Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP

Susan Schmidt Horning
John Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 9781421418483 | Hardback October 2013 | Paperback November 2015

As the title suggests, this book covers a lot of turf—encompassing the relationship of technology, culture and aesthetics to the practice of studio recording. It limits its range historically by stopping at the LP, which in practical terms takes it up to the early 1970s. The book is meticulously researched and is rich in anecdotes and individual narratives along with relevant names, dates, facts and figures. The stories and attention to detail are critical in helping sustain interest, as much of the broader technological and cultural sweeps will be familiar territory for most researchers in this field.

Horning wants to distinguish this work and in the Introduction she notes ‘we have little understanding of the process by which the emphasis in recording shifted from the song to the sound’ (Horning: 2013, p.4). Shortly thereafter she remarks that the question of how technology has changed music has being ‘relatively unexamined’ and concludes with ‘this book differs from previous studies of sound recording in that it favors the production over the reception of music, the creators over the consumers, players over listeners’ (Horning: 2013, p.7). While the claims may be overly broad, Horning brings some new insights and approaches to areas that have been closely examined in the numerous works she cites, as well as others.

Horning organizes her discussion of early studio practices around the evolution from acoustic to electric. She then explores the progression from amateur to professional practitioners. Horning does a good job with the early evolution of recording as a separate endeavor from the simple capture of live performance and keeps this rather well-trodden territory interesting with descriptive turns of phrase, such as her characterization of early recordings as ‘little more than sheet music on shellac’.

In regards to the participation of amateurs and professionals, Horning’s as clear on the passion that surrounds amateur recordists as she is on the secrecy and competitiveness that marks the practice of the early professionals. Horning follows the blend of amateur and professional practitioners through to later time periods as well. She notes that the distinction between professional and amateur is more blurred than in most other professions and this is underscored by the fact that the AES (Audio Engineer Society—the primary American trade organization for recording engineers) included many non-professionals from its inception.

The most intriguing and original insight that Horning brings revolves around her characterization of the art of recording as resting on tacit knowledge. She often returns to this model for knowledge as central to the combination of art, craft and psychology necessary to be a recordist and it brings a fresh understanding to this complex business of studio recording. Tacit knowledge can only be had through experience, is impossible to describe thoroughly and requires direct experience (like riding a bicycle).

For those of us who teach audio recording this emphasis on tacit knowledge reinforces the notion that students should not only have hands-on time with the technology but also participate as observers in recording sessions run by professionals. To some extent, the recordist’s reliance on tacit knowledge defines the limitation of Horning’s book—and every book that attempts to describe, define, or otherwise quantify the recording process. It also calls into question the contemporary model for training engineers that has transitioned from the mentorship model of ‘tape op’ or assistant engineer, to the ‘school’ model where students are trained in a school environment rather than at a commercial studio.

Despite the meticulous research, there are the occasional errors, such as the statement that ‘Reverberation…became an important asset in music recording not only for singers challenged to sing in tune but also for its ability to make records sound louder’. It may be that Horning is not to blame as this sentence is referenced to a book by Emily Thompson but in any event, though a touch of reverberation may make singers more comfortable, in my experience it doesn’t help them sing in tune. In fact, excess reverb tends to mask intonation and can make it harder for a singer in regards to pitch. And, while reverb will make recordings sound bigger, it will not make them sound louder. Such missteps, however, are rare. In this instance, the further tracing of the evolution of the mechanics of reverb in recordings—from chambers to plates, and including mic placement for the capture of room ambiance is both thorough and accurate.

Horning does a good job with the rise of record ‘production’ as a field of work, the use of the studio as an ‘instrument’ and the resulting ‘increase in the importance of the producer, the engineer, and the studio in the outcome of a recording session’. She aggregates a lot of valuable resources and references and continues to sustain interest with anecdotes and personalities. Horning explores the issues regarding the professionalization of performance in the studio as a result of the musician’s response to hearing all the small mistakes in a performance, and the back and forth of influences in what Mark Katz described as the ‘feedback loop’ between recording and musical performance (Horning: 2013, p.91). She doesn’t trace the full history of this phenomenon as first brought into the musicology of recording by Robert Philip in his seminal book Early Recordings and Musical Style (2004).

