Acustica Ebony: For any producer or engineer looking to step their plate reverb game up.
There are a select few hardware devices which elicit universal praise (and gear lust) from audio engineers - and right at the top of that list is the original Studiotechnik EMT 140 Plate Reverb. The EMT, which quickly became ‘the’ sound of the legendary Abbey Road Studios, has in the decades since become the most sought after reverb sound for engineers and studios worldwide.
Unfortunately, hardware EMT 140’s are as unattainable as they are legendary; cost and availability aside, you’ll have a hard time lugging the 600+ pound unit into your home or project studio anytime soon. To date, only a select few developers have created digital emulations of the prized EMT Plate, so we were thrilled to see Acustica Audio - who we believe are making many of the best-sounding plugins on the market today - had released their take on the famous unit. In this review, we’ll put their EMT emulation through its paces to see where it ranks among our favourite digital reverbs - and if there’s a new king in town for in-the-box EMT Plates.
Setup & First Impressions
As we mentioned in our recent review of Acustica’s outstanding Diamond EQ, the company has made huge improvements in their installation and authorisation process over the past year. Simply download the fully-functional 30 day demo or full version from your Acustica Audio account, install, and authorise via the standalone Aquarius Lite Beta authorisation app, which manages all of your Acustica authorisations in one streamlined and unified interface. Best of all, Acustica has the most generous license terms we’ve seen for a single purchase - up to 5 installations/authorisations are allowed for each plugin. Although the Aquarius authorisation app is still in beta, we found it to be very easy to use and stable, so no issues there.
Ebony installs as 5 different plugins - Ebony, Ebony Pre, Ebony EQ, Ebony Comp, and Ebony Reverb. As we’ll explain in more detail below, Ebony is actually much more than just a reverb plugin - it’s an emulation of a full channel strip from an EMT console, featuring 2 EQ modules (with high and low pass filters), a reverb module, a preamp, and a superb compressor module. These different modules are accessible as standalone plugins, or you can opt for the full signal path of the console and use the channel strip plugin. We found the standalone plugins to be just as useful as the full channel strip, and appreciated the supreme flexibility they provide.
Acustica’s novel approach to plugin design has generated a ton of buzz in producer and engineer circles over the past year, and with good reason. Unlike most developers who craft plugins through algorithmic emulation and reverse engineering - breaking down every component of an analog circuit and coding the tolerances, sound, and interactions of each component in the circuit via algorithms - Acustica takes an entirely different approach: the company’s proprietary methods allow them to sample thousands of snapshots of a piece of analog gear in various states (e.g. a an EQ with a +4dB high shelf @ 20kHz) and combine these snapshots into a fluid convolution model of the hardware. This unique approach, in our experience, produces sound quality and accuracy with respect to the modelled hardware that we simply can’t find in other developers plugins: when you boost a high shelf on an Acustica EQ, you’re quite literally getting the sound of that exact piece of hardware boosting at a given frequency.
As we’ve come to expect nothing less from Acustica, we weren’t surprised at all to find that Ebony is, in our humble opinion, the best sounding EMT140 Plate emulation on the market (yes, even better than that UAD plugin) - something we are particularly happy to see from a native developer who doesn’t tie the plugin to a piece of proprietary hardware. While I’ve never had the privilege of using a real 140 Plate, the depth, realism, and spaciousness of Ebony Reverb are simply unmatched (often by a wide margin) by our other reverb plugins.
Let’s start with the Ebony Channel Strip, as it’s the most robust plugin of the bunch and, in our testing, the most useful plugin if you’re after the famed EMT 140 reverb sound. Ebony is comprised of two parallel signal paths fed by the plugin’s input signal; it’s simplest to think of channel 1 as the ‘wet’ signal and the parallel channel 2 as the ‘dry’ signal, as the reverb unit can only be placed in the signal path of channel 1. Channel 1 first sends signal to the plate reverb module, which then feeds the (optional) Filter, EQ, and Dynamics modules. Channel 2 first sends signal to the preamp module (also switchable on/off), which then feeds the optional Filter, EQ, and Dynamics. The Filter, Equaliser, and Dynamics each can only be present in one signal path at once - that is, you have to decide if you want the Filter post-reverb in the Channel 1 signal, or if you’d alternatively like it post-preamp in Channel 2. It’s admittedly not the most intuitive signal path I’ve ever seen, and I did have to hunker down with the user guide for a bit to really grasp it - but once you play around with it for a few minutes, it becomes very easy to use. Channel 1 and 2 are then balanced at the output stage of the plugin using individual output level controls, allowing you to balance the dry and wet signal to taste - and you can also hard-bypass either signal path.
