Analog Distinction – Music Production Processes and Social Inequality


This paper deals with aspects of social inequality in processes of music production. As such it offers an overview of my research project, entitled “Analog Distinction – Music Production Processes and Social Inequality”. The background is a major fundamental change in the work environment and working practices of music production. Parallel to other traditional and modern fields of work, a technological shift from specialized electrical circuits to computerized tools has taken place in the working environments of recording studios. This evolution has changed technical configurations as well as procedures and approaches of studios (see Watson: 2015, 13ff).

After a short introduction I present the central research problem, and I give brief overviews of the state of research and of the theoretical basis. Finally, I outline a few possible hypotheses and research leading questions for this rather overlooked branch of research on the art of record production.

From Analog Equipment to Virtual Studio Technologies

The term ‘music production’ brings up images of recording studios which are crowded with staff such as musicians, technicians, producers, and so on. We usually think of really big mixing desks with impressive monitoring loudspeakers, with huge professional tape machines and – of course – a lot of additional equipment, stored in so-called ‘outboards’. It is not surprising that these associations are dominating our associations of recording studios, because analog recording equipment and its associated workflows have shaped music production and listening habits since 1897 (Laird: 1995). On the other hand, ‘virtual studio technologies’ have gained market shares only since the mid 1990s (Steinberg: 2016).

Since then, the production environments of recording studios have gone more and more digital. At the same time, many work steps have been migrated to computer-based recording environments. To put it simply: instead of plugging cables into analog equipment, today’s engineers more and more load plugins into their DAW software (Digital Audio Workstation). This is why – at first glance – so called in-the-box productions and digital plug-ins seem to have taken over the domain. The phenomenon of analog hardware in digital times has been discussed by Bennett (2012), McIntyre (2015) and others.

Nonetheless, analog gear has not only survived this techno-cultural turn, but even regained a somewhat mythological strength – even within the discourse about DAWs and plugins. For example, contemporary magazines about music production do mention qualities of analog sound in many of their issues. Future Music magazine (2015) focused on “Old School Synth FX – Add analogue style excitement! Classic sounds in the modern world”. Computer Music magazine (2013) titled one of their issues “Analogue Warmth – Turn up the heat and bring those flat, digital mixes in from the cold!”. And Sound On Sound magazine (2010) dedicated a complete issue to the topic “Analogue Warmth – What it is, why we love it and how to fake it”. And this list can easily be continued and updated each month.

The Credibility Gap of Software Emulations

Considering music production software, many developers are offering emulations of the typical sound influences of analog hardware. These range from equalizers, over dynamic processors and tape machines, to sonic characteristics of preamps. In general, emulations try to replicate characteristic features (Wahrig: 2007a) by using models that are “approximations of real systems”, whereas simulations are systems that try to imitate real systems (Wahrig: 2007b). To make this happen, emulations rely on components or codes that are able to bring the outcomes of these models closer to reality. As such, “an emulation model is one where part of the real system is replaced by a model” (McGregor: 2002, 1683f). As far as Music Production is concerned, this means that software developers are mainly trying to make desirable characteristics of analog sound available for computer based music production.

Often, software developers are designing user interfaces that are imitating the external appearance of real analog gear. And in some cases software emulations of music production hardware focus on the replication of the finest sonic nuances of different editions of hardware units (see Scott: 2015). There is heavy competition in this field and in most cases, the available software emulations do not only look different, but in fact sound slightly different too.

Figure 1 Kaiser_C

Figure 1: Comparison of Appearances – analog equipment (left) and software emulation (right).

Figure 2 Kaiser_C

Figure 2: Comparison of Appearances – different software emulations.

But there are also limitations to software emulations. The differences in the outcome of an emulation’s model and the outcome of a real system is called the “credibility gap”. Obviously, there are many aspects of analogue equipment which cannot be emulated by software plugins. The credibility gap of software emulations in music production comprises tentative, olfactory and gustatory sensations, process-oriented aspects of workflow, as well as aspects of a hardware‘s physical characteristics, and time-dependent aspects.

To give a few brief examples: it is not possible for software developers to emulate how a piece of analog hardware feels when it is touched (e.g. the coldness of a metal plate, the haptic response of potentiometers, buttons and faders, the soft/hardness of materials, and so on). When speaking of olfactory sensations, one can think of the smell of heated tubes, of metal, plastic, rubber, or other materials. Just for the sake of completeness I mention gustatory sensations. The feeling/touch of a certain piece of gear simply cannot be emulated by DAW software. The credibility gap also comprises process-oriented aspects of workflow, since I am not speaking about simulations, but about software emulations. Tube emulations are a good example for this aspect. There is no need for a user to preheat virtual valves. And whenever users utilize tape machine emulations, they do not have to change reels, thread, cut or rewind tape. Physical qualities such as the dimensions and weight of a piece of analog gear obviously cannot be emulated, too. And last but not least time-dependent aspects, such as aging, wear, modifications and repairs, are part of the credibility gap as well.

