Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound"

The Wall of Sound (also called the Spector Sound) is a music production formula developed by American record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios in the 1960s, with assistance from engineers Stan Ross, Larry Levine, and the session musician conglomerate known as "the Wrecking Crew". The intention was to create a dense aesthetic that came across well on AM radio and jukeboxes popular in the era. As Spector explained in 1964, "I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw.”

In order to attain the Wall of Sound, Spector's arrangements called for large ensembles (including some instruments not generally used for ensemble playing, such as electric and acoustic guitars), with multiple instruments doubling and even tripling many of the parts to create a fuller, richer sound. Spector also included an array of orchestral instruments—strings, woodwind, brass and percussion—not previously associated with youth-oriented pop music, characterizing his methods as "a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids". Larry Levine recalled, "I found out later that there were other engineers along the way who tried to duplicate the Wall of Sound by turning up all the faders to get full saturation, but all that achieved was distortion."

The intricacies of the technique were unprecedented in the world of sound production for popular records. Wrecking Crew guitarist Barney Kessel would note: "Musically, it was terribly simple, but the way he recorded and miked it, they’d diffuse it so that you couldn't pick out any one instrument. Techniques like distortion and echo were not new, but Phil came along and took these to make sounds that had not been used in the past. I thought it was ingenious." According to Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who used the formula extensively: "In the '40s and '50s, arrangements were considered 'OK here, listen to that French horn' or 'listen to this string section now.' It was all a definite sound. There weren't combinations of sound, and with the advent of Phil Spector, we find sound combinations, which—scientifically speaking—is a brilliant aspect of sound production."


During the mid-1950s, Spector worked with Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during a period where they sought a fuller sound by the use of excessive instrumentation, using up to five electric guitars and four percussionists. This was later to evolve into Spector's Wall of Sound, which Leiber and Stoller consider to be very distinct from what they were doing, stating: "Phil was the first one to use multiple drum kits, three pianos and so on. We went for much more clarity in terms of instrumental colors, and he deliberately blended everything into a kind of mulch. He definitely had a different point of view." Spector's first production was the self-penned 1957 single "Don't You Worry My Little Pet", performed with his group the Teddy Bears. The recording was achieved by taking a demo tape of the song and playing it back over the studio's speaker system in order to overdub another performance over it. The end product was a cacophony, with stacked harmony vocals that could not be heard clearly. He would spend the next several years further developing this unorthodox method of recording.

In the 1960s, Spector usually worked at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles because of its exceptional echo chambers. He also typically worked with such audio engineers as Larry Levine and the conglomerate of session musicians who later became known as The Wrecking Crew. The sum of his efforts would be officially designated "Phil Spector's Wall of Sound" by Andrew Loog Oldham, who coined the term within advertisements for the Righteous Brothers 1964 single "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling".

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