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View Full Version : Phil Spector's "wall of sound" - please explain


KneadToKnow
04-23-2003, 12:05 PM
Since my mid-teens, I have heard that record producer Phil Spector was responsible for a development in the recording industry called the "wall of sound," but I've never really grasped what that phrase described.

I've searched on the net some and have only come up with plenty of sites that use the catch phrase but none that really seem interested in verbalizing what it is. One in particular that I found had something along the lines of "What is the 'wall of sound'? Just listen to these!" followed by a discography. This reminded me of the time I asked my piano teacher what syncopation was and she said, "It's this" and played a short piece of, presumably, syncopated music. Thanks, but if that sufficed for a definition, I wouldn't have needed to ask the question.

So, what exactly is the "wall of sound"?

I can't believe that's butter!
04-23-2003, 12:12 PM
Basically, Phil Spector had something like three drummers, a whole string section, a few guitar players, multi-instruments, etc, etc, and ran all these players through a huge echo chamber to create a roaring sound. I'll try to find some sites/cites.

hawthorne
04-23-2003, 12:14 PM
Lots of noise. Rather than a backing track featuring a rhythm section individually-miked with sound baffles between them, Spector had several pianos, drummers, bassists and rhythm guitarists all in one small room. Maybe they were individually miked as well, but the huge rumble of the room was the "wall of sound". IIRC.

Scumpup
04-23-2003, 12:20 PM
Rolling Stone magazine once referred to it as "wall of sludge bombast" which I found both hilarious and aptly descriptive.

Diogenes the Cynic
04-23-2003, 12:23 PM
The "wall of sound" essentially involved layering multiple tracks of instrumentation and vocals to create a large, symphonic type of sound. For instance, he might take the backing vocals to a song and overdub them a hundred times to make it sound enormous. It wasn't just live instrumentation. He used recording technology to multiply the sounds. Listen to "Be My baby," for a good example of wall of sound. Bruce Springsteen was also making a conscious attempt to emeulate Spector on 'Born To Run."

KneadToKnow
04-23-2003, 12:24 PM
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. The first thing I'm hearing from these replies is that the "wall of sound" was a recording technique. For some reason, I had it in my head that it was a post-production or mixing technique.

Excellent. Keep it coming!

KneadToKnow
04-23-2003, 12:29 PM
Okay, I simulposted with Diogenes a little bit there, so now I'm getting muddled some, but I'm getting now that maybe it's both.

Diogenes the Cynic
04-23-2003, 12:37 PM
It's both. He used a lot of live instrumentation and them multiplied individual tracks to make it sound like even more. What WOS really means is a total saturation of sound in the recording. There is no empty "space" as it were, every part of every track is completely filled with sound.

I can't believe that's butter!
04-23-2003, 12:40 PM
Phil’s "Wall of Sound" was actually a very sophisticated, complex and painstaking process that required many musicians and multiple instruments crammed into an area designed to accommodate only a fraction of them, a revolutionary approach to sound reproduction and Dave’s custom-built and hand-crafted recording technology along with the echo chamber- and the resulting textural masterpieces redefined the role of the record producer. We will devote a considerable amount of space to Phil’s genius and his impact in our upcoming history of Gold Star.

from: http://goldstarrecordingstudios.com/FAQ.htm .. an interesting site in it's own right.

I can't believe that's butter!
04-23-2003, 12:45 PM
And, no, it's not something I really care for. Maybe it sounded good on the relatively lo-fi sound systems of the day, but "Wall of Sludge Bombast"....that's a good one.... :D

WordMan
04-23-2003, 01:39 PM
Okay - it has been covered, but let's summarize - there are basically three main ingredients to the Wall of Sound:

1) Complex, orchestral arrangements - remember, in the early 60's, rock was stripped down to 3 - 4 instruments and recorded crudely. Spector's approach captured some of the complex arrangements with strings and horns, etc., used in older pop (e.g., Sinatra) and adapted it to a pop/rock setting. May seem kitschy to some, but very accessible, especially at the time.

2) Multi-tracking - when he couldn't get all of the instruments he wanted, he layered the same tracks over and over again to "thicken up" the sound. This technique is now SUPER common - John Lennon loved to double-track his voice because he felt it sounded thin. Most weak vocalists double and triple track their voices (sometimes with a guide track buried in there with a more accomplished vocalist - Paula Abdul was sued for doing this, but won). Diogenes is right about Springsteen - the famous "Duhn - duh-duhn duhn Duhn" of Born to Run is a Fender Telecaster guitar multi-tracked dozens of times...

3) A "Wet" Sound - in the studio, if you add reverb or echo to the sound, it is called making it "wet". A lot of surf guitar uses a ton of reverb. Spector used a lot of echo and reverb.

