SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP
The recently published Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Johns Hopkins Press, 2013) is historian Susan Schmidt Horning’s first book. Veering away from the usual sound recording suspects (like the phonograph), Chasing Sound shows the studio and the audio engineer as central to the cultural and technological changes associated with the production and reproduction of sound.
According to Schmidt Horning, such changes were reflected in the shifting ideal of recorded music as a representation of live performance to the ideal of recorded music as a studio-engineered creation. Using the accounts of those responsible for recording sound, Schmidt Horning constructs a rich narrative that manages to be accessible while still focused on the highly technical work required of studio workers. That said, by focusing so heavily on user practices and anecdotes she misses an opportunity to engage with the theoretical implications of the ways audio engineers imagine and describe the actual space in which they work. Still, I contend that Chasing Sound represents an indispensable and critical approach for historians of sound, one that is unafraid of reconfiguring the central players in a narrative as big as the history of recorded music.
As a contribution to sound studies, Chasing Sound follows in the footsteps of Trevor Pinch’s Analog Days, the first work to explicitly apply Science and Technology Studies (STS) approaches to the history of a musical instrument. For Pinch, a critical understanding of sound requires examining the ways in which society and technology produce historical sites of change and stabilization. This approach focuses on understanding the ways people engage with technologies of sound, in order to interrogate their cultural and historical meanings. A historian of science and technology by training, Schmidt Horning has thus devoted much of her academic career to writing about the production and reproduction of sound through the practices and tacit knowledge of engineers, producers, musicians and technicians at music studios. By following the breadcrumbs dropped by these actors, Chasing Sound reveals the rich history of commercial studios and the cultural ideals cultivated therein.
Methodologically, the author draws on a mixed bag of sources, which include oral histories from early recordists, interviews with more contemporary audio engineers, her own ethnomethodogical studio research, trade literature, and archival documents from big studios like EMI. The book proceeds in chronological order, with each chapter laying out changes in the physical and acoustic qualities of commercial studios as they shifted from bare-walled rooms with “the recording horn jutting through a wall at the far end of the room” (9) to multi-track studios complete with “Mission furniture, [and] hand-laid distressed wood floors.” (209) The author plots these changes alongside improvements in the science of acoustics, the importation of techniques and tools from the more well developed medium of radio broadcasting, the consolidation and growth of the recording industry, the rise of independent labels, the emergence of new attitudes and musical tastes, and the professionalization of audio engineering.
Chasing Sound, unlike many other books on the topic, places the studio in relation to a set of changing cultural expectations regarding recorded music. Where recordings were once understood as a reflection of live performance, they later were seen as a signature creation of music studios. Rather than focusing on the phonograph, gramophone, microphone, or magnetic tape, the author argues that the recording studio belongs at the center of recorded music because it was there that the ideal of music as a “technologically mediated art” was first engineered into cultural listening norms. Consequently the audio engineer, or recordist as he (or in rare cases, she) was known prior to the 1930s, must also be understood as central to narratives regarding recorded sound from its inception. In this way, Schmidt Horning aims to recontextualize and centralize the studio and its inhabitants within histories of the production and reproduction of sound.
Because the audio engineer represents an inextricable part of this history, each chapter devotes time to the technologies and practices cultivated by the amateur recordists and trusted professionals responsible for recording sound. Initially such practices formed the basis of their tacit knowledge regarding the proper “staging” of artists in relation to acoustic recording horns among other techniques, but by the 1950s, sound engineers were responsible not just for positioning artists, microphones, and the increasingly important work of “enhancing” recordings during post-production. The book concludes by charting the unfettered rise of independent studios as well as the consequent proliferation of (and backlash to) new sound manipulation technologies in the 1970s.
Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige.
Schmidt Horning’s methodology represents Chasing Sound’s strongest quality. The rich narratives of the audio engineers allow the author to directly connect their technologically and culturally informed ideas about what constitutes good sound to the desires and expectations of listeners. In addition to this work, Schmidt Horning also highlights the ways in which advances in engineering technology did not necessarily overlap neatly with cultural norms. Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige. Such examples reveal the tightly knit relationship between ideas of liveness, talent, creativity, and authenticity. Chasing Sound is full of stories that detail the complex material, artistic, and ethical constraints around which recordists and engineers navigated in order to achieve the perfect sound.
The author’s methodological approach certainly helps to structure the narrative, but there are also ways in which it prevents her from digging in to important theoretical discourses regarding the studio. As Eliot Bates notes in his article, “What Studios Do,” the way audio engineers conceive of their workspaces is crucial for making sense of the power relations and social interactions that govern and are governed by studio spaces. Chasing Sound does not pursue these discourses. The author briefly mentions how the metaphor of flight is often used by sound engineers regarding the increasingly complex console controls of the 1950s and 60s but does not provide further elaboration on the implications of such a comparison. Even if the participants in her study did not reflect on their colloquial notes about the studio space, it would have been interesting to see Schmidt Horning consider what these metaphors reveal about the changing roles of the engineer.
