The Sound of Coordinated Efforts: Music Producers, Boundary Objects and Trading Zones


A music production arises out of the co-workings of various experts—experts in playing musical instruments, in sound engineering, song writing, etc. Some production expertise is artistic and some is technical in nature, but in both cases, it is comprised of skills, specialized knowledge, mental information processing and perceptions filtered through experience. It is something cognitive. The skills and knowledge necessary to create a recording are typically distributed across and embodied in different participants and increasingly technologies that perform different roles in a production. Each distinct area of expertise contributes different capacities and work. Consequently, though they collaborate, experts carry through the production process different goals, priorities and perspectives relating to their individual work. Collaborations find means to accommodate diversity and differences. This study is about those means. (These assertions draw inspiration from studies unrelated to music production. Becker: 1974; Bowker and Star: 1999; Galison: 1999; Lave and Wegner: 1991; Star and Griesemer: 1989.)

To sustain collaboration, these experts come together in a production space. The space might be conceptual, and demarcated by agreement among collaborators. It might be a physical place. Usually, the context for collaboration consists of a combination of conceptual and physical configurations. Within this space, experts create musical and engineering performances, which are recorded, involve the application of audio technology or cause recording or creation in one form or another to happen. This constitutes work.

To do collaborative work, experts share resources such as recording technology or a musical chart, the skills of the engineer or the acoustic properties of a live room in which they record. To share access to resources needs to be managed, implicitly or explicitly, and managed dynamically because the availability of resources varies over time. For example, the recorded artifact central to the production is a shared resource, and it changes constantly as it is produced. Previously recorded performances affect what new performances may be meaningfully contributed. Each subsequent change, to a greater or lesser extent, presents experts with different resources with which to do their work.

Since each participant contributes uniquely, the work products are heterogeneous. (Star and Griesemer: 1989; Callon: 1987/2012; Latour: 1990, 1996; Law: 1992) However, experts do their work with the understanding that each contribution should connect somehow to the recorded artifact being produced and that they share. There is a common purpose, the production of this artifact, but also individuated work. Ensuring that these heterogeneous work products may eventually be amalgamated into a finished mixed recording requires coordination. That organization is linked to the producer’s expertise.

The following study deconstructs the processes of coordinating the efforts of experts in music production. In particular, it looks at how diversity impacts the communication of information among experts and the producer’s mediation of information between areas of expertise. Similar collaborative processes have been studied extensively by cognitive science and the sociology of science. These fields have developed a rich set of concepts to explain how such coordination happens. Here, these established concepts are set in the frame of music production.

Coordination and Communication

For a group of experts to coordinate collaboration or work in parallel requires communication. In a recording studio, individual experts have the support of the physical infrastructure, talkbacks, headphone mixes, etc. Additionally, there are social and organizational structures embedded in the practice of production that aid communication and coordination, for example, job titles and their associated responsibilities and authority. In part, this scaffolding supports the exchange of information by organizing who should provide information and who should use it. Each expert involved, for the purposes of doing his or her own work, needs information to guide how to perform. To facilitate and organize a production is to facilitate and organize the transference of information, thereby enabling human-to-human, human-to-machine or human-to-artifact interaction. To render performances, to create work products, “interaction is all there is” (Law: 1992, p.380)—interactions with other experts, artifacts, objects and information.

Interestingly, in this arrangement, one expert, the producer, is explicitly tasked with coordinating contributions and collaboration among participating experts. To this end, the expertise of the producer includes bridging diverse areas of expertise, technical and artistic, to enable communication and the sharing of resources. The producer’s expertise appears essential to the process of making recordings, as producers have been present since the earliest days of commercial music production (Milner: 2009). The following sections deconstruct the producer’s expertise, interactions in music production and the information-transferring structures that support these exchanges.

The Scope of the Producer’s Expertise

The producer’s expertise undeniably covers knowledge of areas and skills beyond and unrelated to communication and coordination. It encompasses knowledge of music theory, performance practices, sound engineering, etc. However, only those capacities germane to communication and coordination are considered here. In this study, “the producer” refers to the producer’s expertise. In practice, one or more participants may supply the producer’s expertise, and different participants may assume the responsibility at different times. This may be the case even if one participant has been designated the job title, “producer”. Correspondingly, an individual holding “the producer” title is on occasion likely to contribute musical parts. However, for the sake of investigating communication and coordination, it is assumed that these performances are not the work of the producer’s expertise but a musical expert. Overlaps in “the producer” title and the expertise are called out.