Again, one HAS to take this in the context of the times, and respect Spector's technical brilliance. He wrote many of the songs, is generally considered the first producer who's name became famous and a "brand" - before Brian Wilson, George Martin (in America), and later Quincy Jones or many others. He was the first Producer-as-Star. He developed complex arrangements, used ground-breaking innovative techniques, and kept the sound clear and accessible for radio-ready hits on what is seen now as incredibly crude recording equipment. Like him or not, any true music fan has to respect his accomplishments. There is a reason that Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations and the Beatles psychedelic recordings sound the way they do - both bands are the first to say that Spector influenced them hugely.

WordMan

PS:


Don't know if you already found out, KneadtoKnow, but syncopation is off-beat rhythm - so if a 4/4 beat goes:

bom bom bom bom

Then a 4/4 beat with a little bit of syncopation goes:

bom bom-bom bom bom

Where the "bom-bom" fills the same beat-time of a normal single "bom". The point is, there is a slight rhythmic variation while sticking with the basic tracking. It can get FAR more sophisticated, but you get the idea, if you didn't have it already.

Lamia
04-23-2003, 01:51 PM
One aspect of the Wall of Sound was that, because the musicians were all crammed into a small space together, the mic on (say) the first bass guitarist was also picking up what the other musicians in the room were playing. This helped to produce a thicker sound.

Odieman
04-23-2003, 02:05 PM
It was explained in a book about Phil Spector that the main component of the Wall of Sound was timing the echo to the tempo of the track, thereby thickening the sound and making it seem fuller. Phil also used multiple instruments playing the sounds and recorded (mostly) in Mono so that the sounds would blend into each other. A prime example of this is "White Christmas" by Darlene Love...if you listen to this on headphones you will see how the various components blended into a seamless whole...this pretentious rock critic moment brought to you by Odie channeling Dave Marsh crossed with Greil Marcus.

metroshane
04-23-2003, 03:36 PM
One of the reasons they call it the "wall of sound" is because Spector wanted you to listen to the piece as a whole instead of "oh there's the bass line...and listen to that horn blast". He recorded and mixed to try and come as close as possible to one complete sound without any of the instruments becoming too recognizable on their own.

Listen to a lot of the songs and it's difficult to pick out a dominant "line from any instrument".

RTFirefly
04-23-2003, 03:36 PM
If I understand what y'all are talking about, there are some good examples of the "Wall of Sound" on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass album, which Spector had a hand in, IIRC.

If I'm reading you right, both "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It A Pity" gradually build toward a Wall of Sound over the course of the song.
3) A "Wet" Sound - in the studio, if you add reverb or echo to the sound, it is called making it "wet". A lot of surf guitar uses a ton of reverb.When Fastball's "The Way" came out a few years back, I remember thinking, "that's a mid-60s surf-music guitar," but I lacked the vocabulary to talk about it. Is that the sort of thing you meant, WordMan?

WordMan
04-23-2003, 04:37 PM
Originally posted by RTFirefly
When Fastball's "The Way" came out a few years back, I remember thinking, "that's a mid-60s surf-music guitar," but I lacked the vocabulary to talk about it. Is that the sort of thing you meant, WordMan?

yes - I assume you are referring to the solo in the middle of the song - very surf/reverb/Fender guitar/twangy. For another top-of-mind sound memory of surf guitar, there's some great surf guitar on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. IIRC, "Miserlou" is on there, which is a surf classic by the King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale. That is a great way to get a sense of what I am referring to. It starts with a rapid-picking single guitar and has some almost flamenco-like components to it. Dale is a monster!

Already in Use
04-23-2003, 05:40 PM
So dry/wet sound meaning echo is different from the use of the term to refer to accordion tuning?

Eonwe
04-23-2003, 06:54 PM
Originally posted by RTFirefly
If I understand what y'all are talking about, there are some good examples of the "Wall of Sound" on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass album, which Spector had a hand in, IIRC.

If I'm reading you right, both "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It A Pity" gradually build toward a Wall of Sound over the course of the song.
When Fastball's "The Way" came out a few years back, I remember thinking, "that's a mid-60s surf-music guitar," but I lacked the vocabulary to talk about it. Is that the sort of thing you meant, WordMan?


Warning:

If you've got the newly released version of All Things Must Pass, I'm fairly sure that they did away with a lot of P. Spector's mixing, IIRC.

scotandrsn
04-23-2003, 07:54 PM
Take a look at the film "What's Love Got to Do With It". Doesn't matter if you're a Tina Turner fan or not: I'm not, and I think it's an excellent film.

Anyhoo, there's a scene where Phil Spector records Tina singing the song "River Deep, Mountain High", which I'm told is a more or less accurate depiction of a typical "Wall of Sound" recording session.

Also, check out Tom Wolfe's character study of Spector in his first book, "The Kandy-Koated Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby"

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