A Journal on the Art of Record Production

The first issue of a new academic journal is if nothing else an exciting moment in the sociology of knowledge!  Why this particular set of interests now?   Why can’t they be expressed in existing publications?  Is this the first map of a new field or just another subplot on an existing disciplinary site?  What does this journal mean for the development of new concepts and methodologies?

The publication of The Journal of the Art of Record Production follows the creation of a Web-based network and the organisation of two Art of Record Production international conferences, in London in 2005 and in Edinburgh in 2006.  There are clues here  as to why this journal is necessary.

First, the growing academic interest in record production reflects something happening in the academy itself: an increasing number of production courses and so of teachers of record production, looking for teaching materials and faced with issues of curriculum, course content and assessment (and so with issues of theory and value).  A research interest in production necessarily follows from a teaching interest.

Second, the increasing number of university-based production courses reflects not only the expansion of student numbers and university administrators’ pressing need to develop degrees with vocational value, but also changes in the business of record production itself.  Digital technology may have increased young peoples’ opportunities to produce records for themselves—the studio-in-the-bedroom—but it has decreased the opportunities for on-the-job training, as recording studios have become leaner organisationally and recording equipment more portable (not to say virtual).  As in other media occupations (journalism, broadcasting, television) training in record production is increasingly organised through academic qualifications rather than as any kind of craft apprenticeship.  And if academics have therefore had to take a new interest in what record production is—technically, aesthetically, phenomenologically, so record producers now have to take account of what academics do and in the ways in which their own activities are theorised.

One consequence of the resulting conversation between educators and practitioners is a new kind of self-consciousness among producers about their practices.  A self-consciousness reinforced, I believe, by the simultaneous effects of technological and generational change.  There are by now a significant number of producers—key figures in establishing rock as the dominant form of Western popular music—who are reaching the later stages of their careers and thus ready to think about their ‘life’s work’ and what it might mean.  From an academic perspective, the most fascinating and fruitful aspect of the two ARP conferences was not simply that working producers attended but that we shared a discourse.  The questions that interested us didn’t seem silly to them  (something I’m not sure would have been true even ten years ago) nor did it seem surprising that practising producers should now move into the academy themselves, to teach, of course, but also to read for PhDs!

One important reason for this journal now, then, is to keep in play this exchange between academics and practitioners, an exchange reflected in how the material here is organised, academic articles taking their place amidst producer interviews, discussion and documents and vice versa.

There are therefore positive reasons to publish a journal focused on the art of record production.  There’s research work out there that needs an outlet; there are teachers and researchers looking for material to use in their classes and studies; there’s a new network of academic/practitioner interests that needs articulation.  But there are negative reasons too, a sense that can’t be understood within existing disciplinary frameworks.

To begin with, the study of recording has been a marginal concern in the academic study of music.  With the glorious exception of the ‘eccentric’ Glenn Gould, musicologists have not regarded an understanding of the recording process as necessary for musical analysis.  Those few classical record producers who have received a degree of recognition (Walter Legge, John Culshaw) have usually been treated as impresarios—getting people into the studio in the first place—rather than as sound producers, determining what was then meant by music-on-record.  (And to this day these are the only three names that come up when I ask music students to name a classical record producer.)   The ideological effacement of the producer from the recording process in the classical world is an undercurrent. I think, in Stephen Frost’s fascinating reflection here on the role of the classical music editor, and it is probably not accidental that ARP emerged coincidentally with the development of  CHARM, the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music.  CHARM is a research initiative designed to move the study of record and recording into the central ground of academic musicology, an indication that the impulse behind JARP is having its own effects in at least some university music departments.

More surprisingly, perhaps, record production has also been a neglected topic in popular music studies.  A few producers (Phil Spector, Joe Meek, George Martin) have been the subject of journalistic attention; the work of most has been sparsely documented.  As I discovered when putting together a 4 volume collection of key essays in popular music studies, it took many years for the pioneering work of Edward Kealy and Antoine Hennion to be followed up academically.  And even now, as Jay Hodgson argues in his paper here (and despite the work of such scholars as Paul Théberge, Albin Zak and Thomas Porcello) ‘recording practice’ is almost always subordinated analytically to ‘live practice’ in popular musicology.

Practically, the lack of production studies in the academy in the past means a lack of teaching material in the present.  Introducing students to the history of recording processes, for example, or to a comparative understanding of studio conventions in different countries or musical genres, is just difficult in terms of reading lists.

But there’s a theoretical problem here too, a lack of worked through concepts with which to grasp record production as both a material and an aesthetic practice.   As François Ribac argues in his paper here, recording technology must be understood as an aspect of the history of science.  Recording, in his terms, is the assignment of a ‘musical’ identity to one particular application of the industrial procedure of ‘transduction’.  Analytically the implication is that the study of recording means bringing together ideas and methodologies from both the sciences and the humanities, something not easy to do given the long standing academic organisation of disciplines into separate schools and faculties.  And such separation is not just an academic matter: as Alan Williams suggests in his paper here, the implicit difference between the sensibilities of musicians and engineers is reflected in the ever-changing power structures of the recording process.

The issues raised here were explored in ARP conferences and will undoubtedly lie at the heart of JARP debates to come.  I was honoured to be invited to edit this first issue which, inevitably, reflects my interests as a sociologist.  In particular, what intrigues me (and what seems quite neglected in both the music and sociology literature) is the nature of record production as an occupation.  The call for papers thus indicated as possible themes the studio as a place (of work); the record producer’s conditions of employment—in terms of contractual arrangements and legal rights, with reference to their status as artist/artisan, employer/employee, professional/creator; and the nature of the producer’s skill and its relationship to broader practices of sound design.

These are still questions that interest me though in the event, and perhaps inevitably given that this is the first issue of a new journal, the questions I raised are answered in the papers published somewhat opaquely!  Ribac accounts for the studio as a space by reference to the history of science, experiment and laboratory; Hodgson accounts for the skill of sound engineering by reference to a broader theory of recording practice “as an unique mode of musical communication”; and Williams accounts for occupational roles in the studio in terms of the enactments of discursive power.

It is precisely the push towards theorisation of each of these papers that persuades me that JARP marks the emergence of a new academic field rather than simply a further subdivision of musicology.  It amuses me greatly that we have here a French writer (François Ribac) drawing on a British theorist (Adam Smith) to argue that the recording process, as a creative practice, displays the beneficial effects of ‘feedback’ , while an American writer (Alan Williams) uses a French theorist (Michel Foucault) to argue that the recording process is best understood, rather, as a controlling practice, displaying the power relations of ‘talkback’.   But such view and counterview are the very stuff of academic work, and what this issue confirms—in both its academic and industry sections—is that from now on JARP will be essential reading.

Simon Frith
February 6, 2007

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Technology, Time And Place

Our original call for articles suggested a broad topic scope, from philosophical considerations of determinism to scientific approaches to technological change; a diverse set of propositions representational of our interdisciplinary area of discourse. The resulting articles, whilst by no means a narrow reflection of the subject area, consider the relationship between technology, time and place from four key perspectives: history, analysis, environment and dissemination.

