Technology has always existed within music in the sense that all instruments are themselves technology. It was during the 19th century that music technology accelerated rapidly culminating in the emergence of recorded music, the music studio itself dates back to this period. Studios and modern engineering became a major influence on the way music is created during the 1960s when musicians’ and producers began to use the technology that was available to them in a creative manner. It was also during this period that musicians’ became not only consumers of musical instruments, but also became consumers of engineering technology. Whilst recordings up until the 1960s were made to be the best representation possible of a live performance, they were now often unplayable in the traditional live sense, becoming more and more like an experiment in sound. Over time the rise of home computer technology has led to the decline of the traditional recording studio, allowing most modern electronic music to be made at home with nothing more than a laptop.
The rise in studio technology allowed, often, one person to enter a studio, learn how to use various pieces of technology and leave with a finished piece of music. It was not only the technology used to produce the music that changed, but also the method of recording. As Théberge argued “Recent innovations in musical technology thus pose two kinds of problems for musicians: On the one hand, they alter the structure of musical practice and concepts of what music is and can be; and, on the other, they place musicians and musical practice in a new relationship with consumer practices and with consumer society as a whole.” (Théberge 1997: 3).
This of course has led to many positives and negatives. On the positive side it created a democratization of music, allowing anyone to have the ability to create music, and of course, the negative of this has been an overwhelming mass of substandard and formulaic music being released. Increasingly over time, the technology used has started to dictate the sound and style of music.
The first electronic music technologies were all about amplification, microphones were invented to allow music to be heard in large halls, the electric guitar for the same reason, technology later took the role of the creator. No longer would a musician looking to create a new sound be required to learn a new instrument, they would now master a new piece of technology, effectively the technology becoming the instrument. “Technological innovation is, in this sense, not only a response to musicians’ needs but also a driving force with which musicians must content.” (Théberge 1997: 4).
Many technologies used in music were invented or had huge developments made on them during the war. Radio, compressors and EQ were all made for the purpose of improving communication during the war. After the war however, these technologies found themselves produced for the consumer market, re-appropriated by musicians and used in more creative ways. As Chanan stated, “Economically this is a tale of repeated expansion, recession and regeneration, and the transformation of the music business and it’s markets through the development of novel forms of consumption.” (Chanan 1995: 8).
Arguably the most important development made on recording during wartime was the development of the magnetic tape. “In the United States during the Second World War, the Navy and the Air Corps funded the development and production of a magnetic wire recorder… recorders like these were used to play battle sounds, amplified by thousands of watts, at locations where the invasion was not taking place in order to mislead the Germans.” (Chanan 1995: 97).
The magnetic tape was quickly taken on board by studios, record companies and musicians alike. Studios and record companies both enjoyed the ability to re-record over tape as a way of cutting costs. Producers and artists believed the fidelity of the audio was richer than phonograph recordings, thus preferring it in a creative sense. Tape was also a great step forward creatively, due largely in the ability to cut and splice together tape. Thus allowing various takes to be joined together, creating one flawless take. Previous to this performances were captured in one take and the music therefore had to be playable in a traditional live performance, “the accent was on the performance and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that… until tape became the medium by which people were recording things” (Eno in Cox & Warner 2004: 128).
The Beatles and producer George Martin were one of the pioneering acts in the sixties to use the technology available to them in a creative manner, producing music that was to be played at home, rather than a live setting. The creativity this allowed them had a huge impact, no longer were they constrained by what they could perform live, now they could make an album with full creative freedom, exploring sounds and textures without the need to conform to previous musical expectations. During the recording of ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, McCartney would comment, “we’ll be able to lose our identities in this” (Miles 1997: 303).
The manipulation of tape allowed for certain things to happen by chance. Whilst recording “Strawberry Fields Forever”, repeated takes were recorded with the band unable to find one full take they were pleased with. John Lennon, pleased with the begging of one take and the ending of another, asked producer George Martin to join the two, creating one perfect take. Due to imperfect nature of human performance, the two takes were at slightly different speeds, when the speeds were matched this created a slight shift in pitch. “Although the splice is nearly undetectable, the slightly altered speed of Lennon’s voice helps give the song it’s dreamlike quality.” (Katz 2010: 47) This could be argued to be a creative use of Adorno’s atomized listening where, “the meaning shifts from the totality to the individual moments” (Witkin 2004: 127).
