The Technology That Led To Rock and Roll, Part 3

Once the technology of the electric guitar and the guitar amplifier was firmly established, Rock and Roll was ready to move forward. Never completely satisfied with what was available, rock musicians continued to search for new, different and exciting sounds.

The next tech-driven modification to the sound of Rock came first in the studio. Due to sound-absorbent baffling used to both isolate the studio’s microphones from outside sound sources (traffic and the like) and to eliminate the blurring effect of near-term echoes within the studio, recordings from the earliest days tended to sound lifeless.  Or, in sound engineer lingo, to sound “dry.”

To get back the natural feeling of space lost in the studio, sound engineers created echo chambers – small rooms with hard, tiled, walls – where the recorded signal could be played through speakers then recorded again. These echo filled recordings would then be “mixed” in with the original recording in small doses.  Their goal was not to create a new, artificial, sound, but to return the naturalness lost in the recording environment. Rock musicians, singers, and producers, however, saw another possibility: using these “echo chambers” to create something new. And so, once again, technology changed the sound of Rock and Roll.

For example, when one listens to the early recordings of Elvis Presley, what one hears is not a natural reverberant field. It sounds not like Elvis and his backing musicians are playing in a room large enough to hold them, but someplace more intimate -- like he and they are present with you in your own room – or even the shower.

Once that intimate, small-space, reverb became part of the sound of Rock and Roll, musicians had a problem: How could they keep that same intimate sound when they performed live? Once again technology came to the rescue with a brilliant invention called the spring reverb.

The original patent for the spring reverb concept dates all the way back to 1939.  The concept was simple: A spring, or several springs, was stretched between a transducer (something similar to a speaker driver) and an electronic pickup. When a musical signal was sent to the transducer it would set the springs vibrating to the music and by the time those vibrations reached the spring ends where the pickup was the signal would be immediately followed by a blurred image of itself -- this in a very natural and musical way. A studio engineer or a musician could control how much of this “blurred” afterimage was introduced into the mix by simply turning a knob.

By the early 1960s spring reverbs became readily available to guitarists  – first in the form of a stand-alone unit, then, a bit later, built right into the guitar amplifier.

Of course, Rock and Roll musicians being Rock and Roll musicians, the thought quickly entered their minds that “if a little reverb is good, more reverb must be better!” And with that a new Rock music idiom was born. It was called “Surf Music.” Music that took the “dry” signal produced by the electric guitar and made it “wet” – very wet! – a sound they heard as mimicking the continuous roar of ocean waves slamming onto a beach.