Stir of Echo
A healthy dose of reverb defines my summer jams
Published: May 18, 2011
I crawled inside an echo chamber once. It was appended to a venerable recording-studio complex in Memphis—a tall, bare concrete-block silo accessed by a small hatch usually blocked with boxes of files and junk until some picky retro-head client came along to force the secretaries to clear them away so he could try it out. It was dark and damp and smelled like the suburban dirt-floor basement crawlspaces I explored during summers as a kid. And the ghosts of sounds and hollow notes such a contraption captures also form the sounds of summer for me.
Most listeners hear the effect of echo (or notice it most, at least) in a perfect summer-music context, via the roaring twang of surf music, but I hear it, too, in old dub records, where the way a vocal snatch or melodica note or snare crack will hang in the air like the humidity of an August night. I hear it sometimes in the heat- wavering, everything’s-melting layers of shoegaze (for me, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the first Jesu full-length are beach records). I hear it still in a newer wave of bands that use it because of its retro-pop associations, such as the summery slightness of Best Coast, or because of some other, less obvious attachment, such as Baltimore’s own Lower Dens, whose 2010 debut album Twin-Hand Movement is drenched in it. It’s even there, in machine-tooled form, in the sculpted bytes of electronic music.
If you’ve ever clapped your hands in a bigish, emptyish space, you know what an echo is—the effect of noticing the delay between a sound and its outbound waves reflecting back to you. Reverberation is basically echoes en masse, the full-bodied convexity of sound inside a cistern as opposed to the lone report that might bounce off a distant cliff. The long history of concert halls is the history of attempting to minimize or make the most of them. The history of recording, at least starting in the electronic era, is in part the history of adding echo and reverb, manipulating them, and through them, manipulating us. Echo was, at the outset, an electro-acoustic effect—open up the chamber. Crafty types soon figured out how to fake it, from the “slapback” tape echo of old rockabilly records to the invention of plate- and spring-reverb units and the tape-based Echoplex, which helped fueled the sonic revolution of the ’60s. The technology continued to develop from there (surely there’s an app for that now).
Echo and reverb have lots of sneaky practical uses—making something not so grand sound grander, making a not so good singer sound somewhat better—but it also became a creative tool. If the Southern California dude who first shot a twangy electric guitar signal through heavy reverb to create the signature surf-guitar sound only had a nickel for every time someone leaned on that trick. (If it truly was Dick Dale, as the lore goes, he might.) The Jamaican producers futzing around with mixing boards and reel-to-reels added it to their bag of surprise mixing tricks when they starting pulling and stretching reggae b-sides like taffy. Decades worth of postpunk types have used it to both expand their sound and further distance it from the clean, compressed, radio-readiness of more mainstream stuff. Its digital simulacrum still comes in handy for laptop types who want to add depth, a bit of give, to the 0s and 1s.
But why does surf music sound like someone cutting back on a glassy 10-foot breaker, spray glistening in the sinking sun? Why does dub (and now dubstep) make you want to fan yourself and adjust your shades? Why does yards-thick reverb sound like the beach, even if, say, the Reid brothers of the Jesus and Mary Chain have never exposed their bare legs in their lives? Why do the sighing, scrabbling songs of Lower Dens sound so perfectly wintry in their echoing bleakness, yet also perfectly tank top in their echoing lushness? Why does Fennesz’s Endless Summer seem so aptly titled? (Why the cavernous echo of black metal doesn’t sound summery is a short subject for another time, perhaps.)
Well, there’s something about the imprecision of echo/reverb, the haziness it lends to any sound it envelops, the blurring effect, like a nimbus of deep July haze, that accompanies it. Summer is, after all, its own outdoor acoustic environment, defined by the hum of lawnmowers and katydids and streetlights, and you’re more often out in it—a sharp contrast to the frigid quiet and enclosed spaces of the colder months. Echo is the sound of heat shimmer, the premixed version of the tinny loudspeaker blasting the radio over the concrete deck and shifting liquid ripples of the pool, of humidity casting its wet blanket over you. It’s the audible manifestation of that slight sense of expansion, and of delay, that comes with the end of spring and the languor of hot, dozen-hour days. And maybe it’s also the sound of nostalgia, prepositioned, in the knowledge that these days will soon pass.
For a sampling of echo-y, reverberant summer tunes, check the playlist to the left.
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