Vintage Digital

I Feel Used – Roger Nichols

Classic Recording Studio Equipment

This is a transcription from an article that first appeared in EQ Magazine in September 1997 titled 'I feel used' by Roger Nichols. It is reproduced here to clarify Roger Nichols statements with regard to the Sony MU-R201 Digital Reverb and it's use on Steely Dan recordings.

Are you trying to stretch your dollar ten times its normal size to buy all of the cool gear that you want for your studio? Check out the used gear at your local music retailer. Quite often you can find some great stuff for ten cents on the dollar.

This Month, Reverbs

The one single area that can make your mixes sound like a million bucks is the reverb department. If you have just one reverb unit and send everything into it for ambiance enhancement, then the mix starts to sound like you just sent the final mix through a Fisher Space Expander (a spring reverb from the ‘60s often found in the trunk of ‘57 Chevys hooked up to the car radio. It made a great sound when you drove over railroad tracks.) The spring reverb may sound great on one particular instrument, but not on everything all the time.

Each reverb unit has a “character” to its sound. It is like when you double vocals, or double horn parts, or double guitar parts. If you use more than one singer, the vocals sound bigger and fatter (no reference to the size of the singer.) Two different sax players playing in unison sound better that one guy doubling his part. Using a different guitar for the double makes the sound “much bigger” than performing the double with the same instrument.

The same thing happens with reverbs. If you have two or three inexpensive reverbs, you can create a final mix that will sound as good as if you just had one very expensive reverb. The best possible combination would be one high quality reverb supplemented by a couple of inexpensive units.

For project studios, the high quality reverbs aren’t actually that expensive. The new Lexicon MPX-1 costs a small fraction of its bigger brother the 480-XL, but contains some of the same reverbs. The Sony V-77, Lexicon 300, Yamaha Pro-R3, and others are excellent high end machines.

Previously Owned Treasures

One of my favorite reverbs is the Sony MU-R201. I use it on every project, including the Steely Dan mixes. This was a unit made by Sony for Ibanez. Toward the end of its marketing life, Sony sold it with Sony labels and some software updates. Ten years ago it was priced at over $1,000, and worth every penny. I have seen them in pawn shops in Hollywood for under $200. The coolest feature of the MU-R201 is that it is a true stereo reverb.

Let me digress a moment and explain stereo-ness as it pertains to reverbs. The first reverb chambers were actually rooms with non-parallel walls coated with very hard shellac that sounded much like your shower (hopefully without the water running.) For reverb you placed a speaker in the room and sent some of the vocal signal into it. A well placed microphone picked up the reverb and was routed back to a mic input on the console where it was added to the mix. Stereo sounding reverb was accomplished by adding a second microphone, and even a second speaker, but into the same room where all of the sound was mushed (highly technical term) together.

Simulated Rooms

It took a lot of room (pun intended) for these echo chambers. Good sounding ones were worth their weight in gold. Capitol Records had the best chambers in Hollywood and rented them out to other studios via class-A phone lines.

EMT reverb plates were the next step in reverb technology. It turned out that if you stretch a four by eight foot steel plate real tight and connect a speaker coil to it, the sound field and reflections off the edge of the steel plate act much the same as they do in a live room. The first plates were mono, but later a second microphone pickup was added for stereo returns.

As technology progressed, there were smaller plates made of Gold foil and the first electronic reverb, the three foot tall EMT-150, that looked like a close cousin of R2-D2. Once electronic reverbs hit the scene they multiplied like mushroom spores. (Did you hear the one about the girl who only dated mushrooms because she wanted a FUN-GUY to go home with?)

Weren’t We Talking About Stereo?

Yes we were. If you have an musician standing in the center of a room, the sound takes the same amount of time to get to the left wall and the right wall. If you move him closer to the left wall, those times will be shorter, but the reverb time to the right wall will be longer.

Most electronic reverbs sum the left and right inputs and use a single reverb algorithm with output taps in slightly different places to get a somewhat 3D effect. If you listen to just the reverb return and pan the send from one side to the other, you will not be able to tell whether the musician is on the right or left side of the room. If you use two separate reverbs for the left and right, you can do some localization, but the reverb times on the right will not increase as you move the source to the left, as they would in real life.

The Sony MU-R201 is a true stereo reverb and as you pan the source to the left, the reverb times and reflection times get shorter on the left and longer on the right. You can solo just the reverb returns and tell exactly where you panned the source.

One true stereo reverb can replace two or three normal reverbs in a mixing environment. Recently, there have been other reverbs on the market that perform the same type of stereo management, but finding one of these gems would be like buying a fake Rolex on the street, only to find out it was real when you got home.

Just remember. When it comes to being a Gear Slut, cool used gear counts too.

Roger Nichols

Roger Nichols

Roger Nichols is best known for his work with the group Steely Dan and John Denver. He was also the audio engineer for numerous major music acts including the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa, Crosby Stills & Nash, Al Di Meola, Rosanne Cash, Roy Orbison, Cass Elliot, Plácido Domingo, Gloria Estefan, Diana Ross, Rickie Lee Jones, Kenny Loggins, Mark Knopfler, Eddie Murphy, Michael McDonald, and James Taylor  among others.

On February 11, 2012, Nichols was awarded a Special Merit/Technical Grammy Award, his eighth Grammy overall. In May 2010 Nichols was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died from the disease at his home on April 9, 2011. In his subsequent New York Times obituary, Nichols was referred to in the headline as an “Artist Among Sound Engineers.