The Industry

Conquering Reverb: Behind Recorded Music's Oldest Sound Effect

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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