The development of sound recording and music technologies has occurred over more than a century. Situated firmly at the beginning of this remarkable history is Paul Fischer’s exploration of ‘The Sooy Dynasty of Camden, New Jersey.’ Whilst Fischer acknowledges the well-documented influences of Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner and Eldridge Johnson on early sound recording, he adds an important new focus with a study on brothers Harry, Raymond and Charles Sooy. As three of Johnson’s first employees at the Victor Talking Machine Company, the Sooys were amongst the few sound recordists working at the turn of the 20th century. In this enlightening article, Fischer draws upon both Harry and Raymond’s memoirs to illuminate the small, yet influential workforce at Victor, the struggle with emergent recording technologies and the inter-relationship between recordist, recording medium, and performer. Moving on from early analogue recording, Dr. Simon Barber cites an equally revolutionary point in history in ‘Soundstream: The Introduction of Commercial Digital Recording’, taking as his case study the first commercial digital audio recording company in the United States. Navigating the complex political, cultural and economic territory surrounding new, digital recording in the 1970s, Barber informs his article with much ethnographic work conducted with Soundstream associates. Barber highlights the influence of yet another oft-overlooked engineer in Soundstream founder Dr. Tom Stockham. In tracing the company’s trajectory from inception to demise, points of focus include the manufacture of the first DTR, the use of a Soundstream 2-track on early 1980s Fleetwood Mac records, as well as the effect of digital recording on the wider, popular music industry. Reasons behind industry take-up (including classical recording and ‘cutting edge’ development) as well as issues surrounding resistance (including analogue aesthetics and economics), are critically examined in a study that expands existing historical scholarship. In the context of today’s recording industry, early technologies often appear anachronistic or irrelevant. The notion of obsolescence is challenged in Dr. Samantha Bennett’s article, ‘Endless Analogue’. Here, the use of technological precursors and ‘vintage’ systems in the contemporary workplace is explored via three case studies. Bennett’s article illuminates the ongoing necessity of ethnographic study in our field of research, drawing upon first-hand interview material with studio manager Marco Pasquariello and recordists/ studio owners Lewis Durham and Liam Watson.

In JARP Issue 1Albin Zak pointed out in his editorial, ‘The inclusion in this journal of interviews with significant figures in record production represents an ongoing history project, for the oral accounts of practitioners, though problematic, are among our most useful resources.’ Two new, insightful contributions are made to Issue 7, adding to JARP’s repository of research material. Russ Hepworth-Sawyer, Dr. Jay Hodgson, Craig Golding and Daniel Rosen’s interview with former Abbey Road engineer Ken Scott, and Ted Peacock’s discussion with Kevin Doyle, both consider issues of technology, time and place via the career trajectories of two renowned recordists.

Thus far, notions of technology, time and place have been considered from a broadly historical perspective. In ‘What Studios Do’, Dr. Eliot Bates contemplates the recording studio itself as a multi-faceted space. Part laboratory, part container technology, part meeting place and part acoustic environment, this thorough and in-depth assessment of the recording studio’s meaning broadens existing typology of the studio as simply recording facility. Bates’ methodological approach fuses sociological and gender theories with ethnographic work conducted in the US and across Europe. Simultaneous considerations of acoustic design, isolation, containment, communication, interaction and heritage combine into an informative, cohesive, vital analysis of the studio’s role. Paula Wolfe approaches the study of the recording studio from another angle in ‘A Studio of One’s Own’. Once again drawing upon extensive ethnographic work, Wolfe investigates the ‘gendering’ of music production, exploring issues of power, domesticity and control amongst what is traditional ‘male’ territory. A key correlation is made between self-producing, female artist-producers and early feminist writers, such as Mary Wollstonecroft and Virginia Woolf. Accessibility to the ‘tools of the trade’, or, as Woolf famously said, ‘A room of one’s own and five hundred a year’, is one explanation of the comparatively low numbers of female producers. Significantly, Wolfe cites class as an overarching factor impacting upon females in music production and rightly acknowledges this area as one for further study. Such scholarship contributes to a growing area of discourse surrounding the recording and production workplace, which has undergone a remarkable transformation over the course of more than a century. The evolution of the ‘studio’ – from in-house, record label-owned acoustically-treated facility, through church conversions and the ‘Westlake’ style, to the portable, laptop-based production suites of today – has recently attracted more scholarly investigation. As cited by many scholars, a significant turning point in studio development was the proliferation of ‘home studios’. Alice Tomaz de Carvalho deconstructs the notion of democratisation (of both technology and workplace) as embodied in home studio discourse. Through iterative analysis of the music technology and sound recording press, alongside various online fora, the ‘pro’ home recordist emerges as central character, who follows a distinct set of ‘rules’ established by professional recording facilities. ‘Democratisation’ is enunciated as a power assertion by a select few individuals intent on guiding and controlling the behaviour of home studio practitioners.

Through historical and ethnographic studies, the interactive triad of technology, recordist and workplace has formed a cornerstone of the study of the art of record production. In documenting the history, cultural and sociological impact of recording technology, recordists’ working practice(s) and workplace, we have established a fundamental grounding in our area of discourse. But what of the impact of these elements upon sound recordings themselves? Dr. Mike Howlett contributes a review of Allan Moore’s new book, Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song.

Indeed, analytical studies of record production provide us with valuable details into recording and production aesthetics and their impact upon recordings. Marshall Heiser further contributes to production analyses with ‘SMiLE: Brian Wilson’s Musical Mosaic‘. Here, the concept of record-making as ‘collage’ is explored in detail, lending further support to production being a constituent part of the compositional process. Heiser considers Brian Wilson’s SMiLE as a production noteworthy for its technicality, complexity and innovation; rightly concluding that Wilson be considered as part of the established 1960s ‘producer canon’, alongside luminaries Phil Spector, Joe Meek and George Martin. Arguing that Wilson took a ‘modular’ approach to producing SMiLE, Heiser adds another perspective to existing studies of 1960s record production. Close readings of recorded popular song that focus on production aesthetics are rare in our area of discourse. In ‘The Meaning in the Mix: Tracing a Sonic Narrative in ‘When the Levee Breaks”, Professor Aaron Liu-Rosenbaum builds upon existing scholarship by examining embodied meaning in the recording and mix attributes of the Led Zeppelin track. Deploying a visualization tool he calls a “mix map,” Liu-Rosenbaum implements a fascinating and original methodological approach, organising spatial, timbral and gestural aspects of the track into ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ characters present in the sonic narrative. This article offers an important and welcome addition to analytical studies in our field.

In recent times, digitised sound recordings have presented new challenges to the music and audio industries alike. The ‘invisible’ nature of today’s sound recording and, in many cases, the absence of a present artefact allow for new means of interaction, dissemination and reception. In ‘Examining the Impact of Multiple Technological, Legal, Social and Cultural Factors on the Creative Practice of Sampling Record Producers in Britain.’, Dr. Philip McIntyre and Justin Morey study a range of factors resulting from digitalisation. Drawing upon extensive ethnographic work, McIntyre and Morey consolidate valuable insights from sampling producers Aston Harvey, Andy Carthy, Martin Reeves and Richard Barratt into a cohesive and informative study. Arguing that each producer exhibits an individual ‘habitus’ amongst a wider, structured social organisation, the authors illuminate an oft-overlooked set of recordists and their working practices. Continuing with issues of digitalisation and dissemination, ‘An Audience in the Studio: The Effect of the Artistshare Fan-Funding Platform on Creation, Performance, Recording and Production‘ by Mark Thorley examines audience-funded production. Thorley argues that, over time, the performer has been both isolated from and [re]connected to their audience as a direct consequence of technology. Here, our issue comes ‘full circle’, as Thorley draws key correlations between pre-sound recording models of audience and reception with today’s, digitalised models of audience involvement in the creative recording process. Referring to qualitative data charting the actual effects of the Artistshare platform upon writing, recording and performing, Thorley demonstrates both the potential and challenges associated with fan-funded recorded music.

We are proud to present a diverse and insightful set of articles in Issue 7 of the Journal on the Art of Record Production; charting a spectrum of technology, over more than a century in time and across a spectra of social, economic and geographical place.

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Technostalgia And The Cry Of The Lonely Recordist

“Like every period when human thought has been strong and vigorous, it is wholly unhistorical. What it is looking for is not the past, but itself in the past.” – Glenn Gould quoting Albert Schweitzer (in Elie, 2012: p.226).

Timothy Taylor wrote of a “scientific imaginary” (Taylor, 2001), a period in mid 20th century culture seemingly obsessed with futurism, as the world rebuilt itself following the second world war. For Taylor and others, the utopian and dystopian visions of the era’s literature, films, and music say more about their time than the futures they portended. But this reflection of the contemporary in dreams of the future was inadvertent, an unconscious residue of the past clinging to the bright shiny objects of the science fiction age. The science fiction of current pop culture now looks to the past with a sad, longing eye – a tacit acknowledgement that the best is not yet to come; it is already come and gone. Note the overt nostalgia at the core of Christopher Nolan’s recent film, Interstellar, a movie whose central conceit is that only the past can save the future.

