Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP
by Susan Schmidt Horning
The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2013
320 pp., illus. 16 b/w. Trade, $45.00
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
Beyond the spectacle of seeing a live musical performance, it is the sound that makes the biggest impression. My mother remembered with fondness the different sounds from the big bands she heard in Cleveland, Ohio, during the 1940s. I am always amazed with how The Beatles were able to maintain such tight harmonies in large venues where, with the absence of stage monitors, they could not hear each other.
In each case, there was a distinctive sound sought by the performers, and they worked hard to deliver that sound in live performances. As recording opportunities and technologies evolved, musicians and engineers worked together to capture particular sounds, real or imagined, as recordings that could be replayed again and again, on demand.
Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP, a new book by history professor Susan Schmidt Horning, charts these efforts, along with the parallel cultural and technological evolution of recording studios in the United States from the first practical devices to the multi-track studios of the analog era.
The recording studio, she argues, was the center of musical culture in the twentieth century, and recording engineers, producers, and musicians influenced technological and musical change as they sought to improve the sound of their recordings. At first, the emphasis was simply capturing the sound, and Schmidt provides lively accounts of early recording sessions in small rooms where musicians crowded around a single funnel which directed their sound(s) to the recording equipment, often in another room. Relative sound volumes were achieved by musicians moving toward or away from the input funnel.
The advent of microphone allowed isolation of different performers and their instruments, and more exacting volume control. Solo performances could sound more dramatic, even more realistic than a live performance. Other technological advances in recording equipment and studios meant that recordings could represent sound(s) beyond the capabilities of live performance. And thus, musicians and recording engineers began chasing sounds they heard in their heads and hoped to capture in various recording media.
Schmidt traces the evolution of recording technologies and recording studios from the 1890s to the 1960s, from early beginnings to the rock music era, along with the growing professionalization of recording engineers, to document a trend toward recording studio creations that extended beyond live performance and ultimately reversed the historical relationship between live and recorded sound.
In addition to her own research, Schmidt incorporates interviews with recording engineers, technical journals, popular accounts, and sound recordings in her engaging narrative. By investigating the complex relationship between sound engineering and popular music, she reveals the increasing reliance on technological intervention in the production and reception of recorded music during the twentieth century. Technology, says Schmidt, “became intrinsic to a particular art form,” and, in turn, “objectives and expressions within that art form changed and influenced the development of the technology and the way it was used to shape the sounds of records” (217).
For musicians and recording engineers, “chasing sound” meant solving problems posed by technical limitations, as well as exploring new realms of sound that seemed limitless. The sounds we hear on records are the result of creative collaboration between artists and engineers.
As a narrative of this collaboration, Chasing Sound is both engaging and scholarly, a rich account of recording studio technology and musical culture. It is a valuable contribution to sound studies scholarship, music history, or music technology.