Creative Ownership and the Case of the Sonic Signature or, ‘I’m listening to this record and wondering whodunit?’

The stimulus for this paper came from a number of conversations that I have had over the past few years with producers, engineers, performers, educators and also through my own teaching as I encourage students to explore the recording as a text, to pull it apart in order to see what it reveals. What emerged from these activities was a sense that when we meet a recording, whether for the first time or more frequently, our interaction with the recorded sound can be on a number of levels. One of these levels involves a range of questions about the creative process and the range of assumptions that we make as we listen.

In thinking about this problem, it struck me that there might be a number of similarities between considering the recording as evidence of an event, or series of events that led to the final production and the way that detectives approach a crime scene. Since I have always enjoyed detective stories, particularly the seedy world of film noir, I pursued this notion a little further to see if we, as academic detectives could learn from our police counterparts, fictional or otherwise.

According to Captain Pierce Brookes (retired) of LAPD police, investigating a homicide is both an art and a science, a blend of the practical and the scientific remember having a discussion with a group of homicide detectives in England about the difference between a detective and an investigator. It went something like this, all detectives might be called investigators, but not all investigators can be called detectives. Investigators need a trail of investigative factors which might eventually lead to a successful conclusion of their enquiry. If there are no investigative factors to pursue then they are finished. That is where the detective comes in; a person who can paint a landscape he or she has never seen from inside a darkened room, which is actually the crime scene. That’s the difference between the craft and the art.  (Cited in Gerberth, 1996: xxxii)

One of the perennial features of most fictional detective writing and, I suppose, real police work, is recreating the scene of the crime in order to ascertain what took place and how. Moreover, in police work it seems important to identify individuals involved and the part they played in that event. To be a detective, if Brookes is correct, involves the ability to recreate the crime scene and in doing so, add a level of interpretation, of artistry and of empathy (the fictional detective often has personal issues that resonate against the backdrop of the crime scene) which go beyond mere investigation.

In Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques Gerberth (1996) suggests that a further role of the detective is to ‘reveal motivations, and patterns of repetition’ firstly by concentrating on the mechanical aspects of the death, i.e., motives and methods, wound structures, crime scene reconstruction, the cause, manner and time of death, as well as other factors that provide clues to the dynamics of the event. (Gerberth, 1996: xxxii-iii)

The answer to ‘What has occurred?’ can only be determined after a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and after the professional and medical evaluation of the various bits and pieces of evidence gathered by the criminal investigator. These bits and pieces may be in the form of trace evidence found at the scene, statements taken from suspects, direct eyewitness accounts, or autopsy results (Gerberth, 1996: 1).

While not wishing to overplay the detective scenario, I think that there are ideas here we might usefully consider in approaching a recording. Often we are left with little evidence other than the sounds themselves but it is in these sounds that a ‘trace’ of the events that led to the final product we listen to.  What concerns me here is if the traces left in the recording can provide us with sufficient evidence to reveal the ‘motivations’ and ‘dynamics of the event’.  Unless the recoding has been carefully documented, and it rarely is, what remains is an incomplete picture and as we progress towards the second decade of the 21st century we could argue that our task is becoming increasingly difficult.

Musicological forensics

The scenario raised here is not unique to those of us concerned with the art of record production. We might, possibly, contrast our own activities with the practices of those we might characterize as traditional Western musicologists who have an interest in the manuscript score as a document of the composers intent. The examination of manuscripts can result in considerable forensic activity looking closely at the paper, watermarks, handwriting, ink color and other scientific evidence that can account not only for authenticity but also say something about the compositional process itself. In some cases real whodunits emerge as in the case of Mozart’s Requiem which the composer, despite his deteriorating condition, seemed to complete in a few days before his death. Examination of the manuscript has shown the hands of others with the main ‘suspects’ being Joseph Leopold von Eybler, Abbé Maximilian Stadler, Franz Xaver Süssmayr  and Fraz Jakob Freystädtler. While the role of these men in completing the work seems fairly clear given the traces they left behind, there remains a mystery concerning the motivations of the wife, the role of Mozart’s rival the composer Salieri and, as always in these classic whodunit scenarios…. a count, in this case, Count Walsegg.