Practice and Collaboration

This group that the producer facilitates is diverse in terms of expertise, work and subjective perceptions. Experts bring to the collaboration knowledge that stems from what Lave and Wegner (Lave and Wegner: 1991) call a “community of practice” (COP). For example, experts may belong to the community of guitar players, sound engineers, back-up singers, etc. “One is not born a violinist, but gradually becomes a member of the violin playing community of practice through a long period of lessons, shared conversations, technical exercises, and participation in a range of other related activities” (Bowker and Star: 1999, p. 294). Practitioners doing the same job, playing the same instrument and practicing the same skills are bound by their commonalities. Commonalities help sustain connections among members, in coordinating efforts and in promoting development within a practice (ibid.).

COPs have distinct goals, priorities, interests, etc., which lead to their distinct cultures, languages, traditions and ways of communicating and interacting within the community. Through their languages, communities recognize and utilize objects (physical and abstract) and develop systems for categorizing these objects. Different communities have different objects and categories (ibid.) that bias practitioners’ perceptions. A guitarist may meaningfully suggest to another guitarist: rest your hand on the bridge when you pick those notes or use the whammy bar to bend that note. These same instructions do not have comparable meaning to a pianist even though the pianist understands timbre and transitioning between notes.

Experts use practice-related knowledge to interact with the recorded artifact being produced. They take information from the artifact (e.g., sonic attributes, semantic meaning of lyrics, etc.), and fold it into their work. In this way, utilizing the skills and practices of their COP, they create a performance-work product for that specific artifact. As experts appraise performances—the ones they create themselves and those that others create—those appraisals are also filtered through these experts’ specialized knowledge, through experience, and through practice-related categorizations. Categories can be rather exclusive to a COP (Galison: 1997; Collins, Evans and Gorman: 2006), and that can have the effect of increasing heterogeneity among work products. Also, the more integrated an expert is in a COP, the more the naturalized objects used by the COP seem to fall naturally and unchangeably into their categorizations (Bowker and Star: 1999, p. 295).

Alternatively, practice related knowledge might instead open avenues for communication. For example, a guitarist and pianist may share common objects and categorizations, such as the concept of timbre or pitch. Different COPs might recognize the same objects, defining them similarly at some level, while also giving different significance to that object (Galison: 1997; Collins, Evans and Gorman: 2006). Many instrumentalists recognize A-440, but conceive of it as falling within the range of their particular instrument (or not) differently. The sound engineer may need to find that note in a recorded phrase and edit it, but values a representation of A-440 in ways the instrumentalists do not. Similar definitions or categorizations enable information sharing even though the work experts do with the object remains heterogeneous. Nevertheless, identifying commonality is key to organizing collaboration.

Sharing information about resources, the artifact and production helps experts to interact across COPs. The producer can provide this information, and coordinate interactions through the choice of what to provide and how. Social, organizational and technical structures all help support these exchanges. At junctures where information is shared among experts or between an expert and a resource there exists potential for mediation.

Specialization and Information

Becker has observed coordinated, specialized work in related areas of artistic production. In Becker’s “art worlds”, “artists” and supporting technical, business and non-artistic “personnel” cooperate to produce artworks. The artwork or “product” is central and integral to the work of each participant, though each provides a different expertise to the process of producing it (Becker: 1974). Within this assemblage of experts, each brings a “specialized aesthetic” to the production process (Becker: 1974, p.769).

According to Becker (Becker: 1974), the more specialized the specialist or the more specialization a production process demands from that expert, the more specialized this aesthetic becomes in the context of the production. Though experts are cooperating, in some ways because of their specialization, they must work without the consensus of others. Each expert pursues the dictates of their specialized aesthetic and the goals and constraints of their individual work and their professional “craft standards” (Becker: 1974, p. 769). These standards reflect goals and values held by the COPs to which they belong.

The work, the aesthetic, each expert is detecting and perceiving different types of objects in what is being produced, applying different types of knowledge, and has different biases, different things they value and ways of valuing them. Then each must interface with the artifact being produced to create new performances for it. To do this work and interacting, they need information about the production and other performances, and that information needs to match their particular expertise. Each expert has specialized information requirements (After Star and Griesemer: 1989; Star: 2010). In music production, the producer meets the specialized information requirements of experts to facilitate specialized work.

