A brief history of artificial reverb in music
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.