Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 5

The first and most important rule: wall-of-sound is what you would hear if all the instruments and voices were playing unamplified.

Imagine being in a large room the size of a gym. Now imagine a typical rock band: electric bass, electric guitar, drums, acoustic guitar, tambourine, singer. In this hypothetical case, each person makes only one sound, i.e. the singer does not play an instrument, and the tambourine player, guitarists and drummer do not sing. No one is amplified, including the singer. (For our purposes, the electric guitar is "unamplified" when it is playing at the lowest possible volume to attain the right sound.)

If the whole band were standing 10 feet away from you, you would hear nothing but drums and electric guitar. Even if the singer is screaming, it is doubtful that you would make out what she is saying. The same with the acoustic guitar; without amplification, it is nearly inaudible at this point.

Now, without moving anyone else, move the drums 100 feet away, the electric guitar about 60 feet away, and the bass guitar about 30 feet away. When the band plays again, the drums and guitars would be much quieter. But since they are farther away, you hear much reverb, the sound that bounces all over the room until it gets to your ears. If the room is large enough, you might even hear a tiny bit of echo from the sound bouncing off the wall farthest from you.

The acoustic guitar is still too quiet at 10 feet away, so you ask the guitarist to move about 5 feet closer. Your singer has a quiet voice, so you must ask her to stand right next to you in order to be heard. The acoustic guitar's sound needs to travel only 5 feet, so you hear only a tiny bit of reverb. The singer's voice comes to you even more directly, since it only needs to travel about a foot to reach your ear. There is absolutely no reverb or echo from her.

Where do we place the tambourine player? Anyone who's played live knows just how loud that small percussion instrument can get, because it is way above the frequency range of everything else. A comfortable distance would be about halfway between the listener and the drums. So, in exchange for less volume, we hear more reverb.

Do you get the idea? That is the most fundamental rule of wall-of-sound: getting the echo and reverb just right. A rule of thumb is that the louder the instrument, the more echo and reverb to apply. Theoretically, you could even record the musicians in the manner I described, if you replace the listener with a microphone. That would give you the most authentic wall-of-sound mix. But who has access to a huge room like that? Thanks to computers, we can artificially apply reverb to make a wall-of-sound recording, even if all the recording was done in a tiny studio. (The echo effect, however, is always minimal and should only be applied to the loudest percussive instruments. Reverb is usually enough.)

"But why should we mix this way?" you ask. "Aren't we just making the track sound muddy?"

Yes, we are making the track "muddy." But only for certain sound sources. Remember, the vocals are quite clean in the mix, since the singer is practically next to your ear. Acoustic guitar is similarly clean. Only the loudest instruments contribute to the rumbling noise characteristic of wall-of-sound. Rumbling noise does not deaden the track, as you might expect. In fact, it evokes the physical vibrations you feel when you are in a big room with loud music. It is a two-dimensional representation of the multi-sensory live music experience. Simply turning up the volume on a "clean" track does not necessarily give you that mightly roar.

Wall-of-sound represents the most natural rock sound possible. It stands for the least electronic amplification, the least amount of intrusion by microphonic tubes and whatnot. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, it is important to realize that a wall-of-sound record does not have to reflect one take of an actual live performance---it can be entirely simulated in the studio with high-tech equipment---the important thing is what it evokes in the listener, its ability to transport the listener to that large room with all the musicians.

Having said that, the wall-of-sound, taken superficially, is a strange sound to most listeners. Unless you assemble yourself and the musicians as described above, there isn't a rock concert in the world where you can experience this kind of sound. In a way, it is a most fantastic of all noises, the most natural and yet the most unreal. But it works because of what it suggests for the listener.

Another way to think about it is to consider a photograph in which the subject is sharp but the background is out of focus. We would never literally see the world like this, but it is very easy, even natural for us to comprehend such a picture, because it represents the way our eyes only pay attention to the object in the very center of the field of vision. If you don't believe me, focus your eyes on one particular word on this paragraph and see how far you can read left and right without moving your eyes.

Wall-of-sound is like such a photograph because it makes the singer sound closer to the listener than anything else. The closeness, of course, is indicated by the near-total lack of reverb or echo. It may even be further emphasized by the mixing of the vocals with a richer equalization compared to the rest of the instruments.

"This is really interesting. But did Phil Spector and Brian Wilson really use this technique?"

We will never know exactly what they were thinking in the 1960s, but I believe my description of the wall-of-sound is the one that best combines what I have observed in their recordings and what I can formulate into a consistent, interesting and compelling aesthetic theory. Spector and Wilson would sometimes deviate, even contradict, the wall-of-sound technique described here. For example, Brian Wilson would sometimes mix the drums closely, and Phil Spector would mix the vocals with very noticeable echo. But there are many recordings available which clearly demonstrate this essay's version of the wall-of-sound, most notably Pet Sounds and the earlier Spector recordings. And as we will discover in an upcoming chapter, there are many bands since the 1960s that have come close to the wall-of-sound, whether accidentally or otherwise.

But first, we should have a discussion about what makes a good song for the wall-of-sound. After all, a poorly written song (and poorly arranged) won't get anywhere in the charts (or in the hearts of mankind) even if you followed every wall-of-sound rule.