HELLO...Hello...hello

Hello
"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"

Alan Parsons

HELLO...Hello...hello


Echo, reverb, delay, and ambience. There's a difference between them (see "Tech Notes" below) and they're often confused with each other or used incorrectly. But each one has an important place in recording with technology often dictating their use. Reverb/echo/delay can make or break a recording. Thanks to the American Legion Hall in New York City, Decca Records found the perfect effect for Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Columbia Records built their own "echo chamber" for such hits as Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." And U2's Edge has created a patented sound for his guitar with electronic delay.

Early recordings were often done in large halls and spaces. The natural ambience and reverb of the space helped the realism. But the tinny-sounding jukeboxes of the 1930's and 40's had trouble translating the core sound above the reverb. The jukebox operators complained, so the record companies began recording everything with a very dry sound, until...

Hi-Fi came along. After WWII, recording to magnetic tape became the standard (read more about its introduction into American music). It revealed much more detail than disc recording did. In 1951, Mercury Records decided to take advantage of this fact by introducing the series "Living Presence." Spearheaded by husband and wife team Bob and Wilma Fine, these carefully executed classical recordings went on to critical and commercial success until 1967. The first recordings were in mono using the storied Telefunken U-47. Seeking more detail from the orchestra while maintaining the rich natural reverb, Bob turned to the handmade omnidirectional Schoeps M201. It would become the permanent staple for these recordings. When Bob started recording in stereo in 1954, he used three M201's (left-center-right onto 3-track magnetic tape, later mixed down to stereo).

Producers and engineers didn't or couldn't always go to large spaces just to have reverb, so they started to create it artificially. Artificial reverb was already showing up in a few hit records before Bob Fine stuck his U-47 up on a stand. Bill Putnam of Universal Recording built the first "echo chamber," a separate room that included an amplified speaker and microphone. It was actually his bathroom, but the Harmonicats took "Peg o' My Heart" all the way to the top of Billboard's chart with that atmospheric reverb.

With Putnam's cleverness and Fine's success, all of a sudden reverb was HOT! Capitol Records built an echo chamber in 1953, and all of the other big record companies soon followed. Many Frank Sinatra, Beatles, and Doors recordings used the echo chamber. But an echo chamber took up valuable real estate. One clever solution was to divide a room into two, with an opening on the end of the dividing wall - basically U-shaped. The signal from the control room would come from a speaker on one end. The sound traveled down the room, around the corner, and into the microphone at the other. They were usually located in basements for isolation. There are tales of engineers hearing water dripping in the effect, only to find flooded basements. Another engineer went down to troubleshoot why the reverb sounded muffled and found a homeless person living in the chamber. Some studios are still using some of these original echo chambers.

What about electronic reverb? Spring reverbs were first used in the late 1930's, mostly in guitar amplifiers. The sound could be "boingy" and unrealistic, but studios on a budget used them anyway. The "plate reverb" made its debut in the late 1950's. The "plate" was a 40mm thick sheet of steel measuring 1 x 2 meters. It was suspended in a tubular frame with springs and mounted in a soundproof chamber or box. A driver with the studio send signal was placed in the middle, and a contact microphone (or two for a quasi-stereo effect) was placed on the edge. Rigidity, thickness, damping, and choice of driver and mic shaped the sound. The EMT 140 plate reverb was a 600-pound behemoth with a price tag to match, and was popular in larger studios and radio stations. It usually had a big sound, and AM radio stations in the 1960's and 70's capitalized on this by using it on most programming.

Tape delay was another artificial reverb used mostly in rock music in the 60's and 70's. A track was fed into another recorder, which was fed back into itself post-recording, creating a delay feedback loop. Some musicians that used it for its signature sound were Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. Reverb was so wildly popular, that cars in the mid-60's began offering it as an option on the radio.

By the early 70's, analog circuits started showing up that achieved similar results as the tape delay. The 80's microchips brought digital reverb and delay boxes. It was hard to resist, and the "Big 80's" was born. The 90's brought digital reverb into the PC. And the last decade has seen mind-boggling advances in artificial reverb, including the "acoustic stamp," which models decay and character using actual recordings in real environments.

