Friday, December 16, 2022

How to sound like Brian Eno / Daniel Lanois circa 1980

Years ago I made some notes on studio gear used by Brian Eno for his late 1970s productions, in particular the albums in the Ambient series. A recent social media discussion encouraged me to compile and update this information.

In particular, there has been a long-standing fascination with the sound of the album Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, released in 1980 on Editions EG. This beautiful recording features the minimalist piano of Harold Budd, but is co-credited to Brian Eno, in respect of his production contributions. Budd plays piano, both acoustic and electric. Alongside this solo instrument  are sounds from synths and other devices that have never, to my knowledge, been identified. According to Budd, a Yamaha DX7 and Casio CT-200 were used on The Pearl (released 1984), but these keyboards were not available in 1979 [Prendergast 1986].

The remainder of this article will focus attention on the signal chain used to create such a lush sonic environments from solo piano. This article will break down the equipment used at that time, along with today's alternatives. 

The Plateaux of Mirror was recorded at Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. This studio was created by Daniel Lanois and his brother, utilising every small room and nook in a converted house. An analogue MCI mixing desk, so simple that it had no automation, fed an MCI 24-track reel-to-reel recorder. Both Eno and Lanois have credited the convivial feeling in the house, along with the sound of the rooms themselves, as being critical to the recording. This deserves emphasis, because a sound begins with the environment it is recorded in. As Lanois stated:

There's a certain amount of gear that I expect a place to have for me to be able to do what I do. It doesn't really have to do with the sound of the mixing console, I think it has to do with interesting sounding rooms and enough outboard equipment for me to get on with my processing [Prendergast 1987].

By 1979 Eno was experienced with sonic techniques predicated on the tape machine, in particular the use of tape loops to create cyclical beds of sound, and pitch-shifting sounds by changing tape speeds. But for this recording he used novel methods made possible by new digital effects units. Retroactive interviews tend to collate gear used on several Eno-Lanois collaborations, but specific units can be distinguished using the dates the gear was available. For The Plateaux of Mirror the equipment was "very limited", essentially an AMS harmonizer and EMT 250 delay [Randall 2006]. Details on what these tools could and couldn't do are essential to understanding what Eno and Lanois achieved.

The AMS DMX 15-80 S was a two-channel digital processor introduced in 1978 (details here). It had a modular design, so that improved circuits could be added as developed by the engineers at AMS. In 1978 12-bit sampling was the pinnacle of what could be achieved in pulse code modulation, the algorithm that converted analogue audio to digital. But the AMS engineers were clever. The DMX included three such circuits tuned to different amplitudes, achieving an emulated 15 bits of dynamic range. Formally the device was a dual delay line and pitch shifter. But it could also function as a crude sampler, since the most-recently used audio was stored in a buffer (even after power down). This unit was used by many producers in the UK at the time, perhaps most famously by Martin Hannett on the first Joy Division album.

Lanois has referred to the AMS DMX as a "harmoniser", in deference to the first ever digital audio processor that was available commercially, the Eventide H910 Harmonizer (released 1974). That unit was primarily a pitch-shifter, working in half-step intervals. The Eventide H949 Harmonizer followed in 1977, adding delay and the ability to time-stretch audio without changing the pitch, a task that tape decks could not achieve. A popular use for this device was to compress advertisements so that they could fit into shorter gaps in commercial television programming. 

The EMT 250 digital reverb (1976) also used 15 bit emulation. Internally there were 19 delay elements that could be arranged in different configurations, some including feedback. The quality of the generated reverberation is still valued today.

It's important to understand that Eno himself owned none of this equipment, but used whatever was available at the studios he was working in. He was able to explore production techniques using new rack gear as he encountered it, always adapting his work to fit the music and tools. 

There's a good reason that only commercial studios had this gear. The EMT 250 cost $20,000 on release [Mix Staff 2007]. This is equivalent to... wait for it... $100,000 in today's money! It's a wonder that even 250 units were produced. Many of these are still in operation today, and on rare occasions come up for sale. The last one I saw sold for under $7000 which is, relatively speaking, a "good deal".

But now have many other means of achieving similar effects. One approach you might take is to run emulations of the original gear as software plugin. Recognising the historical importance of their old devices, Eventide themselves will sell you emulations of the H910, H949, or the more extensive H3000 Factory.

TC Electronics sells the DVR250-DT, an emulation of the EMT 250 complete with hardware controller, for a ridiculously low price. The fact this product exists is a testament to the fact that people loved working with the interface design on the original device.

A second approach is to assemble your Eno-Lanois kit from contemporary hardware that retains the same heritage as the classic units. These devices have the advantages of current technology: deeper features, more flexibility, better sound quality. But though this gives a producer an arsenal of tools, it doesn't make the job of emulating a record from 1980 any easier. Being spoilt for choice is not always a good thing.

