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Q&A

When technology became a musical instrument

Susan Schmidt Horning uncovers the importance of the studio sound

Singer and producer Brian Wilson of the The Beach Boys worked the sound board in a studio in circa 1975.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Singer and producer Brian Wilson of the The Beach Boys worked the sound board in a studio in circa 1975.

In 1968, when she was 16 years old, Susan Schmidt Horning found herself in a recording studio to lay down tracks with her all-female garage-rock band, the Poor Girls. It was in Cleveland, the studio was industrial and a little imposing, and Horning was transfixed.

“I remember being taken by the fact that this engineer guy who was very strait-laced—pocket protector, tie, white shirt—could just hear things and had this artistic sensibility,” says Horning.

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For most musicians it might have been a passing curiosity. For Horning it became an obsession, leading to a graduate dissertation and the 18-year labor of love that is her new book: “Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording From Edison to the LP.”

Horning, an assistant professor of history at St. John’s University in New York, is part of a community of academics devoted to a burgeoning field of research called sound studies. Her book, in meticulous detail, sketches the evolution of recording, beginning with early devices for capturing acoustic sound and stopping just before the dominance of digital technology.

“There has been growing interest for some time now in what goes on behind the curtain, from VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’ to various documentaries about session musicians,” Horning wrote in an e-mail. At the heart of her work is the notion that we often don’t realize the role that technology has played in that story. She chronicles the advent of techniques such as overdubbing and multitracking and writes about the pivotal shift, starting in the 1930s, in the way musicians used the studio: Suddenly it was no longer just a tool for preserving sound, but rather a new way to create it.

Horning spoke to Ideas from her home in Queens, N.Y. This interview has been edited from two separate conversations.

IDEAS: How does sound engineering shape the way we hear music?

HORNING: In so many ways. One of the things about recording is that it’s a feedback loop between technology and creativity and culture. It’s an interactive process, especially in the studio. If you’ve ever read about the Beatles’ recording sessions, you find there’s so much give and take going on between the performers, engineers, and producers. Everybody is contributing to the final product.

IDEAS: You devote a chapter of your book to the rise of the studio system and how the studio became an instrument in its own right. What do you mean by that?

HORNING: I took that from an article written by some architectural designers who were describing architectural acoustics, the impact of different microphones and recording devices, and how the sound of the room is shaping what ultimately is heard. That’s why they say the studio is in fact the final instrument that’s recorded....The studio itself becomes really important because there’s an ambience that can be conveyed on record.

IDEAS: For you, what constitutes a well-produced recording?

HORNING: It depends on what you’re recording. The technology, engineering, and production should be invisible so that you’re really just hearing the music. When I think about records that were great hits when I was a kid, they’re bad quality, but you remember them, like Link Wray’s “Rumble.”

IDEAS: The notion that technology and production should be invisible is interesting, because so much of modern pop music is all about showcasing them.

HORNING: That really began in the ’80s, when the producer started to become the star. Producers got recognition long before the engineers did. There are so many studios now. Not that the accessibility is a bad thing, but there is a trade-off in terms of level of quality when you have so much of it.

Lynne Scholfield

Susan Schmidt Horning.

IDEAS: You mention Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the book. Who are some other pop musicians who were ahead of their time in terms of technology and innovations in sound?

HORNING: Todd Rundgren immediately comes to mind. He was always at the forefront of using technology. I remember his “A Wizard, a True Star” album [from 1973] because he really put so much sound on that. He said, “You really have to turn it up loud,” because there was so much information on it. And, of course, Joe Meek [the English producer and songwriter responsible for the 1962 space-age hit “Telstar,” by the Tornados]. He was really doing these incredible things with compressors and limiters.

IDEAS: Name an album you think is a marvel because of its engineering or production.

HORNING: I’ll tell you one that an engineer referred me to. It’s not a popular album. It’s called “Suite for Two Bands,” by Les Brown and Vic Schoen. It was two big bands playing in the studio together, and it’s a technological marvel in that all the instruments are so crisp and it captures the excitement of these two bands. That’s really good engineering.

IDEAS: Given your background in rock music, tell us about a pop album that’s notable for its use of technology.

HORNING: I can’t not say [the Beatles’] “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” because it’s truly amazing. “Pet Sounds” is one of the greatest records of all time. The Beach Boys’ “Smile” is another one that’s highly produced, but I’m not as fond of that as I am of “Pet Sounds.” Although it’s been said that it influenced the Beatles, “Pet Sounds” isn’t as highly produced as “Sgt. Pepper.” They’re just great songs.

IDEAS: How has recorded music changed our expectations?

HORNING: One thing about music that has changed, and I’m not sure if it’s for better or worse, is that music is omnipresent. When music was something more special, something more difficult to acquire, your expectation for it made it even more exciting. Now before something is [officially] released, it’s already on the Internet and you’re probably not hearing it in great quality. In terms of expectations of sound, I think people expect to be blasted with it.

IDEAS: In your research for the book, was there ever a sense that advancements in technology had hindered music as an art form, or maybe taken something away from it?

HORNING: One of the criticisms I heard a lot from some producers and engineers is that you can have too many choices. Having so many choices is almost more restricting than having limitations. When you have limitations on what you can do, you have to be much more specific and directed, and I think it can make for a more pure, spontaneous recording. While some multitracked things are just tremendous—“Sgt. Pepper” is one example—when you have so many options, you can spend too much time overthinking it. That’s true for life in general. The amount of information we’re now exposed to makes it more difficult to arrive at conclusions. Sometimes those quick decisions [in a studio] resulted in real beauty.

James Reed, a Globe staff music critic, can be reached at james.reed@globe.com.
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