12

What is an Echo Chamber? – For a Cool Effect!

If you’re a seasoned music producer, applying the echo effect is a piece of cake right? With the right editing software and effects plugin, you can have a world of funky effects at your disposal. But not too long ago, sound engineers had to do much more than that. Curious to know how they did it? Then you need to find out what is an Echo Chamber!

In my personal experience, sound engineers and music producers of the digital age, rarely talk about these specially designed chambers. Well why would they, when most of us will probably never see a real need to use them. Nonetheless, for the die-hard audio enthusiast, there is a lot that can be learnt from observing an echo chamber!

Echo Chamber – Why Was It Created?

A hollow enclosure that produces reverberated sounds (typically used for recording projects), is called an echo chamber. For instance, during the production of a TV show, in order to create the perception that a conversation is taking place in a large room, the recording of the conversation will be played inside an echo chamber, while a microphone captures the reverberation.

Dresden University Echo Chamber

Echo chamber of the Dresden University of Technology / Photo by Henry Mühlpfordt / CC BY-SA 3.0

However, as audio technology progresses, such effects are now very often created using effects units. Despite that, echo chambers still have a place in today’s recording world, such as the famous echo chambers at Capitol Studios.

Here are the topics that we’ll be looking at:

  • Early developments
  • Recording process
  • Applications in pop music
  • Alternative options

Early Developments

In the early 20th century, developments in audio technology had led to the creation of the first artificial echo chambers, which were intended for use by radio and recording studios. Prior to that, echo and reverberation effects were often created via methods which combined electrical and physical principles.

The acoustical design of an echo chamber is modelled after churches or caves. These spaces are large, enclosed, and empty with floors and walls made of hard materials (such as polished stone) that reflect sound waves well. Other than to simulate the rich natural reverberation of large concert halls, echo chambers are also used to add colour and depth to the original recorded sound.

St Leonards Church

An orchestra rehearsing in Christ Church, St Leonards / Photo by Julian P Guffogg / CC BY-SA 2.0

Due to the limitations of early recording systems, artificial echo chambers became vital in sound recording. Other than live shows, most commercial productions were done in specially built studios. These rooms were not only heavily insulated to prevent external noises from leaking in, but were also designed to prevent any internal echoes or reverberation from within the room.

Since every sound we hear in real life is naturally blended together with echoes and reverberations, people found the ‘dry’ sound of early recordings to be unappealing. As a result, music producers and engineers quickly came up with a very effective method of adding ‘artificial’ reverberation/echo which could, in the hands of experts, be controlled with a remarkable degree of accuracy.

Recording Process

The process of recording echo and reverberation from an echo chamber is really simple. A signal from the mixing console (such as a voice or instrument) is sent to a large high-fidelity loudspeaker placed at one end of the chamber. One or more microphones are then positioned along the length of the room to pick up the sound from the speaker, as well as the reflections from the walls.

Mixing Desk

A mixing console in a recording studio / Photo by JacoTen / CC BY-SA 3.0

The further away the microphone is from the loudspeaker, the more echo and reverberation the microphone(s) will pick up and the louder the reverberation becomes in relation to the source. The recorded signal from the microphone line will then be routed back to the mixing desk, where the echo/reverberation-processed sound can be carefully mixed with the original ‘dry’ input.

Applications In Pop Music

David Bowie

David Bowie / Photo by Adam Bielawski / CC BY-SA 3.0

A notable application of reverberation can be heard in David Bowie’s song “Heroes”. Tony Visconti (producer), recorded the song in a large concert hall in the Hansa recording studio in Berlin. Tony positioned three microphones at intervals along the length of the hall, one very close to Bowie, one halfway down the hall and the third at the far end of the hall.

During the recording, Visconti opened up each of the three microphones in turn, from closest to farthest, while Bowie sang each verse progressively louder than the last. Hence, Bowie’s voice sounds close, warm and present in the first verse, and by the end of the song, a large amount of signal from all three microphones was added in, giving Bowie’s voice a distinct reverberant sound.

