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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 during the 1960s.Spector, working with audio engineers such as Larry Levine, created a dense, layered, and reverberant sound that reproduced 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, and then recording the sound using an echo chamber.

Description

To attain this signature sound, Spector gathered large groups of musicians (playing some instruments not generally used for ensemble playing, such as electric and acoustic guitars) playing orchestrated parts—often doubling and tripling many instruments playing in unison—for a fuller sound. Spector also arranged the songs for large groups of musicians playing instruments traditionally associated with orchestras (such as strings, woodwinds, and brass). Spector himself called his technique "a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids".

Recording techniques

Spector was already 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".

In the 1960s, Spector usually worked at the Gold Star Studios in Los Angelesmarker 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 speaker and microphones. The signal from the studio would be played through the speakers and would reverberate around the room, being picked up by the microphones. The echo-laden sound was then channeled back to the control room, where it was transferred to tape.

The natural reverberation and echo from the hard walls of the room gave his productions their distinctive quality and resulted in a rich and complex sound when played on AM radio, with an impressive depth rarely heard in mono recordings.

Songwriter Jeff Barry, who worked extensively with Spector, described the Wall of Sound as:

"...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."


The Wall of Sound has been compared with "the standard pop mix of foregrounded solo vocal and balanced, blended backing". In contrast, Phil Spector's 'wall of sound' (‘one mike over everything’) invites the listener to immerse himself in Spector's self-described quasi-"Wagnerian" mass of sound:

Songs using the technique

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.

"Be My Baby", a 1963 hit song for The Ronettes, written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and produced by Spector, is often cited as the quintessential expression of the "Wall of Sound" technique. The Ronettes' version of "Sleigh Ride" — one of the better-known renditions of the song — also heavily used the effect.

Johnny Franz's mid-60s 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 "Wall of Sound"-style production techniques.

Perhaps Phil Spector's most famous use of the Wall of Sound was for Let It Be. Spector was brought in to salvage the incomplete Let It Be, an album practically abandoned by the Beatles. His work resulted in a few of the album's tracks receiving his royal treatment: The Long and Winding Road, I Me Mine, and Across the Universe. The Wall of Sound and other overdubs proved controversial among fans and The Beatles themselves. Whatever the opinion, Spector did mix and prepare an album that the Beatles were unable to complete themselves owing to the band's collapse. In contrast to the Spector version, a bootleg record without the Wall of Sound emerged and gained wide distribution. Eventually, in 2003, Let It Be...Naked was released, an authorized version without the Wall of Sound.

In the 1970s, Swedish pop group ABBA used similar techniques in their earlier songs, including "Ring Ring", "Waterloo", and "Dancing Queen".Also from the 1970s, another artist to utilise and, arguably, expand the "Wall of Sound" approach, was Roy Wood -particularly in his band Wizzard, who would multi-track saxophones, pianos and drums to create a huge sound. Notable examples include "Angel Fingers" and "I Wish it Could Be Christmas ".Leonard Cohen's album Death of a Ladies' Man from 1977 was produced by Spector, and the Wall of Sound technique is evident on the album as a whole, but maybe most pronounced in the track "Memories". Another example of the Wall of Sound was "The Doo Ron Ron" by The Crystals.

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.

Indeed, Chris Thomas' production for The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." is probably the premier example of the mono "Wall of Sound" recording technique in punk — with over twenty carefully orchestrated, feedback-laden guitar overdubs used in the making of the record. Sandy Pearlman's epic production for "Tommy Gun" by The Clash also builds to an intense, dramatic "Wall of Sound" finale featuring several loud, distorted guitar overdubs and martial sound effects set against a rousing snare-drum march.

In the 1980s, Trevor Horn's hugely popular productions for ABC's The Lexicon of Love and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" are decidedly slicker and more sophisticated examples of the opulent "Wall of Sound" approach in British New Wave/Hi-NRG dance music — both recordings utilize a sixty-piece string orchestra and dozens of synthesizer and guitar overdubs with featured sound effects and treatments.

The Los Angelesmarker-based New Wave band Wall of Voodoo offered their own quirky, ominous interpretation of the "Wall of Sound" (the band's name is itself a take-off on the phrase) with their 1982 album Call of the West (produced by Richard Mazda), and its hit single "Mexican Radio".

Canadian Metal musician Devin Townsend is well known for his extensive use of this technique in his works, employing gratuitous use of delays and reverb on the guitar, keyboard and vocal tracks, while at the same time overlaying multiple takes for a rich, full sound and atmosphere. Townsend uses these techniques on the making of Strapping Young Lad's Alien album.

Other recent examples of the wall of sound technique include Glasvegas and Bernard Butler (in his work with such acts as McAlmont and Butler, The Tears and Duffy, with such songs as "Yes", "Apollo 13", "Rockferry", and 'Distant Dreamer'). The Super Furry Animals song "Run-Away" was heavily influenced by the technique.

Other references

The term "wall of sound" first appeared in print in the New York Times on June 22 1884, in a description of Richard Wagner's redesigned Nibelungen Theater in Bayreuthmarker, 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 "Wall of Sound" 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

Shoegazing, a style of alternative rock, is influenced by "Wall of Sound". Shoegazing emerged from the United Kingdommarker in the late 1980s and lasted until the mid 1990s, peaking circa 1990 to 1991. 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. Cocteau Twins are often regarded perhaps the initial exponents of the style, appearing at the beginning of the 80s and continuing into the style's heyday a decade later. 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.

References

  1. Richard Williams, Phil Spector: Out of His Head, 2003, ch. 5 "Little Symphonies for the Kids"
  2. allmusic
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A2270530


Bibliography

  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Williams, Richard (1974/2003). Phil Spector: Out Of His Head. Abacus. ISBN 0-7119-9864-7. Cited in Middleton (1990).



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