Horning follows the evolution of the relationship between artists and engineers, especially through encounters with many of the giants of recording such as Tom Dowd. Dowd personified Horning’s general observation: ‘This cooperative effort between recording engineer and session musician was an arrangement that required trust, respect and the shared assumption of the engineer’s authority in how to get the desired sound.’ (Horning: 2013, p.136) Ultimately Horning both asserts and illuminates the hegemony of recorded music as ‘musical culture of the postwar period came to be defined by the recorded performance’.

In a later section where Horning identifies the effects on performance created by the capacity of multi-track recording, she balances the cup half-empty versus the cup half-full attitudes that have emerged. There are those who argue ‘the level of musicianship and precision in performance declined’ but that is only part of the story. For example, Horning notes that the expansion into the ability to work with untrained musicians, while an affront to some, may also be an opportunity. Horning further balances the notion that what was gained from multi-tracking in control and the ability to analyze was countered by a loss ‘in the spark of spontaneous performances’ (Horning: 2013, p.194). I would add that along with the ability to control and analyze comes the potential for an artist to dig deeper into an emotional performance without having to worry about a complete performance in one take or how many times the other musicians had to perform their parts.

Horning also balances the disheartening story of the Thelonius Monk session where the desired take fails to be recorded because the recordists are more concerned with the technicalities of the process, with the recognition that ‘chasing sound… the more unorthodox, the better’ had become ‘integral to rock recording.’ (p.197) From the notion of chasing sound comes Horning’s title for her book and recognition of the evolution, not only of technologies, but also of attitudes toward the meaning and intention of recording.

While the book ends with the era of the LP – generally in the early to mid 1970s – many of the observations provide a clear vision of what is to come. When Phil Ramone describes the breadth of changes created by multi-tracking capability he notes the change in workflow: ‘you build the record in layers, architecturally, it’s a totally different thing, it’s more like motion pictures’ (Horning: 2013, p.173). Of course this famous ‘plasticity’, which was the hallmark of filmmaking, has been taken to new heights in the age of digital audio manipulation.

Similarly, in regards to the older ethic of the engineer as simply a facilitator who was to stay out of the way, ‘producer Jon Landau asserted in 1971, “engineers and remixers play a role as great as any musician in affecting the final sound” (Horning: 2013, p.199). Horning describes how rock music of the 1960s, which was so ‘central to the youth movement that swept across the nation,’ (Horning: 2013, p.207) was dependent on new technologies and experimenting by producers and engineers to create new musical forms that broke with the past. This ‘transformed not only musical culture but also recording methods and the working relationship between musician, producer, and engineer’ (Horning: 2013, p.207). This observation could just as easily be applied to rap and hip-hop through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. And Horning’s reflection ‘by the 1970s, listeners had already begun to expect technological intervention as natural’ (Horning: 2013, p.215), along with her quote from Edward Rothstein that ‘artifice is the new nature’ combine into her even more sweeping conclusion that technological manipulation is ‘the art of recording’ (Horning: 2013, p.217).

Although this narrative ends with the LP, at the end Horning concludes ‘much of what engineers and mixers do still involves tacit knowledge’ (Horning: 2013, p.213). And that tacit knowledge is a reflection of the age old balance between technological determinism and the social construction of technology (SCOT), as she notes ‘the growth and development of the recording studio is an example of technological determinism mitigated by user choice, ingenuity and human aims’ (Horning: 2013, p.219). A wise and fitting conclusion that is no less true in the current age of technology as it was in its relative infancy.


‘Phil Ramone, telephone interview with author, Aug. 1, 1999.’

Jon Landau, “Engineering: What You Hear Is What You Get,” in It’s Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972: p.137).