Yet, the work is not arbitrary (Star: 2010). There is structure around it—technical, organizational, social, and not least of all structured information—that influence the specialized work products produced. In music production, directly or indirectly, consistently structured information and facilitation give rise to audible attributes that connect the different performances, making it possible to integrate them into a mixed recording. This kind of coordination is not unique to music or artistic production. Cross-community communication and coordinated heterogeneous work happen in all sorts of environments, wherever diverse experts collaborate and/or share resources.

Boundary Objects

Star has studied the non-arbitrary-ness of coordinated work extensively, but in scientific communities (Star: 2010; Bowker and Star: 1999; Star and Griesemer: 1989). Scientific disciplines, like music specializations, vary in terms of methods, goals and expertise. And similar to music production, more than one perspective is needed to produce complex work products, build knowledge or offer a coherent view of a domain. So scientists representing different disciplines relevant to a domain coordinate, share resources and collaborate to produce complementary work products. Star and Griesemer have investigated one such diverse group, working in a research-focused natural history museum (Star and Griesemer: 1989). Here different departments represented distinct disciplines. Departments and researchers shared resources, primarily biological specimens. All used the same specimens but in different ways. To satisfy their individual “informational needs” or “informational requirements” for working with the specimens (Star: 2010, p.602; Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 393) they used “boundary objects”.

Boundary objects provide information about resources, and moreover, structure the provisioning of that information (Star and Griesemer: 1989). They are “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 393 and Bowker and Star: 1999, p. 297). Boundary objects at the museum, consisted of, for example, maps detailing where specimens were obtained. A map could be used to link topographical, geographical or environmental information to a specimen, or it might even provide some of that information. Each researcher or department was interested in some but probably not all of the information provided. And, not all information was shared among departments. “Only those parts of the work essential to maintaining coherent information were pooled in the intersection of information; the others were left alone” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 404).

The map provided “translational” tools for cataloging and organizing specimens. Different departments had different schemes for cataloging and organizing. In this way, a map-boundary object enabled “n-way translation” regardless of basic differences in categories, working methods and goals among users (Star and Griesmer: 1989). In contrast with other types of resources shared among co-creators or collaborators, boundary objects are characterized by this “interpretive flexibility (Star: 2010, p. 602).

Since boundary objects also structure sharing overall, the work that results from using them, though it is heterogeneous, is not arbitrary (Star: 2010). “The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 393 and Bowker and Star: 1999, p. 297). Boundary objects “maximize both the autonomy and communication between worlds” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 404).

Boundary objects may be conceptual or physical (Star and Griesemer: 1989). For Star, “[b]oundary objects are a sort of arrangement that allow different groups to work together without consensus” (Star: 2010, p. 602). “Its materiality derives from action not from a sense of prefabricated stuff or ‘thing’-ness” (Star: 2010 p. 603). The “object provides the conduit for translation and interaction” and people “act toward and with” it (Star: 2010 p. 603). The “boundary” indicates a “shared space” (Star: 2010, p. 602-3). The space, like the object, may be conceptual. It can be a context, a bounded constrained way of interacting or organizing, or a working “arrangement” (Star: 2010, p. 602). What distinguishes boundary objects from other material or conceptual objects with which experts interact is a “scale” that makes them suitable for bridging at an “organizational level” (Star 2010 p. 612).

Similar to the museum, the organization of a music production requires striking a balance between “autonomy and communication” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 404). Specialized work is meaningful relative to a particular shared context. The producer holds a pool of information about that context, and is able to provide n-way translations for contributing experts (Following on Star and Griesemer: 1989). Experts interpret this information flexibly for specialized work. For example, experts share information about pitch, harmony and key. Each makes specialized use of that information to create individual performances.

Technology, instruments, musical performances and recorded artifacts, any of these can in some respects meet such informational requirements, but they do so neutrally and irrespective of any “common identity” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 393 and Bowker and Star: 1999, p. 297) that ties work products together. It takes more than information to organize who will play what, when and to what affect. To prevent arbitrary work, the producer’s directions, guidance, encouragement and elicitation of work have built into them structure necessary to sustain coordinated interaction with other experts, with other (perhaps technological) objects in the environment, and with the recorded artifact.

The structure does not undermine interpretive flexibility or experts’ autonomy. Through this framework, if the producer micromanages the expert’s work, the expert is inhibited in their specialization. It becomes the producer’s work. The more minute the production directions given, the less interpretable the information, the less work is contributed by the specialized expert.