Similarly, a pronounced streak of technostalgia has become central to the discourse surrounding recording practice. New developments in machinery and software harken back to equipment from decades earlier; new music constantly references works that came before. But rather than view technological development as a progression from great to unfathomably great, the tone of much of these comparatives laments the sad state of current affairs, perennially failing to live up to the glories of the good old days. I find this lament present in four specific realms of nostalgia – for music, for place, for technology, and for process. I will briefly describe how nostalgia is manifest in these four areas, and posit some ideas about why the past never looked so good as it does today, this very hour, this very minute.

Nostalgia for Music

This is nothing new. Nostalgia itself is part of our sense of musical history. The Reformation introduced music in places that many thought it should not go, not only instigating progressive musical invention, but for some, instilling a longing for the restoration of silence. Advancements in tonality engendered a desire to return to the mathematical precision of counterpoint. The liberating rhythms and timbres of 20th century popular music frightened a broad range of creators and thinkers – from Stravinsky and Adorno, to Lomax and Dylan. Rock music in particular suffers from a sustained bout of iconic worship – the nearly reactionary field of “classic rock,” from radio to video documentaries and coffee table books. The ossification of “progressive rock” as a music that challenges nothing reinforces the notion that anything worthwhile has already been said – only now at twice the speed.

Much current recording practice reflects a desire to capture the sounds of the rock pantheon – to record (and re-record) the Beatles all over again. From my perspective, it appears that entire generations of studio professionals hold firmly to the belief that contemporary music pales in comparison to the great canon of commoditized culture, lavishly packaged, and endlessly re-mastered. When any engineer places a microphone in a position they have read about in the burgeoning market of tomes concerned with past recording practices, particularly of the anecdotal variety (the list of these books is long, and ever-expanding), these recordists are not just emulating past practice, they are expressing the desire to be present in the past, to not only witness the great sessions, but to be a participant ­– in essence, to be great.

Utilizing past recording practices is a means of reconstructing current music into something that more closely resembles that which came before, that which was better, that which inspired performer and technician alike to embark on their respective careers in the first place. But the sense of discovery that motivated Les Paul, Glenn Gould, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Lee Perry, and every other iconic pioneer and innovator has been steadily replaced by a desire to recapture that spirit through re-enactment, to reclaim innocence in a decidedly despoiled world.

Nostalgia for Place

Paul Théberge begins an article on recording studios in the Internet era with the following description of the Manhattan studio system in its death throes.

“On the surface, the closure of Sony Music Studios was just the latest in an ongoing history of such closures: the studio had fallen victim to changes in record industry fortunes, on the one hand, and the voracious New York real estate market on the other. The Hit Factory had suffered a similar fate just a few years earlier (the building that housed the studio is now a condominium complex) as did numerous other studios in New York, such as Columbia’s famous 30th St Studio, decades earlier.” (Théberge, 2012)

Other than Abbey Road, the iconic site of longstanding Beatle pilgrimages, most recording studios have only become worshipped after their demise, or as recent trends indicate, conversion to museums. It is telling that functional workspaces have no time or space for establishing and maintaining a Benjamin-esque aura. A studio’s greatness is best measured when it’s down.

And a major market in measuring legacies has emerged – books, documentaries, museum tours. The vicarious experience of greatness involves not only owning and operating the actual gear (or virtual facsimile), but also standing on the same linoleum as the greats of yesteryear, or watching a video transmission of someone else having the vicarious linoleum experience. The academic in me wants to argue that my extensive collection of linoleum-grounded iconography has something to do with attempting to understand what went on in these hallowed spaces, but the giddy feeling I have felt on my actual ventures into several of these recording meccas honestly has more to do with my personal thrill of proximity, and of course the elevation of my cultural capital for being able to say that, “I was there.”

Of course, there are many recording enthusiasts who see little value in simply standing next to the console that captured/molded/realized “A Day in the Life,” or “Try a Little Tenderness,” or “Dancing in the Street,” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or… Rather, they want to get their hands on the gear, to turn the knobs and ride the faders – to create, or perhaps re-create something great of their own. Technology that has acquired a patina becomes not just a representation of associative greatness, but still retains its ability to serve as a tool to attain greatness, and it may be impossible to separate one motivation from the other.

Nostalgia for Technology

As historic studios have been transformed into parking lots, condominiums, and Starbucks outlets, a horde of audio vultures have descended upon their carcasses, removing the guts, and making a killing on the used gear market. It’s only logical – to make recordings as great as those that inspired us, we should use the same machines that shaped and captured those sounds. And it is overly simplistic to suggest that an appreciation for older technology is really an exercise in associative nostalgia. But I would argue that an element of nostalgia is present when 20th century machines are used to capture 21st century music.

The market for these machines establishes a new system of capital-based hierarchies. As the Internet has facilitated a debatably democractized “level playing field,” social distinctions continue to be established and maintained by restricting access to items of value; it is the access to the items of value that has changed. During the rock and roll heyday, access to studios and the technology they housed required funding from record companies, under working conditions that initially cast the future pop culture gods as moderately compensated employees. Now that almost any schlub can walk into Avatar and temporarily rent the spaces and equipment of rock and roll Valhalla, ownership of rarified technology bestows (or in the case of seasoned professionals, restores), a measure of elite status. For the rest of us, there’s always software.

Software emulations are not inherently nostalgic, though much of the marketing surrounding them capitalizes on the desire to harness the past. Since digital audio processes are distinctly different from analog electronic and acoustic ones, these products present a functionality that masks the actual technology involved. Visual representations of machines from decades hence ostensibly aid those users who once turned the actual knobs and visually monitored the VU meters of heavy, overheating, frequently malfunctioning hardware – a means of bringing outmoded users into current technology. But for many of these users, the representation is simply a con job, and the scorn with which they have been dismissed by older generations of audio professionals is often cast in negative comparisons to “the real thing.”

The real appeal of the unreal lies with those who have never had the opportunity to turn the knobs and watch the meters dance, because they grew up in a world where the hardware was absent from their recording environment – in part because it had become outmoded by newer technological processes, or more often, because the real thing, fairly expensive in its day, is now exorbitantly priced beyond their means. Some of us grew up at a time when those machines were still in use, but economic barriers denied us access to those hallowed halls where the crown jewels were kept. For folks like me, a virtual LA-2A represents not only a piece of audio technology, but a triumph of the little people, a storming of the Abbey (Road), a leveling of the playing field, a piece of the action. Rarely does the discourse surrounding these products fail to acknowledge the drastic reduction in price of software emulations compared to hardware up for auction on Gearslutz.

The real crime is the commoditized dream that has been instilled in post-millennial audio enthusiasts. My generation of audio promateurs could be forgiven for reaching for the virtual fader of a piece of gear they might have actually used if only they had gotten the right break, had only been granted access to what lay behind the studio door they drove by with barely concealed envy thirty odd years ago. But why would any 20 year-old wish to work with an emulation of a technology that has no direct relation to the audio technology of their time? The answer may lie in the notion that somehow the music made by their contemporaries is missing something, that the processes that help create that music might not just reflect this emptiness, but perhaps are responsible for it.

The sad truth is that the growth market in audio technology is geared (pun intended) towards the budding recordist who has never known a world without ProTools and iTunes, and maximizing profit is dependent upon selling a nostalgia for someone else’s “good old days.” I agree that something is lacking from contemporary audio production – but I posit that what is missing isn’t measured in sonic quality or musical value. Rather, DAW production has dramatically reduced the element of collaborative, physical process.

Nostalgia for Process

As I watch the students in the Sound Recording Technology program at my university talk about the comparatives between various analog compressors, microphones, pre-amps and yes, tape machines, I am struck by their disconnect from the reality of their time. They appear to workshop at the feet of Geoff Emerick, Alan Parsons, and Bruce Swedien, and can itemize the racks of the studios they have read about in the virtual books, magazines, and authoritative blog postings scattered across the webosphere. They know the credit lists of the pop/rock canon, and can rattle off names and dates with the best rock music geek. It’s not that they actually listen to this music, but rather that they think they should.

