The Same Song Sung in 15 Places: A Wonderful Case Study of How Landscape & Architecture Shape the Sounds of Music

Les Paul, known pri­mar­i­ly for the icon­ic gui­tar that bears his name, also invent­ed most of the record­ing tech­nol­o­gy we still use today, includ­ing the use of reverb as a stu­dio effect. But of course he didn’t invent rever­ber­a­tion any­more than he invent­ed the gui­tar; he just turned both of them elec­tric. Reverb has exist­ed as long as there have been sound­waves, obsta­cles for them to hit, and ears to hear what hap­pens when they do. In every pos­si­ble space—landscape, cityscape, and archi­tec­tur­al formation—the effect announces itself dif­fer­ent­ly, though we’re sel­dom aware of it unless we’re in grand, cav­ernous spaces like a cathe­dral or moun­tain gorge.

But musi­cians and audio engi­neers like Les Paul have always paid spe­cial atten­tion to the way sound man­i­fests in space, as have singers like the gent above, who calls him­self the Wik­isinger, real name Joachim Müll­ner. With “no arti­fi­cial reverb added,” Müll­ner demon­strates how much envi­ron­ment con­tributes to the qual­i­ty of what we hear with a mon­tage of sound and video clips from several—very aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleasing—locations.

In each place, Müll­ner sings the same strange song: in a tun­nel, an attic, a field before an oil der­ricks, the nave of a cathe­dral, and an ane­choic chamber—which resem­bles the inte­ri­or of an alien space­craft and pro­duces no reflec­tions what­so­ev­er. Some­times the effect is sub­tle, invit­ing you to lean in and lis­ten more close­ly; some­times it’s out­sized and oper­at­ic.

The filmmaker’s claim to “no arti­fi­cial reverb” sounds a lit­tle slip­pery after view­ing the Wikisinger’s per­for­mance since one of the most dra­mat­ic clips fea­tures his voice, and per­son, redu­pli­cat­ed sev­er­al times. And we should keep in mind that no record­ing tech­nol­o­gy is per­fect­ly trans­par­ent. Micro­phones and oth­er equip­ment always add, or sub­tract, some­thing to the sound. As slick as an adver­tise­ment, the short video uses a heav­i­ly medi­at­ed form to con­vey the sim­ple idea of nat­ur­al rever­ber­a­tion. You may, in fact, have seen some­thing just like this not long ago. Before the Wik­isinger, there was the Wikidrum­mer. In anoth­er “no reverb added” video above, he snaps, cracks, booms, and crash­es through the same beat in garages, open fields, and under­pass­es. With each abrupt shift in loca­tion comes an abrupt shift in the fre­quen­cy and dura­tion of the sounds, as the full spec­trum col­lides with met­al, con­crete, asphalt, and open air.

The ways in which sound and space inter­act can deter­mine the shape of a musi­cal form. This sub­ject has giv­en musi­cian, artist, and the­o­rist of music and art, David Byrne much to think about. As he puts in in a TED talk above, the “nature of the room”—the qual­i­ty of its reverb—guides the evo­lu­tion of musi­cal gen­res and styles. Begin­ning with the exam­ple of CBG­Bs and like dive bars around the coun­try, he describes how the art punk pio­neered by his band the Talk­ing Heads depend­ed on such spaces and “didn’t sound all that great” in places strict­ly designed for music, like Carnegie Hall. His talk then takes us to some fas­ci­nat­ing archi­tec­tur­al envi­ron­ments, such as the kinds of rooms Mozart com­posed and played in. Byrne speaks to the neo­phytes as well as to the audio­philes among us, and his talk works as a per­fect intel­lec­tu­al com­ple­ment to the son­ic and visu­al adven­ture on offer in the Wik­isinger and –drummer’s videos. Both approach­es equal­ly per­suade us of the prime sig­nif­i­cance of that intan­gi­ble won­der called reverb.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne: How Archi­tec­ture Helped Music Evolve

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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