​What is Slapback Echo?

What is Slapback Echo?
   I often get folks asking me about how I get my guitar and recordings to sound the way they do.
   Or I hear them remark that my stuff sounds so authentic, or how much they love that certain sound from the 50’s, but they can’t describe it.
   Well, a big part of what these folks are hearing is Slapback Echo.
   What is Slapback Echo you ask? Well, that’s what I’m about to tell you…
   It started out in Memphis, way back in the early 50’s when a young guy named Sam Phillips started The Memphis Recording Service.
   Sam recorded anything and anybody back in those days, weddings, funerals, and amateurs… whatever paid the bills.
   But what Sam really loved was off the wall, raw authentic music, so he started up Sun Records to release music by some of the acts that he discovered
   I have not yet been to the Sun Studios, (and yes, it still exists and from what I hear the room is pretty much the same as it was back then), but from what I understand it’s a big open room with high ceilings and lots of corners for the sound to bounce around in.
   Through trial and error, Sam knew where to stand the musicians to get the sound he was hearing in his head.
   In fact, I hear that there is still an X on the floor where he had singers like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash stand to record their vocals. (Sam discovered both of these fellas along with an army of other legends)

  Here's how it went,  the band set up and played, and Sam’s microphones would capture those instruments bouncing off of the walls. (They played all together in those days, no overdubs)
   But that is not totally the magic secret to Slapback Echo; and it WAS a big secret at first, because none of the New York, LA, and Nashville Big Shot studio and recording engineers could figure out HOW some backwoods cat way down in Memphis could get a sound like this. He was making 2 or 3 musicians sound like an 8 piece band!
   Well the secret was this, Sam had rigged several tape machines up so that they recorded the sound of the room in real time, but when it played back, he had set up one of the playback heads to play the tape a fraction of a second later.
   So basically you would hear the sound of the voice or music, and a split second later you would hear it again. But the tape heads were so closely synced, that it was not discernible to the ear that it was two different recordings. It was just a thick fat sound that made everything sound HUGE.
   It was a studio trick or gimmick, but it still sounds FANTASTIC!
   (trivia, the story goes when RCA bought Elvis contract, they could not figure out how to get the Sun Sound, and they eventually recorded Elvis singing down a tall stairwell)
   Nowadays, there a zillion ways to get a digital slapback echo, but back then you had to do it with magnetic tape.
   There were tools like an Echoplex, or amplifiers like the Echosonic. All of which used magnetic tape that ran in a loop and was manipulated mechanically.
Now, for some of my tricks to get a good Slapback Echo

Live- I just use a Danelectro Dan-Echo pedal that I bought about 12 years ago. These things are purple and ugly, and very cheaply made (and cheap to buy too). But they have a little toggle switch on them specifically for Slapback. It sounds awesomely crappy and perfect for what I do.
*Tip- the key to good slapback is getting it to repeat just once.
You don’t want a Slapback that keeps bouncing and echoing. That just doesn’t sound right at all.
And it should not be in tempo with the song, unless it just accidentally falls on the beat.
Remember, you’re trying to emulate Sam Phillips modified dual tape heads
When recording digitally- there are several ways to do this while recording digitally.
   The simple way is to plug in a delay and set the parameters.
   You basically want to set it up for one repeat (or not more than 10% on Cubase) and the delay time should be between 60 and 120 milliseconds.
   As far as volume or the mix of the delay, you should leave that up to your ear, but if its too loud it sounds cluttered, and if its too quiet…well, why bother?
   At 60 Milliseconds, you don’t hear much doubling, but everything sounds a little thicker and fatter
   At 120 Milliseconds you are REALLY starting to hear the distinct doubling of the sound.
   I once read an interview with The Reverend Horton Heat, and he sets his Slapback at 113 Milliseconds, which sounds awesome of course with Mr. Heaths amazing playing
But 113 sounds a little busy when I try it on my sound, so I keep everything around 100 Milliseconds
  Now for MY big secret….
  The coolest Slapback I get, (and I don’t use this trick all the time) goes like this…

  • Record the vocal or guitar part that you want to effect with Slapback Echo.
  • Next, what I do is, I will use at least two mics, going to 2 separate tracks…even on my voice.
  • Now, pick one of these tracks, and manually move or drag it to the right, somewhere between 60 and 120 milliseconds from where it started.
  • Now you will have a very cool MONO slapback echo, which you have complete control over.
  • I often will pan the Slapback track farther to the right or left than the other one, pull the volume down on it, and EQ it so it has a little more high end and maybe even overdrive it a nudge...I know I just said mono, and I'm talking about stereo panning. But when you use a digital effect, it pretty much shoots the delay across the stereo spectrum. But with this method, you are keeping the actual slapback panned to the left or right like it would be in a room if the sound was bouncing off of the back wall or something

* Tip, if you can’t, or don’t want to, use two different mics for two different tracks, you can record your take on one track, and simply duplicate the track digitally.
By EQ’ing and panning it slightly differently you can get a similar effect

Here's a link to one of my songs, where I use the above described Slapback Method... Blue Collar Man
One last note- to all Live Sound Engineers
   Most of the places I play, the live sound engineer rarely even asks me what, or even if, I want any kind of delay or reverb on my voice.
   But on the rare occasion where they do ask me, I’ll say “a little Slapback on my voice would be fantastic”, and they usually say, “what is Slapback”
   I will briefly explain it to them, but they usually don’t quite get what I’m saying.
    Which is understandable, since we are usually covering this in about a 30 second conversation…
   But the end result is usually I end up with a huge delay on my voice that would sound right at home at a Pink Floyd concert LOL
   So to any live sound engineers that may be reading this, I hope that this explains everything a little more clearly than our 30 second conversation before the show
Disclaimer, you a should all know that the information contained in this blog is in my own words, from my memory and my own understanding of the facts, without any further research before I started writing this, so any music nerds out there that want to correct me on the facts, please feel free to start a dialog!
* One other piece of random trivia, Sam sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000 back in the late 50’s, which at first seemed like a terrible idea. But Sam invested this money and started up the Holiday Inn hotel franchise, which obviously made him super wealthy.
Sam Phillips never let anyone tell him how to do things, and neither should you if you believe in something

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