The Wall That Wasn’t Flat:  

Phil Spector and The Loudness Wars

Words: Ben Cunningham 
Nov 22 2021

For producer Phil Spector, the “final test was [always] to listen to the song in the car.”1

A perfectionist, Spector wanted to be sure that the sound he created in the studio would translate “to how kids would experience it.”2 That sound was the Wall of Sound, the revolutionary studio creation which made Spector into the era’s preeminent pop-record producer—a distinction which, at the time of the early sixties, was no small feat. Defined by the “hit single,” it was an era where the producer became both the auteur and the pop-star – the “new genius [of] rock.”3 After Elvis but before the Beatles, Phil Spector was king of pop.

To some degree, the Wall of Sound can be explained quite easily. Loosely put, it was simply putting together a “lot of instrumentalists in the same recording studio and having them all play at once.”4 5 “Huge, clamorous, [and] monumental,” it was a sound “unlike anything before it”– what Spector would later call a “Wagnerian approach to rock and roll.”6 It’s influences were scarce: while L.A.-based songwriting and producing duo Leiber and Stoller, Spector’s very own mentors, had also previously stacked instrumentalists to create a “fuller sound,”7 particularly in their rhythm sections, even they were quick to admit that what Phil did was different. Not only did he explode their approach to layering instrumentals – “doubling, tripling,” and sometimes even “quadrupling instruments”, but he did so live and en masse within the confined space of Gold Star, a studio favored by Spector for its “unique echo chamber” and “ambiance.”8 This was often done with up to 30 musicians and singers crammed in the studio at once.9 By contrast to his mentors, then, who, in their own words, “went much more for clarity in terms of instrumental colors,” Spector deliberately blended everything together.10 This created what Spector called a “muzziness” that “adds up to musical guts.”11 Others, including Lieber and Stoller, were less complimentary in their characterization. To them, the Wall of Sound came too much at the cost of dynamic clarity; it was more “mulch” than guts.12

This line of criticism has continued to this day, albeit in rather unusual form. In recent years, the Wall of Sound has come to be seen as an early aural analog to the sort of sounds produced by the so-called ‘Loudness-Wars.’ This is not exactly a becoming comparison. First appearing in a 1979 article critiquing the “excessive” amount of “compression and limiting” used in contemporary FM radio broadcasts, the term has since come to describe the ongoing “competition between record companies to make louder and louder albums.”13 This practice, enabled by technological advancements in compression and limiting—audio processes used to reduce dynamic range and standardize volume—and fueled by the industry-wide belief that “louder is better,” has become one of the most widely criticized in popular music production.14 Primarily, this reaction is tied to aesthetic concerns surrounding the resultant loss in dynamic range, or rather, in the “difference between the loudest [and] quietest parts of [a] sound.”15 In addition to “listening fatigue,” such loss – achieved via compression – has been accused of “reducing depth and texture” and “robbing music of its excitement and emotional power.”16 In other words, the fight for loudness has sacrificed the organic, affective quality and fidelity of much popular music.17

It is with this that Spector’s sound has been compared. But is this fair? Was the Wall of Sound really, as it has been claimed, the “volume fad of [its] time?”18 Is Spector really one of the “earliest participants” in a “vinyl-era loudness-war?”19

At a quick glance, the answer might very well appear to be yes. That is, in a very rudimentary sense, both Spector and the Loudness Wars could be said to have made the same essential tradeoff: fidelity for loudness. Without doubt, Spector was certainly no stranger to the “vinyl-era” “loudness battle[s]” of the early 1960s, battles based on the “observ[ation]” that “louder songs in jukeboxes tended to garner more attention.”20 That is to say, his “massed instrumentals,”21 punchy vocals, and innovative manipulation of Gold Star’s echo chamber— using its natural reverberation to increase sonic density22—all seemed in service of creating “a louder sound than otherwise possible on AM radio.”23 It has even been speculated that he manipulated the phenomenon of the “missing fundamental”— by having his multiple bassists play complentary parts in fifths —in order to create the “psychoacoustic illusion of “deep bass,” an effect which would have sounded impossibly big on small transistor radios of the time.24 According to critics, however, this came at the cost of clarity—hence Lieber and Stoller’s accusation of “mulch.”

