Wall of Sound
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The Wall of Sound is a music production formula for pop and rock music recordings developed by record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles in 1962. The intent was to create a dense, layered, reverberant sound that came across well on AM radio and jukeboxes popular in the era. working with engineers Stan Ross and Larry Levine and session musician conglomerate the Wrecking Crew, Spector typified 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.
The intricacies of its technique was unprecedented in the world of sound production for popular records. Songwriter Jeff Barry, who worked extensively with Spector, described the Wall of Sound "by and large…a formula arrangement" with "four or five guitars…two basses in fifths, with the same type of line…strings…six or seven horns adding the little punches…[and] percussion instruments—the little bells, the shakers, the tambourines". Chief Beach Boys songwriter and producer Brian Wilson, who used the formula extensively, offered his own understanding of the Wall of Sound in 1976: "…in the '40s and '50s, arrangements were considered: "OK here, listen to that French horn"—or—"listen to this string section now." It was all a definite sound. There weren't combinations of sound, and with the advent of Phil Spector, we find sound combinations, which—scientifically speaking—is a brilliant aspect of sound production."
During the mid-1950s, Spector worked with Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during a period where they sought a fuller sound by the use of excessive instrumentation, using up to five electric guitars and four percussionists. This was later to evolve into Spector's Wall of Sound, which Leiber and Stoller consider to be very distinct from what they were doing, stating: "Phil was the first one to use multiple drum kits, three pianos and so on. We went for much more clarity in terms of instrumental colors, and he deliberately blended everything into a kind of mulch. He definitely had a different point of view." Spector's first production was the self-penned 1957 single "Don't You Worry My Little Pet", performed with his group the Teddy Bears. The recording was achieved by taking a demo tape of the song and playing it back over the studio's speaker system in order to overdub another performance over it. The end product was a cacophony, with stacked harmony vocals that could not be heard clearly. He would spend the next several years further developing this unorthodox method of recording.
In the 1960s, Spector usually worked at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles because of its exceptional echo chambers. He also typically worked with such audio engineers as Larry Levine and the conglomerate of session musicians who later became known as The Wrecking Crew. The sum of his efforts would be officially designated "Phil Spector's Wall of Sound" by Andrew Loog Oldham, who coined the term within advertisements for the Righteous Brothers 1964 single "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling".
Larry Levine recalled, "I found out later that there were other engineers along the way who tried to duplicate the Wall of Sound by turning up all the faders to get full saturation, but all that achieved was distortion." For Phil Spector to attain the Wall of 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 and even tripling many of the parts to create a fuller, richer sound. Spector also included an eclectic array of 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". Multiple instruments playing the same notes in tandem resulting in an inseparable blend of sonority was often emphasized via the utilization of post-processing effects such as reverb, tape delay, or dynamic range compression. Daniel Lanois recounted a situation during the recording of the track "Goodbye" from Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball: "We put a huge amount of compression on the piano and the mandoguitar, and it turned into this fantastic, chimey harmonic instrument. We almost got the old Spector '60s sound, not by layering, but by really compressing what was already there between the melodic events happening between these two instruments." Nonetheless, layering identical instrumental parts remained an integral component of many of Spector's productions, as session musician Barney Kessel recalled:
"[T]here was a lot of weight on each part.…The three pianos were different, one electric, one not, one harpsichord, and they would all play the same thing and it would all be swimming around like it was all down a well. Musically, it was terribly simple, but the way he recorded and miked it, they’d diffuse it so that you couldn't pick any one instrument out. Techniques like distortion and echo were not new, but Phil came along and took these to make sounds that had not been used in the past. I thought it was ingenious."
Spector explained in 1964, "I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw." All early Wall of Sound recordings were made with a three-track Ampex 350 tape recorder. Levine explained that during mixing, "I [would] record the same thing on two of the [Ampex machine's] three tracks just to reinforce the sound, and then I would erase one of those and replace it with the voice. The console had a very limited equalizer for each input ... That was basically it in terms of effects, aside from the two echo chambers that were also there, of course, directly behind the control room."
Microphones in the recording studio captured the musicians' performance, which was then transmitted to an echo chamber—a basement room fitted 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 a texture rarely heard in musical recordings. Jeff Barry noted, "Phil used his own formula for echo, and some overtone arrangements with the strings."
