The Wall of Sound is a music production technique for pop and rock music recordings developed by record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios during the 1960s.
Spector, working with audio engineers such as Larry Levine, created a dense, layered, and reverberant sound that reproduced well on AM radio and jukeboxes popular in the era. He created this sound by having a number of electric and acoustic guitarists perform the same parts in unison, adding musical arrangements for large groups and/or orchestral musicians, and then recording the sound using an echo chamber.
To attain this signature sound, Spector gathered large groups of musicians (playing some instruments not generally used for ensemble playing, such as electric and acoustic guitars) playing orchestrated parts — often doubling and tripling many instruments playing in unison — for a fuller sound. As well, Spector arranged the songs for large groups of musicians playing instruments traditionally associated with orchestras (such as strings, woodwinds, and brass). Spector himself called his technique “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids.”
While Spector directed the overall sound of his recordings, he took a relatively hands-off approach to working with the musicians themselves (usually a core group that became known as The Wrecking Crew, including session players such as Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Steve Douglas, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, and Leon Russell), delegating arrangement duties to Jack Nitzsche and having Sonny Bono oversee the performances, viewing these two as his “lieutenants.”
Spector frequently used songs from songwriters employed at the Brill Building, such as the teams of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Spector often worked with the songwriters, receiving co-credit for compositions. The first time Spector put the same amount of effort into an LP as he did into 45s was when he utilized the full Philles roster and the Wrecking Crew to make what he felt would become a hit for the 1963 Christmas season. A Christmas Gift for You arrived in stores the day of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Spector was already known as a temperamental and quirky personality with strong, often unconventional ideas about musical and recording techniques. 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. Spector also greatly preferred singles to albums, describing LPs as, “two hits and ten pieces of junk.”
In the 1960s, Spector usually worked at the Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles because of its exceptional echo chambers, essential to the Wall of Sound technique. Microphones in the recording studio captured the sound, which was then transmitted to an echo chamber—a basement room outfitted with speakers and microphones. The signal from the studio would be played through the speakers and would reverberate around the room, being picked up by the microphones. The echo-laden sound was then channeled back to the control room, where it was transferred to tape.
The natural reverberation and echo from the hard walls of the room gave his productions their distinctive quality and resulted in a rich and complex sound when played on AM radio, with an impressive depth rarely heard in mono recordings.
Songwriter Jeff Barry, who worked extensively with Spector, described the Wall of Sound as:
“basically a formula. You’re going to have four or five guitars line up, gut-string guitars, and they’re going to follow the chords…two basses in fifths, with the same type of line, and strings…six or seven horns, adding the little punches…formula percussion instruments — the little bells, the shakers, the tambourines. Phil used his own formula for echo, and some overtone arrangements with the strings. But by and large there was a formula arrangement.”
The Wall of Sound may be compared with “the standard pop mix of foregrounded solo vocal and balanced, blended backing.” In contrast, Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ (‘one mike over everything’) invites the listener to immerse himself in the quasi-Wagnerian mass of sound:
“he 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”.|Jeff Barry, quoted in Williams 1974, p.91
“This can be contrasted with the open spaces and more equal lines of typical funk and reggae textures [for example], which seem to invite the listener to insert himself in those spaces and actively participate.”|Middleton 1990, p.89
Songs using the technique
Outside of Phil 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.
“Be My Baby”, a 1963 hit for The Ronettes, written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, produced by Phil Spector, is often cited as the quintessential expression of the “Wall of Sound”. The Ronettes’ version of “Sleigh Ride” — one of the better-known recorded renditions of the song — also heavily used the effect.
Johnny Franz’s mid-60s productions for Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers also employed a layered, symphonic “Wall of Sound” arrangement-and-recording style, heavily influenced by the Spector sound. Harry Nilsson’s hit, “Everybody’s Talkin'”, which became the theme song for Midnight Cowboy, similarly used “Wall of Sound”-style production techniques. In the 1970s, Swedish pop group ABBA used similar techniques in their earlier songs, including “Ring Ring”, “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen”.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s landmark 1975 Born to Run album — which includes more than thirty guitar tracks — is perhaps the most extensive and faithful updating of Spector’s early-60s “Wall of Sound” production style.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the most influential British punk rock recordings of the 1970s were not sloppy, primitive affairs, but ambitious, meticulously crafted studio productions. Indeed, Chris Thomas’ production for The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” is probably the premier example of the mono “Wall of Sound” recording technique in punk — with over twenty carefully orchestrated, feedback-laden guitar overdubs used in the making of the record. Sandy Pearlman’s epic production for “Tommy Gun” by The Clash also builds to an intense, dramatic “Wall of Sound” finale featuring several loud, distorted guitar overdubs and martial sound effects set against a rousing snare-drum march.