Alternative Options

Not all recording companies and small independent labels can afford to construct large purpose-built echo chambers such as the Abbey Road chamber. Hence, many producers and engineers had to creatively make use of any large space or room that had good reverberation. Corridors, lift-wells, stairwells, tiled bathrooms and toilets were good alternatives for echo chambers.

There are many famous soul music and R&B music recordings (released by the New York-based Atlantic Records) that feature echo and reverb effects produced by simply placing a speaker and microphone in the office toilet. In 1970, Producer/Engineer Bruce Botnick also used the same method while recording the album L.A. Woman by The Doors.

That’s about all I have for you folks today. Ever been into an echo chamber before? Know any popular song with a striking reverberation effect?

Let me know your thoughts down below, and do share this article!

Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

12 Comments

  1. Hey, I found this post to be fascinating. Before your post, i had never heard of the echo Chamber. Also, I didn’t know how they are used. Like in you example of television if they wanted to have the sound of a big room they use an echo chamber.Thanks for sharing this information, and you’re probably right I imagine a lot of today’s new engineers don’t think about the ways of the old days, and the methods they used. It would take a die-hard fan of audio to know or want to learn something like this. Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Mike!

      I’m glad you have found the article to be educational and interesting at the same time. Yeah, I guess only people who have a real passion for audio, would do research on these subjects. Well, I hope I have inspired you to at least become more curious about audio technology!

      Thanks a lot!

  2. Wow, very informative, thank you! You gave me a very detailed information about this effect. The other day I was checking some covers on YouTube, and I noticed that some of them would play in the bathroom and the effect was so cool! I also tried it with my guitar, and it’s unquestionably a beautiful effect!

    I’m not sure if it’s directly related to this effect, but there’s a band called Melody’s Echo Chamber, do you know it?

    This blog is fabulous, thanks for the great info once again man! Cheers!

    • Hey Davi!

      Really appreciate your kind words. They mean a lot to me. About the band you were talking about, I’m afraid I have never heard of them before. But it’s still pretty cool that they have decided to name their band that way!

      Cheers =)

  3. Whaddup, Farhan.
    Wow, I had no idea the kind of things they needed to do to get reverb and echo back in the day. I honestly just always assumed we had effects racks from the start.
    The fact that they even tried to sell music with dry recordings amuses me, like who had that bright idea? 😀
    Do you know of any modern day examples of recordings that used a echo chamber?

    • Hey Ryan!

      Its great to see you around here. You asked a very good question, and I have to admit that I really have no idea which music recordings (currently) actually has an echo/reverb effect that is produced by an echo chamber. Unless the producers of these recordings choose to “spill the beans” on the production methods, we wouldn’t be able to tell just by listening.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  4. This is quite fascinating. I used to be in an all-state choir so I’ve dealt with sound and sound reverberation many times in the past. It’s interesting to know that they actually placed actors and actresses in echo chambers to give the effect that they were having a conversation in a big room. Thanks for the awesome article.

    • Hi Caleb!

      Just to set the record straight, I said that the audio recording of the conversation in a film scene can be played back in an echo chamber. On the other hand, I do not know if they actually recorded live conversations for films inside an echo chamber itself. It would be pretty cool if they actually did that though!

      Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Hi Farhan,

    I am also fascinated with old outdated ways of doing things. As an artist, I am naturally a contrarian and firmly believe that the old ways of doing things are always the best ways (or at least the most fun. This was a great read and I am sure to be back on your site for more great posts.

    • Hey Alison!

      Yeah, sometimes we can learn a lot from observing older methodologies. It really makes us appreciate the major improvements in audio technology that we have access to nowadays. Thanks for your thoughts, and I’ll be happy to see you again here!

  6. Very interesting article! I have never heard of an echo chamber before. I have always enjoyed the echo sound effect in some songs like Phil Colins Air of the Night – I’m not sure if that’s the same effect, but I’ve always loved the part of the song.
    I don’t really know too much about sound mixing, but I have definitely learned a quite a bit.
    Great post!

    • Hi Nicki!

      Glad to know that you have benefited from reading this article. Be sure to come back and check out other articles on audio and music production!

      Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*