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.