Sociology of Translation

In related work, sociologists such as Callon and Latour have championed the idea that networks of actors support the communications and processes that sustain working organizations. The actor network theory they proposed (Callon: 1987/2012; Latour: 1990, 1996)—also referred to as the sociology of translation—offers methods for analyzing patterns in networks of cooperating actors, particularly as viewed through single intersecting “points of passage” through sets of actors. This differentiates it from the boundary object approach with its “many-to-many mapping” (Star and Griesemer: 1989, p. 390).

In these studies (scientific) knowledge as it is manifest in physical form (e.g., documents, publications, etc.) is the product of social interactions within a “network of heterogeneous materials” (Law: 1992, p. 381). The network is comprised of (skilled) people, but also institutions, tools and technologies that are interconnected for a finite period of time (Schwartz Cowan in Callon: 2012, p. 87). Humans and machines, objects or technologies, may be actors in a network. Actor networks are not linked predictably. They are not stable and can “at any moment redefine their identity and mutual relationships in some new way and bring in new elements into the network” (Callon: 2012, p. 87).

Law has described (scientific) knowledge-as-object as emerging from “… a process of ‘heterogeneous engineering’ in which bits and pieces from the social, the technical, the conceptual, and the textual are fitted together, and so converted (or ‘translated’) into a set of equally heterogeneous scientific products” (Law: 1992, p. 381). In music production, a single recorded artifact is produced as the result of coordinated output by skilled experts and machine labor and through collaborative exchanges. The actors’ (collective) knowledge takes physical form in the mixed artifact.

Also related, in Bourdieu’s “Theory of the Artistic Field”, relationships among expert actors stem from a distribution of power. “An artistic field is a structure of relations between positions… The positions are occupied by agents who take these positions on the basis of their habitus” (Maanen: 2009, p. 55). Habitus is “a set of dispositions… permanent structures of perceptions and evaluations which govern how people act (Maanen: 2009, p. 58). From their labor, individuals and groups accrue capital with value, and this impacts relationships (Maanen: 2009). This can be easily applied at the macro level to interactions in music production. However, to see how experts gain access to and exchange the information needed for work, to understand producing, it is necessary to explore at lower levels how information is shared and the kinds of interaction and work that sharing affords.

Trading Zones

Galison has taken an anthropological approach to investigating “how engineers, experimenters and theorists interact” (Galison: 1997, p. 783). In his framing, owing to the diversity among the participants, science is inherently unstable and interactions need to be actively sustained. For any given instance of evidence associated with a given phenomenon, different experts may actually all agree that evidence exists while simultaneously producing different and diverse explanations for the phenomenon. Alternatively, experts may defer to another’s abilities to assess, analyze and evaluate that particular evidence or type of phenomenon (Galison: 1997). In music production, experts often defer to the producer’s abilities to assess, analyze and evaluate certain aspects of the production.

Instead of COPs, Galison observes distinct cultures engaging in trade with each other. There is local coordination in “trading zones” where “trading partners can hammer out local coordination despite vast global differences” (Galison: 1997, p. 783). In music production, the producer does not merely broker trades. When a producer, for example, asks an engineer to turn up the reverb in a vocalist’s headphone cue mix, it alters the trading zone by encouraging something from the vocalist’s performance, and thereby influencing what is traded or offered for others to work with in a trade.

Coordination between distinct groups requires “contact languages”. These languages, Galison has observed, may develop significant complexity. Some fuse concepts from disparate disciplines, or evolve into pidgins, creoles and jargons (Galison: 1997, p.783). Music production has its jargon (e.g., punch, balanced, bottom end, etc.), but it also spontaneously develops the means to communicate locally within sessions. Guggenheim’s documentary about the production of U2’s “Achtung Baby” album includes footage of a tracking session in which the lead singer, Bono, calls for more “grit” in the guitar sound. Bono asks the guitarist, the Edge, to play with “as wiry a sound as you can make it, Edge. Grit. Wire” (Guggenheim: 2012, at 01:08:19 to 01:08:31). “Grit” and “wire” are not necessarily terms naturalized in the COP of rock guitarists, but they were meaningful for these inter-actors in this “trade”.


