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A Sound Education

Bong, Bong, Bong.


"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."

Johnny Carson

Eighty-six years ago, three musical tones, "G-E-C," were played on a fledgling network of radio stations. What started as a technical cue for local stations, has become an instantly recognized trio of notes woven into the American identity.


Double-Naught Spies

Double-Naught news

"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."

Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"

Double-Naught Spies

This month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.

Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos.


Podcasting Revisited

Podcasting news

"Podcasting - I swear to you - on its worst day, the podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative, and there's no artifice, and it's far more real."

Kevin Smith

Podcasting Revisited

Modern podcasting has now been around a little more than 10 years now. The roots go back much further, into the 1980's in fact. The idea of subscribing to an internet-delivered audio service dates to the early 1990's. But it wasn't until portable devices, such as the iPod, came onto the scene that it really took off. History shows that portability drives popularity – the battery-operated radio, the portable record player, the audio cassette, and the funky 8-track. I remember the iPod being described as a digital "Walkman," even though poor Sony already had moved beyond the cassette into portable digital players.


That Magic Sound


"Science is magic that works"

Kurt Vonnegut

That Magic Sound

Researcher Dr. Diana Deutsch at UC San Diego has been studying the psychology of sound since the mid-1960's. Her findings illustrate how people can hear musical tones wildly different from each other. These "illusions" can cause great disagreements between listeners, even highly trained musicians. And interestingly, one group of stereo illusions has right-handers and left-handers perceiving them differently.


Shhh! Be Quiet!!!

Shhh Be Quiet news

"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"

Gary Larson

Shhh! Quiet!

Have you been hiking lately? Where'd you go? Red River Gorge? The Smokey Mountains? Yosemite? In the last 10 years, have you ever experienced a place devoid of all human sounds? Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-Award-winning recordist, claims there are less than a dozen places left in the continental U.S. that are "quiet." Hempton defines "quiet" as a natural environment that has no human-intrusion sounds for at least twenty minutes.


The Fancy Pants Announcer


"In radio, they say, nothing happens until the announcer says it happens."

Ernie Harwell
Legendary Detroit Tigers Announcer

There was a time when Americans who wanted to sound important and upper class spoke with a half-American, half-British accent. They call it mid-Atlantic, presumably because the accent lands somewhere in the middle of the ocean between our countries. It was dominant in movies, on radio, in theaters, and on early television. Today, it sounds pompous. Some early practitioners were Franklin Roosevelt, James Cagney, Orson Wells, and Katherine Hepburn. Some more contemporary holdouts were William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.


Voice Talk

voice talk news

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."

Maya Angelou

Voice Talk

There was a recent study* that tried to understand how audio quality affected the perceived quality of the human voice. The researchers understood from the beginning that the results could be highly subjective, but they approached it using measurable methods. While tallying up the results, they were surprised by one finding they weren't attempting to measure. But it's something we in the advertising and production business already knew.


Keeping an Ear on Crime


"What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes."
Harry Houdini

Keeping an Ear on Crime

The NSA is listening to our phone calls. The FBI is using face detection to catch wanted criminals. Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart is watching Bart Simpson with surveillance video. And now the police are listening for gunshots in neighborhoods across the nation.

Like GPS, radar, and the microwave oven, technology developed for the battlefield has found itself on Main Street. Gunshot detection is another military trickle-down technology that police are using to protect our citizens. Police departments all over the world are placing these listening devices in urban areas that have a history of or potential for high crime rates. Most systems detect, analyze, and alert police within five seconds of a suspected gunshot.


Audio Clichés

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue."

Stephen Fry

Audio Clichés

You're watching a movie and somebody rides by on a bicycle. What do you hear? Ring-ring! Yep, it's a tried and true "audio cliché." I'm guilty of using it. Or how about when the scene shifts to London, we see the House of Parliament and hear Big Ben striking it's bell. Or a jet touches down on the runway and we hear the screech-screech of the tires.

We use clichés in everyday life, it's how we communicate. Sometimes it's just so easy to use a tired phrase like "next thing I knew." I cringe when someone says "at the end of the day," or "it's a win-win situation." I wish those people would just "think outside of the box" so they would have a "paradigm shift" and "take it to the next level."


Ring in the Old Year


"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."

Alexander Graham Bell

Ring in the Old Year

A new year always brings excitement and great expectations. What will happen? Will there be a big event that will shape the world for generations? What new technology will come? The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) has already promised us a 3D-printed titanium bicycle, super thin 4K TV sets, realistic robots, and a plethora of miniature drones with cameras. And everybody's wanting to lay eyes on the first Apple Watch. One hundred years ago, people were just as intrigued with the promise of new technology.



