for studio use.

If you are after a cleaner sound (and chorus/spring reverb aren’t essential), and you also want longer delay times, and the ability to control the delay time via control voltage (CV) from your synth, modular system, or a control pedal, then the Korg SE-500 is your machine. Or for a cleaner sound with spring reverb (but no sound on sound), then you want to try the SE-300 (which is my personal favourite of the two due to the flexible mixing options discussed earlier).

While researching information for writing this piece, I was struck by just how little information there is about Korg’s two fine echo machines. Like some of their contemporary synths, they seem to be for the cognoscenti only. I hope this article helps set the record straight to some extent, and we would welcome any additional information or comment from Stage Echo users.

See our current stock of Korg Stage Echoes now – if we don’t have what you need on that page please get in touch as we try to have machines coming through as often as possible.

Comments are on! Let us know which echo you use and how/why. Interesting tales and useful tips may be used (with credit) in future articles.

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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.