If you're hearing reverb on a Beatles track – or on just about any song recorded at Abbey Road Studios during the ‘60s – chances are you're hearing the Abbey Road Studio Two echo chamber (now modeled as the Abbey Road Chambers plugin).
For several decades, until the early 1970s, Abbey Road’s three echo chambers were responsible for nearly all reverb effects created at the famed studios. The Studio Two chamber in particular was used on every album by the Beatles and on most recordings by early Pink Floyd – typically as part of a more elaborate setup that included Abbey Road’s S.T.E.E.D. effect (also reconstructed in the Abbey Road Chambers plugin), in which a feedback loop was created from the studios’ REDD console, through a dedicated BTR tape delay machine, via RS106 and RS127 filters, to the chamber and back.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most striking examples of Chamber Two plus S.T.E.E.D. in action:
1. The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”
The stop-and-start instrumental arrangement of this mid-period Beatle classic provides a glorious opportunity to hear the Chamber Two-plus-S.T.E.E.D. reverb/delay effect on totally isolated vocals – listen to the vocal break at 0:47:
The addition of the subtle but noticeable S.T.E.E.D. feedback loop not only elongated the reverb tail beyond the physical constraints of the echo chamber – it created a unique, one-of-a-kind effect that’s at once completely natural-sounding, due to the real physical reverberation of the chamber walls, yet also creative in a way not achievable by the chamber alone.
2. The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”
Perhaps the most famous example of the complete Chamber Two + S.T.E.E.D. setup on record is John Lennon’s lead vocal in “A Day in the Life.” Because of the rather sparse instrumentation at the start of the song, the shimmering effect of the echo chamber combined with tape slap back echo can be heard in relative isolation, and it is especially easy to hear it at end of each of Lennon’s lines.
As often was the case, the RS106 filter (also included in the Waves Abbey Road Chambers plugin) was used prior to sending the signal into the chamber. The RS106 was a passive EQ, meaning it could only cut, not boost: it was used to remove much of the upper and lower frequencies – typically cutting the bass at 600 Hz and the top end at 10 kHz – sending only a mid-band of frequencies into the echo chamber in order to prevent boominess and achieve a smooth, maximally pleasant sound. (In fact, preventing reverb boominess was the main purpose for which the RS106 was specifically designed back in 1954 – although it was also often used to achieve creative production goals, for example to create the telephone vocal sound heard on George Harrison’s vocal in “Piggies” off the White Album).
3. Pink Floyd, “Astronomy Domine”
In the spring of 1967, at the same time the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s at Abbey Road, underground upstarts Pink Floyd entered the studios to record their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with producer (and regular Beatles engineer) Norman Smith and with balance engineer Peter Bown. One of the distinctive sounds of the album is Syd Barrett’s vocal, washed in reverb and delay, combined with extreme limiting (and often with extreme settings of Artificial Double Tracking) to create a striking effect, wildly spaced out yet deeply focused at the same time.
Whereas the Beatles often favored the original purity of the chamber reverb sound, early Floyd combined the natural echo chamber sound with the shiny luster achievable with Abbey Road’s EMT 140 metal reverb plates – often on the same song, sometimes even on the same track. Although precise documentation of Pink Floyd’s early sessions is sparser than that of the Beatles’ work, it is widely believed that the rich, creative, almost exaggerated vocal reverb sound you hear on “Astronomy Domine” is a combination of chamber and plate reverb:
The same conjunction of effects was sometimes used on instrumentation other than vocals, for example in track 4 of the album’s original UK version, “Flaming,” where Smith and Bowen routed the song’s intro to the echo chamber, then added the plates for extra shine.
4. The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”
Vocals were hardly the only type of track to benefit from the Abbey Road chamber effect. Pianos, drums and various keyboard instruments were other key beneficiaries, including Paul McCartney’s piano on “Birthday” and the piano solo on Sgt. Pepper’s “Lovely Rita” (both featuring the full S.T.E.E.D. effect).
But a particularly lovely use of the chamber-plus-S.T.E.E.D. sound is the flute-like Moog part on George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” where the tape op, a young Alan Parsons, stuck strips of editing tape around the rollers of the BTR tape machine (which was part of the S.T.E.E.D. setup) in order to add tape wow on top of the already generous S.T.E.E.D. effect. With the chamber reverb already applied, this caused the Moog to fluctuate in pitch for creative effect (much like the piano solo in “Lovely Rita,” where a similar technique was used by engineer Geoff Emerick).