For those working on manuscripts, their mission is guided in some part by issues of authenticity and the primacy ascribed to the composer as the originator and creator of musical ideas. It is only in recent times that this hierarchy has been challenged and the ideology, preserved by academic gatekeepers, subjected to sustained critical scrutiny. For those of us concerned with recorded sound, we are at an early stage in our own academic history and it is difficult to know exactly where conferences such as this might lead us in the future. The answer to this may, however, be found in the interest in production process and reception.

ARP approaches

Approaches to analysis

Delving into the ARP and other archives produced over the past few years reveals a rich mixture of approaches to the subject of record production. Some, like Mike Howlett’s discussion of vocal performance techniques, look at specific approaches to studio practice, especially the idea of production as a ‘realization of a creative concept’ where ‘every recording aspires to be the definitive version’ (Howlett, 2007). Others, such as Becky Shepherd’s paper on The Production of Retrospectivity (2007) concentrate on specific case studies and illuminate the various elements involved in the production of a specific album by developing analytical frameworks which allow us to focus on:

individual instrumentation, the principal soundscapes of which are characterized by vocals, electric rhythm and lead guitar, and the drum kit. The techno-musical elements characterizing the overall mix of each track will be conceptualized across an x, and y-category framework, representing points of position across the auditory picture, separating and isolating the presence of various production techniques including audio panning, equalization (EQ), and microphone placement (Shepherd, 2007).

A great deal of our analysis is centered on parameters of sound and the reception, interpretation and evaluation of these sounds. An example of this approach can be found in the work of William Moylen (2002) whose work has been influential in a number of respects. One such example comes from Serge Lacasse who has for some time focused our attention on the important idea of ‘staging’ and the expressive power of recorded popular music. Lacasse carefully constructs an analytical model (derived from Moylan) which allows him to articulate what he calls the phonographic narrative through the study of ‘loudness, space, time and timbre.

Figure 1. Serge Lacasse (derived from Moylan)

However, rather than concentrating on production as process, the model Lacasse develops ‘aims to account for these effects from the point of view of the listener: how these effects alter the way in which we perceive recorded sound sources’. The reception of recordings is an important area and it is one which thanks to the work of a number of analysts has received sustained attention which allows us to build a critical-analytical practice.1 However, reception studies, important as they are, may offer us little insight into the studio process and the ownership of the sonic signatures that emerge in the recording.

Developing models of the recording process.

Other work during this time has focused on the creative potential of the recording process or, as Phillip McIntyre, (quoting Zak), reminds us, ‘record production is a mode of creative expression’ (McIntyre 2007). What emerges in the discussion of creativity is a systematic model to explain the process. In McIntyre’s case, he defines three components of the creative system: person, field and domain.

For McIntyre, ‘the discipline and structures that exist around the recording process can be seen not simply as constrainers but are in many ways also critical enablers of the process. This is to say they are factors that allow creativity to occur. To take this idea further, the social and cultural structures that surround the individual producer engineer, songwriter or performer not only provide the limits but also the enabling contexts of the creative action involved in record production’.

Figure 2. McIntyre structural model

Similar tripartite models, but with a different emphasis, are provided by Kvifte (2005) who suggest that his view of a musicology of production would be a ‘detailed, empirical study of the interaction between studio technology and the people involved in the production process, like sound engineers, producers and musicians’.

Kvifte proposes a different, but related model to McIntyre and one which is less theoretically grounded writing as he was, from the perspective of both musicologist and producer.  In this way, Kvifte, like McIntyre, is concerned with issues of process and the interactive nature of the complementary but necessarily interactive fields founded in the recording process.

Figure 3. Kvifte model from ‘On the musicology of music production’

What Kvifte does suggest is that the work of much musicologically orientated writing is located in the product. However, he would argue that with the rapid changes in the aesthetics interacting with changing technologies, and the rapid changes in the social organization of music production, it seems obvious that the creative production process has to be located at the centre of the research. Changing focus from product to process will be a challenge of a musicology of music production (Kvifte, 2005).

What I particularly like about both models discussed so far is that they place people, individually and collectively, in their explanatory models. In his discussion of production as a creative process, Paul Ramshaw (2006) goes even further by taking into account the pre-production phase of the process. Ramshaw’s suggestion is that the recording begins not in the studio but with the social interaction of the band members who write the songs prior to going into the studio before the numerous people, producer, engineer, tape operator, who are involved in the recording add their input. Ramshaw asks how this sound, what he calls the ‘musicians signature sound’, is ‘mediated (chosen and configured) through a group of people’ and the technology they use.

