The term ‘wall of sound’ is practically synonymous with the man that coined it: Phil Spector, the infamous musicians, songwriter, and record producer who gave hits like The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ their signature chime. But how did the wall of sound technique actually function and how was it made? Join us, as we put Spector’s famed recording technique under the microscope.
In simple terms, the wall of sound technique is a way of capturing live musicians that embraces chaos and oversaturation. Rather than attempting to record instrumental sections with minimal interference, Spector chose to exploit the sonic qualities of the studio itself, allowing sounds to bounce around the room and blend into a dense sonic mess, rich with complex overtones. People assume that all Spector had to do to achieve the desired effect was to put a couple of mics around the room and get everyone to play as loud as possible, but in reality, it’s a great deal more nuanced than that.
As I mentioned, one of the most important aspects of the wall of sound technique was Spector’s exploitation of the studio space. As Stan Ross, one of the recording engineers who sat in with Spector during some of his most memorable recording sessions, noted: “The wall of sound is a function of this studio, there’s no doubt about it.” The studio in question, which would have been packed with instruments and musicians, was fitted with a number of overhead microphones, the signal of which would then be transmitted into the “echo chamber”, a basement room fitted with more speakers and microphones. Having saturated in its own feedback, the resulting audio would then be sent back to the live room, where it was sent to the Ampex 350 tape recorder in the control room.
But, according to Ross, it was the sheer number of musicians that really made the wall of sound what it was: “The echo chambers never made the sound acceptable; they enhanced the sound, but the fact that the room was full of musicians – and it is a small room – bounced everything around, so we’ve got all of this meshing going on, and then you added the chambers to it, and so you got this sound that was a wall – it was a room saturation. We had it all melded together in the room. And of course, there was one other ingredient that made it the wall of sound, a minor ingredient, but still meaningful, and that’s Phil Spector.”
Famed for his perfectionism, Phil Spector liked to spend a long time rehearsing with session musicians before he even pressed record, sometimes for several hours. As Ross recalled: “All of that time would be spent with the musicians playing and Phil listening. And one of the theories that I’ve evolved is that the reason he did it so long was that he wanted the musicians to be tired so that they lost their individualism.” It was this same technique (if it was indeed intentional) that Spector used when he recorded ‘Be My Baby’.
Nino Tempo, who sat in with Spector during The Ronettes’ session remembered how: “I was out of the room and the musicians were playing, and there were a lot of mistakes out there, there were a lot of imperfections out there. And I thought ‘oh boy, they sure haven’t got this’ – you’ve got a roomful of 36 guys and half of them are making mistakes. And I thought ‘how’s he ever gonna make this into a smash?’ But then I walked back into the booth and Phil said: ‘wait until you hear what I’ve got.’ And I heard it coming back and it was a miracle, it was glorious. And I said ‘but I just heard a bunch of mistakes’ and he says ‘never mind what’s really out there, listen to what I’ve got out here.’ And that’s where the magic came: between the wires and the booth, Phil got magic.”