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Video Mike Storey and His Plate Reverb (Video) 163

"Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is produced," says Wikipedia. More often than not, in studio recordings reverb is added digitally; virtually every FOSS or proprietary sound-editing program has a built-in reverb utility. But what if you're the sort of purist who prefers the analog sound of vinyl records to the digital sound of MP3s or CDs? What if you're the kind of musician who records at the original Sun Studio in Memphis to get that original rock and roll sound? That may be overly picky for most musicians, but there are some who would rather sound like Johnny Cash than Flavor Flav, and they're the ones who are going to insist on real analog reverb instead of twiddling a setting in Audacity. There are many types of analog reverbs, of course. One of the purest types, preferred by many audio purists, is the adjustable plate reverb, and Jim Cunnigham's Ecoplate is considered by many to be the best plate reverb ever -- which brings us to Mike Storey, who wanted an Ecoplate-type plate reverb so badly that he spent eight months building one. He'll run your audio files through it for a (highly negotiable) fee, and maybe give you a bit of advice if you want to build your own, although his biggest piece of advice for you (at the end of the video) to think long and hard before you become a home-brew reverberator, with or without advice and components from Jim Cunningham.

NOTE: This transcript was made before the final video edit, so it has some "bonus" material in it. Enjoy!

Mike Storey: You’re looking at a plate reverb.

Timothy Lord: Okay.

Mike Storey: Hand built.

Timothy Lord: Talk about what is a plate reverb?

Mike Storey: Plate reverb is an artificial reverb device to create special effects for recorded sound.

Timothy Lord: And why is it called a plate reverb?

Mike Storey: It’s called plate reverb because it’s a large plate of cold rolled steel or stainless steel that produces the reverb, so it’s a plate of metal that produces the reverb.

Timothy Lord: And how does the sound actually reach the plate and how does it come out from unaffected to being an affected sound?

Mike Storey: Well, it’s a pretty simple signal path that happens. From your mixing source you send the sound that you want to have reverb on it, let’s say for this vocal, so you send your vocal to the plate reverb out of your mixing system, whether that’s a digital audio, work station or whatever it is, so that’s a line level signal or a mic level signal.

It goes to a tube amp that I have here – it’s hand built – and then it goes to the plate reverb which effectively acts as, sort of a similar principle to a speaker, where you have a transducer that excites a thin film, which creates noise. In simplistic terms that’s how a speaker works. And a plate reverb sort of works the same way except for instead of being a paper cone, it’s a stretched piece of metal.

So, when you have a speaker, the transducer excites the paper and it creates noise that you hear in the room. But with the plate reverb what happens is because of the properties of metal being slightly different when you excite the metal, the sound waves travel through the metal and then on a plate reverb you have pickups on the far side of the metal that hear those sound waves travel through and somewhere along the line, some intelligent person figured out that when sound travels through metal it makes it sound as though the sound has been in a church, big beautiful reverberated sound.

So, those two pickups on the far end of the metal pickup that beautiful echo, that beautiful reverb and then those pickups return back to your mixing desk where you, in different degrees, mix it into the original source sound, you can blend them, you can EQ them, you can time delay them and all that, to create the effect of a spatial effects reverb, echo and so forth.

Timothy Lord: How long have these been around?

Mike Storey: I think since late ‘50s. It’s one that a German EMT company patented it.

Timothy Lord: Can you talk a little bit about the tech that’s actually inside, are the constructions too modernity here, are there throwbacks?

Mike Storey: It’s all really straightforward. You can take a look at it if you want. So, here’s the Pro Tools rig. So, I’m sending say vocals or a snare drum or whatever I want to send a guitar solo through the back of my MBox. It goes to a tube amp and then from there it goes out of the tube amp to the transducer, which is that piece in the middle. It’s my [metacoil] system and that excites the plate which makes it vibrate and then those pickups on the near end which you probably have to get insert shots off in the far end.

And this is a dampener because basically these are just ceiling tiles put on a frame, fiber glass ceiling tiles and they can actually be adjusted outward and inward. And the idea behind it is that, if left on its own, the plate reverb creates a reverb time of something like 9 seconds, which is astronomically long in the world of music, because most songs might have a rhythm like this. If you had a 9 second reverb trail on a snaredrum, it’d just become a big fuzzy mess. So you want short reverb drills, half a second, one second, two seconds at long. And so you use the dampener to essentially dampen, mellow out the plate, so it doesn’t vibrate as long and it shortens the reverb time. So if you want to time your snare drums reverb to say a second, you bring the dampener in closer. So it goes [illustration], like that, as opposed to [illustration]. I don’t know if you will be able to use that.