For both the audience for this folklore, and the tellers of these tales, there exists a sad aura of “you should have been/wish I had been there.” Possession of the gear is but one degree of separation from the music and the musicians themselves. My interest in records stemmed from a 45 released in 1967, but left behind by a careless babysitter in 1973 – The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” b/w “Hello Goodbye.” As I pondered what this sound was, I realized that is was something created by the four mustachioed lads on the sleeve, that human beings crafted this music. I began to imagine how this was done, in what environment, with what tools, etc. I wanted to be in that place, but crucially, I didn’t want to be a Beatle; I wanted to be like a Beatle.

As I grew older, the dream of a world where recordings were made never left me. But I didn’t want to make the music I heard coming off the turntable; I wanted to hear my own music come off the turntable. Or at least I tell myself that. In truth, the schema those recordings imposed upon my creative understanding and impulses continue to shape my musical expression to this day. I am comfortable with analog processes, because analog processes resulted in my conception of what “music” is. As a conservatory-trained musician in the mid-80s, Prince served as an idol and talisman, not because he was progressive (though in so many ways, he was), but because he seemed to have mastered all of the elements of music making in the analog realm. And he appeared to do it on his own (most fans of the time blissfully ignorant of the important role engineers have in the collaborative process). Had I grown up a decade later, I might have found Trent Reznor to serve the same purpose, though utilizing a very different set of processes. Reznor often operated within the semi-solitary template that Prince espoused, but he did it by rejecting many of the old school methodologies that Prince had employed. Primarily, Reznor’s mastery of the non-linear editing possibilities that DAWs afford granted him a far greater compositional flexibility than his purple-minded idol. Whereas Prince performed to and alongside his programming, Reznor programmed recorded fragments of his performance.

More and more I am struck by how much contemporary music is made in isolation. Had I had current technological tools at my disposal when I was coming of age, I too would have immersed myself in DAWs, sequencing programs, and the hall of mirrors that is laptop audio. But my curiosity would be piqued by tales of collaborative achievement frequently conjured by the technostalgia industry. I would wonder what was like to trade ideas with other musicians, to respond to a sound I had no part in generating, to coordinate and execute a set of mix moves with a group of sleep deprived pals. For me, the fixation on the tools, environments, processes, and music of the past is really about the desire for a social experience, to be a part of something. Rather than fetishizing gear, I believe the budding recordist wants to know what it was like to explore a great unknown, to discover something, and to do it collectively, as a group whose presence reinforces the humanity in each individual. Could our obsessions with the past be about a longing for presence rather than a rejection of present?

Longing for the Days of Simple Technostalgia

The contributors to this edition of the journal each articulate cogent arguments that invite a reconsideration of the term “technostalgia.” In a wide survey of literature on this history of “private listening,” Steven Hicks makes a convincing case that solitary auditory experience predates headphones and portable playback devices. Indeed the possibility, perhaps even the probability of isolated sonic experience existed from the advent of sound recording. Drawing upon multiple theories of media and social systems, Hicks questions the newness of isolation represented by the iPod user, and points out the recurrence of tropes centered around the use of technology to reject the surrounding urban modernity, writing,

Technological mediation retains principles of past practices covertly encoded in social communication and systemic autopoiesis. Through this autopoiesis, or second-order self-reference, society re-experiences past technological practices as temporal and cultural ghosts amidst our contemporary social environment though embodied in new media.

Thus the iPod is not only the most recent example of a device that facilitates private listening, the history of both the devices that came before it, as well as the social systems that created a desire for such isolated experiences are embedded within its design. But the presence of the past does not inherently reflect a conscious desire to reject the present. Philip McIntyre’s ethnographic survey of audio professionals, as well as Jez Wells’ detailed interview with producer Tony Swain, both illustrate the great degree to which practicalities dictate the choices of technological use. For many of these producers and engineers, a reliance upon older technologies has more to do with making use of what is on hand than a conscious quest to attain associative glory. They continue to enact practices established decades earlier in large part because they understand those practices, and can predict their outcome. But McIntyre’s informants constantly undercut any notion of a romanticized embrace of the past by citing the many times they incorporate more recent audio technologies into daily use. They are well acquainted with the benefits and drawbacks of technologies old and new, and gravitate to machines and practices that will yield the best result as efficiently as possible. And Swain is quick to de-mythologize various technologies and practices, noting that more recent developments in editing and audio processing software greatly extend the possibilities to further craft and refine performance and arrangements, a condition he would have gladly embraced in earlier production work had these technologies been available to him.

But it is also true that many software programs are designed to emulate both the operations and visual appearance of older, “outdated” technologies. The liminal space between the physical and its virtual representation is most acutely present in the graphic representations of human interfaces in digital audio design. Bell, Hein and Ratcliffe provide a concise history of the development of various digital audio platforms, and the interfaces designed to enable their use. In doing so, they posit that graphical representations of physical hardware are in effect skeuomorphs – design elements that are applied to a different functionality than that from which they originated. They go on to argue that such virtual hardware is an example of a technological determinism that replicates outmoded practices at odds with the technology that is actually employed. Yet the authors go on to identify more recent developments in interface design that have emerged from the video game industry, where new solutions to problems of creative expression open up the use of technology to folks who have no experience with the devices and practices of earlier generations, and have no interest in utilizing them. Though this sounds like a rejection of some of the modes articulated by the professionals of McIntyre’s article, I see them as remarkable similar in intent – a machine is only as useful as it can be in realizing an idea. It is the ideas that have changed.

Yet the ghosts alluded to in Hicks’ article haunt the creative process explored in Oli Wilson and Michael Holland’s analysis of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ and the attempt by The Chills to recapture the glories of their earlier work utilizing newer technologies and facilities. The sonic character of that sound was not only the result of particular technologies and the practices associated with them, but served as a textual reference full of embedded meaning for the band’s listening audience. In this case, while “technostalgia” may have been rejected by the musicians, the band’s fanbase imposed their own technostalgia upon the creative work, a feedback loop between past and present, amplified by the audience’s desire to have both simultaneously. As Wilson and Holland underscore, The Chills suffered the unbearable heaviness of history in their attempt to move forward into the past.

A New Hope

As many of the contributing authors make clear, the application of the term “technostalgia” is more often a projection of tropes and schema made upon the work by outside observers than an accurate description of the thoughts, motivations and practices of those individuals engaged in the production. This is as true for scholars as it is for audiences, such as the fanbase of The Chills. The challenge posed by the burden of history is the difficulty of imagining a future that isn’t just a composite of elements from the past. While championing the notion of “collaboration,” I am increasingly aware that my definition of that term is formed by experiences with historically dated musical practices. When I envision a collaborative project, I picture people gathered together in one room, working with instruments and technology that I understand. Guitars and drums, microphones and cables make sense to me, and the absence of those familiar items implies an absence of collaborative opportunity. My conception of music-making has been completely formed by a steady diet of marketed history. But more and more I am convinced that those younger than myself are already building a future free from the lure of manufactured technostalgia.

While recreations of vintage gear may be currently driving the audio recording marketplace, a substantial substrata of technological development operates outside the realm of nostalgia. While often overlooked, and at times dismissed by older generations of recordists, these new tools serve to realize new conceptions of sound, music, and process. Moreover, many of these technologies are designed not for individual isolation, but as a means to facilitate new forms of communication and collaboration.