In the 1980s, Trevor Horn’s hugely popular productions for ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” are decidedly slicker and more sophisticated examples of the opulent “Wall of Sound” approach in British New Wave/Hi-NRG dance music — both recordings utilize a sixty-piece 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”.
Canadian Metal musician Devin Townsend is well known for his extensive use of this technique in his works, employing gratuitous use of delays and reverb on the guitar, keyboard and vocal tracks, while at the same time overlaying multiple takes for a rich, full sound and atmosphere. Townsend uses these techniques on the making of Strapping Young Lad’s Alien album.
Other recent examples of the wall of sound technique include Bernard Butler (in his work with such acts as McAlmont and Butler, The Tears and Duffy, with such songs as “Yes”, “Apollo 13” and “Rockferry) and The Xbox Boys’ “Chronicles of the Orb”, especially on the single “Cortana”.
The Beatles’ album Let It Be was re-produced by Phil Spector and is cited as a famous example of his “Wall of Sound.” Paul McCartney claimed that the production had ruined the work, particularly McCartney’s composition “The Long and Winding Road,” and a “de-Spectorized” version of the album was released as Let It Be… Naked in 2003. George Harrison and John Lennon ostensibly favored the production style, continuing to use Spector on various solo projects.
Recordings produced by Spector for Leonard Cohen and Ramones have been subject to much criticism. Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man employed a grand Wall of Sound and was a direct departure from Cohen’s usual stark acoustic sound. The Ramones’ End of the Century blended punk rock with the wall of sound in hopes of creating a more radio-friendly sound. Fans and members of the Ramones dismissed the album after its release. However, it contains some of their most well-known songsTemplate:Fact such as Baby, I Love You.
The term “wall of sound” first appeared in print in the New York Times on June 22nd 1874, in a description of Richard Wagner’s redesigned Nibelungen Theater in Bayreuth, Germany, which placed the orchestra (for the first time, it seems) in a deep orchestra pit out of sight of the audience. (Previously, the orchestra had been placed in front of the stage, at the same level as the audience and in plain view).
“The mere sinking of the orchestra is, however, not the only innovation. Wagner leaves there, a space of eighteen feet wide, and extending the entire breadth of the stage (not merely of the proscenium) and extending up to the roof, perfectly free. He calls this the Mystic Space, because he intends that here the invisible ‘wall of music,’ proceeding from the invisible orchestra, shall separate the real (that is the audience) from the ideal (the stage pictures.) If we may so express ourselves, the audience will perceive the scenes through an invisible wall of sound.”
The term became popularly used around 1955 to describe sound of the jazz orchestra led by Stan Kenton, with its booming trombone, trumpet and percussion sections.
The term “Wall of Sound” was also used to describe the enormous public address system designed by Owsley Stanley specifically for the Grateful Dead’s live performances circa 1974. The Wall of Sound fulfilled the band’s desire for a distortion-free sound system that could also serve as its own monitoring system. Raymond Scott nicknamed the vast array of homemade sequencers and synthesizers that took up a wall of his studio the “wall of sound.”
Shoegazing, a style of alternative rock, is influenced by “Wall of Sound”. Shoegazing emerged from the United Kingdom in the late 1980s and lasted until the mid 1990s, peaking circa 1990 to 1991. Common musical elements in shoegazing are distortion, delay, and chorus effects, droning riffs and a “wall of sound” from noisy guitars. Typically, two distorted rhythm guitars are played together to give an amorphous quality to the sound. Although lead guitar riffs were often present, they were not the central focus of most shoegazing songs.
Vocals are typically subdued in volume and tone, but underneath the layers of guitars is generally a strong sense of melody. While the genres which influenced shoegazing often used drum machines, shoegazing more often features live drumming. Chapterhouse and Seefeel utilised both samples and live drumming.