And that’s it in a nutshell. There is no fancy technology really. But for me the most complicated part of building the thing was that nobody builds them anymore. There’s one guy in Chicago who designed the – when the German patent ran out, I think in the ‘70s or the early ‘80s, an American company called Ecoplate designed one and the man who invented that is Jim Cunningham and he sells the components online for it. And he didn’t actually even have a website at that point when I was building this and I found him after searching meticulously through the web for any information on plate reverbs and we spoke on the phone. He was really helpful and very kind and he had great war stories talking about Michael Jackson, referring to him as Mike Jackson and Quincy Jones by their first names, talking about how they made the Thriller record with his machine and which I thought was really endearing and pretty cool too. And so he gave me tech help and I had to source out the right kind of fiber glass tiles – I had the wrong tiles for the dampener – and I had to go to McMaster-Carr to find like the right spring bolts and it was mostly a problem of sourcing. The technology itself is really simple. It’s very simple wiring.

Timothy Lord: You talked about the frame. It looks almost like a bed frame to me. Can you talk about how that came to be?

Mike Storey: The frame is actually custom made and I just lucked out in that regard in that a good friend of mine is a blacksmith and he’s done bars and art projects and he’s done industrial design. He’s done all these different things and when I came to him and explained to him what I wanted to do, he was so excited by the idea that he just built it for me for free because he thought it was a pretty cool thing, which was really kind of like a major coup for me because the building of the frame is probably the biggest hurdle to get over because most people don’t have access to that type of metal working. So, once the frame was built, then it became a meticulous thing of sourcing out strange hardware that only can be bought at places like McMaster-Carr, and so ordering that, waiting for that to come in and sort of getting the sheet metal for the plate was easy to do. And, yes, it took probably about eight months time from start to finish with starts and stops, lots of hiccups along the way and

Timothy Lord: How about money? How much did it cost you money as well as time?

Mike Storey: Well, the frame, I don’t know how much the frame would have cost me if I had paid someone to do it because I got it for free. The sheet metal I think was probably $20. I really don’t even remember, it was so long ago. The component parts from JCC & Associates was the most expensive part and I think there’s like a tuner and there’s various, the transducers and the pickups and all that stuff. I think, maybe, that all came to about like $300 maybe, so that was expensive and I had the amp built custom, which I probably could have actually gotten away with because, honestly, I think, that maybe that’s a little excessive to have a custom built tube amp, but I had that built for about $300. So, maybe all in, we’re talking like $700 for a thing that would cost you $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, use it on the web and then you’d have to have it shipped. So, that’s another couple of hundred bucks and then it might not work. So, I learned how to build it and I can fix it and I can use it and I can rent it out.

Timothy Lord: Right now we’re in a smallish apartment?

Mike Storey: Yeah.

Timothy Lord: And you have this sort of wedge into a boiler room, a water heater room here. So, I don’t have a good perspective, how long is that?

Mike Storey: The frame itself is probably about 6.5 and it’s about 3 feet high.

Timothy Lord: And was it a bear to move, how heavy is that frame?

Mike Storey: It’s not too bad, it’s just that once everything is set up on it with all the components and everything, you have to move it very gingerly. So like once I moved it in here, I haven’t moved it again. And ideally it would be stored in a completely soundproof room, but I live in a Brooklyn apartment and I don’t have those types of luxuries. So, I just have to use it when I know that things are quiet.

Timothy Lord: Nowadays so many effects for music. It can be done digitally either through onboard equipment, on an instrument or tools like Pro Tools. What’s the difference here?

Mike Storey: Well, I’ll be frank. I think most people might not hear the difference or might not even want the difference. I think that the ENT plug-ins that they make digitally are probably extremely good. For me it was a learning experience to really understand how like a boutique mechanical reverb worked. I’m also very much interested in reverb chambers and I’ve experimented with that and various types of tape echoes and repeat echoes. So, for me it was a labor of love of boutique reverb. But, I think that if you live in that world where those types of things are important to you, then you start realizing that there are sort of subliminal, subconscious artifacts from mechanical artistry that don’t register with digital artistry.

So, for example, when you watch a motion picture in the theater, it’s 24 frames of film passing through light per second. It’s a plastic media. There’s little bits of dust. There’s little inconsistencies. There’s little mistakes that you’re subconsciously registering in your brain and it translates in your mind as being a plastic media and you experience it differently than an LED system, which is projected or projected light toward you or a video screen which is projected on to the wall. All these are different experiences, one is not necessarily better than the other, but you experience film differently than you experience HDTV.

And I feel the same way about sound. You can get beautiful reverbs digitally, you can capture beautiful reverb, analog reverbs like in stairwells digitally, or you can do any number of combinations; you can create something on tape, dump into Pro Tools and then run it through a plate reverb and then back into Pro Tools. And, you are still capturing aspects of the mechanical plastic media. The fact is that there is space cancellation, there is cloudiness, there is dirt and dust on this thing that you can hear that are subtle little things that remind your subconscious, your reptilian brain hears these little details and registers it as maybe more authentic, or it was just different the way that a Motown record just sounds different than a Sharon Jones record. Sharon Jones is doing something new that’s supposed to be replicating that old style, but it’s not the same thing. Two different sets of scenarios. I’m kind of babbling here.