Social Dimensions of Music Production Equipment

I argue that there is another – social – dimension to analog hardware, whose aspects can hardly be emulated, too. These aspects include the use of a hardware item as the symbolic indicator of a) social position (status), and b) people‘s esteem of the owner‘s status (prestige). As far as prestige is concerned: producers and engineers are always searching for the best possible software emulations. Therefore it is no surprise that it is seen as the highest accolade, when a software emulation bears the brand name and logo of the respective hardware. In this case the emulation itself falls under the category of “originals”, because it is classified as a genuine/authentic tool. As such the emulation gets a prestigious character. This way even prestige can be partly covered by emulations.

Figure 3 Kaiser_C

Figure 3: Brand names of hardware equivalents lend a prestigious character to emulations.

But with ever more competition in the field, software developers are also looking for ever more sonic details to be reproduced by their emulation models. While doing so, they are looking for more and more “values” (Boltanski/Thévenot: 2006) to be incorporated into their products. For today’s emulations it is not enough to emulate the sonic influences of types of gear, like tape machines or to emulate the sonic influences of a specific brand of tape machine. It is not even enough to emulate the sonic influences of a specific model of tape machine or the sonic influences of specific details of such a tape machine (e.g. the brand and size of tape, or tubes that are used within that tape machine, etc.). Instead, many current software emulations try to reproduce the sonic influences of a particular producer’s or engineer’s hardware. For example Waves, a plugin developer, offers a signature series. These ‘signature tools’ are given the blessing of certain renowned audio professionals and replicate complete signal chains of well-known producers. The products are linked with some of the most prolific names of today’s music production world (Chris Lord Alge, Jack Joseph Puig, Manny Marroquin, Tony Maserati, and others) – e.g. part of the Virtual Tape Machines plugin from Slate Digital is modeled after the two-track Studer A80 RC half-inch mastering deck of the well-known and successful mastering engineer Howie Weinberg. An original “sound vocabulary” (Pinch/Bijsterveld: 2012, 15) is used to describe the sonic qualities of Weinberg’s hardware. Slate Digital (2016), for example, promises that the VTM “will give your mixes an absolutely authentic analog vibe […] with added dimension, fatness, depth, and warmth“.

Software Emulations between Resource and Valuation Practices

But emulations of a certain engineer’s equipment do not only reproduce the sonic characteristics of stock hardware. If we think of characteristic attributes of analog gear that are not connected to sound, we can also think of other resources of several kinds. From a sociological view, those resources can be listed as follows. The first resource which comes to mind is of economic/monetary character. In general, classic analog outboard tools require a rather high initial outlay. A further resource is education. Because music production can be a quite demanding field, especially when executed with the help of outboard equipment. Furthermore, these demanding appliances oftentimes require practical knowledge to use (e.g. knowing about the “All Buttons Mode” of the 1176 – see Moore: 2012). Unfortunately, economic resources, knowledge, and education are not distributed equally – neither from a global, nor from national perspectives. They can differ heavily depending on region, stratum/class, gender, and several other dividing factors.

Furthermore, it is very clear that infrastructure is one of the key factors when it comes to the required working conditions for analog equipment. Several sub-dimensions of infrastructure can be distinguished. The subdimension of room is referring to an appropriate space and place for analog equipment. Quite often, a continuous power supply of specific quality is necessary to operate analogue hardware in music production. And in many cases qualified personnel is essential to guarantee proper maintenance. Last but not least, the acquisition and allocation of the items themselves, their accessories and spare parts can be a problem of infrastructure too. And just as the aforementioned resources, aspects of infrastructure are not distributed equally either. They are heavily dependent on region – from a global and regional perspective. It is difficult to run a vintage mixing console in Kathmandu (Nepal), to operate a tape machine free of hassle on the Pitcairn Islands Group (Pacific Ocean), or to acquire new old stock (NOS) tubes in Kampala (Uganda). When music producers/engineers are using plugins/emulations instead of hardware, only a fraction of those resources will be required.