Steve Reich was another composer of the sixties to experiment with tape loops. Famously on his work “It’s Gonna Rain”.
“It’s a loop of a preacher saying “It’s gonna rain”. Identical copies of the loop are being played on two machines at once. Because of the inconsistency of the speed of the machines they gradually slip out of sync with one another. They start to sound like an echo. Then they sound like a cannon, and gradually they start to sound like all sorts of things.” (Eno, 1996)
The effect produced was named by Reich as phase shifting, it was “realizations of an idea that was indigenous to machine.” (Giddings in Katz 2010: 35). This notion of the machine making the music would later be developed by Eno himself, in what he name ‘Generative Music’. This was a form of music based “on the idea that it’s possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you… that would produce far more than I had predicted.” (Eno, 1996)
Looping was not the only creative benefit to arise from the use of tape, arguable the biggest benefit came in the form of multi-tracking. “Multitrack technology allowed for the sound of individual instruments to be recorded separately from one another in a process known as “overdubbing.” (Théberge 1997: 215)
Overdubbing allowed one person to create an entire track in the studio alone. It already existed as a technique, but it was only “in the era of magnetic tape, did the technique come to be called overdubbing” (Katz 2010: 110). A famous example of this would be Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Whilst the rest of the group was away on tour, he would, alone, enter the studio and create the albums, one track at a time. This led to a complete separation between the performance and the writing, as Chanan would argue, “the essential activity of the musician, the performance of music, becomes more and more fragmented” (Chanan 1995: 144).
This is turn, led to a more important role for producers and engineers. As more creation was happening in the studio, the role of the individuals started to become less clear. “As musicians, engineers and producers became more involved in different facets of the recording process, two things happened” authorship became diffused and uncertainty in the relations of production led to power struggles for aesthetic control of the finished product” (Channan 1995: 144-145).
Multi-tracking was also largely aided by the development of stereo sound. This led to more fragmentation in music. Not only was there a separation of human beings whilst the recordings were made, but now there was a separation in the actual music itself. One instrument could be pushed to one side of the mix, and another to the opposite. Not only were they recorded separately, but now, in a sense, they were heard separately. This use of the stereo field, often again gave the producer power as, “the overall musical texture was increasingly given to the sound engineer and producer” (Théberge 1989).
Artistically, this not only changed the way music was recorded but it also changed the way in which it was composed. “Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if your not actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities… actually constructing a piece in the studio” (Eno in Cox & Warner 2004: 129). This was a radical shift from the days of long rehearsals to perfect a piece. The approach of creating the music in the studio is largely how most people make their music today.
Throughout the seventies, the studio also had a large impact on the birth of new genres of music. New studio techniques directly influenced the sonic signature of songs, allowing for new genres to be born. Dub music was born in the studio with producers such as King Tubby remixing reggae records by the use of intense audio manipulation. King Tubby, born Osbourne Ruddock, was actually a repairman. It was this knowledge of electronics which set him out from the rest of his peers, “he became a master of audio mechanics, spending hours rewinding transformers and building tube amplifiers that were bigger, louder and cleaner than anything ever heard on the island” (Stratton, 2005). His use of delays and reverbs became the center point of the music. Often what you were hearing was no longer an instrument being played, now it was a mechanical echo of that sound that had been produced, postproduction through experimentation.
“Never proficient on instruments himself, he was a postproduction composer. After the musicians and singers would lay down the basic tracks, he would turn sound-sculptor. A vocal line might pop in for two or three measures, never to appear again. The underpinning bass grid often, without warning, dropped out entirely. A guitar would chop out a few strums, then evaporate. The vacuum left behind gave the music its magical appeal. This fourth dimension was fortified by a mind-warping sense of echo and reverb.” (Stratton, 2005).
