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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!