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?

8 responses to “Playing the World’s ‘longest echo’

  1. Is there a stereo version of the pistol shot? It would be fun to play with that in a convo reverb!

    But you played too fast on the sax, from the only video I have seen… slow down, man! 🙂

      • Lou Judson

        Thanks Trevor! This is all mono, though. It is very sad that soemene as deep into sound as you are does not capture the sounds in stereo! It could be even more impressive. As every man knows, it is not the length that is the most important thing! 🙂 But this is what we have. I’ve maximized it to -0.3 and faded out the clanking noises at the end. Maybe I’ll do some stereo synthesis before I make a convo impression… Thanks!
        L

    • I was playing fast because I was warming up so just wanted to get my fingers working. I was shivering badly because it is cold down there.

  2. TC: Great to hear about an actual instrument being played in there. The Dan Harpoole has been hosting musicians/instruments for years but they recently shut it all down, sad to say. I launched an outdoor Cave Concert series some years back in SF bay area. About an 8 second delay. Once we packed 250 people in there though the skin and clothes sucked up most of the reverberation so it was still a great clear sound but lost some of the magic. The place was magic enough though to attract concert goers for years and it all still goes on under another concert company.

  3. Hi I would play a piano with dampened pedal on, and let the room ring the notes out instead of the instrument.

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