But as Eve Klein cogently argues in her article on virtual orchestras and the simulation of physical spaces, new forms of collaborative performance are often set within outmoded frameworks – breaking free from the concert hall as part of the process, only to recast the audible results within a comfortably familiar, if thoroughly artificial environment. Klein’s “multiple fidelities” address a world in which allegiances to genre-based performance practices collide with more recently established normative tropes of sound recordings, and serve as a cautionary counter to any utopian embrace of new forms of technological collaboration. And yet…

At the ARP 2014 conference in Oslo, several scholars presented exciting research on collaboration in the virtual realm. The desire to work with others is clearly present, and new technologies are constantly being developed to enable this. Tellingly, the interfaces of this networking software bear little resemblance to anything from 20th century professional recording studios. I find this a very promising development as these technologies facilitate collaborations that aren’t particularly shaped by protracted encounters with history, and will likely result in music whose sounds and processes reflect today, while leaning forward into the future.


Elie, Paul. (2012). Reinventing Bach. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Pinch, Trevor and David Reinecke, (2009). “Technostalgia: How Old Gear Lives on in New Music” in Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices. K. Bijsterveld and J. Van Dijck, eds. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Taylor, Timothy. (2001). Strange Sounds: Music , Technology and Culture. New York: Routledge.

Théberge, Paul. (2012). “The End of the World as We Know It: The Changing Role of the Studio in the Age of the Internet,” in The Art of Record Production: An Introductory Reader for a New Academic Field, Simon Frith, and Simon Zagorski-Thomas.

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The State Of The Art And The State Of The Discipline – Featured Monthly Retrospective

Seven years ago I traveled to London to speak at a conference convened by a couple of new outfits—one calling itself the Center for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM) and the other, simply, the Art of Record Production (ARP). Now called the Association for the Study of the Art of Record Production, ARP is concluding its seventh international conference, attended by scholars, musicians, songwriters, and record producers from around the world. I’d like to offer my congratulations and appreciation to the folks who have worked hard to get this organization off the ground and to sustain its early flight. Thanks this year in particular to our hosts here at San Francisco State University for their hospitality and hard work.

At that first conference in London I participated in a panel discussion framed as “the musicology of record production,” a term which is gaining traction, paraphrased variously as phonomusicology or, one of my favorites, petromusicology. I hadn’t heard the term before and I was glad to see it, lonesome as I was talking to myself about reverb and EQ as elements of musical composition. By now, we can see clear signs that the musicology of record production is taking its place as an academic discipline based on the idea that record production is in fact an art. What I want to talk about today is the state of that discipline and also the state of the art. And since I am both observer and participant, I’ll draw on historical observation and personal reflection. By the end we should have some questions to kick around.

First of all, a thumbnail sketch of the proposition that record production might constitute a creative project. As you know, this was a foreign concept for many decades during which recordists aimed for transparent renderings of live musical performances. The criteria for record production were indicated by the sound of music in the natural world. Electronic intervention, which was of course essential, was nonetheless to be disguised to the extent technology and skill would allow. Records, after all, were not music; they were representations of music.

The widespread rise of creative record production began after the second World War, primarily in the sphere of pop music. The work of Mitch Miller, Milt Gabler, Gordon Jenkins, Les Paul, and others at the major labels represented a new kind of recording, which used the medium for creative ends. Their records had no real-world counterpart. They were one-off musical artifacts, whimsical studio concoctions. In the indie universe, figures such as Sam Phillips, Lee Hazelwood, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector pursued their own novel ideas. Their records called into question fundamental conventions of musical meaning, especially the notion of stylistic authenticity and integrity. Furthermore, the sounds of their records often obscured the borderline between music and noise.

Serious-minded critics dismissed all such activity. The innovators at the major labels were seen as purveyors of tasteless pop kitsch. The inventors of rock and roll dabbled in musical absurdity. Underlying the various aesthetic critiques was a remarkable adherence to the primacy of live musical performance and a refusal to admit that record making might be something different. I say remarkable because the analogous and contemporary development in theatrical art—i.e., film making—was seen early on as a vital new form of artistic expression, not simply a novel means of recording and disseminating stage drama. The new medium aroused serious criticism, which included aesthetic and analytical argument. Record making, however, was seen not as an art but as a craft aimed at commercial distribution of existing music to a mass public. The chief focus of attention was not the record itself but the music—the piece, the song, the performance—that the record contained.

In the 1960s this critical intransigence was finally broken and the debate reframed. The change was spearheaded by the Beatles and George Martin. Their irresistible global impact impressed nearly everyone, and what they proposed—which looked and sounded like a new pop paradigm—simply could not be ignored. Such self-consciously artistic efforts as Rubber Soul and Revolver argued for the rock album as an artwork demanding and rewarding serious attention. With their retreat from the concert stage in 1966 the Beatles asserted that record making was their chief calling, the area of musical creativity where their artistic spirits had the freest rein.

The Beatles, of course, had lots of company. Consider a list of late sixties albums: the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Doors’ first two albums, Led Zeppelin 1 and 2, The Band’s first two albums, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s and White Album and Abbey Road, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed—a rich abundance of manifest artistic ambition. These records, of course, are only a representative few among the multitude constituting the rock music canon, to which the musicology of record production has, thus far, been chiefly devoted.

As the papers at this year’s conference demonstrate, the field is inherently multidisciplinary—incorporating such areas of study as ethno and historical musicology, music theory, critical theory, cognition studies, cultural studies, acoustics, psychoacoustics, electronic design and theory, and performance studies. In the past ten years scholarly output has increased steadily, mostly in the context of popular music studies programs, which have sprouted in many universities in many countries. The art of record production has become a familiar topic in journal articles, essay collections, monographs, and dissertations. I take it as a timely symbol that the American Musicological Society’s Ruth Solie Award went this year to Amanda Bayley, editor of Recorded Music: Performance, Culture and Technology from Cambridge University Press. According to the AMS description, the award “honors each year a collection of musicological essays of exceptional merit.” With the attention and imprimatur of the AMS, it would seem that the musicology of record production is firmly positioned on the scholarly map.

In fact, it may seem practically unnecessary at this point to assert that record production is an art—it sounds pedantic, for example, to say “the art of poetry” or “the art of film.” We know that poetry and film are arts; they need no qualifier. Do we still need reminding that record production, too, is an art? A good example of new attitudes and a new consciousness about records can be found in many recent music theory treatments of pop music. For a long time theorists working on pop music topics focused almost entirely on pitch-based analysis. But now such projects routinely engage sound as well as musical syntax, acknowledging that for rock music the two are inseparable and that a comprehensive interpretation cannot be limited to songs and arrangements.

But other evidence suggests that records have a ways to go before gaining full admission into the realm of the fine arts. Just as music itself had to fight its way into the fine arts establishment, succeeding only in the latter years of the 18th century, record production remains a field of creative activity that is hard-pressed to score, say, a Guggenheim or NEA grant.

The problem, I think, lies not with the quality of the artistic effort but the very nature of the project. In part, the difficulty lies in a lingering hangover from the old notion that records are not art works in themselves. Although this bias has been convincingly refuted for a long time now, it remains a stumbling block as songs and performances claim the lion’s share of critical attention. The attitude is evident, for example, in the term “over-produced,” which trumpets a critical fallacy, an aesthetic opinion framed as a critical standard suggesting that there is some kind of proper or authentic degree of production. What is actually being asserted is that the recording apparatus has meddled too much with the musical process, an old complaint implying, once again, that the record is not the music.

Another basic problem lies in perceptions and attitudes about the historical context of record production. Creative record making developed as an artistic language entirely within a commercial framework. The art of record production historically was inseparable from the commerce of record production. The price of entry was beyond the means of musicians and songwriters. The gatekeepers were those who owned the technology and employed the engineers who knew how to use it. Acquiring, using, and maintaining recording gear was an expensive proposition. Without attention to the bottom line no enterprise could survive for long. As Jerry Wexler put it in his autobiography, “We lusted for hits. Hits were the cash flow, the lifeblood, the heavenly ichor—the wherewithal of survival” (Ritz and Wexler: 1993, p. 91).

I view this historical dependence on the marketplace largely as a salutary circumstance, a kind of democratizing dynamic that balanced out the radical individualist urges of musical modernism. Unlike classical composers, for instance, pop artists were constrained in their personal creative indulgences by market responses. If their records flopped, their patrons—the record companies—would eventually stop supporting their work. This forced artists to at least think about their audience.

