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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now to a story about an innovation that forever changed popular music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEG O' MY HEART")

RAZ: And it starts with this song. It's called "Peg O' My Heart." It's by a group called The Harmonics. And 65 years ago this summer, it was the song of the summer. And why?

WILLIAM WEIR: With the advent of recording technology, there had been, you know, varied settings of how to create, you know, sense of physical space.

RAZ: That's writer William Weir. He wrote about this song and what makes it so special for The Atlantic. And it has to do with this right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That sound, that kind of echo, like the music is being played in a different room, that was brand new. And how did The Harmonics do it?

WEIR: The engineer Bill Putnam at the studio, he did it by putting a loudspeaker and a microphone in the studio's bathroom, and it created this great, deep, rich echo or a reverb.

RAZ: Reverb. It's a kind of sound reflection that's more of a ringing than the repetition of an echo. And before this song was recorded, no one ever bothered to create reverb this way.

WEIR: He used it in a way that was very artistic. And it goes beyond just what the physical space (unintelligible) sort of an eerie, almost hypnotic effect to it.

RAZ: And it was such a fresh sound in 1947 that a few years later, by the 1950s, everyone was trying to figure out new ways to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.

WEIR: Sam Phillips didn't invent it, but he's the one who made it famous, specifically with Elvis Presley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

PRESLEY: (Singing) I've been just lonely, baby.

RAZ: How did he do it?

WEIR: He had an Ampex machine with two playback heads. One played the original sound, and a second one played it just milliseconds after that. And it created this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

PRESLEY: (Singing) ...so lonely, baby...

WEIR: Very echo-y sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

PRESLEY: (Singing) I get so lonely I could die.

RAZ: And then you had some other musicians, like, not too long after that trying to record in an aquarium?

WEIR: Yeah. The - well, actually, they - it was Duane Eddy, the king of twang. He found this 2,000-gallon water tank in a scrap yard. And what he and his engineer did was they put a microphone in one end of the tank and a loudspeaker in the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEIR: It would create this great swirling, rich reverb sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So at what point did American music kind of hit max reverb?

WEIR: I'm going to say the '60s is when you had guys like Dick Dale and the surf guitarists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISIRLOU")

RAZ: You mean that wasn't done for "Pulp Fiction"?

WEIR: No, no. It was earlier. That was 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISIRLOU")

WEIR: Had all these surf guitar bands coming out. And everyone wanted to get a Fender reverb amp and get that great spring reverb sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISIRLOU")

RAZ: So this is - actually, you write that this is the oldest and most universal sound effect in music. You think of like Gregorian chants.

WEIR: Exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

WEIR: And that's a good example of, you know, for most part, for most of history, we were at the mercy of echo in the sense that composers and musicians were writing for cathedrals that had reverberation times of six, eight, 10 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

WEIR: That's a sense of where reverb actually kind of created a style of music.

RAZ: You write a lot about Fleet Foxes. This is like the - they are like the darling of indie rock.

WEIR: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: So they actually are big users of reverb.

WEIR: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

RAZ: And why do they - why are they so into it? What does it do for their music?

WEIR: I've read that they said that they wanted to achieve the transcendence of religious music, although without, you know, religion of the music. And when you hear it, it does have a very spiritual sound to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WHITE HYMNAL")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) And I turn 'round and there you go...

WEIR: In a way, it suggests a presence beyond ourselves. You know, when you shout hello into a steering wheel and you hear your voice ringing for two seconds afterward, it's hard not to think of something beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WHITE HYMNAL")

FOXES: (Singing) All swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied 'round their throats...

RAZ: And you can do that all in postproduction, right? So we can actually...

WEIR: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: ...take this conversation now...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WHITE HYMNAL")

FOXES: (Singing) And turn 'round and there you go...

RAZ: ...and add some reverb to parts.

WEIR: Yeah. It sounds better, doesn't it?

RAZ: It sounds better. Sounds richer. I think we should do all of our interviews in reverb.

WEIR: That's a good idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WHITE HYMNAL")

RAZ: That's William Weir. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WHITE HYMNAL")

FOXES: (Singing) I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied 'round their throats to keep their little heads from fallin' in the snow and I turned 'round and there you go. And, Michael, you would fall, and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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