The invention of reverb itself is impossible to pin-point in time. Gregorian monks knew it sounded great and so does anybody who sings in the shower. As soon as recording started, it was natural to record music in its most pleasing setting. Early recording engineers followed music wherever it went, frequently ending up in spacious churches and music halls. When electronic recording began to gain ground over the phonograph, interns started complaining about hauling tube tape machines to every church in the city. Subsequently, marking the first and last time anybody listened to an intern, dedicated recording studios started being built to house the gargantuan, over-heating recording equipment.
When it came down to live rooms, flexibility was the biggest concern. An 80-piece orchestra sounded great in a room with a lengthy reverberation, but it was hardly desirable for a rock band. Specially made reverb chambers were developed using a send (called an echo send) from a console, the engineer could adjust how much signal would be sent to that chamber and what channel would receive the treatment.
Note: Most audio engineering text books will refer to “echo” as a small number of repeats, each discernible. This is a misnomer in the case of “echo” chambers. Most echo chambers provide reverb, which is usually accepted as thousands of repeats that are unable to be individually picked out by the human ear.
How It Worked:
The rooms were not nearly as large as you would expect (or as they sounded). Studio architects used what little trickery they had at their disposal to exaggerate the acoustics of what was often little more than a large pantry. Echo chambers would have shellac or tile on all surfaces of the room, much like a shower. The loudspeaker (playing what was being sent from the echo send on the console) would usually be placed not facing the room, but facing a reflective wall. This increased the reflections in the room, and also decreased the amount of direct signal that would be picked up by the microphone(s). In the early days of recording the echo chambers would be mono send, mono return.
Gold Star Studios is arguably the most famous example of a reverb chamber. Phil Spector made Gold Star his home while recording the early hits of his career, and its reverb chamber played a key role in Phil’s infamous Wall of Sound. If other studios included reverb chambers as fringe benefits, Gold Star included it as a downright necessity. A cramped room where elbow room amongst musicians was a legitimate concern, the reverb chamber was the saving grace. In a Mix Magazine article, Larry Lavine testifies to the speaker in the chamber being a cheap 8-inch speaker being picked up by an equally cheap ribbon microphone (bi-directional). The chambers were a mere 2×3 feet, but the cement lining did wonders to enlarge that. You can hear this reverb on The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, parts of Pet Sounds, and other staples of that era in recording.
EMI Studios (later Abbey Road Studios) was a studio complex built by a record label at a time when it was hard to imagine a better business model than recorded music. There were 3 reverb chambers built inside the complex, one for every studio live floor.
- Chamber One was built first for Studio Three (the smallest live floor in Abbey Road) and it made use of a single Tannoy speaker being heard by a Neumann KM53. It was approximately 11′ wide by 19′ long and was rectangular except for a diagonal reflective wall on which the speaker was focused.
- Chamber Two was built to satisfy reverb needs for Studio Two (home of The Beatles). It likely made use of the same Tannoy and KM53. It’s dimensions were rather unflattering for an acoustic environment, featuring two pairs of parallel surfaces measuring 12′ x 21′. To make up for this, engineers pointed the Tannoy at one corner, and used sewer piping to diffuse standing waves in the room. Crude, but it hasn’t hurt sales of The Beatles catalogue.
- Chamber Three was built for EMI’s classical studio work, mostly being done in the gigantic Studio One. It used staggered, nonparallel surfaces coated with the same reflective tiles as the other chambers. Measuring 17’8” by 12′, it was suitably the biggest chamber in the building.
Capitol Studios, located in the basement of Capitol Tower, was the frat house of Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and the equally charming Beastie Boys. Its four identical trapezoidal rooms were designed by musician cum technological-soothsayer Les Paul. The rooms were built using reinforced concrete and coated with metal lath and cement plaster on the interior. Even the ceilings were sloped to ofter flutter or standing waves.
Other Famous Reverb Chambers:
Motown Records’ Hitsville USA complex is rumored to have used a hole in the ceiling as a jerry-rigged echo chamber. This wasn’t a traditional reverb chamber, it wasn’t controlled from the board, adjusted by positioning mics to pick-up the desired amount of reverb.
Joe Meek, the English producer of the 1962 hit, Telstar was well-known for using cavities in his house, like beneath the stairs or in the bathroom, to supply the reverb he needed.
Build Your Own:
Dave Simons over at Electronic Musician wrote a great article on his experience building a reverb chamber in the basement of his home studio.
What are some reverb chambers that I left out? Do you have any favorite examples of reverb chambers?