Ribeiro (Ribeiro: 2007) has studied interactions among Japanese and Brazilian engineers, managers and workers in the Brazilian steel industry. In his case studies, “interpreters” alternated between the social worlds of the Japanese and Brazilians, and they made communication between the groups possible and more effective by circumventing potential cultural conflicts or bridging gaps in understanding. These interpreters had the conceptual, social and procedural leeway and time to alternate between groups. The existence of language-barriers afforded the space and possibility to improve communication. Ribeiro compares these (human) interpreters to boundary objects that “translate interests” and their translations to Galison’s “new shared subculture-languages”; but Ribeiro also suggest a new model, the interpreter who crosses social worlds (Ribeiro: 2007, p. 576). In music production, barriers to communication similarly afford opportunities to mediate communication.

Cooperation without Consensus

Cooperation requires both translation and actively sustaining interactions among diverse participants (Galison: 1997). It requires preserving some degree of expert autonomy so that experts can pursue specialized work without the consensus of others while simultaneously managing consensus among the group. These requirements are not always weighted equally in music production. Not all “local differences” are “hammered out” (Galison: 1997). Not all trades are even. Some participants give or take more. Some exert influence with charisma and power. It is rarely a truly democratic process, meaning some experts—some specialized aesthetics—get a vote that carries more weight. Guggenheim’s U2 documentary (Guggenheim: 2012) shows band members constantly offering each other constructive critique, creating the impression that everything is open to discussion. Interestingly, the film provides little evidence that all are equally satisfied in the end. At some point in a production process, someone has to take the responsibility for decisions. Producers are often invested with the authority to take the most important decisions, and correspondingly are held accountable for them. Participants who unofficially take on producing responsibilities may similarly find themselves tacitly accountable.

Star and Griesemer offer two generic approaches to solving the problem of how to cooperate without consensus: standardisation and boundary objects (Trompette and Vinck: 2009; Star and Griesemer: 1989). Standards are inflexible. Varied work products conform to them. They have a normalizing effect. Analogously, Becker speaks of “conventions” in art, for example, musical scales and common practices (Becker: 1974). Some conventions relating to quality assessments show up in technologies used to produce art, and they limit technologies’ functionality (Becker: 1974, p. 772). Technological limitations also have a normalizing effect. Conventions and their influence on working arrangements, Becker says, are stable and “difficult to change” (Becker: 1974, p. 773). Stability is problematic in domains like art and music production that value innovation. Innovation happens, according to Becker, when artists create new ways of configuring the resources necessary to produce (Becker: 1974). Standards inhibit innovation (Star and Griesemer: 1989; Trompette and Vinck: 2009).

Interpretively flexible boundary objects have not one but multiple forms. Cooperating groups “tack back-and-forth between” forms (Star: 2010). Collaborations that use boundary objects are multifaceted not normalized. New configurations are more likely to be found. However, too much multifaceted-ness and heterogeneous work products do not fit together in the artifact being produce. To avoid this, work created without consensus must still fall within limits or tolerances or withstand some verification.

Comfort Zones and Validation

Limits can be hard to set, particularly in diverse collaborations and/or where innovation is valued. But in music production, to elicit performances that are innovative, producers often encourage or make permissible experimentation. For performers, experimenting can mean putting aside the representations, objects, categorizations and scaffolding for doing work that a COP provides. This includes putting aside familiar limits too. Without the expectations and norms of the COP, outside the comfort zone for doing work, how does the performer evaluate his/her own work product??

Bechky (2003) suggests that boundary objects may have epistemic utility for validating work, but also, that translation and validation may not be enough to ensure coherence among heterogeneous work products. Bechky’s study investigated a group of design engineers, prototyping technicians and assemblers cooperating to carry a design from conceptual phase through to manufacturing procedure. In her study, the technicians in the middle of this production chain acted as translators between design engineers and assemblers because they could speak some of the language of each. The design engineers, prototyping technicians and assemblers belonged to three different COPs. Each COP provided specialized epistemic tools for validating work. The boundary objects provided additional tools for checking specialize work against the intended manufacturing procedure.

Technical drawings were the boundary objects preferred by the engineers and technicians. In addition to providing information about the manufacturing procedure, drawings helped engineers and technicians translate their specialized work for each other. The assemblers, however, used prototype machines as boundary objects between their work and the intended procedure and to share information with the technicians (Bechky: 2003, p.732). These three groups spoke different languages and used different epistemic tools. Groups had jurisdiction over their specialized work (Bechky: 2003).

