How Humans Conquered Echo

A brief history of artificial reverb in music

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When the Harmonicats' "Peg o' My Heart" was released in 1947, the harmonica instrumental would have been just another catchy tune on the radio were it not for the surreal, atmospheric reverberation that drenched it. Producer Bill Putnam's use of an echo chamber (specifically, a microphone and loudspeaker placed in the studio's bathroom) was probably the first artistic use of artificial reverb in music, and it lent an eerie dimension to the song. The record hit No. 1 on the charts 65 years ago today and stayed there for most of the summer.

No mere gimmick, Putnam's innovation begat a new twist in humans' ongoing effort to tame the forces of echo, a quest that has shaped the architecture of ziggurats, cathedrals, and concert halls. As it happened, the otherworldly reverberations of the lavatory at Putnam's Universal Recording studio in Chicago fit nicely into this millennium-long tradition.

"My dad was really intrigued by artificial reverb," says his son, Bill Putnam Jr., who took over his father's business with his brother, James Putnam. "I would say haunted, but not in a bad way."

Arguably the oldest and most universal sound effect in music, reverb has informed the spiritual grandeur of 10th-century plainsong and the Rastafarian message of early dub. Even the guitar solo of every 1980s power ballad bears reverb's angelic touch. Yes, reverb makes music sound better (when done right), but it goes well beyond what we can reasonably ask of any studio trick: It suggests that there's something beyond ourselves. In their book, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter write that early humans considered echoes "the sounds or even voices of spirits from a world beyond the cave wall." Shouting "Hello!" in a stairwell might not convince you that angels await on the next floor, but a voice unattached to any person ringing in the air for a few seconds certainly suggests some other presence.

(A quick taxonomy: "reverb" and "echo" are often used interchangeably, but really echo is when sound repeats—"Hello!... hello!.. hello!"—and it almost always happens outside. Reverb is an indoors phenomenon that occurs when there's not enough distance for delays, and it results in a continuous ring until fading. By "artificial reverb," I mean any reverb that doesn't naturally occur in a performance—or isn't reverb at all, but an electromechanical simulation of it).

For most of history, musicians were at the mercy of reverberation, and they adapted their work accordingly. Many composers, including J.S. Bach, frequently wrote music in ways that exploited the specific acoustics of certain buildings. Gregorian chant likely developed because of cathedrals' acoustic properties; the long reverberation times (often up to 10 seconds) limited the number of notes that could be sung before blending into a messy sonic mix—a phenomenon that likely sped up the arrival of polyphony.

But with artificial reverb, studio engineers could bend reverb to their will. Often they did so to mimic the sounds of great concert halls and cathedrals, but for some, artificial reverb allowed them to become the virtual architects of spaces that could never exist in the real world. They could create the aural equivalent of M.C. Escher drawings.

Stuart Hallerman, owner of Avast! Studio in Seattle, where Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and Earth have recorded, says both approaches have their place. Sometimes he uses reverb to create a "documentary-style" recording with a realistic sense of space. "But some mixes I do as abstract art," he says. It depends on who's in the studio that day. He'll create a reverb sound similar to a small club or garage for a punk band and something a little more mysterious for a band like drone masters Earth. Fleet Foxes, whose members have said they aim for the "transcendence" of religious music without the actual religion, pull all the stops when it comes to reverb. "They have a sweet tooth for that ear candy," Hallerman says.

Fleet Foxes are hardly the first to borrow reverb's splendor to hallow their secular pop. While "Peg o' My Heart" is widely considered the watershed moment for artificial reverb, musical firsts are rarely so cut and dry. Mitch Miller claimed his engineer, Robert Fine, was the father of artificial reverb; Fine was directed to create a "halo" around a singer's voice—also in 1947. "So he put a speaker and a mic in a toilet, and that bit of added resonance gave us the halo we wanted," the late Miller told the Boston Globe in 1996. Of course, reverb's spiritual associations go back much further. Some archaeoacoustics researchers believe prehistoric shamans communicated with animal spirits in parts of caves that produced the richest echoes. Recent research suggests that Stonehenge derived some of its mystery from the distinct reverberation patterns that the structure produced.

CONTROLLING A STRUCTURE'S SOUND REFLECTIONS involved a lot of guesswork until the turn of the century, when Wallace Sabine turned acoustics into a science with an equation that determines the exact qualities of a building's reverberation. The first result of this formula was his work on the Boston Symphony Hall, now considered one of the high watermarks of concert hall acoustics.

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William Weir is a writer living in New Haven, Conn. His articles have appeared in Slate and other publications.

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