A comparable idea of ‘musical exchange’ was central to Jay Hodgson’s Outline for a Theory of Recording Practice (2005).  Hogson proposes that ‘while analysts typically only study the sound of music recordings’ other issues emerge including the need to probe collaborative processes.  The relationships that develop within a studio environment between musicians, engineers and producers warrant detailed study in order to establish a thorough picture of the nature of music creation. (Hodgson, 2005).

This brief review brings together a number of concerns that are emerging in our study of recording. Clearly, the problematic area of the collaborative process along with the interaction with technology within a specific socio-cultural framework provides a real challenge for us as academics.  At this point, we might pause for a moment to consider why the process is so important – why should our ‘mission’ be to discover what these processes were and how they came about. In part, I suspect that this comes from a need to understand the dynamics that created the music we listen to. In part, it may also be related to a desire to know more about a technique that has been used or the recreation of a sound that excites us. To return to our detectives for a moment, it is not enough simply to know who did a particular act, if we are to truly understand a recording it would be necessary to understand the motives and dynamics that led to certain choices and configurations being made. In doing this, we may begin to unravel the confusion and the mythology of the production process.

David Carter in his article Well Past Time: notes on a musicology of audio recording production offers us a further reason for engaging in a study of the process at this particular moment by suggesting that,

Unfortunately, we may have already missed the boat in relation to many of the recordings made in the last century and while it would still be possible to piece together significant data from interviews, and other historical documents it may be more appropriate to engage with these works through analysis of the recorded text (production) as product and historical document (Carter, 2006).

Audio recordings are, by their very nature, historical documents and, as such, they capture ‘sonic, musical and aesthetic concerns of the production process’ of their time which Carter represents in figure 4.

Figure 4.  Sonic, Musical and Aesthetic characteristics of the recorded text (Carter, 2006).

What seems at first to be a scientific-analytical model has at its centre in addition to ideas of instrumentation and arrangement, the idea of the ‘vibe’. Vibe, it could be suggested, is a fundamental but as yet unexplored aspect of the production process. In the industry panel at the opening of this conference, Joe D’Ambrosio spoke of a recording engineer (a mixer) as someone who can bring ‘his magic’ to bear on a record. Talented people of all avenues do have that magic, and part of our task is to explore, analyze and describe the processes which we recognize and acknowledge in the reception of the music. The question remains as to whether the vibe, this magic D’Ambrosio speaks of, leaves a sonic trace. The evidence for this may be difficult to find but in the writings I have explored here, the notion of a ‘signature sound’ seems to be something we recognize in a production either in the context of the performers ‘signature sound’ or a sound that can be identified with an individual producer such as, and I quote David Carter here, ‘Phil Spector’s signature ‘wall of sound’, or the Neptune’s instantly identifiable hip-hop production style’.

The idea of a signature sound, or what I have termed here as a ‘sonic signature’ to indicate the potential for a sound to carry the identity of an individual. The subject of sonic signatures does seem to have a currency. In the discussion following the keynote speaker Phil Ramone, a question from the floor asked about the idea of a sonic ‘thread’ which he perceived in Ramone’s work. At the creative stage, Ramone saw his work as being largely different, but interestingly, at the reception stage, it could be conceived that there was a sonic thread, a trace which weaves through a producer’s oeuvre.

Investigating the signature sound

An Ethnographic approach

One way of evaluating the application of the sonic signature would be to consider those albums we know well enough to create some kind of classification of recurrent ideas and sounds. This type of approach is problematic and as Justin Morey (2008) shows in his comparison of tracks by the Artic Monkeys, it can be all too easy to make the wrong assumptions about a recording.

A further way of testing the idea of signature sound would be to research the problem by looking at the collaborative and interactive processes that take place in the context of the studios. The usefulness of ethnographic techniques in researching studio practice has begun to develop and over the past year I have been experimenting with possible techniques in response to the concept of the sonic signature. The idea behind the research is relatively simple – to be a ‘fly on the wall’ in a recording session and to use video, observations and interviews in an ethnographic way, to map out the ways that these processes work. It is hoped that in this way it will be possible to capture something of the interactive processes with a view to analyzing their effect on the final product.

These early studies have taken place in the same way. A video camera has been located in a central position focusing mainly on the producer/engineer and the main console. At an early point in the session, I spend time in the room setting up the camera and getting a ‘feel’ for the session which I hope will help at the interpretive stage when looking at the videos.