To characterize the Wall of Sound in this way, however, is a bit of an oversimplification. For one, the so-called ‘muzziness’ of Spector’s sound was qualitatively distinct from those produced by the loudness-wars. To begin with, its ‘muzziness’ was not actually the product of a loss in dynamic range. Compared to quintessential ‘loud’ albums like Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (1995) or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication (1999), both boasting an average dynamic range of 5 dB, many of Spector’s productions fare quite well.25 26 His 1963 album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, comes in at a reasonably high 11 dB, as does his 1966 Ike and Tina Turner album River Deep-Mountain High.27 28 Unlike the music from the loudness-wars, then, Spector’s dense, murky sound was more than just the byproduct of chasing volume, of sacrificing dynamics for maximum noise. In fact, as reported by Spector’s own engineer Larry Levine, when “other engineers” attempted to recreate the sound by simply turning up all the faders, “all they got was distortion.”29 Loudness was the product of the ‘muzziness,’ not the other way around.


That is to say, the ‘muzziness’ of Spector’s sound was in fact a very specific and intentional musical quality. It was the product of using the studio (in particular Gold Star) as a sort of “musical instrument,” an instrument comprised of the “timbres of various voices, instruments, effects and room tones.”30 Spector, in other words, did not want perfect clarity, was not looking for “virtuosity or individualism amongst the playing.”31 Rather, what he wanted was one monolithic, consistent sound, the sound of “all the instruments overlapping and chorusing each other.”32 In this sense, the murkiness of Spector’s sound was less the loss of dynamic clarity—as is true of the loudness wars—than the creation of an altogether new instrument, one which not only “produced its own overtones,”33 but was able to “hide the building blocks of the song”34 itself.” Paired with the right vocalist, this often had an intoxicating, hypnotic effect.35 By masking the shifts between chords, Spector's wall made it possible for the lead vocal line to stand out all on its own, a solitary voice crooning against a primordial, pounding backdrop of “fantasy and desire.”36



This, then, is what Spector was listening for in his ‘final tests:’ that essential tension, the dynamic contrast between the vocalist and the dense, ever-shifting thickness rumbling beneath them. For Spector, in other words, the point was “not just the melody,” not just how well you could hear each part, but the “overall sound, the feel of a recording.”37 While the loudness wars sacrificed dynamic clarity for screeching volume, Spector sacrificed it for contrast, for color.



1 Sean MacLeod, Phil Spector: Sound of the Sixties(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), p.48.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid, 39.
4 Virgil Moorefield, The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 11.
5 “Building The Wall Of Sound – Phil Spector's Golden Sixties,” Record Collector Mag (2019 Diamond Publishing), accessed November 27, 2019, https://recordcollectormag.com/articles/building-the-wall-of-sound-phil-spectors- golden-sixties)
6 Brown, Mick. "Pop's Lost Genius: Phil Spector". Telegraph Magazine (2003). Phil Spector. Rock's Backpages. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/pops-lost-genius-phil-spector,“Building The Wall Of Sound,” ''Wall of Sound,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, October 26, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_of_Sound)
7 Moorefield, The Producer, 11.
8 “Building The Wall Of Sound”
9 Brown "Pop's Lost Genius”
10 Moorefield, The Producer, 11.
11 Writer, Uncredited. "The Musical Guts Behind Spector". Beat Instrumental (1970). Phil Spector. Rock's Backpages. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/the-musical-guts-behind-spector.
12 Moorefield, The Producer, 11.
13 Sreedhar, Suhas. “Tearing Down the Wall of Noise.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News, 2007. https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/the-future-of-music; Vickers, Earl. “The Loudness War: Background, Speculation, and Recommendations.” Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar/loudness_war.pdf.
14 Ibid.
15 Sreedhar, “Tearing Down.”
16 Vickers, “The Loudness War.”
17 Hinkes-Jones, Llewellyn. “The Real Reason Music's Gotten So Loud.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 25, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/the-real-reason-musics- gotten-so-loud/281707/.
18 Ibid.
19 Vickers, “The Loudness War.”
20 Sreedhar, “Tearing Down.”
21 Moorefield, The Producer, 12
22 Vickers, “The Loudness War.”
23 Llewellyn, “The Real Reason”
24 Vickers, “The Loudness War.”
25 “Album Details.” Album details - Dynamic Range Database. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/view/162496.
26 “Album Details.” Album details - Dynamic Range Database. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/view/142734.
27 “Album Details.” Album details - Dynamic Range Database. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/view/26857.
28 “Album Details.” Album details - Dynamic Range Database. Accessed November 28, 2019. http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/view/161060.
29 Buskin, Richard. “Classic Tracks: The Ronettes 'Be My Baby'.” Sound on Sound , April 2007. https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/classic-tracks-ronettes-be-my-baby.
30 Moorefield, The Producer, 14.
31 MacLeod, Phil Spector.
32 Ibid.
33 “Building The Wall Of Sound” 34 MacLeod, Phil Spector.
35 Ibid.
36 Moorefield, The Producer, 13.
37 Moorefield, The Producer, 14.

 

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