Digital Emulation and Attributions of Value

As Frith/Zagorski-Thomas (2012: 3) state: “In the studio technical decisions are aesthetic, aesthetic decisions are technical, and all such decisions are musical.” This is why emulations of a specific engineer’s gear imply a broad range of the aesthetic decisions of this engineer. These decisions range from choices of brand, model and unit over decisions about specific replacement parts (tubes, tapes and transformers), the selection of service partners/technicians, as far as looking for the appropriate place of installation (when thinking of conditions such as humidity, solar radiation and similar issues). The outcome of all of these decisions serves as a kind of aesthetic fingerprint for the respective software and liberates the DAW users from the need to make risky aesthetic decisions by themselves. This is a phenomenon quite similar to producer presets in plugins. These are offering tried and tested solutions for exemplary situations and demands within music production.

Audio production software companies are additionally trying to use such personal references as unique selling propositions for their mass market products. But what exactly makes these emulations prestigious for smaller recording studios? Is it really all about the compensation of risky aesthetics decisions? Why don’t small studios utilize the corresponding analog equipment (at least partly)? Is this practice simply due to a lack of resources? If so, which resources are involved and how? And which ascriptions about the value(s) of analog equipment do circulate? Are these ascriptions possibly part of practices of distinction themselves?

When emulations with nearly identical sonic outcome are available, demanding just a fraction of the resources of their analog equivalents, why wouldn’t hardware owners then just sell their equipment? On the one hand there is undoubtedly a huge second hand market for analog gear. But on the other hand, producers and engineers like Howie Weinberg or Andrew Scheps have not sold central pieces of their equipment although the sonic outcome of this gear has already been (partly) emulated by software developers. The respective parts (whose outcome has been emulated) are part of a more or less organic technological arrangement in their studios. How can there still be a market for analog gear? My answer to these questions is: in many cases, there has to be simply more about owning and using analog equipment than sound. My hypothesis is that analog equipment bears the potential for social distinctions. However, the public discourse in this matter is still mainly limited to technical functionalities, workflows and sonic images. The issue of social inequality is not discussed.

Research on Social Inequalities in Music Production So Far

Previous research on social inequality in music production is rare and sparse. The respective efforts on this subject made by cultural sciences in general, and musicology as well as popular music studies in particular are not so numerous. Most of the time works in these fields deal with music scenes or musicians/artists when speaking about inequalities. They are not considering the importance of producers and mixing engineers and their decisions, though these have long been seen as an extension of the artist (Kealy 1979: 19) and their studios as musical instruments (Moorefield: 2005 43).

Gender however, has been taken into consideration in a relatively comprehensive manner. Burgess (2013, 194-201) for instance broaches the issue and points out that the number of female producers has been on a constant low level over the past twenty years. He holds society in general and early education in particular responsible for this stagnation in gender diversity. Sandstrom (2000) speaks of gender socialization and blames a general educational gendering of technology for a lack of gender diversification among mixing engineers/music producers. Farrugia/Swiss (2008, 84) come to the conclusion that “from a producer’s perspective, allowing outsiders access to this male-centered, technology space would demystify the production process and potentially lower the symbolic and/or use value of the studio space”. Whereas Wolfe (2012) deals with the question of gender from a feminist point of view and ascertains a gradually improving gender imbalance while looking at self-producing artists and their use of technology. A similar evolution is recognized by Diamond (2006, 59f) with regard to local Canadian recording studios. On the one hand questions of gender have been a live for several decades. But next to that, sexual orientation as a factor of inequality in music production has been largely ignored. Instead, publications which deal with these topics are looking towards artists (e.g. Hawkins: 2016).

Other influencing factors for inequality in music production that should not be underestimated are regionality/locality, infrastructure and socio-economic context. On the one hand, technologies that allow for music industry participation have been made available worldwide to even the most forgotten villages since the 1980s (Wallis/Malm: 1984, 269). But as Cole (2011, 451) concludes, “new digital technologies ossified status divisions within the field” of music recording. Moreover, local, regional, and national circumstances cannot be neglected. This is because “the music industry is being shaped by [a] dynamic tension between geographic concentration and dispersion” (Florida/Jackson: 2010, 319). Additionally several kinds of infrastructure have a significant influence on music production: not only does research confirm that several governmental taxes and laws, in the form of differing copyright regulations (including performing rights, mechanical rights, and neighboring rights) create unequal conditions (Wallis/Malm: 1984). But also the access to equipment, parts and maintenance services plays a vital role. Another important factor is the possibility to hire producers, engineers, and session musicians, to attract artists, and to invite representatives of the music industry (Burton: 2010, 159). And not to forget local aesthetics and practices that have always been acting as musical and cultural frames for music production, entailing the development of specific recording approaches and characteristic sounds (Théberge: 2004). As Gibson (2005, 193) remarks, “[p]articular cities, their landscapes and technological assemblages are commonly believed to have a deterministic influence on musical sound and creativity” while creating “multiple, simultaneously enabled chains of causality”.