Given the small space of recording studios, it was felt that to be in this confined space might in some way alter the normal working practices of the producer and musicians. For that reason, once the video begins to record, I have tried to not be in the studio. During the sessions there is usually an opportunity to talk about the process indirectly with the production team.

Following the completion of the session, the video tapes are then transferred onto video and edited. The purpose of the editing is to focus on those moments that seem significant in terms of interaction between musicians and between producer/engineer. For the final tape, any edited sections are indicated on screen as time delays and I have begun to mark up comments on screen. In part, this is because of an interest in the pedagogic potential of these images, but also in the ability to focus viewing on significant events on and off screen as shown in figure 5.

Figure 5. Steve Parker setting levels at the desk with musicians in the background out of shot. (Photo: B. Davis)

In addition, there are often lengthy static events which can be compressed on video but these are indicated using a timing caption. These moments are not included unless there is evidence of an important intervention or mediation of the sound. At some points in the video, interesting questions emerge which are also highlighted at the editing stage as shown in figure 5 where Carl Flattery, the songwriter in this case, can be seen adopting a thoughtful body position. These moments are highlighted in the first case with a view to investigating their meaning at a later stage through interviews with the subject.

Figure 6. Carl listening back to the first take of the song. (Photo: B. Davis)

Research sample

To illustrate this work, I would like to discuss two short examples of video taken from the first batch of research. The first example involved a group of experienced musicians working on a recording project for faculty member and songwriter Carl Flattery in autumn 2007. The work extended over two days but for the purposes of this paper, the material has been condensed to a few minutes.

A short extract of video is shown of the early stage of recording session. Much of the work focuses on the desk as a means of setting up microphones and preparing to capture the music as shown in figure 5.  Later more musicians arrive and the first run through is recorded by the engineer. We are able to observe some of the interaction between different people on the video.

Figure 7. Studio interactions. (Photo: B. Davis)

I am sure that this will be a familiar scenario to many at this conference, especially those whose experience extends backwards in time as it does in the case of the engineer for this project Steve Parker who has been working in the industry since the 1970s. I would like to highlight two features from this extract. The first is the time it took to create a kick drum sound which was acceptable to the drummer and the second is the interaction between Carl (the songwriter) and the other musicians. In particularly I focus on the body language and the strategies adopted to realize the sound of the song.

The second example is more problematic. Kayla Kavanagh is a singer who is has had success on a number of levels with a number of festivals under her belt and some airplay on local radio in the UK and is now producing her first album with Nigel Pease. Like many emerging artists, she has a web presence through Myspace and she has also experimented with virtual concerts on Second Life.

Figure 8 shows the recording session around two hours into the session. Because the instrumental track has been recorded elsewhere, most of the two days of this session were spent recording vocals. Unlike the previous example, the session was very static with only Kayla and Nigel involved.

Figure 8. Kayla and Nigel listening back to the recording around two hours into the session.

Most of the instruments have been recorded elsewhere and on different occasions so it is only the main vocals that are being recorded at this session. This presents a very different scenario since unlike the first example, the ‘band’ you hear has never met and each musician, all of them experienced, signed their sonic signature independently of the rest.  The sonic imprint of each musician is identifiable but the dynamics of reception – the feeling of vibe – may have been painstakingly constructed from the individual experiences of the collaborators.

Figure 9. Nigel begins to move his hand as the drums enter almost as if playing the beat.

At one point when the drums come in, Nigel begins to move as if he were playing the drums. Watching Nigel behind the desk, he begins to move his hands as if playing the drums and you get the impression that a vibe has been created (see figure 9). His body movements suggest that in some way he is ‘measuring’ the success of that vibe or perhaps even taking ownership of the vibe by embodying the sound. His own sonic signature as engineer comes in the blending, shaping, and processing of the sounds which develops over repeated performances of the work.

This idea of embodying the sound appears later in the same session when Kayla is listening back to the recording she has just done. As Nigel makes slight alterations to the levels, Kayla begins to move her hands (cupped fists) beating in time with the music, again embodying the sound as shown in figure 10.

Figure 10. Kayla begins to move her hands in time to the music. (Photo: B. Davis)

There is insufficient space here to consider the research behind this embodiment of sound except to say that at this moment my hunch is that in embodying the sound, both Kayla and Nigel are not simply responding to the music but they are validating the vibe of the music and, importantly, in doing so are taking ownership of the overall sound.