They needed a method for pulling the parts together into one validated manufacturing procedure. The process of integration necessitated problem solving, trouble-shooting and translating up and down the line from designer to assembler. Since the groups were uncomfortable sharing epistemic tools, the technicians mediated, talking machines with assemblers and design drawings with engineers. To facilitate cooperation, all recognized one overarching jurisdiction; that final-say went to the design engineers. “The engineering jurisdiction symbolically encompassed the entire production process—beginning with design and ending with the finished product—because the engineering drawings were seen as the means of communication for the production process and guided the building of machines. Also, engineers were responsible for how the product looked and functioned after it was shipped. The engineers’ task area therefore shaped the jurisdictions of the other two occupational groups” (Bechky: 2003, p.728).

In music productions, the responsibility for integrating, verifying and conforming to some sort of quality assessment falls under the auspices of the producer’s expertise, even though each expert brings COP-specific means for validating their own specialized work. It is noteworthy that, unlike in Bechky’s study, producers are both translators/mediators and exercise overarching jurisdiction. In participants’ deference to the producer’s expertise, like Galison’s scientists (Galison: 1999), experts recognize another expert’s abilities to assess, analyze and evaluate. Collins et al. (Collins, Evans and Gorman: 2006) speculate that “actors” or participants in a Galison-like trade do not have access to the perspectives available to an “analyst” not directly involved in that trade. They lose sight of a bigger perspective. The producer as analyst with a high-level perspective and overarching jurisdiction is able to assess a given trade in light of other work. In this way, the producer is able provide epistemic tools experts would otherwise not be able to access.

Situated in Cultures and Environments

Experts collaborating to produce a music recording, a manufacturing procedure or knowledge objects are more than representatives of their respective cultures or COPs. They also bring capacities for adapting to and working locally in particular production environments. In a local context, the expertise and the cognition of experts is embodied (within their physical bodies) while also situated among the unique characteristics of their specific working environment, and both these factors inform experts’ work.

Experts constantly move back-and-forth between wider spheres of knowledge and practice into comparatively narrow production spaces where that knowledge is applied (Nersessian: 2006). They move between COPs and comparatively small collaborative groups. Nersessian (2006) has observed this transitioning in biomedical engineering laboratories. “Researchers and artifacts move back and forth between the wider community and the physical space of the laboratory and so the problem space has permeable boundaries” (Nersessian: 2006, p.130). An upshot of this fluidity is that work done locally is subject to influences both internal and external to the working environment.

The lab, she observes, appropriates representations and processes from the wider COP of biomedical engineering, and it also develops internal representations and processes intended for use locally in that specific lab. “The laboratory-as-problem-space contains resources for problem-solving which comprise people, technology, techniques, knowledge resources, problems, and relationships…” (Nersessian: 2006, p.130). The availability and configuration of resources shape how the experts working within the lab make and apply knowledge. They make and apply it in a specific context with its native resources (Nersessian: 2006). These ways of makingthe practices, and the cognitive and physical resources—adapt to both internal and external developments. The lab perpetually “reconfigures itself” (Nerssessian: 2006, p.132).

Experts in music production similarly move between wider worlds of practice to narrow sites of application. The emerging recorded artifact at the center of the music production environment, as it takes shape, provides different resources for work. Different features come to the fore. At the same time, the production environment and local working arrangements respond to external changes, developments in COPs in the field or music production at large.

In the biomedical lab, certain resources appear to have greater “power to bind research projects together” (Nerssesian: 2006, p. 132). Nersessian calls these resources “signature objects(Nersessian: 2006, p. 132), which “need to be understood not just as ‘boundary objects’ (Star and Griesemer: 1989) existing in the ‘trading zones’ (Galison: 1997) of two or more communities and mediating communication, but as sites of interdisciplinary melding of concepts, models, methods, artifacts, and epistemologies, where genuine novelty emerges. In sum, they are central in the cognitive-cultural fabric in which creative scientific understandings are produced” (Nersessian: 2006, p. 132). Or it may be claimed more simply that creative understandings are produced.

In the “problem space” of the music production environment, the producer is responsible for “binding” together heterogeneous work, and central to the “cognitive-cultural fabric” (Nersessian: 2006) of the production environment. The scaffolding the producer provides allows experts to balance priorities in service of the goals of the immediate context; to respond effectively to others, to other’s concepts, and to internal and external influences; and ideally, to respond in “novel” ways.