Since the 2000s many tools and techniques used in music production are also connected with Internet services. Today, networks of recording studios allow the use of remote locations and diverse forms of online collaboration (Théberge: 2004; 2012). As a result, music production is becoming more and more dependent on architectures of digital infrastructure. As sociological research has shown, access to these local, regional, and nationwide infrastructures is not distributed equally. Instead a strong liaison between new technologies and old inequalities in today’s information and knowledge society is leading to digital inequality (Zillien: 2009). From a global/international perspective, the knowledge gap among users makes these differences even more severe and this results in a digital divide (Ragnedda/Muschert: 2013). Therefore, infrastructure as well as social and institutional conditions of education team up as gatekeepers for the access to present-day professional music production. Furthermore, recording studios have always been “subject to varied industrial and technological changes” (Gibson: 2005, 205).

With regard to music production an educational shift has taken place in institutional learning since the 1980s. This could have led to a broader access into music industry for potential producers. Instead Porcello (2004, 753ff) illustrates that “musical technologies and the social relations of music production” go hand in hand. His findings are that not only practical knowledge but mainly tacit knowledge about discursive practices and the rules of the discourse are functioning as factors of social integration into the field of music production. Porcello is referring to Polanyi’s (1962, 69ff) understanding of tacit knowledge which consists of a know-how of practical skills, sedimented experiences and ideas. Such knowledge cannot be explicitly formulated and formally trained. It is rather conveyed through a sound engineer’s socialization in the field and usually linguistically coded into metaphors (e.g. a dry kick signal) or metonyms (e.g. the 1176 sound). Porcello’s statement is supported by Schmidt-Horning (2004), who not only refers to technological options but especially to tacit knowledge as a central factor for the work of recording engineers.

Although the topics mentioned above have been covered to a certain extent, a large number of perspectives on inequality in music production have been ignored by academic research. Virtually no academic publications about inequalities in music production exist that put topics such as ethnicity and religion on the agenda. While research about changing generations of producers and engineers does exist, the problem of age as criterion for social inequality has not been discussed so far. However, with respect to music producers Bennett (2009) speaks of a divide between an old and a new breed of producers. Still, this divide is mainly described along the lines of “the division in equipment usage, employed technique and method”.

The new technological paradigm of digital technology in music production has changed the role of professionals and their traditional business models (Pras/Guastavino/Lavoie: 2013, 624f). Therefore it is all the more surprising that there has not been too much detailed research about material resources or the landscape of economic inequalities among recording studios and music producers up to now. A number of publications exemplarily cite fees and royalty amounts (Avalon: 2009, 33; Hull/Hutchison/Strasser: 2011, 222f), or offer deeper insight into the detailed evolution of producer compensations (Burgess: 2013, 178f; 2014, 155ff). Yet, they do not provide comparative information in depth. From an economic management perspective, Clemons/Lang stress that in professional music production revenue and value creation are largely decoupled, whereby “the value of producing a master recording of music that can be sold for consumption remains high” (Clemons/Lang: 2003, 271). Although there are not too many works that deal with labor and work aspects of music production, Watson (2013) examines the change of employment relations in recording studios. He attests a growing employment uncertainty and states that working in a recording studio today goes hand in hand with “poor pay, long hours, bulimic patterns of working, and profound experiences of insecurity and anxiety about finding work” (ibid, 157).

Sociology deals with social relations between individuals under a variety of terms, such as social position, prestige, status, social capital, or distinction. Distinction, in this case, is understood as the will to dinstinguish oneself from others. It can lead to the cultivation of tastes and establishes subtle differences among the cultural practices of a society’s members. These practices reproduce the social inequality they are made of (Bourdieu: 1984). In a wider perspective, sociologists use the analytical models of class, strata, lifestyle, social milieus, social layers, and individualization to describe and explain society-wide phenomena of social inequality (Neckerman: 2004; Butler/Watt: 2007; Hurst: 2013). But although some research efforts especially focus on relations and networks of music production, the majority of the concepts mentioned above unfortunately have not been taken into account so far. At least Cole (2011) deals with status, field position, economic class and habitus within the recording field. He reveals a vigorous battle between professional recording studios and project studios of so called prosumers. His conclusion is that “despite prosumption’s transformative power, existing systems of power and inequality continue to structure actors’ practices” (ibid, 459). Also the concept of distinction is touched by works that describe the social dynamics between studio practitioners. For example, users of computer-based music production on the one side and users of vintage equipment on the other (Bennett: 2012). As De Carvalho (2012) shows for the home recording discourse, there is also evidence that the social dynamics between professional and amateur recordists are mainly structured by asymmetries in power and knowledge. A further exception is a smaller number of research papers from the late 1970s, in which Kealy (1974; 1979; 1982) compiles revealing information about the social organization of stakeholders in music production. He emphasizes “the significance of the study of popular music production for the sociology of work”, but his call remained unanswered (Kealy: 1979, 26).