If you can believe it, people are still building new echo chambers, plate reverbs, and spring reverbs. Sometimes that organic sound is just too hard to emulate digitally. Even the early digital reverbs from Yamaha, Lexicon, and Eventide still command big bucks on the used market. Many of these "old" technologies and echo chambers are digitally sampled and used as software plugins. I have a few digital reverb boxes from the 90's that still sound superb. Maybe I used one on your project.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the origins of reverb and echo in recording. There are so many interesting stories that I don't have the time or space to relate. So without further delay, I will now say GOODBYE...Goodbye...goodbye.

Did You Know?

In the late 1960's and into 70's, FM radio started to become the listener's choice for music that wasn't Top 40. Most FM radio stations were part of a station that put most of its efforts into its profitable AM station. Therefore FM programming was an afterthought. Listeners enjoyed fewer commercials, if any. Classical music dominated FM radio at first, but progressive and alternative rock music that appealed to youth began to emerge. Instead of singles, long cuts and entire albums were played, such as the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Diskjockeys had fewer limitations and an almost free style of programming. Artists started to record longer songs that wouldn't necessarily get AM airplay, but could still find a home on FM.

As FM radio picked up steam, program directors began featuring more singles, salespeople began selling more commercials, and FM started to sound more like AM, only better. AM radio station managers saw FM as a threat to their successful Top 40 programming. One solution, or more truthfully, gimmick, was to make the AM sound "bigger." They began installing plate reverbs that were used on most programming. Though AM couldn't compete in fidelity, they held their ground for a short time with this new sound. AM stations started to add big words to their names, like "The Mighty 590" and "The Big 89." Music programming on AM was eventually replaced with talk radio by the 1990's.

Tech Notes

Here are some non-technical definitions and observations. Some words are confusing, ambiguous, and have been misused over the years.
  • Echo is a repeated and diminished delay of the original sound. It can be one or more repetitions. Think of standing in a canyon and yelling hello, only to have it repeat over and over again, more softly with each repetition. The delays are usually derived from only a couple of surfaces where the sound will ping-pong between the two. Echo is generally used when describing a natural occurring event rather than a manufactured one. But "echo" still turns up in the music and recording worlds.
  • Reverb (short for reverberation) is a continuation of the core sound. It may have initial delay, but is a blend of many surfaces bouncing the sound around. You don't hear the original sound clearly like an echo, only muffled and drawn-out sounds. It is also used to describe an added artificial sound, such as reverberation, delay, or echo. When a sound is "wet," it means it has artificial reverb added. When it is "dry," then no artificial reverb was added.
  • Delay is similar to echo, but with only one repetition. A live broadcast that is heard or seen several seconds later is "delayed." The word "delay" has supplanted "echo" in the music world. Electronic delay in music usually refers to a rhythmic or timed echo (multiple repeating instances of the original sound), such as on the guitar of U2's Edge.
  • Tape Delay uses a separate reel-to-reel recorder. The signal needing delay was fed into the recorder. While recording, that unit's output from the playback head was fed back into itself creating a feedback loop. But there was a slight delay because the playback head was positioned after the record head. Tape traveling past the record head got the original signal recorded, then hit the playback head a moment later. "Tape delay" is also used to describe a program that is not broadcast live, but has been recorded and played at a later time.
  • Ambience can include one or all of the above, but is really defined as the character of the recording space blended in with the original sound. It may also include other sounds, such as air movement, people, hums, traffic, etc. It is also sometimes used when describing adding artificial reverb.
  • An echo chamber's reverberation can be tuned with hard, slick surfaces along with sound-absorbing baffles. Too much ringing and ping-ponging creates a bad sounding reverb that fights with the vocals or lead instrument. The echo chamber is mis-named, as there is more reverb than echo.
  • Spring reverb units can contain from one to several springs. Many automobiles in the 60's that contained a reverb unit had a one-spring box mounted under the dashboard or in the trunk. These went out of style when FM radio became more commonplace and cheaper.
Neil Kesterson

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