When you say Pink Floyd, you say Binson Echorec
The Binson Echorec
If there is one band that had a major influence on the history of studio recording, it’s definitely Pink Floyd, the English rock band formed in London in 1965. And if you are looking for that distinguished sound of Pink Floyd, one very important element is the tape delay. And not just any tape delay. One effect that truly defined the Pink Floyd sound in the 70’s is the Binson Echorec.
The Binson Echorec was the brainchild of Dr. Bonfiglio Bini, an Italian entrepreneur who owned and operated the Binson Amplifier HiFi Company in Milan, Italy, and his engineer, Scarano Gaetano. While they manufactured many music and audio products beginning in the late ‘40s, the Binson Echorec remains to be one of its most acclaimed units to this day, namely because of the association with Pink Floyd.
“If there is one effect that truly defined the Pink Floyd sound in the 70’s it’s the Binson Echorec.”
Tape delays like the Echosonic, Echoplex or the Roland Space Echo were very popular in that time, but many had issues with wow and flutter.
Bini and Gaetano undertook a research effort to develop a signal delay storage medium that was superior to plastic magnetic tape. The result was a unique device, utilising a specially designed steel/alloy disc or drum, which carried a durable flat metal magnetic band. The drum was driven by an A.C. motor via a rubber idler wheel. Record and playback heads were arranged around the edge of the drum. The stability of this transport was a significant improvement over tape with reduced wow and flutter.
Hank Marvin of The Shadows was one of the first to use Binson echoes for much of the mid-to-late 1960’s. He used various Binson units on record and stage to further improve his signature sound, in conjunction with Vox AC30 amplifiers.
But it was Pink Floyd’s original frontman Syd Barrett, and then guitarist David Gilmour that took the Binson to the next level. The classic delay effect can be heard on songs such as “Interstellar Overdrive”, “Astronomy Domine”, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Time”. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin also used a Binson echo unit on the drums in “When the Levee Breaks”. Binson echo units were also used by the English rock band and one of the earliest space rock groups Hawkwind, and more recently by psychedelic prog-rock band from California, Tarantula Hawk and Jon Courtney of British nu-prog band Pure Reason Revolution is also a frequent user of the Binson units. Influential mixing engineers such as Michael Brauer also use it a lot in their mixes.
Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam is a proud owner of a French version of the Binson Echorec.
So how does it work? Let’s dive into the technology for a bit!
The Binson magnetic drum was constructed from three separate parts, the steel axle, balanced wheel and aluminium thread ring. Approximately one hundred turns of very fine 0.1mm diameter recording-grade stainless steel wire were wound around the circumference of an aluminium thread ring – a very tricky operation. The wire was wound on to the drum using a modified coil winding machine which Binson built specially to do the job. The wire had to be kept tight against the drum face with no overlaps and no kinks and the beginning and the end the wire was secured by a small pin (the external pin is visible on the edge of drum). Even more challenging was the following operation of using a lathe and very fine grinding wheel to accurately mill the rounded edge off the wire so that it was almost, but not quite, semi-circular, creating a very smooth, flat wire surface that could be properly magnetised by the heads. This was a delicate and crucial operation and the milling had to be performed very slowly as the wire would all too easily break. A new worker on the job would break a lot of wire before finally getting the knack – this was among one the most difficult operations at Binson factory.
The head profile needs to be different from a standard 1/4″ tape machine head, to aid ‘zenith’ alignment so that it makes proper contact against the hard surface of the magnetic drum. The drum must be kept lightly oiled to reduce the wear where the heads contact the drum to ensure a long service life. Any light oil such as sewing machine oil can used. The lubricating oil must not be allowed to get on the rubber idler wheel otherwise it will slip against the drum causing excessive ‘wow’. The record and playback heads are positioned around the circumference of the drum, the first of these is the record head and the others are the playback heads giving four possible different delay taps. There is a delay of approximately 74ms before the first playback head to reads the recorded signal from the drum, 148ms for the second head, 222ms for the third head and the longest delay is 296ms for the fourth head. Heads are selected with the knob on the front panel which gives 12 separate echo selections from one head alone to complex multi tap effects.
Now here comes the really clever part – these playback head distances are not arbitrary. A considerable amount of thought was put into the positioning of the heads around the drum by Dr Bini, the designer of the Echorec. They were chosen so that the delay times are musically related to one another. If the fourth tap is considered as representing a quarter note then the third tap is a dotted eighth note. This is a very useful and inspiring repeat pattern and has been utilised by guitarists such as David Gilmour and ‘The Edge’ to build some fantastic riffs. Continuing on, the second tap represents an eighth note and the first tap a sixteenth note. These shorter delays can be heard in slapback and rockabilly music from the 1950s and, again by Gilmour to good effect on tracks such as ‘Time’ (The Dark Side of the Moon).
The original Echorec memory system transports were all fitted with a powerful A.C. induction motor that rotates at fixed speed. The synchronous speed of the motor is determined by the A.C. mains frequency and number of poles in the motor winding (not voltage!). This is 50Hz in UK, Europe, Australia and most of the world, except America where it is 60Hz.
The Binson houses 6 12AX7 tubes. On the right side panel, there are jacks for three inputs and three outputs. On the left side panel, there’s a volt selector, input jack for the on/off footpedal switcher and a power outlet. The front panel has 6 control knobs, a 3-button channel selector and a level indicator.
Controls the input from the instrument to the delay path. It is possible to overdrive the input tube to achieve an overdrive effect, which then can be controlled by a volume pedal to keep it manageable to the amplifier. There are also internal trimmer controls to further adjust the sensitivity of the input.
Length of Swell
Controls the feedback/number of repeats.
Controls the delay volume based on the Input Control setting.
An Equalizer colouring the delay signal. The effect is very subtle changing from darker to brighter.
The selector has three modes:
- Echo – classic 50’s slap back delay
- Repeat – standard delay mode
- Swell – delay with overlaps, closer to a reverb
Selects different combinations between the playback heads.
This “eye” in the middle of the unit, shows the level of the input signal.
Selects the 3 inputs for each instrument. You can have two channels active at the same time with different outputs, – one with effect and one dry, both delayed or both dry.
We hope this article inspired you a bit to play with tape delays. While there are no exact Binson emulators at the time of writing, there are several tape delay emulators that should at least get you in the right ballpark.
Just listen to a bit of Binson Echorec in this video below. We can try to explain it. But nothing beats experiencing and feeling it. And if you want to give the original a check, don’t hesitate to drop by!