The Art of Record Production: An Introductory Reader for a New Academic Field
Macquarie University (Australia)
The Art of Record Production is a collection of essays offering significant theoretical contributions and frameworks for “a new academic field”. The book shares its title with the journal and association of the same name, where some of its chapters were originally published. Its three parts—historical approaches, theoretical approaches and case studies—outline the broad and multidisciplinary studies being undertaken within the field, and provide theoretical and methodological concepts that are relevant to both students and academics. In the opening chapter, Simon Frith and Simon Zagorski-Thomas consider theory, pedagogy and practice in record production, and reflect on the recent progress in record production scholarship, attributing much of it to the Art of Record Production conferences.
Part I: Historical Approaches moves chronologically from the 1950s through to the present. George Brock-Nannestad offers a historical overview of lacquer discs and their role in early home recording. The chapter provides broader context to the debate of analogue versus digital recording techniques, while also highlighting the fast pace at which recording technology has advanced since the 1950s. Susan Schmidt Horning’s chapter, “The Sounds of Space”, looks at the development of acoustic treatment in studios since the 1950s, including the trend from dead (or non-reflective) sounding rooms to more live sounding rooms. She considers the importance of acoustics in record production and the implications of multi-track recording on ideas of space. Zagorski-Thomas’ chapter, “The US vs the UK Sound: Meaning in Music Production in the 1970s”, offers a comparison between production aesthetics in the US and the UK. The chapter, which I found one of the most insightful of the book, offers a theoretical analysis of what Zagorski-Thomas presents as an established industry perception of practices over the period. The chapter is a reminder of while recording technology is largely transnational, there are significant cultural differences which inform local practices. Referring to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of creativity, he argues that cultural domains and social fields in the UK and US have influenced record production techniques. Paul Théberge, author of the seminal text Any Sound You Can Imagine (1997), follows on from his “Network Studio” article (2004) by examining the influences of the Internet on studios and highlighting the demise of large studio facilities.
Building on his previous work on musicological analysis, Allan Moore begins Part II: Theoretical Approaches by searching for a framework for the musicological analysis of recordings and record production. Alan Williams contributes “‘I’m Not Hearing What You’re Hearing’: The Conflict and Connection of Headphone Mixes and Multiple Audioscapes”, an ethnographic study which outlines the practical issues relating to audioscapes in the studio, for instance, the difference in sound between a musician’s instrument in the live room and what they hear in their headphones. He also examines the advantages of personal headphone monitoring. Michael Jarrett’s chapter, “The Self-Effacing Producer”, is mainly a transcript of interviews he conducted with producers on their working practice, and while insightful, the chapter seems out of place in Part II, lacking the theoretical focus of other chapters. Phillip McIntyre’s chapter, “Rethinking Creativity”, again brings Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of creativity to record production, providing a systematic model for understanding it through Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of domain, field and agent. He conceptualizes the theory of creativity, which can be quite complex for those outside the field of psychology, through the inclusion of a series of popular musicians and bands.
Part III: Case Studies begins with Andrew Blake’s analysis of Suvi Raj Grubb’s stereo recordings of classical recordings, serving as the book’s first consideration of classical record production. Frith considers the ideology of the producer in the context of rock, which, like much popular music, is consumed by audiences as recordings. He examines how the prominence of the producer in rock, while increasing, is still largely ignored by critics. In “The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Musicology of Record Production”, Jan Butler continues a common theme present throughout the book of the recording as an object of analysis. She considers this through the context of the work of Brian Wilson, a pioneer in the confluence of recording practices and composition in popular music. In contrast to a lot of musicological analysis, Butler contemplates the sociological factors of the album Smile, which has only been widely recognized many years later. While the culture of practice is considered in the book, a broader examination of the culture among audiences surrounding recordings is not. The final chapter, “Recording the Revolution: 50 Years of Music Studios in Revolutionary Cuba”, by Jan Fairley and Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, offers a contrasting non-Western perspective on recording practice, providing cultural considerations for recording practices in recording studios in Cuba.
The Art of Record Production journal and association promotes a hybrid mix of theorists and practitioners. This mix is reflected in the book, where short—at times perhaps too short—commentary from industry practitioners is featured as an interlude to the three main sections. Where the contributors are guided by Zagorski-Thomas’ questions, they provide some interesting insights, but where brief criticisms are made of concepts in the main chapters, it becomes awkward, particularly given it is an academic work. Mike Howlett’s contribution originally appeared in issue 6 of the journal, but is here reduced to a two-page extract in the second interlude. The extract fails to properly present his ideas by omitting the scholarly context of his study. His wider argument is destabilized by missing the body of his paper, and leaves it somewhat less convincing than his original work. In an academic field which is largely practice-based, it seems that dialogue between scholars and practitioners is important. However, a recent lecture I gave to record production masters students reminded me that the hybridity of practitioners and theorists can prove problematic. While I was presenting an introduction to scholarly thinking in record production, a professional with much skepticism of a particular scholar’s theory on multi-tracking interjected: “oh, well that person obviously hasn’t done much recording”. A similar tone is at times evident in this book.
The book takes a significant step forward in establishing theoretical frameworks and also presents a roadmap for further research. In a book which merges both theory and practice, and is presented as being intended for students, greater focus on contemporary digital audio workstations (DAWs) seems appropriate. Debate on preferred DAWs is frequent among practitioners, while students learning about audio production will, no doubt, spend much of their time interfacing with one or a number of DAWs. Furthermore, despite being situated in a field which deals with constantly changing and emerging technology, this book does not clearly outline when each chapter was originally written. Recording technologies and discourses can quickly date, and providing the reader with information on the time of the work gives much needed context. Overall, this book is enjoyable and informative. Those who are moderately familiar with literature on the topic will have already read much of the content. I, however, discovered some new and interesting material.
Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
———. 2004. “The Network Studio: Historical and Technological Paths to a New Ideal in Music Making”. Social Studies of Science 34(5): 759–81.