Ongoing History of New Music

Ongoing History Daily: What is a “Wall of Sound?”

Here’s a term that you might have come across in your readings on rock history: wall of sound. What, exactly, is that?

The first use of this term goes back to 1884 when the New York Times wrote a story about the Nibelungen Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany. It was designed by composer Richard Wagner who for the first time put the orchestra in a pit in front of the stage out of sight of the audience, creating an invisible “wall of sound” for the performance.

In the 1950s, a band leader named Stan Kenton had his outfit described as a “wall of sound” because of the vast amount of music his band could generate.

A few years later, producer Phil Spector’s in-your-face studio technique was given that name. And in the 1970s, the Grateful Dead unveiled their custom-built PA system, which they called, yes, “The Wall of Sound.”

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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One thought on “Ongoing History Daily: What is a “Wall of Sound?”

  • Okay, sure, thank you, but what was Phil Spector doing with the sound mix that made it sound so full?

    And, why does that sound so different from some pop songs today, which sound quite rich and full, with lots of highs and lows, but in a different way?

    And, conversely, why do so many classic & alt bands often sound so muddy and blaw (the mix, not the music — which rocks! — and yet can seem so washed out)?

    Sometimes I hear my favorite songs on the radio, and I’m feeling pretty good, and then switch between stations during a commercial, and I realize that the pop stations are on FM and it’s like some classic/alt rock is on a tinny, worn-out AM transistor radio.

    Why do different recordings sound so different (and sometimes, bad)? Can someone (preferably, you) explain it like I’m five? Link?


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