These points aside, Chasing Sound is an important read both for those with a general interest in the history of sound production and reproduction as well as those scholars more specifically invested in understanding the role of recorded sound in society. Since I discussed the book’s limitations in “Making Music in Studio X,” Chasing Sound has become a foundational text in much of my research. Specifically, the author’s claim that the studio is (and has been) a critical site for examining broader industrial, technological, and cultural changes resonates deeply with me because it offers a critical methodology for considering issues of identity and power within studio spaces that are often neglected. In this regard, Chasing Sound is important not just for what it discusses, but also for what it does not. Noting the lack of female and black audio engineers discussed throughout the book, the author laments, “For the first century of sound recording, the field of audio engineering and recording studios in particular comprised a profoundly white male-centered culture that reflected corporate culture at large and technical professions in particular.” (9) The absence of these faces serves to remind us that while successfully “chasing sound” certainly relies on the cultivation of craft skill, and tacit knowledge, it also depends heavily on access.
Chasing Sound stands out as the most exhaustive history of audio engineering available. Schmidt Horning’s user-focused narrative successfully ties together changes in studio configurations and audio engineering practices with cultural expectations regarding recorded music. This helps to show how the studio and audio engineer can easily be recognized as central figures in the history of sound reproduction. Chasing Sound’s intervention is necessary as the history of recording is often told through artifacts like the phonograph, microphone, and magnetic tape, not living spaces like the studio and its inhabitants. Schmidt Horning’s dedication to telling these neglected stories is what makes the book come to life. Her research promises to open up new avenues for others interested in these issues. For me, this means pursuing lines of inquiry related to the growing philanthropic interest in the recording studio as a site for engaging and “assisting” low-income communities. In this way Chasing Sound asks us to recognize the recording studio as a critical site for the production and reproduction of our assumptions about what counts as appropriate, good, or real in music and people.
Featured Image: My Recording Studio by Flickr User Fabio Dellutri
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games. In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).
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Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo
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Editor’s Note: Welcome to the third installment in our month-long exploration of listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18, 2012. For the full introduction to the series click here. To peep the previous posts, click here. Otherwise, prepare yourself to listen carefully as Mack Hagood contemplates how sound studies scholars can help tinnitus sufferers (and vice versa). –JSA
One January morning in 2006, Joel Styzens woke up and life sounded different. Superimposed over the quiet ambience of his Chicago apartment was a cluster of sounds: pure, high-pitched tones like those of a hearing test. Loud, steady, and constant, they weren’t going away. He walked to the bathroom to wash his face. “As soon as I turned on the water on the faucet,” he told me in an interview, “the left ear was crackling… like, a speaker, you know, being overdriven.” Joel was 24 and a professional musician, someone who made his living through focused and detailed listening.
As days passed, he grew more fearful and depressed. For two months, he barely left the house. The air brakes of a city bus or a honking horn were painful and caused his heart to race. His sense of himself, his environment, and his identity as a musician were all undermined. This man who lived through his ears now faced the prospect of a life of tinnitus (ringing or other “phantom sounds”) and its frequent companion, hyperacusis (sound sensitivity sometimes accompanied by distortion). Joel could even identify the dominant pitch of his torment: it was A sharp.
We humanistic and qualitative sound scholars—particularly those of us focused on media and technology—can learn a lot from listening to tinnitus and the people who have it. Scholars of science and technology studies (STS) often utilize moments of technological breakdown to reveal the processes and mechanisms that constitute things we take for granted. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are, in the words of anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, “moments when hearing and listening break down” (629). Because sound scholars understand sound, hearing, and listening not only as the material effects of physics and physiology, but also as culturally and technologically emergent phenomena, we can potentially contribute much to the growing public conversation around tinnitus.
And there is a lot at stake. Tinnitus affects 10-15% of adults and is the top service-related disability affecting U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are also fairly common among musicians who work in loud performance and media production environments. It is perhaps ironic, then, that mediated sound and music are audiologists’ primary tools in helping people recover from these conditions.
My own study of tinnitus centers on its articulation with audio-spatial media—devices such as bedside sound machines, white noise generators, and noise-canceling headphones, all used to fabricate a desired sense of space through sound. People with tinnitus are among the most avid users of these devices, carefully mediating their aural-spatial relations as tinnitus becomes more evident in quiet spaces and hyperacusis flares up in noisy ones. During my fieldwork in audiology clinics and conferences, tinnitus support groups, and online forums, I observed that audio media were being deployed as medicine and technologies of self-care. Gradually, I came to the realization that the experience, discourse, and treatment of tinnitus is always bound up in mediation. In fact, I believe that tinnitus signals the highly mediated nature of our most intimate perceptions of sound and self. Below, I sketch just a few of the places I think aural media scholarship could go in conversation with tinnitus and hyperacusis.
