Photos 1 & 2 — The monumental ruins at Wupatki include a stone ring (probably a ball court) with a unique slapback echo.
Photo by Joe Gore.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist—until the day I shared the dream with my mom.

“Why would you want to do that?” she cried. “You’d just spend your life in some dingy closet, polishing pottery scraps with a toothbrush!”

Fortunately, mom was more supportive of my guitar fantasies—in fact, she taught me to play. By the time I’d mastered the fiendish F chord, my archeology dreams had faded, along with my hopes of receiving a mini-bike as a bar mitzvah present. (I got a Jazzmaster instead.) Yet I’ve always maintained an armchair interest in ancient civilizations. My wife and I were even planning an archeology-oriented trip to Syria a couple of years ago, but, um, some stuff happened in that corner of the world, and the trip got nixed.

But living in the American West, we have archeological riches closer to home, particularly the remnants of the great Ancestral Puebloan civilizations (often referred to as the Anasazi, Navajo for “ancient ones”). About 1,000 years ago, these ancestors of the modern Pueblo people created the lofty cliff dwellings and grand cities whose ruins dot Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, including the vast complex at Chaco Canyon. I recently had a chance to revisit a favorite site, Wupatki, about an hour north of Flagstaff. And this time, I had music on my mind.

These reverbs evoke their idiosyncratic sources, providing cool, unique sounds you’d never get from a factory reverb preset.

Sinagua Slapback Wupatki boasts glorious sandstone ruins, the largest of which were created by the Sinagua people during the 12th century (Photo 1). The site includes a large stone ring (Photo 2) widely believed to be a ball court like the ones associated with the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. (It’s the northernmost example of its kind.) A growing body of evidence hints at cultural exchange between the ancient Puebloans and Central America. (My take: “How could there not have been?”)

When I first visited Wupatki 25 years ago, I noticed a uniquely eerie echo when standing within the stone ring—a series of short but perceptible slaps as sound waves ricocheted between the low stone walls. Back then we lacked the technology to digitally capture the effect, but this time I packed a mobile interface with the aim of snaring an audio snapshot so I could clone the sound in the studio using an impulse response reverb. (I discuss this technology in my April 2014 Recording Guitarist column.) I squatted in the mud and clapped. The echo was every bit as spooky-cool as remembered. I unzipped my bag—and realized I’d left the interface at my hotel, two hours south in Sedona. (I wonder whether the Ancestral Puebloans had a word for “D’oh!”)

So I just set my iPhone on a rock in a puddle, fired up iOS’s free Voice Memos app, and started clapping, as heard in Audio Clip 1. The results as captured through the phone’s cheapo built-in mic aren’t promising. The echoes don’t sound terribly dramatic, and there’s wind noise, plus my scuffling feet and heavy breathing. Time would tell if I got anything good.

Photos 3 & 4 — The conical coal kilns in a remote corner of Death Valley generate an eerie, flange-like reverb.
Photos by Joe Gore.

D’oh! Redux History repeated itself a few days later as I returned home via Death Valley. I’d driven to a remote mountainous corner of the park to check out the Wildrose Coal Kilns (Photo 3). Designed by Swiss engineers and built by Chinese laborers, these spooky-beautiful conical structures were used in charcoal production during the 1870s.

It was “D’oh!” déjà vu: Again, I was unarmed—it didn’t even occur to me till I was standing inside one of the kilns (Photo 4) that these stones cones generate bizarre and capture-worthy reverb. I set down my phone and clapped, stomped, and clacked rocks, as heard in Clip 2. The echoes were shorter than at Wupatki, but they regenerated longer, producing an almost flange-like resonance.