During the mixing for Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans' version of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", Spector turned off the track designated for electric guitar. However, the sound of the guitar could still be heard spilling onto other microphones in the room, creating a ghostly, ambiance that obscured the instrument. In reference to this nuance of the song's recording, music professor Albin Zak has written,
It was at this moment that the complex of relationships among all the layers and aspects of the sonic texture came together to bring the desired image into focus. As long as Strange’s unmiked guitar plugs away as one of the layered timbral characters that make up the track’s rhythmic groove, it is simply one strand among many in a texture whose timbres sound more like impressionistic allusions to instruments than representations. But the guitar has a latency about it, a potential. Because it has no microphone of its own, it effectively inhabits a different ambient space from the rest of the track. As it chugs along in its accompanying role, it forms a connection with a parallel sound world of which we are, for the moment, unaware. Indeed, we would never know of the secondary ambient layer were it not for the fact that this guitar is the one that takes the solo. As it steps out of the groove texture and asserts its individuality, a doorway opens to an entirely other place in the track. It becomes quite clear that this guitar inhabits a world all its own, which has been before us from the beginning yet has somehow gone unnoticed.
From there on, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" formed the basis of Spector and Levine's future mixing practices, almost never straying from the formula it established. Levine disliked Spector's penchant for mic bleeding, accordingly, "You see, I never wanted all the bleed between instruments — I had it, but I never wanted it — and since I had to live with it, that meant manipulating other things to lessen the effect; bringing the guitars up just a hair and the drums down just a hair so that it didn't sound like it was bleeding." In order to offset the mixing problems percussion leakage caused, he applied a minimal number of microphone to drum kits, using Neumann U67s overhead and RCA 77s on the kick to establish a feeling of presence.
According to Zak: "Aside from the issues of retail and radio exposure, mono recordings represented an aesthetic frame for musicians and producers, who had grown up with them." 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, resulting in an infringement of the Wall of Sound's carefully balanced combination of sonic textures as they were meant to be heard. Brian Wilson agreed, stating: "I look at sound like a painting, you have a balance and the balance is conceived in your mind. You finish the sound, dub it down, and you’ve stamped out a picture of your balance with the mono dubdown. But in stereo, you leave that dubdown to the listener—to his speaker placement and speaker balance. It just doesn't seem complete to me." Kevin Shields of the group My Bloody Valentine stated:
[Our album] Loveless was meant to sound really good if you play it loud on a ghetto blaster and also if you play it loud on a hi-fi…When people make records, they have treble and basses for everything to kind of tame the mid-range and make it sweeter and more hi-fi sounding using stereo separation, reverb and ambience–to make everything sound big and spacious and wide.…Everything I did is mostly mono: "Soon" is mono, and "To Here Knows When" is mono–there's no set area of separation. The sense of bigness just comes from the depth of perception. Pet Sounds and Phil Spector's productions were mono as well–it’s more the balance of frequencies that creates a sense of depth than stereo separation and ambience; they’re not as important. For me, everything that seemed to really affect me didn’t affect me because I heard something coming out of one speaker and something else coming out of another speaker. The classic '80s version of stereo was basically a drum sound that’s really widened by stereo effects and gated, and the guitars are really panned to extremes and it’s just vocals and drums in the middle with overdubs. It was a corporate, weak sound.
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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. Songwriting collaborator Jeff Barry said: "[H]e 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." Musicologist Richard Middleton wrote: "This can be contrasted with the open spaces and more equal lines of typical funk and reggae textures [for example], which seem to invite [listeners] to insert [themselves] in those spaces and actively participate."
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. Biographer David Hinckley suggested that the Wall of Sound was both more complex and more subtle, elaborating: "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", such as in Bobby Hatfield's rendering of "Unchained Melody".
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The Wall of Sound forms the foundation of Phil Spector's recordings, in general. However, certain records are considered to have epitomized its use. 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 George Harrison, who called it "a perfect record from start to finish". Spector later produced his album All Things Must Pass (1970).
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 Let It Be, an album practically 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[by whom?] 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.
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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. Wilson considers Pet Sounds to be a concept album centered around interpretations of Phil Spector's recording methods.
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Musicians and groups that have made prominent use of the Wall of Sound method include Queen, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, ABBA, Roy Wood, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf, Devin Townsend, and Todd Rundgren.
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 Los Angeles-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".
Multi-instrumentalist and producer Kevin Parker from Australian psychedelic rock band Tame Impala uses this production technique on their debut-album Innerspeaker from 2011, and their second album, 2012's Lonerism.
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