Once you grasp the signal flow, the real fun begins. It’s hard to describe how good this plugin sounds - not only is the reverb absolutely stunning, but the additional channel strip modules are equally impressive, and allow you to take a sterile, dry vocal and transform it into a polished pop-record-ready lead with one plugin.
The Reverb is relatively stripped-down when compared to some algorithmic options available today, but we found this to be beneficial; the controls that are present afford a great deal of flexibility in sound with minimal clutter. The Reverb module offers a Pre-delay (0 to 0.3 seconds), Early-Late reflection control (balances the early vs late reflections of the reverb), Decay (controls the length of the reverb decay time), Drive (harmonic distortion), and Quality (1-5 slider; 1 generates only the fundamental of the signal, 5 generates additional upper harmonic content). In our use, the reverb excels at ‘that’ EMT Plate sound - adding a profound sense of depth, room, and width to any signal in an extremely natural way. Pushing a dull, dry female vocal through the reverb with a 2 second decay, 80ms pre-delay, a touch of added drive, and the quality cranked up to 5 produced a sound which instantly evoked the sound of countless pop records. The best hardware reverbs are legendary for not sounding like an additive effect on top of the signal, but rather a something innate to the source material - providing a natural, transparent sense of space and depth that allows sounds to fix into a mix with far less effort - and this is something which Ebony accomplishes with ease.
We found the Ebony channel strip to be highly useful across a broad range of sounds - acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, percussive elements, pads, and lead synths all benefitted from Ebony’s various modules. The surprise for us here was how highly useable everything aside from the reverb is; leaving aside the best-in-class native EMT plate sound, the compressor, EQ, and filters were all capable of hardware-like tone and extreme boosts without a hint of harshness or digital artifacts. As we mentioned in our previous review of Acustica’s Diamond EQ, this is the area where AA’s products truly shine; much like hardware units, Acustica’s processors are capable of extreme tonal adjustment and reshaping without sounding artificial or brittle, which sets them apart from almost all algorithmic plugins we’ve tested.
Among the non-reverb modules, which are all stellar, the EQ stood out to us as the best of the bunch. Cranking the E111 EQ module’s 14kHz boost to it’s maximum +15dB on a well-recorded but dull sounding acoustic guitar chord riff produced a wide open and airy top end without any harshness; again, with just one plugin and a few knob turns, we were able to craft a lead sound that would fit perfectly in the front of any pop/electronic mix. Likewise, the compressor is capable of some serious punch and smack, especially when using the ‘Insane’ quality setting; while I’m not sure exactly what hardware compressors these models were sampled from, they are highly usable in many mix situations.
We thoroughly enjoyed Ebony in our testing, but there are a few small downsides to be aware of before purchasing. Due to the accuracy of the EMT modelling, Ebony is rather CPU-intensive, and this seems to vary between both operating systems and host DAW’s; we found the OS X version of Ableton 9.7 in particular to struggle more than other applications when running multiple instances of Ebony. Since I often have high track counts in my mixes, I find it most suitable to use Ebony and a number of Acustica’s other plugins the same way I do hardware; by printing MIDI and synths through them and committing to audio. First time Acustica users should also download the demo and get accustomed to the slight delay in plugin output when tweaking knobs; because Ebony is loading new hardware impulse responses as knobs are moved, there’s a slight lag between the GUI and audio output. Our only other small complaint would be that the dedicated Ebony Reverb plugin does not feature a Dry/Wet control (unlike the Ebony channel strip, which does). While reverbs are most often used on sends at 100% wet, it’s nevertheless nice to have the added flexibility of a variable mix control.
In conclusion, Acustica Audio’s Ebony is the best plate reverb we’ve heard to date, native or not - even better than Universal Audio’s beloved EMT140 emulation. Ebony excels at a natural, organic plate sound that’s perfectly suited for lead vocals, guitars, synths, or drums, and is the most natural native reverb we’ve heard in the box by a substantial margin. Aside from the outstanding reverb, Ebony’s channel strip functionality and standalone plugins make this much more than a mere reverb - this plugin is capable of making broad, dramatic changes to source material with a quality that’s hard to distinguish from analog hardware.
We’d recommend Ebony to any producer looking to step their plate reverb game up, as well as any engineer or producer looking for a plugin capable of extreme tonal adjustment and hardware tone.
Outstanding sound quality - the best plate reverb we’ve heard in the box.
Superb Ebony channel strip; capable of dramatic tonal adjustments.
Outstanding EQ module.
Slight lag when tweaking knobs.
Acustica Audio Ebony Review
By Dave Edwards | Posted October 30, 2017