The downside of this system, however, is that it set a habit of thought in the cultural mind that precluded popular artists—even as they were undertaking ever more complex creative projects—from being considered as full members of the community of fine artists. There is a longstanding prejudice on the part of those invested in the traditional arts against the unruly mingling of art and commerce, as though it must involve some unsavory deal with the keepers of the bottom line. As if it must be somehow fettered by compromise and unholy influences.

This is no doubt sometimes the case. I have no interest in defending anything about the music industry. But the fact is that the system has produced lots of great art. There is really no excuse for the weak-mindedness of an art vs. commerce formulation that reads each as mutually exclusive. And yet it persists. Even for those who consider it terminally unhip to admit it, the idea lurks tacitly in the fabric of aesthetic attitudes, academic politics, and the functioning of arts institutions.

As scholars and historians of record production, we are well acquainted with the fruits that interactions between art and commerce have borne over time. An argument for the artistic legitimacy of commercial records is implicit in virtually every project we undertake. And yet it is also worth thinking about ways in which we might decouple the artistic and the commercial. Because there are far more pieces in motion now than conventional music industry structures can possibly contain. The fact that we acknowledge the legitimacy of art produced in a commercial context should not mean that we restrict ourselves to successful commodities and ignore records with no commercial or celebrity pedigree.

In 2007 I wrote a little piece for the first issue of this organization’s online journal. I was asked to weigh in with what was called a provocation commenting on the topic of ‘studio as space/place’. I didn’t know exactly what that meant but here is some of what I wrote:

The most significant and far-reaching change in musical culture worldwide over the past twenty years has been the emergence and rapid evolution of the project studio. Along with their offer of independence from the music industry establishment, project studios have brought about new modes of composition and production, and upended all manner of accepted studio habits. One such consequence is the emergence of recordists whose work life resembles more that of a poet or painter.

Today, the recording studio is any place where sound is captured or manipulated, and it is often staffed, and all duties performed, by one person. With the availability of any sound imaginable, productions can take any shape whatsoever, their sounds performed by virtual ensembles conjured in the artist’s imagination. The ‘artist,’ of course, may be a ten-year old, a farmer, or a tax accountant. Reactions to this all-access technological cornucopia vary according to one’s aesthetic stance and the nature of one’s investment in preserving traditional standards of gate keeping. But whatever one’s view, the project studio revolution—like the phonograph, stereophonic sound, multi-tracking, and other advances—calls for rethinking some longstanding assumptions about musical practice. (Zak: 2007, online)

Let me flesh this out a bit.

While records can be little more than snapshots of musical events, they can also be a form of musical composition. They differ from traditional composing in the sense that they incorporate performances and sound as components of a finished work needing no further realization. But record making shares with scripted composition a fundamental similarity: both processes produce musical works. With that in mind, I’d like to borrow an idea from the much older tradition of scripted musical composition.

Historically, professional and amateur composers were not far apart in terms of access to the means of musical creativity. Anyone so inclined could compose a piece of music. If they were trained they could write it down with nothing more than pencil and paper. If not, they could write it into memory and pass it on using their voice. Professionalism was not a requirement. Musical creativity was available to anyone with a musical imagination.

With the invention of sound recording, the technology of musical notation was augmented by mechanical and then electronic technologies. For musical expression, the potential was intriguing. The elements of written musical syntax—pitch combinations and rhythmic patterns—could now be enhanced with actual sounds and musical utterances. The composition might now embody both musical thought and musical action, a kind of musical artwork without precedent.

But with the coming of these vast new possibilities came also new restrictions. Musical imagination was no longer enough. A heavy financial investment was required to even begin the process of learning to harness the new machinery. Almost every artist was reliant on institutional support. In the realm of experimental music, there were such things as the Columbia-Princeton Center, the NWDR in Cologne, and the Experimental Studio of the RTF in Paris. In the realm of everyday music it was record companies that controlled the show. Each of these institutions had an agenda that impinged on artistic freedom. Experimental music had to be, well, experimental but in a particular way. Experimental innovators such as Joe Meek or Lee Perry would likely not cross the velvet rope at Columbia-Princeton. With cultivated prestige at stake, how could it be otherwise?

Commercial music, on the other hand, had to earn its keep. Some A&R person had to grant an initial admittance to the electronic kingdom and then a musician had to turn out profitable products. The ultimate yardstick was always the financial bottom line—for the company at least. With real money at stake, how could it be otherwise?

Whoever their patrons were, artists had to fit their expression to what the institution required or allowed. And they had to be, in one way or another, professionals.

Eventually a DIY ethos gained steam, a sort of “occupy IRCAM” or “occupy Abbey Road” movement. It was enabled by affordable and reasonably sophisticated production tools, which began showing up in the 1970s. By the early1980s something substantial was taking shape. Musical imagination was in the midst of a liberating revolution as record production became accessible as never before. If the early attempts were primitive, the promise was boundless. Tape recorders, recording consoles, outboard gear, all became available in budget versions, eventually producing a new recording culture separate from, larger, and more diffuse than the established music industry.

Now I’ll tell you a personal story.

I was always fascinated by records. More to the point, I was in love with records. As a child, I learned about music from the records that spun day and night on the family phonograph—records of all kinds, all mixed up on the auto-changer without regard for idiomatic consistency. I made my first musical recording in 1965 on a Tandberg tape recorder, one of my dad’s prized possessions. I made my first record in 1971 while still in high school. A schoolmate, a gifted electronics nerd with some gear but no studio, recorded my band performing an album’s worth of original songs in various locations. He made us each an acetate; we felt we had accomplished something.

I worked in studios from time to time thereafter, sometimes playing on other people’s session, sometimes, when finances allowed, making tracks of my own. But while I could write music with my own pencil and paper, the only way I could make records on a consistent basis was to have a patron. So, I danced around with many of the music industry’s power brokers, trying to win a chance to really get to work. As almost anyone who’s done this can attest, it was a frustrating process, to say the least. The gatekeepers alone had the power to say yes or no, based purely on an intuitive and imperfect sense of the market. For my part, while I’d of course be delighted to succeed in the market, mostly I just wanted to make records as I imagined them. I wanted to do what artists do. But the price of entry made that impossible without the patronage of the system.

Then, almost as suddenly as the lifting of a heavy curtain, the impossible became possible. There began to appear lowly yet functional versions of the magic boxes previously reserved for a chosen elite. I put together my first project studio in 1983. It consisted of a second-hand Teac 8-track, a 1/2 inch machine with Dolby B noise reduction; a Revox B77 for mixdown; a 10 channel Ramsa console; an AKG 414 and a Shure SM-57; a set of small EV monitors and a small Crest amp, an MXR graphic EQ, some cheap compressor whose brand I can’t recall, and a Tascam RCA patch bay. I threw in an Oberheim DMX drum machine and a Roland Juno 60 for extra sounds. Reverb was too expensive so I made do with the bathroom (but the Yamaha Rev-7 was not too far away) .

The rig was serviceable yet evolved fairly quickly as new, more or less affordable equipment hit the market. In 1987, my tape tracks doubled with the Fostex 16 track 1/2 inch with Dolby C, a 30 ips version at that. I striped one track with SMPTE because by now clever software designers were making sequencers that could lock to time code. My first was Southworth’s Total Music (which I began using in a beta version) and then Opcode’s Vision. The unsung hero of it all was the brilliant little box from Roland, the SBX-80, which converted SMPTE to MIDI, flawlessly in my experience. I also moved up to a bigger 20-channel Ramsa console.

The last project I did with the Fostex was in 1993. By then I was also running an ADAT 8-track, synchronized to time code through an ADAT BRC unit, along with the SBX-80 and the computer. It looked a bit Rube Goldberg, and it certainly didn’t chase lock, but it worked. And now I had lots of tracks, too many for the console, but no worries. A cool little company called Mackie had begun marketing cheap mixers so I tacked on another 16 channels as a sub. Life was good.