Timothy Lord: And so you are not anti-digital though?

Mike Storey: No, no absolutely not. I’m not anti-anything, I’m curious about everything.

Timothy Lord: Well, I’d like to let our viewers see what this sounds like. You got some samples on your website?

Mike Storey: I do.

Timothy Lord: Can you show us how to get there?

Mike Storey: Sure. Don’t post my password.

Timothy Lord: I’ll look away, look.

Mike Storey: Can you shoot the computer screen or do you get the funny lines?

Timothy Lord: I will probably zoom in on it a little bit. But yeah, it actually shoots pretty well.

Mike Storey: It’s very simply I built the website myself. It’s nothing too fancy. I’m not a graphic designer. But it’s got vocal harmony samples, rock drums, jazz drums, rock guitar, jazz vocals. It’s kind of got a range of what this plate reverb is capable of doing. I’m more interested in helping people be creative and helping people discover this boutique reverb sound. So I work on a sliding scale or on a project basis and obviously, I’m working out of my house, so this is not a high-end studio. So, I’m more interested in meeting people who are doing cool projects and helping them along.

Timothy Lord: But if somebody wants to run a track through your plate reverb, they can do it from anywhere in the world.

Mike Storey: Absolutely. I’m totally accessible from around the world. So, if you live in some town in Japan or in South Africa or a small town in Iowa and there’s no plate reverb that you have access to and you got a cool project, you should look me up, because you can Dropbox files to me, snare drum, vocals, whatever, the entire song. And I can run it through my plate reverb and Dropbox the files back to you and we can do them in really high quality.

Timothy Lord: Did you build it with that in mind?

Mike Storey: No, I just built it because I wanted to put it on my own songs that I mix, and then friends kept coming up to me and saying, hey, can we put our drums through your plate reverb, can we put our vocals through your plate reverb and I’d say, hmm. Maybe I need to reach out and see whether this can become something to get other people involved with and make me make a little bit of money along the way.

Timothy Lord: But you’ve been using it on your projects too?

Mike Storey: I use it on my own projects, my friends ask me to use it on their projects, I’ve been paid to put stuff down, some prestigious bands have actually had their stuff put on here, like international touring bands, that want an analog boutique sound.

Timothy Lord: Pipe right through Brooklyn.

Mike Storey: Yeah.

Timothy Lord: That’s kind of neat.

Mike Storey: Yeah.

Timothy Lord: You are place independent. So, one more thing really is that the tech is all out there, what would be your advice to somebody who decides that they want to have their own plate reverb in their house?

Mike Storey: My recommendation for building your own plate reverb, I would say first off get the blueprints from Jim Cunningham, plan on buying all of your components from him. He’s very helpful; at least, when I built mine six years ago, he was very helpful with giving me tech support. Make sure you source out all of your parts and all of your bits and pieces first, because you’re going to want to make sure that you have everything you need to build something as obscure as this. And make sure you have space to store it and preferably a quiet place to store it. And do a little research online to maybe try out some other plate reverbs first to make sure that it’s what you want because it’s a labor of love. If I had to go back, I would definitely build it again, but other people might not have felt the same way because it did take eight months, it took a while and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Timothy Lord: Did you learn new skills along the way like, did you already have a background in soldering and construction?

Mike Storey: I already knew a little bit about soldering. I built some kit amps and stuff. So, like I said, it’s not a real technical electronic device. It was more about sourcing things, and about patience and about just sort of having the fortitude to sort of stick through trying to figure out how to build something that there was no easy roadmap.

Timothy Lord: Do you know of any others that are online the way this one is?

Mike Storey: There have been a couple of companies. There was a company that was building them for a while and I think they went out of business. There probably just wasn’t enough of a demand. It really is the kind of thing like if you really badly want one, you are just going to build it yourself. I don’t think there is a high enough of a demand that you could run a business selling the things and just churning them out, plus the shipping costs are so high, I would think. and it needs to get

Timothy Lord: But I mean is it accessible like this? Do you know of any others where it’s accessible?

Mike Storey: Oh, like mine, my business? I don’t know of anybody who is offering a service where you can Dropbox somebody files, they’ll run them through the plate reverb and Dropbox it back. It’s possible, but I haven’t seen it.

Timothy Lord: Anything I should have asked you about?

Mike Storey: How does it sound?

Timothy Lord: How does it sound?

Mike Storey: It sounds beautiful. It’s funny. It’s kind of a persnickety thing. It likes some songs and it doesn’t like others and I’ve learned to listen to it. Sometimes, I’ll think, “oh this vocal is going to sound great going through a plate reverb or this snare drum,” and it won’t and then other times, the plate reverb makes the song. And it’s kind of just a beautiful piece of kit.

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Mike Storey and His Plate Reverb (Video)

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