There’s one reason I like plug-in software that’s really pretty straightforward: Room for Space. Not sonic space: I mean space in my small apartment. I could never fit the hardware all the stuff I have emulations of I like in my bohemian garret, and I don’t want to spend money renting a stinky practice space that’s depressing to hang out in. I also like to use my apartment to like, live in, unlike when I was 23 years old and starting out making records by filling my bedroom to the gills with a drum set, bass and guitar amps, multiple guitars, 4 track, and a gnarled layer of patch cords that rendered the wooden floorboards semi-invisible.
I once saw a picture Naomi of Damon and Naomi posted online of a Space Echo hardware unit standing up on its side like a skyscraper. I asked her if it had fallen off the mixing board it was sitting next to. She said it did not fall, but that they had stood it up that way because they were running out of space in the small studio where they were recording while on tour in Italy. So space can be at a premium anywhere.
Universal Audio makes a mean emulation of Roland’s classic RE-201 Space Echo unit, which you can buy for $299 list price, though you shouldn’t, cuz you can get it for less on a regular basis with their regular coupons and promotions, at least half if not 25% of what the hardware version goes for on ebay.
I had never had the opportunity to use one before I got this. The closest I got was the strange experience of taking one owned by Mike Simpson to be fixed in exchange for his lending us the drum set we used to record One Part Lullaby. This involved driving from Silver Lake to the San Fernando Valley, where I met a balding man with a carefully tucked in t-shirt, khaki shorts, and white tube socks hiked up close to his knees who grimaced at me when I delivered the unit to him to repair. He never smiled or said much of anything during this brief transaction, so perhaps they are as much of pain in the ass to repair as they are to store in a one bedroom apartment full of books and plants.
So while I can’t compare this to the hardware unit, I can say that it is a joy to use, and that you never have to replace the tape heads or take it to the Valley. Unless you want to.
These units were originally made famous by Lee Perry and other Dub producers on classic albums like Revolution Dub.
In a not unfamiliar dialectic of white appropriation and trivialization of black musical inventions, today the sounds produced by the Space Echo are most commonly heard in tame and weak records by pop artists like Adele and Coldplay. When I checked out the Space Echo on UAD’s website, the sidebar of the webpage featured interviews with producers who had worked with these pop stars describing how they used the RE-201 on their big hits. The vast difference between the quality of these records and classics by Lee Perry and others just goes to show musical equipment is only as good as the musical skill of the person who uses it. In our culture, we tend to talk about objects as if they granted various kinds of prowess – sexual, creative, intellectual, etc. as soon as one purchases them. Back in the 1800’s Karl Marx reminded us it’s the labor that’s stored in the object or mediated by it that’s the real deal. (“As values, all commodities, are only definite masses of congealed labour time…[the] Fetishism of commodities has its origin in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.”) There’s no quick substitute for the hours Mr Perry and others put in at the desk to learn to put these tools to use, no matter how many presets any software designer comes up with. In that respect, hardware and software don’t really differ.
My favorite quote I ever read about recording equipment and engineering comes from an interview with Vance Powell, an amazing engineer who has worked with the Raconteurs among others, that I found on the UAD website. “To be honest with you, if the performance is there — I’ll say this forever — if the performance is there, the recording doesn’t matter. I hate to say that, but it’s true.”
Or as Bob Fay used to say, “it’s not the fi, it’s the tunes.”