Audiophiles for the last nearly fifty years have had the pleasure of listening to musical arrangements so multi-layered and lush that they forever changed the landscape of popular music. Everyone from the Beatles to the Beach Boys, to Prince and Lady Gaga embraced what has become the iconic pinnacle of aural sensory richness, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
The Wall of Sound is the catch phrase for a distinctive studio production technique developed in the 1960s and perfected in the 70s by the innovative songwriter, arranger, and producer Phil Spector. He, and recording engineers Stan Ross and Larry Levine, developed the process as a way to maximize the sonic impact of recordings for play on AM radio and jukeboxes, which were the main outlets for popular music at the time.
Prior to Spector’s innovation, arrangements consisted of leading the listener to a “definite sound” as per Brian Wilson. “Listen to the French horn or listen to that string section now,” said the virtuoso producer and writer for the Beach Boys about the world before Spector’s Gold Star Records developed the concept. It can be argued that Wilson himself took the Wall of Sound to new heights with the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds in 1966.
The technique is comprised of having multiple instruments, often of similar type, play the same part in unison. Instead of one piano, Spector would use three, or perhaps add a harpsichord as well, all playing the same motif.
According to longtime Spector colleague Jeff Barry, the Wall of Sound technique had a specific formula. “four or five guitars… two basses in fifths, with the same type of line… strings, six or seven horns adding the little punches… percussion instruments—the little bells, shakers, and tambourines…”
As his work with the technique progressed, Spector would often employ an entire orchestra to achieve the rich, lush sound he was after. The Ronettes were the first beneficiaries of his new technique, and by the time the Beatles released Revolver, the handwriting was on the wall. Spector had changed recording forever. Brian Wilson himself acknowledged that Pet Sounds was in response to the groundbreaking techniques the Fab Four employed on that album. By Sergeant Pepper’s release in 1967, the Wall of Sound became the standard by which all recordings were measured.
To get the most out of listening to remastered Wall of Sound recordings, it’s best to find some of the amazing surround sound mixes and set up a five point surround sound wall-mounted speaker system. Sit in the middle of the room, hit play on “Let it Be” for example, and understand what it was like to be in the room in Twickenham, creating musical history.