One day in 1991, the Grammy Award-winning engineer, Steve McLaughlin, stopped by for a visit. Some of you may know Steve. He was Michael Kamen’s personal engineer and has worked on many feature films1. I showed him around. He was bemused. Working on films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Lethal Weapon Three, his equipment and rooms were somewhat different from mine. Plus, he knew me only as a musician. He had mixed a record of mine years earlier. Now he saw that not only had I cobbled together this primitive yet effective multi-track studio, I could work it. All he could do was laugh with a kind of happy amazement at how unexpected it all was. How far the DIY thing had gotten while he was busy working in a parallel universe.

Now, Steve is a splendid professional engineer, something I’ve never been. To me, real engineers work in a realm bordering on the mystical. They know things I think I’ll never know. I’m a songwriter and composer and I coax, sometimes plead, with the technology to get what I need for my own projects. But still, there was an undeniable convergence between what I could now do in my private studio and what Steve did every day in the finest studios in the world. Though I may have lacked in skill and equipment, I could nevertheless exercise my imagination. The point is I could do it myself, at my own whim. I didn’t need permission from any commercial apparatus, nor was I beholden to any commercial interest.

I tell you this story because I know it, so it is easy to get the details right. But what I mean by telling it is to suggest that it is one strand of a broad narrative unfolding around the world since the 1980s. How many thousands of small studios are out there by now? Who can even say? It is a cultural groundswell that has yet to be assessed and understood.

Of course, the next revolutionary stage was the development of the digital audio workstation, which accelerated the convergence of professional and non-professional recording environments. It is as common to see a ProTools rig at the core of a first-class studio as it is to see the same thing in someone’s basement or spare bedroom. Moreover, the price of admission has continued to drop exponentially. What I spent in the 1980s would today get you into the big leagues of audio, at least in terms of your toolset. This in itself is a rich source of discussion topics. But let me get back now to the art of record production as a concept and as a subject of learned discourse. And we’ll loop back to the project studio in a moment.

Calling something an art assumes a lot. The word invokes a long history of work, thought, polemic, and cultural attitudes. To use the word seriously means that we acknowledge that history and certify that the art we proclaim bears the appropriate family resemblance to be granted a seat at the table.

It seems to me that whether one leans toward a utilitarian view of art or espouses an art-for-art’s sake aestheticism, as a culture we’ve hardly deviated from an ancient conception of artists that sees them occupying a unique place in society. Even in times when artists have had the status of servants or slaves they were somehow special. Sometimes this meant they could arouse ineffable pleasure; sometimes it meant they were dangerous and best eliminated. Art produces mysterious effects on the emotions and those who can play the heart strings seem to possess the power of enchantment. They inhabit a realm where the practical and the reasonable may be subordinate to the fantastic. Intoxicated with their own visions, artists may be concerned more with their conjuring than with the logistics of everyday transactions, including the financial concerns that must occupy a record company. Hence, the age old art vs. commerce dichotomy.

Acknowledging, as I have, that a commercial system may produce exceptional art, is not to assume a causal relationship between the two. It is, rather, to assert that art is fluid and powerful. It can exist anywhere and under any circumstances. While it may flourish in a commodity exchange, this is more or less incidental to its deeper value. It does its cultural work with or without the market. As the writer Lewis Hyde (2007) describes it from an anthropological perspective, art’s essential economy is a gift exchange—among artists, the muse, and the public. Even in societies where markets pervade the social structure, the gift carries a greater weight than the commodity. The musicologist Rob Wegman (2005), positing a gift economy among Renaissance composers and their patrons, points out that a “commercial transaction . . . tends to be a relatively utilitarian and impersonal affair” (p. 426) conducted among strangers. By contrast, gifts “tend to be gestures full of meaning, and are typically surrounded by elaborate social customs and ceremonials” (p. 428).

Artists sense this instinctively. They make their work—their gifts—with or without market sanction. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh, to pick two very famous examples, created substantial and enduring bodies of work from which they made no money. The urge to engage the gift far outweighed any practical career concerns. The American poet Wallace Stevens, who worked his whole life as a lawyer for an insurance firm, wrote in a letter of 1936,

You ask whether I should continue to write if no one but myself would ever see my work. There is no reason to believe that  anyone will ever see any more of my work. . . . I write poetry because I want to write it. (in Stevens, 1996, pp. 305–306)

The very starkness of Stevens’s apology captures the elemental flavor of the artist’s motivation. I want to, I need to, I love it, it’s who I am, it’s my way of life, it’s what I do. These are standard artists’ answers to the question, “why do you make art?”. If some also say, “it’s my profession,” well that, too, is sufficient but not necessary. The point is that if record making is truly an art, then a record’s commercial status is irrelevant to its artfulness. It must arouse aesthetic engagement with or without market support, as art always has.

Placing record production in such company raises many questions not the least of which is that of value. Assessment of a record’s worth relied historically on market indicators. As far as the gatekeepers were concerned, a hit record was a good record. In the late 1960s, a critical apparatus began to develop, whereby value was argued from the standpoint of aesthetic opinion. But the critical forum remained limited to the commodities produced by the commercial music system. While this is understandable, it looks increasingly inadequate. In making broad observations about culture, commercial evidence is useful. Commercial success means that a record has embedded itself in the public ear, which helps us to grasp the shape of the cultural landscape. But art is made at a more granular level and serious critics need to think harder about the cultural moment we are living in. The project studio frees recordists from institutional constraints, broadening immeasurably the field of artistic activity. These unsanctioned artworks largely bypass the market, eliminating the handy yardstick of commercial success and forcing attention on to individuals and small subcultures.

In commercial terms, the preponderance of tracks made all over the world every day are practically valueless. Packets of digital data, they circulate like air—ubiquitous and free of charge. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, they are made simply because people want to make them. As far as I can tell, they represent no profession. But can the creative thought and effort involved be reasonably dismissed as a mere pastime? And what about the investment required? As CD sales have declined, products aimed at project studios continue to multiply. Are the people buying all this stuff simply a multitude of obsessed hobbyists? Or do at least some of them have something to say?

I suggested earlier that the all-access pass to the means of record production has made recordists akin to painters and poets. But the painting analogy—while useful enough as a symbol of artistic activity—breaks down when considering value. A painting’s uniqueness in itself confers some degree of value even if the painting is amateur in execution and the painter is entirely unknown. Reproducible visual arts such as print making or photography capture some of that sense of uniqueness when the artist destroys the plates or negatives after a limited run. But reproducible music, especially in the form of a digital file, cannot be rendered unique. Quite the opposite, its value is judged on a mass scale in terms of units sold. Any single instance of the work is no big deal, as evidenced in the all too casual phrase, ‘can you burn me a copy?’.

The most apt analogy for recordings is poetry, which is also endlessly reproducible. In fact poems are even easier to reproduce. With memory and oral transmission, even the technology and media of writing are unnecessary. So reproduction requires nothing but the will to do so. As a market commodity, then, the doggerel on a greeting card may be more valuable than the finest poetry printed on cheap paper. But poetry’s value is not measured by the commercial market or by the medium of its representation. Its value lies in what it says. Consensus holds poetry to be one of the world’s great resources, a fundamental of human expression. As Yale professor and scholar Paul Fry puts it, “The fact that ‘poetry’ . . . is both perennial and pancultural should prove in itself that poetry is a need, not commodity” (Fry: 1995, p. 2). The depth and significance of that need was argued passionately by Shelley in his 1821 Defence of Poetry. “Poets,” he wrote, “are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain proximity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. . . . A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one” (in Shelley: 1904, pp. 5–6).

Poetry has a venerable tradition of critical commentary incorporating much of a culture’s substance, including language, philosophy, rhetoric, aesthetics, religion, and more. Music, too, has such a history, with writings dating back to ancient civilizations. We have a need to explain to ourselves what art is and why it affects us as it does. Critical discourse helps us to understand the workings and significance of the art. Criticism weighs value over time, according to principles set forth in epistemological systems with deep cultural roots. It is this deliberate engagement, detached from the market’s obsession with the here and now, that leads to the appreciation of artists little known in their lifetime (like Dickinson and Van Gogh).

