Different eras of pop music have signature sounds - studio tricks used by record producers to hype up the music. Sometimes these sounds are a part of why certain songs have become timeless. When Sam Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, he used a particular kind of tape delay technique that he called “slapback echo” to add depth and rhythmic interest. Songs like “Mystery Train” have an unforgettable sound.
Other studio tricks are why songs can seem dated. A decade ago it was the extreme abuse of auto-tune. Whether it was used to make a vocalist sound like a robot, or as a quick fix for bad singing, auto-tune could pull the life completely out of a performance.
The cliché of this era is the use of distortion on the voice. The sound of an overdriven amp is a natural part of guitar playing, but producers now use it to beef up the lead vocal track. There are lots of good reasons to do it. Distortion can make the voice sound more rich. Computers don’t have the same warm patina that tape and vacuum tubes naturally add, so putting the vocals through a guitar fuzz pedal is an easy fix. It’s also a way to sound “retro” - channeling the great blues and Motown singers of two generations ago. And sometimes it’s used as a telephone effect, which can support the narrative of the song.
But lots of times distortion is a mask. Sometimes it hides a good performance and gets in the way of the experience. Other times it artificially hides the fact that the singing wasn’t very strong to begin with. Whether for good or bad reasons, I just hope they don’t make fun of our distorted vocals ten years from now.
Here are a couple really distinctive sounds, and I want to stress that these are all good songs, not the cliché ones.
Elvis Presley, “Mystery Train,” 1955. Sam Phillips, producer, Sun Studio (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, etc.) John Lennon’s solo work uses slapback extensively (e.g. Instant Karma on vocals and drums)
1980s: Gated reverb:
XTC, “Towers of London,” The Black Sea. 1980. Lots of gated reverb on the snare. Doesn’t sound too bad here. Phil Collins is the worst offender of gated reverb abuse.
Daft Punk, “One More Time.”
The Beatles, “Revolution” “I am the Walrus”
King Crimson, “21st Century Schizoid Man,”
The Strokes, “Hard To Explain,” Is This It? .
The Black Keys, “Tighten Up.”
Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young” Modern Vampires of the City (2013). Also uses slapback and some weird filtration in the middle part.