Sociological Views on Distinction and Valuation in Music Production

I am developing the theoretical approach of my thesis mainly from two influential sociological theories. On the one hand, Pierre Bourdieu (1984) has brought in the interplay of pretension and distinction as a fundamental mechanism of social conflict. On the other Boltanski/Thévenot (2006) have expanded the concept of social interaction by introducing justification as a dimension of actions. They argue in favor of practices of classification and competition through principles.

Bourdieu (1984) is combining social struggle and taste in his model. For him, “the aesthetic disposition is […] a distinctive expression of a privileged position in social space.” To him, it

“is one dimension of a distant, self-assured relation to the world and to others which presupposes objective assurance and distance. […] And it distinguishes in an essential way, since taste is the basis of all that one has – people and things – and all that one is for others, whereby one classifies oneself and is classified by others.”

With reference to Bourdieu’s (1984) combination of social struggle and taste, I assume, that music production can be seen as a field of status struggle where all forms of capital matter (be it economic, cultural or social). Furthermore it is quite conceivable that aesthetic decisions in music production have an inherent distinctive potential (which is similar to the produced music itself). If we concede these assumptions as true, aesthetic decisions in music production are social signs of distinction, which can have the function of social positioning. For example, the decision to use vintage analog gear shines a specific light onto its owners and operators. This is because these equipment decisions are related to cultivated tastes (in the Bourdieusian sense of the word) and therefore entail social differences. In the recording discourse, highly esteemed tastes of equipment decisions (social signs) are associated with music producers/engineers (dominant class). These tastes are passed down to owners of project studios and so called ‘bedroom producers’. They adapt these social signs and practically realize them with their respective derivates which are, among others, plug-in emulations. When expanding this view on the Bourdieusian identity theory, the domain of music production can be seen as a sphere of influence for identity formation. From this position, the chance to use a certain distinctive piece of equipment and the realization of this chance turns this decision making into a practice of self-staging – as long as the justification of these decisions is based on accepted conventions of quality. This leads us to the second theoretical approach.

The theory of Boltanski/Thévenot can help us to analyze and retrace these processes of valuation. Their conventions of quality are logics of coordination. Actors refer to them while qualifying objects, persons or actions. Consequently, these logics lead to attributions of worth (Eymard-Duvernay: 1986; 1989). Conditions of situative insecurity are a central idea here. Such insecurities result from uncertainties of assessment, which necessitate evaluations referring to qualifications and valuations. These qualifications and valuations belong to specific conventions of quality (Diaz-Bone: 2015, 135f; Boltanski/Thévenot: 2007, 192f).

Assumptions on Social Aspects of the Use of Analog Equipment

From these positions I derive two hypotheses. My main hypothesis refers to Bourdieu‘s concept of social inequality. I assume that Users of analog hardware utilize their equipment for the purpose of distinction within the social field of music production. My second hypothesis refers to the discursive mechanisms and conditions of this distinction. I suggest that users of analog hardware expose themselves to risks associated with aesthetic decisions and thus position themselves through self-staging.

A research project dealing with these assumptions and hypotheses entails high demands. It has to describe the first order level of social inequality, namely how classic patterns of inequality are shaping the social field of music production (view on resources, relations, and distributions). Additionally, the second order level of social inequality has to be covered to explore how taste is utilized as a social sign of distinction, if so at all (view on practices and actions, preferences and taste).  Furthermore the conditions of the attributions of value involved have to be retraced. They build the discursive foundation of the presumed practices of distinction. In this regard, it is essential to ask if and how producers/engineers argue in favor of using analog hardware. And how do producers/engineers justify their attributions of worth? Which specific values of analog equipment can be found in the discourse? And what are the respective processes of valuation looking like? I hope to answer these questions with my ongoing research project.


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