Such criticism does consider markets, but mostly in terms of history and biography. Its larger project is close reading of art works in the context of an artistic language and its tradition. Criticism that focuses on commodities and celebrity figures is a species of cultural criticism or journalism. This is exactly the kind of commentary that developed as “rock criticism,” which to date is the most prolific commentary surrounding records. But serious criticism, like serious art, cannot be limited exclusively to market commodities any more than it can ignore them.

What I see happening in the recent surge of scholarship is a new wave of pop music criticism, keenly aware of recording consciousness and the artfulness of record making. We are in the midst of a fascinating intellectual moment, where an essentially vernacular art form is the subject of a class of discourse previously reserved for the high arts. Indeed, this discourse, by its very existence, calls into question the meaningful distinction between high and low in today’s hyperconnected and hyperactive world. As a matter of establishing a disciplinary foundation, pop music scholarship has concentrated thus far on the commercial products of the markets in which the language of record making developed. But, again, the project studio opens up new dimensions of possibility. The tracks produced independently from the market provide a vast resource for potential scholarly engagement. This turn of events means that scholars possessing the tools to do the close reading of serious criticism are not bound to serve as an academic arm of the music industry. The project studio has not only liberated artists, it also makes the musicology of record production a remarkably wide open sub-discipline, giving scholars a voice in the DIY reshaping of musical culture. The art of record production—which in its fullest sense means, the free play of recordists’ imaginations—has become a reality. It will be interesting, going forward, to see how the musicology of record production responds.


1 For a list of McLaughlin’s work, see http://www.filmmusicproducers.com/.


Fry, P. H. (1995). A Defense of Poetry: Reflections on the Occasion of Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hyde, L. (2007). The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Vintage Books.

Ritz, D and Wexler, J. (1993). Rhythm and Blues: A Life in American Music. New York: Knopf.

Shelley, P. B. (1904). A Defence of Poetry. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Stevens, W. (1996). Letters of Wallace Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wegman, R. C. (2005). Musical Offerings in the Renaissance. In: Early Music. 33, 3, pp. 425–437.

Zak, A. (2007). The Art of Record Production. In Journal on the Art of Record Production. [Online] Issue 2. Available at: https://arpjournal.com/508/the-art-of-record-production/

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The Art Of Record Production

The title of this journal and organization asserts the notion that record production is a mode of creative expression. And indeed, turning musical utterance into electrical current requires, by the project’s very nature, an intervening aesthetic sensibility which may, in turn, impinge on the final result. Recording does not simply capture sound, it transforms it and in the transformation lies an array of decisions informed by artistic intuition as well as experienced technique. Yet rather than works of artifice in themselves, recordings were long perceived, despite any contrary evidence, as mere representations of performances, personalities, and musical compositions rendered more or less skillfully. The reasons for the reluctance to view the recording process as an intrinsically creative one are written into aesthetic traditions the cut across musical idioms. They involve the premium placed on real-time performance and a belief that true musical expression arises in inspired musical moments that are unique and unrepeatable. As the composer Roger Sessions has written, recorded music, because of its mechanical reproduction, “ceases to be alive”; moreover, “in the most real sense . . . it ceases to be music.” And in jazz, the fixed-text status of recorded improvisation presents a persistent conceptual conundrum, even as it forms the foundation of what has come to be known as the “jazz tradition.” Not surprisingly, the idiom with the least investment in a pre-electric past—pop music—has been the most willing to embrace technology and the  most progressive in developing its expressive potential. With electronic technology as a creative ally, pop music has evolved from crooners to djs, all the while exploring the artistic implications of electronically mediated musical expression.

By now, there is a widespread consensus that pop records are constructed artworks, which has begun to suggest a growing slate of questions about compositional techniques and criteria. Scholars have their own traditions and it is reasonable to seek help in answering such questions from older compositional practices with long histories of thought and articulated principles. But since such traditions developed in a pre-electric era where the enabling technology was limited to musical notation, we must also imagine new approaches to criticism and analysis that move beyond the customary concerns of musicologists and music theorists. While there is some conceptual commonality between written music and  record production—most broadly, the desire and ability to create a fixed musical structure—the latter comprises a much broader array of issues. We are wise to learn from the masters of the Western canon and from scholars whose work, over the years, has illuminated the music and highlighted its intellectual dimensions. But much of what concerns a record production team has never been a matter of more than trivial concern in the sphere of score-based musical works.

Among the problems inherent in establishing an academic discipline aimed at illuminating record production, then, is the need for a fundamental aesthetic reorientation as well as new modes of analytic description. We must resist reducing musical meaning to matters of musical syntax, which stipulates a de facto hierarchy of aesthetic value. It is still common to reduce records to lead sheets and insist on claims that a great song is the essential element of a hit record. But this assertion, nearly universal among record producers, is conveniently impossible to prove and has the added advantage of being self-fulfilling, for songs rise to a higher level in the form of well-produced records. Moreover, many hit songs only come into existence through the recording process. Our best critical bet is to set aside, at least in these early days of the discipline, all hierarchical assumptions and engage the record’s surface in its totality, aiming for what Susan Sontag counseled decades ago for film criticism: “a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art.” As sound, rather than writing, has become the focus of musical identity, much more of the musical surface has been reified in an interwoven complex of musical syntax, performative utterance, and sonic gesture. Learning to explore he interaction among these elements is a necessary beginning for understanding the compositional concerns of recording teams.

Reporting one’s perceptions and observations, however, is liable to be of limited interest unless the project is framed in a broader dialogue informed by historical events and a sense of record making as a musical language with its own conventions and rhetorical practices. For anyone involved in pop scholarship, however, the infancy of the field is ever apparent. Time and again one is brought up short by the utter lack of basic foundational data and a historical record that barely addresses some of the most fundamental issues. As Cosimo Matassa has said of his record making days in 1950s New Orleans, “It was a great way to make a living. [But] there was no sense of history. Nobody ever felt like we were producing great art.” The result of such ephemeral cultural practice is a poverty of sources for later historians. In contrast to other historical topics, pop music suffers from a relative lack of documents—letters, essays, diaries, annotated scores—produced by its leading figures that might better inform studies of compositional practice. Records themselves are documents and historical witnesses, but unpacking them requires much speculative interpretation, which is best triangulated with historical sources. The inclusion in this journal of interviews with significant figures in record production represents an ongoing history project, for the oral accounts of practitioners, though problematic, are among our most useful resources. If, for example, we are to engage the entire musical surface, it is helpful to know what kinds of concerns were paramount for those who made it. What criteria were deemed worth spending time and money on? And what kinds of techniques and equipment were useful in accomplishing a given task or producing an expressive effect? From such testimony we begin to assemble a framework for historical and critical work.

Gradual changes are underway thanks in part to reissue companies like Rhino and Bear Family which list recording dates, locales, and personnel that were never indicated on the original releases. The fact that the availability of such information would hardly be worth noting in other fields is an indication of how primitive is the state of our knowledge. A number of books published in recent years offer a sign of the interest that recording practice and history now attracts. Such books as Temples of Sound (Cogan, Clark), The Label (Marmorstein), Sinatra Sessions (Granata), Studio Stories (Simons), and Behind the Glass (Massey) represent, hopefully, a growing genre in publishing. But while each of these books is valuable in providing glimpses behind the scenes, they remain entertainingly anecdotal—trade books for the casual reader. In this necessarily positivist phase of our sub-discipline, every scrap is useful. But as we move forward, we can hope for more dissertations (such as Susan Schmidt Horning’s “Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977”), essays, and monographs that deepen our understanding of the profound influence of sound recording on the world’s music. It is toward this goal that the Art of Record Production project is aimed, providing a forum for scholars, practitioners, and industry figures to come together in exploring some of the key musical issues of our time. On behalf of the field as a whole, I offer warm thanks to those who are working hard to put this initiative into motion.