Wall of Sound

ronettes

The Wall of Sound is a music production technique for pop and rock music recordings developed by record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles during the early 1960s. Working with such audio engineers as Larry Levine and the session musicians who became known as The Wrecking Crew, Spector created a dense, layered, reverberant sound that came across well on AM radio and jukeboxes popular in the era. He created this sound by having a number of electric and acoustic guitarists perform the same parts in unison, adding musical arrangements for large groups of musicians up to the size of orchestras, then recording the sound using an echo chamber.

To attain Spector’s signature sound, his arrangements called for large ensembles (including some instruments not generally used for ensemble playing, such as electric and acoustic guitars), with multiple instruments doubling many of the parts to create a fuller, richer sound. Spector also included orchestral instruments – strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – not previously associated with youth-oriented pop music. Spector himself called his technique ‘a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids.’

Spector was known as a temperamental and quirky personality with strong, often unconventional, ideas about musical and recording techniques. Despite the trend towards multi-channel recording, Spector was vehemently opposed to stereo releases, claiming that it took control of the record’s sound away from the producer in favor of the listener. Spector also greatly preferred singles to albums, describing LPs as ‘two hits and ten pieces of junk.’

The Wall of Sound has been contrasted with ‘the standard pop mix of foregrounded solo vocal and balanced, blended backing’ as well as the airy mixes typical of reggae and funk: According to pop producer Jeff Barry, ‘…he buried the lead and he cannot stop himself from doing that…if you listen to his records in sequence, the lead goes further and further in and to me what he is saying is, ‘It is not the song…just listen to those strings. I want more musicians, it’s me.”  This can also be contrasted with the open spaces and more equal lines of typical funk and reggae textures, which seem to invite listeners to insert themselves in those spaces and actively participate.

In the 1960s, Spector usually worked at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles because of its exceptional echo chambers, essential to the Wall of Sound technique. Microphones in the recording studio captured the sound, which was then transmitted to an echo chamber—a basement room outfitted with speakers and microphones. The signal from the studio was played through the speakers and reverberated throughout the room before being picked up by the microphones. The echo-laden sound was then channeled back to the control room, where it was recorded on tape. The natural reverberation and echo from the hard walls of the echo chamber gave Spector’s productions their distinctive quality and resulted in a rich, complex sound that, when played on AM radio, had an impressive depth rarely heard in mono recordings.

Songwriter Jeff Barry, who worked extensively with Spector, described the Wall of Sound: ‘[It’s] basically a formula. You’re going to have four or five guitars line up, gut-string guitars, and they’re going to follow the chords…two basses in fifths, with the same type of line, and strings…six or seven horns, adding the little punches…formula percussion instruments — the little bells, the shakers, the tambourines. Phil used his own formula for echo, and some overtone arrangements with the strings. But by and large, there was a formula arrangement.’

While the Wall of Sound might give such an initial impression, further examination reveals that it is indeed more flexible, and it is a false premise that Spector filled every second with a megalomanic conundrum of noise. ‘In fact, the ‘wall of sound’ was both more complex and more subtle. Its components included an R&B-derived rhythm section, generous echo and prominent choruses blending percussion, strings, saxophones and human voices. But equally important were its open spaces, some achieved by physical breaks (the pauses between the thunder in ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘Baby I Love You’) and some by simply letting the music breathe in the studio.’ ‘Closer reflection indeed reveals that the Wall of Sound was quite compatible with, even supportive of, vocal protagonism. Such virtuosity was ultimately serving of Spector’s own agenda—the Righteous Brothers’ vocal prowess provided him a ‘secure and prosperous headrest.”

The Wall of Sound forms the foundation of Phil Spector’s recordings, in general. However, certain records are considered to have epitomized its use. ‘Be My Baby,’ a 1963 hit song for The Ronettes, written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and produced by Spector, is widely regarded as one of the finest pop tunes of all time; it is considered by some to be the quintessential Phil Spector production. The Ronettes’ version of ‘Sleigh Ride’ used the effect heavily. Another prominent example of the Wall of Sound was ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ by The Crystals.

Spector himself is quoted as believing his production of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ to be the summit of his Wall of Sound productions, and this sentiment has been echoed by both George Harrison (who called it ‘a perfect record from start to finish’) and Brian Wilson. Perhaps Phil Spector’s most infamous use of his production techniques was on the ‘Let It Be’ album. Spector was brought in to salvage the incomplete album, which had been all but abandoned by The Beatles. Performances from which had already appeared in several bootleg versions when the sessions were still referred to as ‘Get Back.’ His work resulted in the legitimately released album being what the LP cover called ‘the freshness of a live performance, reproduced for disc by Phil Spector.’ ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ ‘I Me Mine,’ and ‘Across the Universe’ are often singled out as those tracks receiving the greatest amount of post-production work. The modified treatment (often misrepresented as a ‘Wall of Sound,’ although neither Spector nor the Beatles used this phrase to refer to the production) and other overdubs proved controversial among fans and The Beatles themselves. Eventually, in 2003, ‘Let It Be… Naked’ was released, an authorized version without Spector’s additions.