The sound of media aftermath
Hearing experts do not consider subjective tinnitus to be a disease, but rather a condition in which individuals experience the normal, random neuronal firing of their auditory system as sound. Although it may be tied to various diseases and disorders, tinnitus itself is benign and does not inherently signal progressive hearing loss nor any other malignant condition.
Nevertheless, research shows a frequent association between tinnitus and reduced auditory input, comparable to a sound engineer turning up the volume on a weak signal and thus amplifying the mixing board’s inherent noise. This “automatic gain control” theory neatly explains a classic 1953 study, in which 94 percent of “normal hearing” people experienced tinnitus in the dead silence of an anechoic chamber. Unfortunately, it also helps confirm the fear that the ringing heard after a night of loud music is due to hearing loss, known clinically as “temporary threshold shift.”
As Joel’s case suggests, when repeated, such threshold shifts lead to permanent damage. Audiologists increasingly see media-induced hearing loss and tinnitus as an epidemic, with ubiquitous earbuds often positioned as the main culprits. I have heard clinicians express dismay at encountering more young people with “old ears” in their offices, and youth education programs are beginning to proliferate. These apparent relations between aural pleasure and self-harm are an intriguing and socially significant area for sound and media scholarship, but they should also be considered within the context of moral panics that have historically accompanied the emergence of new media.
Objectifying phantom sound
For both clinicians and sufferers, one of the most frustrating and confounding aspects of tinnitus is how hard it is to objectify, either as a subject of research and treatment or as a condition worthy of empathy and activism. For both clinicians and sufferers, media are the primary tools for converting tinnitus into a manageable object.
Although media scholars haven’t yet studied it as such, the audiologist’s clinic is a center of media production and consumer electronics retail. Having audio production experience, I felt a sense of recognition on seeing the mixer-like audiometer in the control room of Joel’s audiologist, Jill Meltzer, separated by a pane of glass from the soundproofed booth where her patients sit. It was a studio where Meltzer recorded hearing rather than sound, as she attempted the tricky work of matching the pitch, volume, and sensitivity levels of tinnitus and hyperacusis. Since medication and surgery are not effective treatment options, the remedies for sale are media prosthetics and palliatives such as wearable sound generators, “fractal tone” hearing aids, Neuromonics, and sound machines that help distract, calm, and habituate patients to the ringing. Meltzer and other clinicians consistently told me that they have only two tinnitus tools at their disposal—counseling and sound.
The subjectivity of tinnitus is most frustrating for sufferers, however, who often encounter impatience and misunderstanding from family, friends, bosses, and even their doctors. Again, media serve to externalize and objectify the sound. Joel did this through music: “A Sharp,” Styzens’ first post-tinnitus composition, represents tinnitus with chordal dissonance and hyperacusis with a powerful change of dynamics on a guitar. He eventually recorded an entire album that explored his condition and raised awareness.
Other individuals, in an attempt to communicate the aural experience that drives their sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, or lack of concentration, create YouTube videos designed to recreate the subjective experience of tinnitus.
The American Tinnitus Association, an advocacy group, has used broadcast and social media to raise awareness and research funding, as we see in this PSA from 1985.
However, such dramatic uses of media may be in some ways too powerful. In fact, “raising awareness of tinnitus” might be as bad as it literally sounds.
In the process of externalizing their experience for others to hear, people with tinnitus can make their own perception of the sound grow stronger. They may also generate anxiety in others, encouraging them to notice and problematize their own, previously benign tinnitus.
Neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff’s groundbreaking and influential neurophysiological model of tinnitus postulates that tinnitus becomes bothersome only when the auditory cortex forms networks with other areas in the brain, resulting in a vicious circle of increasing perception and fear. The implication of this model, now substantiated by clinical research, is that the way people think about tinnitus is a much greater predictor of suffering than the perceived volume of the sound. As Jastreboff told me in an interview, “Incorrect information can induce bothersome tinnitus.” Information, of course, circulates through media. It may be productive, then, to think of tinnitus suffering as a communicable dis-ease, one strengthened in circulation through networks of neurons, discourse, and media.
I think there is both a need and an opportunity in tinnitus for an applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality. Listening to tinnitus as a networked coproduction highlights the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated—perhaps the fundamental insight of sound studies. My hope is that by listening to tinnitus we can speak to it as well.
*Featured Image Credit: A representation of Tinnitus by Flickr User Jason Rogers, called “Day 642/365–Myself is against me”