In 1959, Motown Records' president, Berry Gordy, needed a first-class reverb for the label's studio. The EMT 140 plate reverb had just come out, but most studios built their own chambers in those days. Gordy and chief technical engineer Mike McLean converted the studio attic into an echo chamber, and part of the Motown Sound was born. The results were superb. Check out classic records by The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, andmanymore. Today, with the Hitsville Reverb Chambers, Universal Audio (UA) allows the rest of us to put our virtual hands on these signature effects via their native and UAD-2 plug-in.

Although numerous chamber-based reverb plug-ins are on the market, Hitsville Reverb Chambers are different, which seems only fitting. From dimensional peculiarities, to equipment, to settings – these are one-of-a-kind spaces. UA worked with John Windt, who built and/or installed most of the Motown recording studios, painstakingly sourcing, repairing, and rebuilding each chamber's gear. Finally, instead of relying on standard modeling approaches, UA developed a new hybrid engine, combining proven impulse response (IR) technology with proprietary DSP techniques. UA contends the results are more accurate than any other IR Convolution or algorithmic emulators currently in use.

Chamber History (via UA's website): The first Motown studio was built in a residential building ("Hitsville") at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, where the attic was renovated to become a reverb chamber. A 1-inch concrete slab covered the floor and supported an interior shell decoupled from external walls or the roof. The interior was plastered using a textured troweled finish and rounded corner transitions using pine 2x2s for structure and 1/4-inch cement board (like drywall but made with cement). Finally, multiple coatings of shellac (a natural varnish made from beetle secretions!) sealed the walls. A pair of speakers were placed directly on the floor, aimed at the corners. A mic was placed behind each driver, aimed in the same direction. As Motown expanded, a later chamber was built next door at 2644 West Grand. Gordy approved a more sophisticated design, relying on non-parallel surfaces, thicker walls, harder plaster, and a heavily-polished varnish topcoat.

How does it sound? The first thing most of us do with reverb is slap it on a vocal. So, that's what I did. Comparing the 2648 and the 2644 chambers, an initial impression is 2648 sounds more upfront midrange-wise, while 2644 is more expansive. However, I was not overly impressed auditioning on solo tracks. The instant gratification of some other reverbs wasn't there for me.

However, music is a team sport. Effects that sound great solo only sometimes work in the context of a full mix. I opened the plug-in (still on an aux track for the lead vocal) and selected the 2648 building, mic pair, and speakers. I unmuted all tracks and hit the space bar. There it was. I was giggling, just giggling. It's utterly unfair that I can sit in my study in a bathrobe and invoke this historic sound.

The JBL 2482 driver with the RCA 44BX mic are just gold on vocals. I created a separate aux for backing vocals using the 2644 chamber. Try Altec 605s and the Neumann KM 86 for an enveloping hug, or Bose 901 with the EV Model 631 for a more band-limited, upper mid pinch, depending on the material. Although very different, each position the background vocals wonderfully, and I had yet to start messing with other settings! Once you tweak the remaining parameters, it's game on. Remember, those real-world engineers couldn't move mics or change speakers at the click of a mouse; it was all legwork with assistants running upstairs. I like that once you know how the original chambers were built, the controls are intuitive. I also like that you can pick a chamber by selecting the 2648 or 2644 building icon at the center top of the interface. Furthermore, it is useful that I can swap among the mic and speaker selections – all straightforward. If necessary, I'll tweak mic distance, pre-delay, decay, mix, width/mono/stereo, and the LO and HI EQ controls (for the virtual drivers in the chambers, creating tonal changes via speaker volume in the room). Many features were designed with today's working engineers in mind. The original chamber designers took into account the tendency for spaces to overmodulate on some low and low-mid frequencies, including countermeasures such as filters, non-full-range speakers, and band-limited mic options. The plug-in also does this, keeping the tools that protect from potential audio mudslides.

Refrain from dismissing the Hitsville Reverb Chambers because your productions don't sound like Motown. In fact, that's all the more reason to demo this. If Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, or Dolly Parton had recorded on West Grand Boulevard, they would have used these chambers on everything. Why should we do anything differently?

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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