Playing the World’s ‘longest echo’

Playing the saxophone in the Inchindown Oil Tanks

Last week, I was lucky enough to get the chance to play my saxophone in the Inchindown Oil Tanks that hold the World record for the ‘longest echo’.  When I first visited Inchindown while researching Sonic Wonderland/The Sound Book, I concentrated on measuring the room acoustic to gather evidence for the World Record. For that, I used a starting pistol. This time I took along my alto sax and as far as I know, I’m the first musician to have played the oil tanks. The recording was done as part of a Channel 5 documentary about Underground Britain that will come out in the autumn. The Sound Engineer, Angus, captured me warming up on his mobile:

Although the recording includes the chatter of the film crew setting up, you can still hear the effect of the room. Although it sounds like many people are playing, all the notes you can hear are just made by myself. When I played a low note then the whole room answered with a blast that, appropriately for a place used to store shipping oil, sounded like an immensely long blast from a fog horn. If I had waited for the note to completely die away, it would have taken a couple of minutes. Higher notes tended to wither quicker, but even a modestly loud note still took over half a minute to die away. The low notes last longer because the bass reverberation time is so much greater in the space. This meant as I played long phrases, a smog of rumble built up as the notes hung about. When I played an arpeggio, the sound was more like a dramatic sustained chord being played on a cathedral organ than individual notes from my saxophone.

A week earlier I’d played the same tune on the stage of the Bridgewater Hall, a concert hall for classical music in Manchester. One thing I took from the Bridgewater Hall was how the reverberance of the space encouraged me to project into the hall, because then at the end of phrases I could linger a little and enjoy how the room responded to my playing. I could hear how the notes died away before starting the next phrase.

The oil tanks similarly encouraged my playing. But the notes in the tank lasted so long, there was no chance of finishing the piece in a reasonable time if I waited for the sound to completely die away between phrases. Just before starting a new phase, I kept thinking about how the harmonies of the next notes weren’t going to combine sweetly with the dissonant smog from the previous phases. But what was I to do? I just had to plough on. For such an extraordinary place, a specific piece really needs to be created.

Some of you may be thinking, haven’t I heard a previous rendition of a saxophone in Inchindown? What you would have heard was a simulation using the previously measured pistol shot in a convolution reverb. Having played the space for real, I can say the simulation is pretty accurate. And with that simulation, you can hear the effects of the acoustic without the noise of the camera crew:

If you were to play in Inchindown, what instrument and tune would you choose?