This ‘post-production’ approach to music was further enhanced by the rise of the home studio and sampling. As technology became cheaper, it became easier and more cost effective for the artists to have technology in their own homes, rather than in the studio. Interestingly, many electronic music makers were now regard themselves as producers rather than musicians. “The home studio has become the site of significant musical activity at every level, from professional to amateur music-making, and the focal point of the consumer market for electronic musical instrument suppliers” (Théberge 1997: 215).
As home studios made music available to everybody, the art of sampling became more common practice, as many of the ‘home producers’ had little or no musical skill themselves. This led to the use of other peoples music, re-appropriated and used in new songs, in place of original musicianship. Depending on who you ask this can be a good, or bad thing. At it’s worst, it is just stealing somebody else’s idea, at best it can be a new an exciting way or manipulating sound. When a section of music is taken from one song and placed in another, “something of the original sound is maintained, yet it’s meaning changes in every new setting…sampling is most fundamentally an art of transformation. A sample changes the moment it is relocated. Any sound, placed into a new musical context will take on some of the character of it’s new sonic environment”. (Katz 2010: 146).
More and more, over time, these new ‘sonic environments’ Katz mentions are digital. As technology has developed the home studio has been reduced to a laptop. With technology now so powerful, everything you once had in a studio, is now found in software readily available on the internet for free. This adds to the democratization of music, as just about anyone can have access to everything they would need to create music.
Of course a drawback of this can be that completely unskilled people are now making music. Ironically many people boast about there lack of skill or training and use it as an almost badge of pride. “In the early days at least, these ‘garage bands’ could dispense with musical pretensions and substitute, in the traditional romantic terminology, ‘passion’ for ‘technique’, the language of the common man for the arcane posturing of the existing élite” (Hebdige in Homer 2009: 86).
Although this could be looked upon as a positive thing, it has often led to music becoming boring and predictable (of course it could be argued music has been predictable in some sense since the tin pan alley days). Due to the limitations of many of todays producers, technology has changed in order to mask peoples inabilities. Two examples of this is are quantizing and pitch correction. “With rhythm quantization, for example, a performance with an unsteady tempo becomes metronomically precise as all notes are forced tot he closest beat. Pitch correction follows a similar principal, pushing pitches up or down to the nearest specified level” (Katz 2010: 50).
These studio correction tools often lead to music becoming ‘de-humanized’. Drum rhythms are metronomically on beat and lack the swing that comes from natural human imperfection. The recordings almost become too good, sounding like they have been made by a robot rather than a human. This has led to the recent rise in interest of vintage studio equipment. Many modern artists are trying to make music ‘outside of the box’, in a bid to make their music sound more authentic, more ‘live’.
The impact of the studio on the way music is not only recorded, is down to the impact the studio has on the musicians who use them. Musicians are now often musical collage artists, piecing together sounds sourced from varying places. It is the judgement they use that often dictates how good a song is. It is no longer simply down to musicianship and songwriting, it is now often down to the ability to use and understand technology in a creative and interesting manner.
Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes. A Short History of Recording and It’s Effects on Music. Verso, 1995.
Cox, Christopher and Daniel Warner. Audio Culture: Recordings in Modern Music. Continuum, 2004.
Eno, Brian . (1996). Generative Music. Available: http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/eno1.html. Last accessed 10th Dec 2013.
Homer, Matthew. Beyond the Studio: The Impact of Home Recording Technologies on Music Creation and Consumption. Nebula Press, 2009.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound. How Technology Has Changed Music. University of California Press. 2010
Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now. Henry Holt. 1997.
Stratton, Jeff. (2005). Dub from the Roots: Looking for Leslie Ruddock, brother to King Tubby and the unsung hero of dub. Available: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2005-03-03/music/dub-from-the-roots/. Last accessed 12th Dec 2013.
Théberge, Paul. 1989. The Sound of Music: Technology Rationalization and Musical Practice. New Formations 8, summer 99-111.
Théberge, Paul. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press. 1997.
Witkin, Robert W. Adorno on Popular Culture. Routledge, 2004.