Space is the place

Words by Pascal Wyse

How about this for a great description of a studio …

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation ... We represent small sounds as great and deep; likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came; some shriller, and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.” 

Not the promotional blurb for Spitfire’s latest collection of Shakespearean funk essentials, but part of Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, a fictional and utopian world he dreamt up in 1626. It’s an eerily accurate specification for the machines and plugins that have ended up in all our “sound-houses”. Trunks and pipes! Sounds so much better than USB. And those “strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, as it were, tossing it” got me thinking about reverb.

I’m always amazed at how the journey a sound makes before it reaches my ears has such an effect on how that sound makes me feel – as if it has picked up a load of emotional baggage from bouncing around the walls. Run the same bit of audio through a range of convolution reverb presets and its backstory miraculously rewrites with each new space. In our “sound-houses” we have microphones and padded walls to cut out the reverb, and with headphones becoming a normal way of listening we have never had such a direct route to the ears – but ironically, reverb is as essential as ever.

So what’s wrong with a world without reverb? Some of those that have experienced that, by spending time in an anechoic chamber (one of those places that looks like it has grown foam spikes from the walls, floor and ceiling) don’t give it a ringing endorsement – pardon the pun. They may be good places for testing loudspeakers, but wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson described his visit to one simply as “Hell”; Barry Blesser, creator of digital reverb and co-author of the book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? is haunted by the experience: “Forty years after ... I still remember my strange feelings of pressure, discomfort, and disorientation.”

Even if the knobs and dials on our reverbs show that we now understand what’s going on with all those reflections, I still sympathise with our ancestors who, having got themselves off the open plains and safe indoors behind a few feet of rock, found these disembodied voices to be the stuff of magic. The special echoes of the Te Ana o te Atua caves in New Zealand were thought by Maoris to be communications from ancient ancestors – like an enormous telephone to their dead relatives. There’s a theory that cave paintings of animals were frequently created in spaces that had a special reverb, which meant that imitations of the animals seemed to bring the portraits alive. More recently, were choirs boxed off in cathedrals so that their sound bounced off the roof and seemed to come from heaven itself?

David Byrne’s written about this in his book How Music Works, and if you want a whistle-stop tour of how architecture helped music evolve, I recommend his TED talk. The question he ended up asking himself, thinking back to early Talking Heads days playing in clubs like CBGB, was: do I have a venue in mind when I write? CBGB had a particular sound, he says, which made it suitable for a particular type of playing and song. He goes on to explain how opera houses, churches, clubs and even mp3 players are all arenas that encourage particular kinds of music. 

Before the microphones and padded walls came along, music was for spaces and places, not direct injection to our ears – and you wrote music that worked well in those spaces and places. When the room doesn’t match the music, reverb becomes a problem. The Royal Albert Hall in London is notoriously tricky. In one interview, Brian Eno describes it like this: “It was awful, any piece of music which had rhythm or any kind of speech to it would be completely lost there because every event carried on for long after it was supposed to have ended.”

Acoustics professor Trevor Cox says the design of churches and what needs to be heard in them is related: “A thousand years ago in a cathedral, with a priest warbling in Latin, did it matter whether I could hear it or not? Perhaps more important was the Godly sound. As soon as it was presented in English, and sermons were part of the service, this was a driver for creating buildings with shorter reverberation times. Bach started writing much more intricate music when he moved to Leipzig, because the building he was writing for had a shorter reverberation time.” If you can’t stand power ballads, you might blame their creation on the need for a genre that can work in the terrible acoustics of sports stadiums and hockey arenas.

If you have any doubt as to how much you can know about the world through reverb, the stories of people like Daniel Kish, who can “echolocate”, are quite an ear-opener. Kish lost his eyes at 13 months, but learnt to “see” the world by clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth and interpreting how the sound came back to him – in the way that bats can navigate in the dark.

“That clicking sound bounces off surfaces throughout the environment,” said Kish, talking to the BBC. “And it comes back with information – distances, locations, positions, contours, densities. I can construct images from that information.” He likes to go rock climbing, which even when you can see what you’re doing seems scary enough. The great Ray Charles used a similar technique. When he went to blind school he could already echolocate, and was quite happy riding a bike and chopping wood: “There were three things I never wanted to own when I was a kid,” Charles said in a 1978 interview: “A dog, a cane and a guitar. In my brain they each meant blindness and helplessness.”

Bowers and Wilkins always used to advertise their speakers with the line: “Listen and you’ll see.” Reverb places us in the world, gives us a relationship to the sound, brings us back to the safety of the cave. Sun Ra was right when he said “space is the place”. He meant out there with the stars, of course, since he was an alien from Saturn – but there’s plenty of great spaces on earth, speaking back to us.