Eno/Lanois Shimmer Sound: How it is made

The basic foundation of the Brian Eno / Daniel Lanois shimmer sound is fairly simple: Create a feedback loop, incorporating a pitch shifter set to +1 octave, and a reverb with a fairly long decay time. By controlling the gain and equalization of the feedback loop, and the lengths of the various delays within the loop, the temporal evolution of the sound can be altered from steel drum-esque sounds to the slow attack “string pads” hear on many of the Eno/Lanois tracks. This is the same technique used by ValhallaShimmer, with the reverberation, pitch shifting and feedback all incorporated within the same plugin.

Kevin Killen, answering a question about the signal flow on the U2 song “4th of July” on Gearslutz, described the signal path as follows:

The delay and modulation was derived from the AMS 1580. On its fader return , some hi frequencies were rolled off, then it was fed into a 224 Hall setting, probably 5 seconds but with a rolloff in the top and bottom. This return may have been equalised also. We may have added a second delay but then the delays have to be timed to the track as the net effect is blurring the chord progression…Our last tweak would be to play with the sends on all of the returns to the point that its almost recirculating out of control, which in turn is creating a layer upon layer effect.

The AMS DMX 15-80s was a digital delay / sampler / pitch shifter that was in common use in Britain in the early 1980′s. Eno and Lanois have both sung the praises of this unit, and Wendy Carlos has said that the AMS unit had “perhaps the least audible artifacts to pitch shifting available at that time.”

David Kulka has written that the AMS DMX had an optional de-glitch card installed, which worked on a similar principle to the auto-correlation deglitcher in the H949. His post is worth quoting:

Harmonizers, at least the early ones, had to electronically “splice” sections of the waveform in order to accomplish pitch change. When the out and in points had different voltage levels, a small DC pop could be heard at each transition. The result was a sort of low level crackle, more obvious with certain kinds of program material, and more audible at extreme pitch change settings.

The Eventide H910 exhibited this, along with the early AMS Harmonizers. Both Eventide (on the H949) and AMS partially resolved this by adding “de-glitch” cards. The circuitry on this card added a “smart” algorithm to pitch change, adjusting the transitions to better match voltages at the in and out points.

The “224 Hall setting” that Killen refers to is the Concert Hall algorithm in the Lexicon 224. This algorithm has a fairly low initial echo density, that builds to a higher density as the decay evolves. The Concert Hall algorithm is also distinguished by its high degree of modulation. The resulting sound is not a terribly accurate simulation of a real concert hall, but rather a lush and spatially expansive reverb that is still sought after more than 30 years after its introduction.

Other accounts of the “shimmer” sound refer to different reverbs being used, such as the EMT250. In addition, modulated delay lines, such as the Lexicon Prime Time, have been used by Lanois at different times. The common elements always seem to be the pitch shifter, a modulated reverb and/or a modulated delay line, and feedback and equalization generated via an analog mixer. In my next post, I will analyze the contributions of these elements to the shimmer sound, and will discuss how the various components respond in a feedback situation.