By utilizing an ethnographic approach demonstrated here, however briefly, I hope that forthcoming research will provide a more detailed understanding of the range of processes involved in creating a production sound. Through analysis, we may be able to discover more about the way that sound has been shaped in the collaborative, mediated world of the production studio and say more about those moments that an individuals ‘signature’ emerges from the mix. In the long term, I hope that in watching and analyzing these specific scenes where we can clearly see whodunit, we may be able to use this experience to reflect on the traces left in recordings which have not been documented as closely.2 The issue here is that while we know who did it, we have an opportunity to interrogate the ‘perpetrators’ in order to get a better understanding of the motives. My hope is that from the position of experience, we may be able to piece together something of the process involved and in doing so, increase our understanding of what we listen to.


At the beginning of this paper, I suggested that the difference between the investigator and the detective was one of ‘reconstructing the crime scene’. Gerbert suggests that much of this interpretive reconstruction comes not through intuition but through experience. The experience that we build as practitioners, by listening to practitioners may provide the necessary tools and understanding to unpack the evidence of the recorded text.

The interpretive strategies involved may require what I would like to characterize as the ‘hermeneutic hunch’. What I mean by this is that where forensic science fails us and the ‘door to door’ interviews fail to bring anything significant to the investigation, we may possibly rely on interpretive strategies based on experiential activities not only of the kind outlined here, but the interpretive experience of practitioners who have worked in situ in the industry over a sustained period of time. In so doing, the hermeneutic hunch could be grounded in experience and produce a much clearer, wider understanding of the ontology of production.

Part of the thinking behind this paper is a concern that we may be developing a tradition of production analysis which comes from preconceptions drawn from other disciplines which may not be entirely accurate. A great deal of writing today privileges the role of the producer and in doing so replicates analytical models used in examining composers within the fields of musicology. I have no intention here of downplaying the role of the producer or of those involved in research of this kind, but what I would like to do is begin to explore the collaborative roles that account for the sonic signatures that others have identified. Some of this may be in the hermeneutic domain, it is then our task is to ask the questions which will validate our hunch.

For the moment, I have conceptualized the trace on a recording as a ‘sonic signature’ which signifies some kind of ‘creative ownership’. This is in itself problematic but by using the video we may be able to untangle some of the thinking behind this. In the case of the first video, there was a problem with the kick drum sound. This was ‘fixed’ by the producer-engineer Steve Parker who repositioned the microphones to capture the sound the drummer particularly wanted. Once the ‘right’ sound had been created, the drummer took ownership of that sound through his performance and in this way, you can see that ownership is not the property of one person. Ultimately, you might say, it is us who eventually take ownership of the sound not through the acquisition but through ‘using’ the song and in doing so ascribing meaning to the music.

Detectives often follow the hunch which comes through years of practicing their own art and by picking up the most insignificant clue, can solve a case that may even have been open for several years. My focus is on the sound, what I call sonic signature and it is this sound that leaves a trace of the people involved in the process of recording. By grounding the idea in ethnographic research, we begin to perceive the process in a different way and to test the theories discussed in this paper. In part, this is driven by an ideological viewpoint that the real issue is not the microphone, not the software or the sample, but the choices made through social interaction and involvement with the music itself.  In taking this approach I hope to open up critical lines of investigation into the creative process by grounding the research into the everyday actions of individuals working in the studio situation.


I would like to acknowledge the support and co-operation given by those who have contributed to the research process. Special thanks go to Carl Flattery, Steven Parker, Ray Russell, Ralph Salmins, Mo Foster,  Kayla Kavanagh and Nigel Pease for permission to use images from the video.

About The Author

Robert Davis

Leeds Metropolitan University


1. The importance of a sustained analytical and critical discourse has been made in the area of popular music by Rob Bowman who as suggested that despite an increase in the musicological study of popular music by the academy, ‘there has been no academic musicological work, other than Robert Walser’s recent study of Heavy Metal, (Walser, 1993), that has attempted to ferret out the component parts of a given genre through an analysis of a sizeable body of repertoire. There is an acute need for such a work if popular music scholars are going to begin to understand in concrete terms what is meant by terms such as rock, soul, funk, Mersey beat and so on’ (Bowman, 1995: 285).

2. In this way, we are working in the same way as the US TV detective Columbo did where the crime was shown at the beginning and the real story centered around how he solved the crime, usually in his case, by some kind of confession. In some ways his was a distinctly ethnographic approach as he involved himself in the community.


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