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Friday, June 14, 2013

Ghosts of the Echo Chambers



A Little Chamber Music, Please



By Randy McNutt


While driving down the highway one morning I discovered an oldies radio station playing "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys. Not only was it the most expensive single ever recorded in its time (1965), but it was and still is one of the most luxurious. I wondered, Why does it sound so good? So alive? So up-close to the listener? Then I realized it was recorded using live echo, from a real echo chamber. Low tech, but effective.

I know that many young engineers and producers don't use echo, and that's all right. Some recordings sound better when heard without enhancement. But others benefit from it. Too many modern recordings sound manufactured, as if no humans were involved in the recording process. Adding a touch of echo could make a sterile recording sound exciting. But that's another story.

After hearing the echo on that old record, I started thinking of how many great records were cut using the real thing--the live echo chamber. Echo chambers were most popular from the early days of tape recording, in the late 1940s, through the mid-1970s, when various replacements for the chamber became popular in the audio marketplace. They saved a lot of effort and time, and they sounded good. But to me, they never sounded as good as the live echo chamber. Records made using this old technology have a special sound to them.

I recall using an old spring reverb system that was not nearly as effective as a 1970s plate echo system. With the spring reverb, the sound fell off a cliff when the engineer tried to push it to get more echo effect. The replacement echo sounded pretty good, though, and the modern ones are excellent. But that old echo chamber has a greater appeal to me. No, I am not being nostalgic. The old echo chambers provide a certain sound that you can't forget. Some of the greatest records of all time were made with the help of echo chambers.

Those old records are the ghosts of the echo chambers--sounds of years past that ring differently and interestingly to our ears. They are the sounds that make many older hits so memorable, distinctive, and impressive. They come from real echo, not factory-made echo, and this makes all the difference. Some older engineers used to tell me they could sometimes tell where a record was cut just by listening to its echo. In Los Angeles, the A&M Records studio came equipped with large echo chambers that provided a sweet sound for the Carpenters on "Close to You" and "It's Too Late" by Carol King. A&M had possibly the best echo in the city.

It all began when sound engineers wanted to sweeten their recordings in the early tape era. Studios started building echo chambers, and recording engineers got creative. Their chambers were usually around 8 by 10 feet, made of concrete blocks, and attached to the studio or located nearby. They usually featured a microphone (or two) inside the chamber with an amplifier. When the sound went through the chamber, echo was added from the chamber's interior. To get a great echo effect, a chamber didn't have to be massive. Take the sound on "Good Vibrations," for example. That No. 1 single was cut at Western Recorders in Los Angeles. Its chamber was considered one of the better ones in the city. The evidence is in the sound--Brian Wilson and company got such great echo on their record. The chamber at Western proved that you didn't need a massive hall to produce great echo.

I once had the honor of interviewing veteran audio engineer Frank Laico, who recorded Tony Bennett's early hits for Columbia Records in the company's 30th Street Studio in New York. Laico told me that the staff placed a speaker inside the studio's echo chamber and either an RCA 44 or a Neumann 4-47 microphone in with it. "Engineers from all over the world wanted to know our secret [to the echo sound]," he said. "There wasn't any. That chamber simply sounded wonderful." Below 30th Street in Manhattan, under the sidewalk and the gritty life, stood one of the giants of the record industry--the live echo chamber of Columbia's studio. It was about 12 feet wide and 15 feet long, and made of concrete. Laico helped devise a way of delaying the sound as it went to the echo chamber. He'd send the sound first through a tape machine, and then to the chamber. That less-than-a-second-delay gave additional depth to the echo. Unfortunately, the 30th Street Studio was torn down in the 1970s to make way for a parking lot.


Over the years, I've stopped at many old studios and looked at their equipment. Several were interesting for their echo chambers. The well-known King Records Studio employed a chamber, made of concrete blocks and perched above the ceiling of the studio. It had a fluorescent light inside that burned all the time, recalled Gene Lawson, a former Cincinnati recording engineer and creator of the Lawson microphone. He said that chamber helped give the King Studio its funky and distinctive sound. Another odd chamber was in Madison, Tennesse, home of Cinderella Sound Studio, owned by guitarist Wayne Moss. The studio was used for recordings by Mickey Newberry, Area Code 615, Dennis Linde, and harmonica player Charlie McCoy. Moss told me he converted a concrete-block garage into the chamber in the early 1960s. One day Newberry came by to record, and he wanted a cricket sound added to his tape. So he brought some crickets in a can and sat it inside the echo chamber to see what sound he could get. Unfortunately, the can overturned and crickets escaped. Moss  told me he could never get rid of them. The chirped incessantly. So he finally had to shut the thing down, and he turned to a manufactured echo system for his studio.

In Nashville, the Jack Clement Recording Studios on Belmont Avenue opened in 1969 with two eight-by-ten-foot echo chambers with 35-foot ceilings and non-parallel walls. The studio later added EMT echo systems for each of its recording rooms, but the echo chambers were still popular in the late 1970s.

Other great echo chambers helped make the sounds of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, including the chamber at Bell Sound and the tile restroom at A&R Studio in New York. There were more. Many more. Maybe they can be the basis of a second story about echo chambers.

I like this subject too much to let the echo die.


Echo on Vinyl

"Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys, recorded in 1965. Western Recorders, Los Angeles.
"Walk On By," Dionne Warwick, 1964. Bell Sound, New York.
"Crystal Blue Persuasion," Tommy James & the Shondells, 1968. Allegro Sound, New York.
"This Diamond Ring," Gary Lewis & the Playboys, 1964. Western Recorders.
"California Dreamin'," Mamas and the Papas, 1966. Western Recorders.
"Honey," Bobby Goldboro, 1967. Woodland Sound, Nashville.