In the biomedical lab, Nersessian found that signature objects were often “simulation devices… that afford experimentation.” As biomedical problems are complex, collaborating experts focus the parts of the problem their expertise can address. The shared “device” provides the necessary translation tools so that each may pursue specialized work. Solutions result, however, when heterogeneous work products are combined. “Problem-solving with simulation devices requires that researchers merge concepts, models, and methods of biology and engineering” (Nersessian: 2006, p.132). In music production, problem-solving similarly requires the “melding” of expertise. The producer may not simulate for experts, but the producer does anticipate the affects that performances and their juxtapositions may add. Also, the structure, information and communication management provided by a producer makes it possible to merge concepts, methods and heterogeneous work products.

Infrastructure and Information Systems

Producers manage communications through an infrastructure of available channels and modes of communication. The constraints and affordances of the infrastructure and its channels impact how information is conveyed. An infrastructure, according to Star and Ruhleder (Star and Ruhleder:1996; Star: 2010), can be identified by the following features: it is embedded socially and among technologies; it is transparent to users; it reaches beyond a single instance or place of use; it is “taken for granted” as a member of the community; it “both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice”, it is standardized and interfaces with other infrastructures; it arises from an existing base; and it “becomes visible on breakdown”.  A holistic rather than global/top-down perspective is necessary for change/repair, and changes need to be made locally and incrementally, to serve local needs while also simultaneously managing the complexity of the system as a whole (Star: 2010, p.611).  The producer functions “among technologies”, “interfaces with other infrastructures”, and through “an existing base” (of audio technology and musical and recording practices) (Star and Ruhleder:1996; Star: 2010). Viewing the production holistically, the producer acts locally with individual participants or sub-groups of participants, adjusting working arrangements and communications as needed to facilitate work and as necessary to maintain continuity and coherence among experts and work products.

“At its most abstract, the design and use of information systems involves linking experience gained in one time and place with that gained in another” (Bowker and Star: 1999 p.290). Productions are rarely created from one, staged performance event. Rather they are assembled from parts produced across serial recording sessions. To sustain non-real time interactions and foster coherence, the producer communicates information about performances and work from time-to-time as well as among experts. To make the links and to ensure the information is usable on the receiving node, the information is translated for different times as well as expertise. Though “embedded socially” (Star and Ruhleder:1996), the producer, not deeply integrated into a COP with rigidly categorized naturalized objects, mediates flexibly n-ways.

All this information moves through resources native to the production environment, for example, the pre-existing, pre-configured physical infrastructure of audio lines in a recording studio (such as those connecting live recording rooms with control rooms). Though the physical, material characteristics of this infrastructure may play a limited role, it does play a role; and working with the affordances and constraints of the physical infrastructure of the recording studio has long been part of production practice. Historically, much about the music production environment has been literally hard-wired, and therefore difficult and time consuming to change. There are practices and methods traditionally associated with adapting to its limits. However, recent decades have witnessed a marked transformation in production spaces, especially in the design of their physical architecture and infrastructure. This change has required producers to adapt their expertise to suit new production scenarios.

Physical Infrastructure

Until fairly recently production environments were set in purpose-built recording studios. The infrastructure architectures, workflows and practices that emerged within these (physical) spaces evolved to encourage specialists to focus on and optimize highly specialized work. Performers of instruments performed in live rooms, perhaps isolation booths, focusing their attention only on their musical performance regardless of any technology operating at the perimeters. Engineers controlled the recording process from control rooms. (Lefford: 2000 and relatedly Bates: 2012 have investigated how studio design impacts social interactions and practices.) In the traditional, purpose-built, brick-and-mortar recording studio, musical performances were created, recorded and assembled through the centralized perspective of the control room.

Operating within this kind of environment, individual experts could easily be left “silo-ed”, knowing little about that central perspective or how their particular, specialized contributions related to other contributions. This lack of information sharing impacted and potentially limited what they were able to contribute to collaboration (or trades), and/or increased their dependency on a centralized authority with overarching jurisdiction. The environment may have been multidisciplinary, but it was less interdisciplinary than contemporary production environments.

To overcome these limits and facilitate collaboration and interaction when needed, the producer communicated, quite literally, through the walls, through talkbacks and over headphone feeds, to different participants and carried information over the time of the production to the various participants as needed. The producer, in this traditional environment, was highly selective about shareable knowledge and information, translating only as needed and only the information most pertinent for optimizing the specialized work individual experts. The production process demanded more specialization. Experts’ aesthetics were highly specialized (Becker: 1974). Participants were disempowered, through lack of information, in negotiating their own trades. Aware of existing differences in perspectives and explanations, participants readily deferred to another expert’s abilities to assess, analyze and evaluate that particular evidence or type of phenomenon (Galison:1997)—those of the producer.

