Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 1

I want to tell you about wall-of-sound.

I want to tell you what wall-of-sound is, because I think art and music is better for it, and because I believe it is the best production philosophy to get the most out of a song. I want to tell you about wall-of-sound, because I think music has suffered for the last forty years since inferior production ideas have dominated the music industry. And the original practitioners of the wall-of-sound style, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, are no longer able to produce this type of music with the same energy and spirit they had in their youth. It is up to this generation to rediscover the timeless sounds of well-produced music.

But why should I tell anyone about wall-of-sound? Why don't I just keep it my trade secret and make money producing my own music in this style?

There is no reason for me to keep the wall-of-sound to myself, except to let the music industry continue to crank out their hit parade of uninspiring songs destined to be forgotten by next year. This is no time for egos, profits and pointless competition. I want the wall-of-sound philosophy to usher in a new era of great music accessible to everyone. By writing this essay, I have little to lose and a golden age of music to gain.

Music does not suck and rock is not dead. I look around and I see great songwriters everywhere, men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities, creating music that could inspire the masses and steer our society in a positive direction. Music is one of the most powerful art forms, a sensory experience so profound that, in addition to its obvious soothing and inspiring effects on the general listener, it has been known to have positive effects on people with brain disorders even when other treatments have failed.

Currently, our pop radio stations have 40 songs in rotation at any given moment. It is a sorry state of affairs, but made sorrier when you consider the fact that, of the 40, we would be lucky if one of the songs is still remembered by anybody ten years from now. Why not fill the radio with instant classics? There is room on contemporary radio, at any moment, for hundreds of well-produced songs that could withstand the test of time.

Can you imagine? Radio would be heaven, or at least the sign of a flourishing culture. I believe that wall-of-sound production is a step in that direction.

But before I tell you what wall of sound is, I will tell you what wall-of-sound is not.

Wall-of-sound is not an outdated, obsolete way to make music. Songs like "Chapel Of Love," "Unchained Melody," "Good Vibrations," "God Only Knows," "Imagine," and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" have attained immortal status, not just because they are examples of great songwriting, but because their wall-of-sound production have pushed it into the public imagination. Even if you don't recognize these titles, I know you will recognize the song when you hear it. Wall-of-sound continues to work to this day, everytime someone remembers one of those great songs.

Wall-of-sound is not the piling up of as many instruments on a pop record as possible. This technique is certainly one way of getting to one kind of wall-of-sound, but the technique is not the sound. Without an understanding of what wall-of-sound is, what it means, any fool can overdub endlessly and never come close to the true wall-of-sound.

Wall-of-sound is not an exercise in which the producer puts as many people in a room as possible, saturates the room with sound using amplifiers and tape echo machines, and records a live take of the result. Again, this is only a technique, admittedly a very effective one, of getting to something close to wall-of-sound. Technological advances since the 1960s have made this expensive technique unnecessary. In particular, software such as Cubase and Pro Tools can create a wall-of-sound just as well, if not better, than anything Phil Spector and Brian Wilson achieved in the 1960s.

"But what exactly is wrong with today's music?" you ask. "Especially if have good taste in music and listen to indie rock."

A good question. In the next installment, we will take a closer look at today's music and how our expectations of music have gradually shifted over the century.

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