EMT Plate Reverbs

Mar 7, 2022

Dammit, a pair of EMT plate reverbs followed me home. I thought I was done with “boat anchors,” but I guess I’m not.

Every person who puts together a recording studio, whether it’s a big professional studio or a home studio, dreams about the giant (8 feet long, 4 feet tall, 425 pounds) plate reverbs made by the EMT company in Germany from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s. They aren’t much to look at, just big industrial looking pieces of gear, but: You know that lush reverb you hear on just about every old record you love? Old, great records, like Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, all the way up to the reverb you hear on stuff like Van Halen records? Yep, it’s one of these you’re hearing on those records, the venerable EMT 140 plate reverb.

Back in the earliest days of recording, they came up with the reverberation effect using echo chambers, literally rooms in the studio that were dedicated to making reverb. They would paint rooms with shiny paint, special plasters, angled walls and ceilings, all to get as much “echo” as they could via a speaker in one end of the chamber and a microphone in the other end. Some echo chambers sounded magic, but they took up a lot of real estate, and ultimately weren’t very practical unless you were one of the big, big studios.

EMT came out with their plate reverb around 1957, imported to America through Gotham Audio in New York. What EMT figured out was an ingenious method of creating an artificial echo chamber effect by suspending a 4×8 piece of steel within a pipe frame, tensioned to the point that it gave an even decay when whacked, then mounting a speaker-like driver device in the middle of the steel plate, and (originally one for mono, later two for stereo) contact pickups to pick up those reverberations. Through typically excellent German technology, the plate reverb sounded even better than a real chamber, in many cases.

The EMT plate reverbs sounded so good, they became the studio reverb effect that all others have been compared to since. In the six decades since the EMT plate reverb came out, there have been updates (like the EMT 240 digital reverb), EMT copies (like the Ecoplate and the Lawson Audicon Plate Reverb), numerous smaller spring reverb units (like the AKG BX10 and BX20), rack-mounted digital units (some, like the Bricasti, used on many modern hit records), and eventually modeling plug-ins for use with digital recording software like Pro Tools. In fact, I have the Universal Audio plug-in that models the EMT 140 plate reverb in my computer recording setup, and it sounds really damn good. I use it all the time. It exists on my computer, not in the physical realm. But it isn’t the real thing.

There’s just something dead sexy about a real EMT 140 plate reverb. It’s huge, it’s heavy, it’s serious business. If you go to any serious recording studio in the world, you’ll still find vintage EMT plates tucked in the corners or in their back rooms, still being used on modern recordings. When I took a tour of Blackbird Studios in Nashville a few years ago, good lord, they had about a dozen of them. Every studio person WANTS a real EMT plate. But few are committed enough, or stupid enough, to haul these 425-pound vintage pieces of German engineering home.

I’ve obsessed over EMT plate reverbs for twenty-five years. I’ve watched as th price kept rising, I bought the plug-in digital version and I liked it. I sort of gave up on ever having a real one. Then a pair showed up on Craigslist in Simi Valley. Dammit! I became obsessed again. I tried to put them out of my head. Twenty-five years, I’ve lusted after one! Then I emailed the guy to see how badly he wanted them out of his garage. He gave me a “cash and carry” price that was damn reasonable. I took the money from selling my Moto Guzzi a few weeks ago and hustled the way I always hustle when some vintage can’t-live-without-it “boat anchor” manifests itself.

As my first ex-wife Jessica Daniel used to (accurately) say, “Your problem is, no matter how much money you have at any given time, you’ll always find some MAGIC BEANS to spend it on” (that’s a Jack and the Beanstalk reference, in case you didn’t get it). She was right. Dammit.

So, today, with the assistance of my good buddy Paul Oeser, I rented a lift truck and we got these burly beasts home. EMT used to affix a most hilarious drawing to the sides of these things, showing four happy little German guys gleefully lifting the 425-pound units with two pipes stuck in the frames. We did follow those lifting instructions, but I can tell you that we weren’t nearly as happy as the guys in the drawing. We got them home with much care and tender handling. In case you’re a studio nerd, I followed all the instructions posted online by Dan Alexander about moving an EMT (they are prone to damage if dropped or mishandled), and luckily they seem to be safe and sound.

Best of all, these two plate reverbs are just the way I like to find old pieces of gear. Untouched, unmolested, completely original, and CLEAN. Supposedly these units were at the MGM studio in Hollywood for most of their life (there are shipping labels addressed to “Goldwyn Studios” in Hollywood affixed to the sides of the units), then a studio guitarist brought them home and stored them for another thirty-five years until they found their new forever home at my place. They are both stereo units, one tube and one solid state. I know the amplifiers are going to need rebuilding, but I think I’m going to put them on a Cariac and see if they work as is. The plates will need to be tensioned and adjusted, but right now, they give off a pretty satisfying “pinnnnngggg” when I whack them with my fingernail. The plates, drivers, pickups, amplifiers, and damper plates all look pretty much like they did when they left the factory. I’m really excited about getting these going and using them in my studio.

So, two more stupid “boat anchor” bucket-list items that I’ve always dreamed of: mission accomplished!! Those who know, KNOW. Those who don’t know probably quit reading this post after the first two sentences. All I know is I have been playing Roy Orbison records all day and listening to that lush EMT plate reverb that’s all over those records and thinking, wow, there they are. Two new members of the family. Dreams really do come true, as long as your dreams are stupid and involve antiquated pieces of German audio equipment!