Since the early 1990s at least, the falling cost of high quality recording equipment has steadily undermined this compartmentalizing design approach by making feasible relatively small home and project studios that can be configured in non-traditional ways or retrofitted into non-purpose build spaces. These innovations have fundamentally eroded traditional production practices. It has become cost-effective, even preferable, for many creative contributors to geographically and temporally distribute expertise, allowing collaborators to work in their own spaces in their own time and at their own pace. The adoption of the Internet as a primary channel of communication for work and distribution has hastened the demise of the old, centralized approaches. In other words, specialized experts assumed significantly greater autonomy over their work.

Traditional recording studios have not disappeared, but neither have their owners and designers ignored the creative and practical inducements offered by decentralized spaces. “When owner [and recording artist] Peter Gabriel first devised the concept of Real World Studios [which opened in the late 1980s] he had a strong and, at the time, quite radical view on how a recording session should be carried out. The traditional method of separating performers from each other and from the engineer(s) in isolated rooms felt both restrictive and a hindrance to the creative process. Peter…was keen to explore the concept of recording in a more natural or ‘live’ atmosphere, breaking down the conventional boundaries that exist between performers, producers and engineers” (Real World Studios: 2015).

The Producer’s Expertise

Like Gabriel and his clients who transition naturally from Real World’s writing room, “the Shed,” to the open, democratizing “Big Room”, contemporary musicians, recording engineers and producers, by disposition, social pressure or professional necessity, tend to be more multi-talented, multi-disciplinary than their predecessors, or at least more vocal about the breadth of their skills. Instrumentalists, who consider recording integral to their practice, often have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the recording process and the technology of music production. Composers have incorporated sound generating technology into the compositional practice. Songwriters produce their own demos using both synthetic instruments and recording technologies. In these hybridized COPs, recording musicians share knowledge of at least some of the technical aspects of engineering sound, in so far as it sufficiently satisfies their own interests in creating sound and producing recordings. There is, in general, a greater overlap in expertise, objects recognized and categorizations. Nevertheless, the contemporary musician COP does not (as of yet) occlude the sound engineering COP whose expertise in technology remains significantly deeper and whose categories and representations still serve distinctly different goals. Similarly, many engineers and most holding the job title “producer” have musical skills if not formal musical training, but still self-identify their expertise as “engineer” or “producer”.

Given the age of the practice of sound recording, one might assume that a strong music production COP would be growing only stronger. However, individual experts, rather than conforming, commonly develop very personalized modes of working, often in their own private production environments. The popular press is filled with interviews highlighting the unique practices of commercially successful practitioners. Non-experts have access to information about numerous methods, techniques and technologies via published interviews, Web-based resources, etc. There is no longer a strong, centralized industry pushing standards, or a set of common practices. New technologies are deployed rapidly and frequently, challenging standardization. And maybe too, popular tastes drive creators and consumers forward on a quest for artistic innovation.

Growth in expertise, decentralization and greater autonomy, all contribute to wider—fuzzier—trading zones, where individual participants may trade many types of work products or types of expertise. There is overall greater technical, artistic, social and professional complexity in projects, many more and varied epistemic and validating perspectives applied to work, and more and more different goals and values that have to be met. As a result, cooperating participants, even with their broadening knowledge bases and expertise, share less and less information about a specific production context, shared resources and the artifact being produced. With fractured perspectives, with little common understanding of the artifact shared among collaborators, and different methods and epistemologies, the producer’s role remains crucial. As physical walls and conceptual barriers disappear, cultivating more exchange, communication and movement more quickly, the producer’s expertise appears to be getting more not less important for facilitating both specialized work as well as interaction.


Music production involves a coordinated collaboration among specialized experts, creating heterogeneous work products while sharing resources. The producer plays a central role in coordinating the sharing of resources and communicating information to facilitate meaningful contributions by experts. In this function, the producer’s expertise may be likened to a boundary object (Star and Griesemer:1989).

Boundary objects meet the individual informational requirements of different experts, enabling each to pursue their specialized work without consensus of their collaborators. They are characterized by interpretive flexibly, but at the same time, coherently structure the provisioning of information among experts. As a result, specialized work products produced by using them, though they are heterogeneous, contribute to a common identity, just like performances in a music production. Through the framework of boundary objects, coordination in music production might be understood as arising from the producer’s expertise, the structure the producer provides for communication and the information conveyed to experts for their specialized work and contributions to the production process.


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