Conquering Reverb: Behind Recorded Music's Oldest Sound Effect

Jul 9, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 7:33 pm

Accounts vary on the first use of artificial reverb, but the most widely acknowledged origin story just turned 65. That was the harmonica instrumental "Peg O' My Heart," and it was a No. 1 hit in the summer of 1947. It owes its hypnotic tone to a crafty production trick.

"The engineer, Bill Putnam, did it by putting a loudspeaker and a microphone in the studio's bathroom. And it created this great, deep, rich echo," explains Atlantic contributor William Weir, whose recent article "How Humans Conquered Echo" chronicles what he calls the "oldest and most universal sound effect" in music.

Later generations have found ever-craftier ways to manufacture reverb — from Duane Eddy's sessions in a 2,000-gallon water tank to the digital effects available in modern recording software. More interesting than the technology, however, is the motive. Why use reverb at all?

"In a way, it suggests a presence beyond ourselves," Weir says. "Regardless of what you believe spiritually, when you shout 'Hello' into a stairwell and hear your voice ringing for a few seconds afterward, it's hard not to think of something beyond."

To hear Weir's full conversation with NPR's Guy Raz, as well as plenty of reverberant moments from music history, click the audio link on this page.

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Now to a story about an innovation that forever changed popular music.


RAZ: And it starts with this song. It's called "Peg O' My Heart." It's by a group called The Harmonics. And 65 years ago this summer, it was the song of the summer. And why?

WILLIAM WEIR: With the advent of recording technology, there had been, you know, varied settings of how to create, you know, sense of physical space.

RAZ: That's writer William Weir. He wrote about this song and what makes it so special for The Atlantic. And it has to do with this right here.


RAZ: That sound, that kind of echo, like the music is being played in a different room, that was brand new. And how did The Harmonics do it?

WEIR: The engineer Bill Putnam at the studio, he did it by putting a loudspeaker and a microphone in the studio's bathroom, and it created this great, deep, rich echo or a reverb.

RAZ: Reverb. It's a kind of sound reflection that's more of a ringing than the repetition of an echo. And before this song was recorded, no one ever bothered to create reverb this way.

WEIR: He used it in a way that was very artistic. And it goes beyond just what the physical space (unintelligible) sort of an eerie, almost hypnotic effect to it.

RAZ: And it was such a fresh sound in 1947 that a few years later, by the 1950s, everyone was trying to figure out new ways to do it.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.

WEIR: Sam Phillips didn't invent it, but he's the one who made it famous, specifically with Elvis Presley.


PRESLEY: (Singing) I've been just lonely, baby.

RAZ: How did he do it?

WEIR: He had an Ampex machine with two playback heads. One played the original sound, and a second one played it just milliseconds after that. And it created this...


PRESLEY: (Singing) lonely, baby...

WEIR: Very echo-y sound.


PRESLEY: (Singing) I get so lonely I could die.

RAZ: And then you had some other musicians, like, not too long after that trying to record in an aquarium?

WEIR: Yeah. The - well, actually, they - it was Duane Eddy, the king of twang. He found this 2,000-gallon water tank in a scrap yard. And what he and his engineer did was they put a microphone in one end of the tank and a loudspeaker in the other.


WEIR: It would create this great swirling, rich reverb sound.


RAZ: So at what point did American music kind of hit max reverb?

WEIR: I'm going to say the '60s is when you had guys like Dick Dale and the surf guitarists.


RAZ: You mean that wasn't done for "Pulp Fiction"?

WEIR: No, no. It was earlier. That was 1963.


WEIR: Had all these surf guitar bands coming out. And everyone wanted to get a Fender reverb amp and get that great spring reverb sound.


RAZ: So this is - actually, you write that this is the oldest and most universal sound effect in music. You think of like Gregorian chants.

WEIR: Exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

WEIR: And that's a good example of, you know, for most part, for most of history, we were at the mercy of echo in the sense that composers and musicians were writing for cathedrals that had reverberation times of six, eight, 10 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

WEIR: That's a sense of where reverb actually kind of created a style of music.

RAZ: You write a lot about Fleet Foxes. This is like the - they are like the darling of indie rock.

WEIR: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: So they actually are big users of reverb.

WEIR: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

RAZ: And why do they - why are they so into it? What does it do for their music?

WEIR: I've read that they said that they wanted to achieve the transcendence of religious music, although without, you know, religion of the music. And when you hear it, it does have a very spiritual sound to it.


FLEET FOXES: (Singing) And I turn 'round and there you go...

WEIR: In a way, it suggests a presence beyond ourselves. You know, when you shout hello into a steering wheel and you hear your voice ringing for two seconds afterward, it's hard not to think of something beyond.


FOXES: (Singing) All swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied 'round their throats...

RAZ: And you can do that all in postproduction, right? So we can actually...

WEIR: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: ...take this conversation now...


FOXES: (Singing) And turn 'round and there you go...

RAZ: ...and add some reverb to parts.

WEIR: Yeah. It sounds better, doesn't it?

RAZ: It sounds better. Sounds richer. I think we should do all of our interviews in reverb.

WEIR: That's a good idea.


RAZ: That's William Weir. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.


FOXES: (Singing) I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied 'round their throats to keep their little heads from fallin' in the snow and I turned 'round and there you go. And, Michael, you would fall, and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.