Outside of Spector’s own songs, the most recognizable example of the ‘Wall of Sound’ is heard on many classic hits recorded by The Beach Boys (e.g., ‘God Only Knows,’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ — and especially, the psychedelic ‘pocket symphony’ of ‘Good Vibrations’), for which Brian Wilson used a similar recording technique, especially during the ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ eras of the band. Johnny Franz’s mid-1960s productions for Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers also employed a layered, symphonic “‘Wall of Sound’ arrangement-and-recording style, heavily influenced by the Spector sound. Harry Nilsson’s hit ‘Everybody’s Talkin’,’ which became the theme song for ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ similarly used the ‘Wall of Sound’ style production techniques. Queen used the technique in a number of their early-to-mid 1970s songs such as ‘Funny How Love Is,’ ‘Flick Of The Wrist,’ and the band’s biggest hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s landmark 1975 ‘Born to Run’ album — which includes more than thirty guitar tracks — is perhaps the most extensive and faithful updating of Spector’s early-1960s ‘Wall of Sound’ production style.

In the 1980s, Trevor Horn’s hugely popular productions for ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love,’ Yes’ ‘90125,’ Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome,’ and Grace Jones’ ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ are decidedly slicker and more sophisticated examples of the opulent ‘Wall of Sound’ approach in British New Wave/Hi-NRG dance music — all of these recordings utilize a large string orchestra and dozens of synthesizer and guitar overdubs with featured sound effects and treatments.

The musical style of American Heavy Metal band Slipknot is often described as a ‘Wall of Sound.’ This is due to the band’s extensive line-up; including samples, turntables and two additional percussionists, who also provide backing vocals, alongside the traditional vocalist, drums, bass and twin guitars used by most other bands of the genre. The parts are often very technical and played simultaneously so as to create an incredibly complex and full sound which assaults the senses.

The term “wall of sound” first appeared in print in ‘The New York Times’ in 1884, in a description of Richard Wagner’s redesigned Nibelungen Theater in Germany, which placed the orchestra (for the first time, it seems) in a deep orchestra pit out of sight of the audience. (Previously, the orchestra had been placed in front of the stage, at the same level as the audience and in plain view): ‘The mere sinking of the orchestra is, however, not the only innovation. Wagner leaves there, a space of eighteen feet wide, and extending the entire breadth of the stage (not merely of the proscenium) and extending up to the roof, perfectly free. He calls this the Mystic Space, because he intends that here the invisible ‘wall of music,’ proceeding from the invisible orchestra, shall separate the real (that is the audience) from the ideal (the stage pictures.) If we may so express ourselves, the audience will perceive the scenes through an invisible wall of sound.’

The term became popularly used around 1955 to describe sound of the jazz orchestra led by Stan Kenton, with its booming trombone, trumpet and percussion sections.

The term was also used to describe the enormous public address system designed by Owsley Stanley specifically for the Grateful Dead’s live performances circa 1974. The Wall of Sound fulfilled the band’s desire for a distortion-free sound system that could also serve as its own monitoring system. Raymond Scott nicknamed the vast array of homemade sequencers and synthesizers that took up a wall of his studio the ‘wall of sound.’

Shoegazing, a style of alternative rock, is influenced by ‘Wall of Sound.’ Shoegazing emerged from the United Kingdom in the early 90s and lasted until the mid 1990s, peaking circa 1990 to 1993. Common musical elements in shoegazing are distortion, delay, and chorus effects, droning riffs and a ‘wall of sound’ from noisy guitars. Typically, two distorted rhythm guitars are played together to give an amorphous quality to the sound. Although lead guitar riffs were often present, they were not the central focus of most shoegazing songs. Vocals are typically subdued in volume and tone, but underneath the layers of guitars is generally a strong sense of melody. While the genres which influenced shoegazing often used drum machines, shoegazing more often features live drumming. Chapterhouse and Seefeel utilised both samples and live drumming. Jesus and Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins are often regarded perhaps the initial exponents of the style, appearing at the beginning of the 1980s and continuing into the style’s heyday a decade later. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album ‘Psychocandy’ is widely hailed as a landmark. My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album ‘Loveless’ is perhaps the best-known example of meticulous Wall of Sound-influenced production in the shoegaze genre; featuring heavy processing on vocals and guitars, it is tipped to have cost £250,000 to produce over a 3-year period.

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