- Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP by Susan Schmidt Horning
By Susan Schmidt Horning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. xii+292. $45.
This fine contribution to recording studies focuses on U.S.-based engineers and studio personnel from mechanical recording in the 1890s to the heyday of multitrack tape in the 1970s. The story is familiar: during this period studios transformed from spaces for documenting performances into central sites of musical creativity, a development which entailed the growth of and increasing specialization within the record industry and the products of which irrevocably transformed recreational listening and live music making. But while Susan Schmidt Horning’s main argument confirms what we know about music recording and its business, the book’s strengths lie in its treatment of the under-appreciated audio engineer, its fascinating details, and the accessibility of its narration.
Horning tracks the development of audio engineering, investigating a discipline named only shortly before 1947 (p. 71) but which dates to the invention of sound recording. She examines early acoustical recording (chap. 1); the rise of electrification (chap. 2); audio engineering as an emergent profession (chap. 3); the high-fidelity recording studio during and after World War II (chap. 4); the new postwar technologies of magnetic tape, the vinyl record and LP, sensitive microphones like the Neumann U47, modern recording consoles, and stereo recording, as well as contemporary studio work cultures (chap. 5); recording practices and independent studios during the rock era (chap. 6); and recording, mixing, and mastering processes instigated by multitrack tape (chap. 7).
A conclusion treats studio recording’s consolidation in the 1970s, encompassing the apparently diametrical opposites of disco and punk (pp. 219–20). Horning demonstrates that the job of the “recorder” or “recordist” (p. 15) in the mechanical era involved great skill and active interventions in the studio, and underscores the longstanding “disparity between the [typically male] recordist’s relatively low position in the recording hierarchy and the high level of dependence on his ability to work his ‘magic’ in the studio” (p. 16).
Much of that ability comes from “tacit knowledge,” or the “unarticulated, [End Page 763] implicit knowledge gained from experience” and involves a “blend of technical expertise and creativity” (p. 126). Horning relies heavily on interviewing audio engineers and producers, perhaps enabling them to make explicit what was previously implicit. She has conversed with over seventy engineers, producers, recording personnel, and recording-savvy musicians, including George Avakian, Dick Dale, Tom Dowd, Mitch Miller, Les Paul, and Phil Ramone, and has compiled an enviable archive that I hope will be published in some form.
In addition to technical expertise and creativity, the engineer had to manage musicians, necessitating strong social skills. Beyond these basic job requirements, differences abounded in individual workplaces and historical periods. In state-of-the-art studios run by major labels in the postwar era, engineers worked within (and followed the social and dress codes of) corporate bureaucracies, heeded or circumvented American Federation of Musicians regulations, and were increasingly positioned within a complex division of labor (microphoning, tape operation, arranging, producing, mixing, mastering, duplication). In independent studios, in contrast, engineers were frequently also entrepreneurs or supervisory employees of them, within operations hiring only a handful of people. From the late 1960s on, the looseness and relative obscurity of these workplaces would be favored by rock musicians, who sought to escape fans, consume recreational drugs, and spend months in studios to increase artistic control over ambitious recording projects.
Chasing Sound admirably de-centers the geographical biases of recording histories, which prioritize labels and studios in New York, Los Angeles, and, less frequently, Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, the Quad Cities (Alabama), New Orleans, and Nashville. Although Horning’s introduction invokes the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (1966, various L.A. studios) to illustrate the recording studio becoming a “creative workshop” (p. 2), she also presents histories of three independent recording studios in Cleveland, comparing them with the independent Bell Sound Studios in New York. One of these studios, Boddie Recording, was owned and...