Audio Class With Professor Hoffman:

Lesson 4: Reverb/Echo

We have had the mini-course on "EQ" from you and the recent mini-course on "compression/limiting". How about the history, technology and use of echo and reverb in recordings that we cherish from the 1950's and 60's--why was it used, why so much in so many recordings and some technical comments about how it was achieved and what equipment was used? You have stated in a number of threads that you prefer "dry" or "more dry" recordings to those that are either "wet" or "drenched", as I like to say (recent Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole threads).

Very quickly. In the late 1920's when electric recording came in (1925), some record companies like Columbia and Victor, recorded in an ambient environment (churches, meeting halls, etc.)

BUT, when Jukeboxes came in, the Jukebox operators DEMANDED that the record companies deaden their sound. The metallic sound of the Jukeboxes made the records sound too thin. SO, the record companies (hurting from the depression) did just that, just in time for the swing era.

That's why, from about 1935 on (until the 1950's), records were recorded as DEAD as possible.

Then, the HI-FI revolution began and the very start of the 1950's. Engineers tried everything to make their records sound "Hi-Fi" even if they didn't have a clue as to what that meant to a consumer. Mercury Records and engineer Bill Fine, put a single microphone in a big concert hall and recorded the first Mercury "Living Presence" LP. This was the start of the "Hi-Fi" craze, and most engineers from other companies quickly came to the understanding that ECHO = Hi-Fi.

A guy named Bill Putnam founded Universal Recording in Chicago and he invented the first "echo chamber". Easier than recording on location in a big hall. One by one, the "echo craze" spread across the country and around the world. Capitol built their chamber in 1953, and when they moved to the Capitol Tower in early 1956, their chambers were well thought out and amazing sounding (still are). Decca used an American Legion Hall in NYC to get that natural echo on "Rock Around The Clock" in 1954, and Columbia built big wonderful wet sounding studios to record stuff in ("Take Five", "Kind Of Blue", etc.)

Echo was here to stay.

Of course, by 1958, when stereo LP's came in, the engineers DOUBLED the amount of echo, but that's another story....

How's that for a quick rundown?


Thanks--that helps to set the course for what transpired and how use evolved. I was listening to those Mitch Miller produced recordings last night and I could not help but notice how "drenched" they were--Marty Robbins, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, et al. Further, I thought about how their "drenching" actually reduced their fidelity.

Indeed. There is ambience, then there is drenched.

Believe me, after you have heard some of these drenched ones without the downpouring of echo (the bonus track of "Stardust" on Nat "King" Cole's "Love Is The Thing" DCC Gold CD for example), you can begin to hear the magic on the actual tapes.

I have the DCC NKC CD (thank you). It is the fidelity of the Love Is The Thing CD (and others of that period) that gets me wondering about how wonderful many of those vintage recordings could sound if they were not so drenched.

A question--In a recording studio or mastering room, is Echo a physically produced process and Reverb an electronically produced process? They sound distinctly different with Echo, to my ears, being a series increasingly softer individual reflections of the original sound whereas Reverb sounds like a timed fade of the original sound so affected.

My father was Chief Engineer for a group of Top 40 Radio stations in the Midwest during the 60's and they added electronically produced Reverb (to everything) at the transmitter site to the signal to be transmitted...more reverb was added to a largely "wet" original product.

There are all types of "wetness".

I guess echo isn't really echo per se. It should be called reverb. True echo is kind of like yodeling on a mountain top and then it comes back to you after a delay.

Nowadays we just use the term "echo" to mean everything.

But, as to types of echo.

1. Reverb, made in a chamber or "plate"
2. Natural reverb with natural decay, from a real big space.
3. Echo or delay. Made by various means. Also called "slap", etc. The cheap Sun Records slap echo.

One example before I have to go actually do some work.

THE BEATLES "I Saw Her Standing There" (or anything on that first Beatles LP that you might have in stereo).

Go listen to that song, cutting off the vocals on the right channel. OK? Now you have heard the Abbey Road "SUPER DUPER" echo treatment:

A reverb chamber being fed back through the console and being printed to a second tape machine. That tape is being fed back through the console to the rhythm track of the live recording. With me so far? Now, since this tape recorder is playing back the live echo, the three-inch gap between the record and playback head of this "echo only" tape machine is allowing the ACTUAL PRINTED ECHO on the session master to have a slight delay in it.

So, it has that nice Abbey Road reverb PLUS the proper slap echo delay sound thrown in for good measure.

Cool, eh?

In a related matter-- what are we hearing when we got to the 70s? Echo Chamber or EMT Plate?

Three things happened that changed the sound of audio in the early 1970's.

First, the Beatles happened, and a style of recording that was strictly non-union and unorthodox. As a result, all studios were forced to upgrade to 8 and 16 track recording all of a sudden, so their clients could overdub to their heart's content. Thirdly, since the old vacuum tube consoles had only three or four track mixing, they were torn out and replaced by solid state gear.

So, in just a few years, all studios had dumped their tube gear. Thus, the sound of the recordings changed. Now that the studios had all these endless channels of sound, there was so much tape hiss that they needed noise reduction during recording and mixing to keep the hiss down. Thus Dolby A was born, changing the sound.

Now that the studios had all these endless channels of sound, there was a need to use more than a few microphones to capture the band. This is where the hi-hat got its own channel, and the bass drum, and the direct box, etc. Room ambiance died and the dry "detailed" 70's sound was born...

A simplified version but you get the ideal.

Thanks - this confirms the change in sound I am hearing. EMT plate echo - how is it different from chamber echo?

Chamber echo is a permanent structure. It works like a cave and is part of the studio. A plate is just like the reverb in your Fender guitar amp; a plate that resonates, sort of a poor man's echo chamber. It's portable and usually sits outside the actual studio in a little side room in a long rectangular box. It sounds pretty good if set up correctly and is meant to mimic a good chamber echo without having to dig a big cave, heh.

I have noticed that EMT plate echo has a different 'timbre' for lack of a better description. I assume it was variable in decay time. I have read stories about these EMT plates being big, bulky, immersed in oil!

It's just a plate, in a box the shape of a coffin. It ain't Gold Star buddy, and the sad thing is that no one seems to care. Echo is echo to them...