The current rack processor from Eventide is the H9000 (released 2019). The buy-in price of €8500 tends to restrict sales to professional users. For those with shallower pockets, the H90 Harmonizer puts similar algorithms in an over-sized foot pedal form factor, priced at €1200. While the H90 is a dual channel processor, the H9 Max Harmonizer (€700) has a single channel and simpler interface.

It's worth noting that even with limited hardware control, every preset can be customised to your heart's delight using a software control panel. This is a method taken by many brands who wish to keep hardware prices lower, and physical interfaces simpler. This ability to customise each effect is essential. Each sound source reacts to processing in its own way. Different chord progressions will require different pitch increments. Song tempos dictate delay lengths. And so on. However not everyone will wish to jump to the computer to make changes that can be easily achieved directly on the face plate of a classic unit. The workflow is fragmented. 

In building your toolkit, you don't need to be tied to the original brands used by Eno and Lanois. Hundreds of other hardware units exist on the market, in rack or foot pedal form factors, at every price range. Consider that between the AMS DMX 15-80 S and and EMT 250 you have three essential functions: delay, reverb, and pitch-shifting. You can build your own signal chain so long as you have those three essentials. But we need to dig deeper, since there are a number of other vital components to emulating the Eno-Lanois sound.

First, it's important to have a darker tone. New devices have achieved a certain sparkle, but the limited horsepower in the classic 15-bit units did not permit this. As delay times were increased, high frequencies decreased. Hence we need good control over equalisation or filtering. 

Unfortunately there aren't many articles where Lanois or Eno really dive into the details of their production workflow. But one passage from Lanois is enlightening.

So we made the ambient sounds by re-routing back through the initial processing equipment. So lets say we do a bit of processing on a piano, we would print that sound onto the multitrack, which would then free up the processing devices to handle another job. We would send the already printed processing back to the original boxes. That’s when it starts getting interesting. That’s when you start adding VCO on top VCO and you get these little irregularities. The best of ambient music has that in it. The constant motion of nature that never repeats. Like when a sunlight shimmers on something it won’t be the same in a minute. It keeps moving. So introducing irregularities and the bits of flow that life has to offer within, that’s what gives ambience it’s trembling effect. There are lots of instant ambient sounds available at music stores. When you take them to the workplace and challenge them on with process on top of processing that’s when you get something really organic [Randall 2006].

The "constant motion" of which Lanois speaks derives from modulation effects. The two most important of these are tremolo (changes to amplitude) and vibrato (changes to pitch). It takes a careful ear to control these effects in context, so they do not become wearing. On The Plateaux of Mirror such modulations are used very subtly, though they are more obvious on The Pearl.

Another crucial technique is track doubling, also called parallel processing. The basic idea is simple enough: duplicate a track and process each channel differently. This technique becomes particularly interesting after applying different filters to each channel, so that effects are triggered by different frequencies of the original instrument. The low notes can create a longer, deeper "swell", while the higher frequencies can be pitch-shifted to form that distinctive top-end shimmer. Specifically, we need to pitch up by exactly an octave, to achieve the most harmonious sound. When re-combined, the result is a rich amalgamation of the different spectra.

There is one final important component of the signal chain: feedback or "re-routing back through the initial processing equipment" as Lanois described above. Now, reverberation lines already rely on feedback to turn multiple distinct echo stages into smooth fields of sound. But what Lanois is referring to is patching the output of the mixer and returning it to the input for further processing.

Sean Costello is an expert in audio signal processing, being the main product designer for Valhalla. I am sure that everyone mixing "in the box" are familiar with the Valhalla plugins, which are essential tools. They currently offer six paid products (each $50) and three that are free. In particular, Valhalla Shimmer was designed to accomplish exactly the task under discussion here: emulation of the Eno-Lanois sound. It does this by providing control over key aspects of the signal chain: reverberation attack, sustain, and decay times; depth and rate of modulation; feedback amount; low-pass filter; pitch-shifting up to 12 semitones. Valhalla Shimmer, plus a boat-load of creativity, is all you need.

Nonetheless, I would also recommend that you find a way to experiment with each component (delay, reverb, pitch-shift, modulation, feedback, filtering) separately, in order to find your own sounds. Over the years I've used Native Instruments Reaktor to build my own effects lines, which are often integral components of my instrument design. Any similar tool that allows you to build a modular effects chain would suffice. 

Then all you need is some expert playing and timeless music. Easy!

Dedicated to Harold Budd (1936–2020).


Here's a simple demonstration of Valhalla Shimmer, using a sample of a concert grand piano.


Prendergast, Mark. 1986. "The Sound-Painted World of Harold Budd," Sound on Sound, December 1986. Available.

Prendergast, Mark. 1987. "The Magic of Daniel Lanois", Sound on Sound, August 1987. Available.

Randall. 2006. "Daniel Lanois Interview," Music Glob, 17 November 2006. Available.

Mix Staff. 2007. "1976 EMT Model 250 Digital Reverb" Mix. Available


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