The late 20th century marked an iconic period in terms of music with tons of genres and production techniques being created for the first time. One of the most recognizable recording techniques of this era is the wall of sound, also known as “Spector’s sound”. If you want to know more about the wall of sound recording technique, this article is for you.
Let me walk you through a brief guide that explains the concept of this legendary recording technique and ways to identify it. So without further ado, let’s jump right in!
Description and Origins of the Wall of Sound Recording Technique
The Wall of Sound recording technique made its first appearance back in the 1960s. It’s also known as Spector’s Sound, named after the record producer who created the technique, Phil Spector.
Spector received help from Larry Levine, the famous audio engineer, and a core group of backing musicians who later on were called “the Wrecking Crew”. The main purpose was to take full advantage of the resources provided by studio recording to make a highly charged and dense orchestral sound that could play well on popular music devices of the era..
If I could boil down the Wall of Sound technique into one word, it’d be augmentation — making something greater. After all, Spector himself described the process of creating his Wall of Sound as a “case of augmenting”.
In 1964, the producer explained he was searching for a sound so powerful it can carry a record even if its material wasn’t particularly strong. In the end, everything fit into place like pieces of a jigsaw.
To really grasp the concept of the Wall of Sound recording technique, you need to understand what it isn’t. A lot of people associate the Wall of Sound with just a ton of loudness created by maximizing noise and distortion, but this technique is way more intricate than that.
Spector didn’t simply have a bunch of instruments drown out the vocals on a recording. Instead, he worked in mono and blended instruments on the same track. Then, he incorporated overdubs to obtain a symphonic effect.
The complexity of this technique was never done before in popular music. In fact, Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys who frequently used the technique said that most arrangements in the 1940s and 1950s were a definite sound that lacked intricacies of combinations.
Instead of giving listeners segments like “here’s a string section” and “listen to a French horn now”, they were subjected to sound combinations thanks to Spector’s Wall of sound.
Examples of Recording Featuring the Wall of Sound
- “Sleigh Ride” by The Ronettes
- “Da Doo Ron Ron” by The Crystals
- “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner
- “There’s No Other” by Crystals
- “A Fine, Fine Boy” by Darlene Love
- “This Could Be The Night” by Modern Folk Quartet
- “Run Run Runaway” by Darlene Love
- “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes
How to Identify a Wall of Sound Recording Technique
It can be tricky to tell when you’re listening to a recording using the Wall of Sound technique, so to help you identify it, let’s talk about the characteristics you need to keep an ear out for.
1. The presence of large ensembles
Arrangements having Wall of Sound always use large ensembles of instruments to play their sounds. These ensembles even include some instruments that are rarely featured in ensemble playing, for example, acoustic and electric guitars.
You’ll hear several instruments playing certain parts in double or triple to generate a tone that’s richer and more intense. For example, in his book “He’s A Rebel”, Mark Ribowsky mentions that Spector usually duplicated a harpsichord and an electric piano to duplicate parts done by an acoustic piano.
If the three instruments are mixed sufficiently well, the listener wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from one another.
2. The presence of orchestral instruments and reverberation effects
Another distinct characteristic of the Wall of Sound recording technique is the variety of orchestral instruments which haven’t been associated with pop music such as strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion.
It also highlighted reverberation effects via an echo chamber to add more texture. As such, the producer described his techniques as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids”.
Combining large ensembles and reverb resulted in amplifying the typical audio power in a manner similar to compression.
How to Replicate The Wall of Sound Recording Technique
If you’re trying to replicate the Wall of Sound recording technique but don’t have a fancy recording studio to play in, the following tips can help and you only need decent audio production software..
- In the 20Hz to 20kHz frequency range, give the fundamental frequency of each instrument playing your music piece its own space.
- For each track, determine which frequency bands have positive qualities that you want present in the final mix.
- For each track, determine which frequency bands have negative qualities that you don’t want in the final mix.
- With the remaining problematic areas, re-track them or apply subtractive EQ. In an ideal scenario, this range will contain some of the good frequency bands of the track.
- Apply additive EQ to highlight the desirable sections of each track. If multiple tracks have the same desirable frequency bands, you should consider different tracking or arrangement.
Here’s a great video from Blair Sinta:
There you have it. A look at the Wall of Sound recording technique and the minds behind it. Yes, Phil Spector is no longer in our world, but his methods will forever remain alive in production arrangements on works of The Beatles, The Ronettes, and The Righteous Brothers.