"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"

Alan Parsons

Echo, reverb, delay, and ambience. There's a difference between them (see "Tech Notes" below) and they're often confused with each other or used incorrectly. But each one has an important place in recording with technology often dictating their use. Reverb/echo/delay can make or break a recording. Thanks to the American Legion Hall in New York City, Decca Records found the perfect effect for Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Columbia Records built their own "echo chamber" for such hits as Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." And U2's Edge has created a patented sound for his guitar with electronic delay.

Early recordings were often done in large halls and spaces. The natural ambience and reverb of the space helped the realism. But the tinny-sounding jukeboxes of the 1930's and 40's had trouble translating the core sound above the reverb. The jukebox operators complained, so the record companies began recording everything with a very dry sound, until...

Hi-Fi came along. After WWII, recording to magnetic tape became the standard (read more about its introduction into American music). It revealed much more detail than disc recording did. In 1951, Mercury Records decided to take advantage of this fact by introducing the series "Living Presence." Spearheaded by husband and wife team Bob and Wilma Fine, these carefully executed classical recordings went on to critical and commercial success until 1967. The first recordings were in mono using the storied Telefunken U-47. Seeking more detail from the orchestra while maintaining the rich natural reverb, Bob turned to the handmade omnidirectional Schoeps M201. It would become the permanent staple for these recordings. When Bob started recording in stereo in 1954, he used three M201's (left-center-right onto 3-track magnetic tape, later mixed down to stereo).

Producers and engineers didn't or couldn't always go to large spaces just to have reverb, so they started to create it artificially. Artificial reverb was already showing up in a few hit records before Bob Fine stuck his U-47 up on a stand. Bill Putnam of Universal Recording built the first "echo chamber," a separate room that included an amplified speaker and microphone. It was actually his bathroom, but the Harmonicats took "Peg o' My Heart" all the way to the top of Billboard's chart with that atmospheric reverb.

With Putnam's cleverness and Fine's success, all of a sudden reverb was HOT! Capitol Records built an echo chamber in 1953, and all of the other big record companies soon followed. Many Frank Sinatra, Beatles, and Doors recordings used the echo chamber. But an echo chamber took up valuable real estate. One clever solution was to divide a room into two, with an opening on the end of the dividing wall - basically U-shaped. The signal from the control room would come from a speaker on one end. The sound traveled down the room, around the corner, and into the microphone at the other. They were usually located in basements for isolation. There are tales of engineers hearing water dripping in the effect, only to find flooded basements. Another engineer went down to troubleshoot why the reverb sounded muffled and found a homeless person living in the chamber. Some studios are still using some of these original echo chambers.

What about electronic reverb? Spring reverbs were first used in the late 1930's, mostly in guitar amplifiers. The sound could be "boingy" and unrealistic, but studios on a budget used them anyway. The "plate reverb" made its debut in the late 1950's. The "plate" was a 40mm thick sheet of steel measuring 1 x 2 meters. It was suspended in a tubular frame with springs and mounted in a soundproof chamber or box. A driver with the studio send signal was placed in the middle, and a contact microphone (or two for a quasi-stereo effect) was placed on the edge. Rigidity, thickness, damping, and choice of driver and mic shaped the sound. The EMT 140 plate reverb was a 600-pound behemoth with a price tag to match, and was popular in larger studios and radio stations. It usually had a big sound, and AM radio stations in the 1960's and 70's capitalized on this by using it on most programming.

Tape delay was another artificial reverb used mostly in rock music in the 60's and 70's. A track was fed into another recorder, which was fed back into itself post-recording, creating a delay feedback loop. Some musicians that used it for its signature sound were Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. Reverb was so wildly popular, that cars in the mid-60's began offering it as an option on the radio.

By the early 70's, analog circuits started showing up that achieved similar results as the tape delay. The 80's microchips brought digital reverb and delay boxes. It was hard to resist, and the "Big 80's" was born. The 90's brought digital reverb into the PC. And the last decade has seen mind-boggling advances in artificial reverb, including the "acoustic stamp," which models decay and character using actual recordings in real environments.

If you can believe it, people are still building new echo chambers, plate reverbs, and spring reverbs. Sometimes that organic sound is just too hard to emulate digitally. Even the early digital reverbs from Yamaha, Lexicon, and Eventide still command big bucks on the used market. Many of these "old" technologies and echo chambers are digitally sampled and used as software plugins. I have a few digital reverb boxes from the 90's that still sound superb. Maybe I used one on your project.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the origins of reverb and echo in recording. There are so many interesting stories that I don't have the time or space to relate. So without further delay, I will now say GOODBYE...Goodbye...goodbye.