Book review: Chasing Sound by Susan Schmidt Horning

horning rev comp.indd“Chasing Sound. Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP” is Susan Schmidt Horning’s dissertation published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2013. As the subtitle indicates it is not only a book on the history of recording technology, but of the evolving recording culture from the early beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century until the advent of multitrack recording in the 1960s. In her book, Schmidt Horning highlights the change from capturing live performances by acoustic and electrical recording devices to music production using recording equipment and the recording studio as integral part of the artistic process. The book focuses on those involved in the recording process: engineers, record producers, arrangers, session musicians and performers, songwriters, studio owners and managers and tells the history of sound recording from their perspectives. Therefore, the author conducted in-depths interviews with contemporary witnesses to catch-up the tacit knowledge embodied in the recording profession and the overall change of the recording culture. In the following, I summarize the seven chapters of the book.


Book review “Chasing Sound. Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP” by Susan Schmidt Horning, 2013

When the recording industry emerged in the late 19th century, the companies sold their phonographs as coin-in-slot-machines to private operators such as public phonogram palors, entertainment halls, restaurants, bars etc. The records were the software to entertain the audience. The recordings were made acoustically with the musicians placed in front of a recording horn. The sound, then, was captured by a diaphragm that conducted the cutting stylus.

The recording studios in these early times were unromantic places in which the so-called recordists did their jobs on a trial-and-error basis. Most of the musicians disliked the sober atmosphere of the recording studios and performed just for money. In these early days of recording loud instruments and voices of shouters were preferred. A musician had to perform ten times to produce ten records. It was possible, however, to operate ten phonographs at the same time, but the output was still very limited. It is told that George W. Johnson, the first African American recording artist, had to sing his famous laughing song fifty-six times in one day to meet the demand of the record company.

The situation for musician improved when mass reproduction of records became possible around 1900, but the quality of the acoustic recordings were still poor. The recordists relied on their tacit knowledge of how to place different instruments in front of the recording horn, to decide the thickness of the diaphragm and how to use the cutting stylus. Their main competence, however, was how to treat more or less eccentric artists in the record studio.

The second chapter highlights the advent of electrical recording in the 1920s. After decades of experimentation especially in a military context, the Bell Laboratories – a subsidiary of the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) – developed a recording process in which the condenser microphones, vacuum tube amplifiers and electrical filters substituted recording horn, diaphragm and cutting stylus. In addition, the Bell engineers, Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison, developed an electrical system of reproduction, the Orthophonic Victrola, which allowed consumers to replay electric recordings at home. The advantages of the new technology were obvious. Instead of gathering the musicians in front of a recording funnel it was possible now to place an orchestra in a room equipped with microphones. This resulted in a warmer “room tone” and a much better quality of the final recording. In addition the loudness could be adjusted by the recordist. In general, the new technology turned the recordist into a sound engineer who supervised the entire recording process from a control room.

Despite the obvious technological advantages of electrical recording the two U.S. major record companies, Victor Talking Machine and Columbia Phonograph, hesitated to license the new recording process from Western Electric, AT&T’s manufacturing arm. Columbia had gone into receivership in 1923 and could not afford the licensing fee – US$ 50,000 plus a royalty on each record made by the new process. Victor on the other hand feared the high investment into the new technology and Victor’s president Eldridge R. Johnson strongly opposed radio and anything that looked alike such as electrical recording.

Thus, Louis Sterling of the British Columbia Graphophone Co. stepped in. He had received some test pressings from the U.S.-Pathé subsidiary in New York and he was enthusiastic about the superior sound quality of electrical recordings. Since AT&T/Western Electric refused to license its technology to a company outside the U.S., Sterling decided to buy the former U.S. parent company, Columbia Phonograph for US$ 2.5m in order to license the electrical recording system. When Victor’s Christmas sales were disappointing, the company’s executives decided to enter into a licensing agreement too. Victor started to produce electrical recordings from March 1925 on – three months later than Columbia. Except the Brunswick-Balke-Collender label conglomerate, all other record companies could not afford the high licensing fees and continued to record acoustically. However, electrical recording was inevitable and no acoustic recordings were made latest by 1929.

Electrical recording allowed not only to produce a better sound on record, it also took less time to record and it put less strain on the performer. The musicians were freed from the limitations of acoustic recording and could perform in a natural way. A new type of interpreter surfaced: the crooner with a soft and intimate voice who used the microphone as an instrument rather than a recording device.

The third chapter highlights the role of amateurs and hobbyists in the development of recording engineering, which became a serious profession in the 1930s. This results in the foundation of The Sapphire Club, as an open communication platform for recording professionals in the early 1940s and the establishment of the Audio Engineering Society in 1949. The professionalization of audio engineers was also the result of World War II., because the U.S. army demanded for skilled radio operators and technicians. The full frequency range recording (ffrr), developed by British Decca to identify enemy submarines, paved to way for high fidelity recording.

Nevertheless, recording was just a side-business for the large U.S. broadcasting networks in the 1940s. The invested rather in modern broadcasting studios than in recording studios. Even the major labels had to deal with outdated and old-fashioned recording venues. Thus, private ballrooms, dance halls and even churches and temples were converted into recording studios such as the Pythian Temple and the Liederkranz Hall in New York City. It was only after World War II. when labels started to invest into new recording studios.

This goes hand in hand with the technical revolution caused by magnetic recording and the introduction of vinyl discs. Although tape recorders were still build in the U.S. before 1945, their quality was poor. This changed when the U.S. army confiscated Magnetophones in the German Reichsrundfunk and sent the devices back to the U.S. Ampex Electronic Corporation rebuilt the German prototypes and sold the tape recorders to Hollywood film studios, broadcasting stations and record companies. In 1948, ABC taped the Bing Crosby Show as the first radio program for later broadcast. Before it was usual to broadcast live from a studio and hotel ballrooms. Taping tremendously eased the recording process. Through editing and re-recording audio engineers could control the whole process. Mistakes could be edited out, new parts were overdubbed and the length of a tape allowed a much longer recording time.

The new technological possibilities also changed the role of the recording engineers. Instead of just controlling the recording process, they became integral part of the artistic production. It is no coincidence that the profession of music producers emerged in these formative years.

The market introduction of vinyl records – the long play format of 331/3rpm by Columbia and the single format of 45rpm by RCA Victor – supported the transformation of the record business. The major record companies had experimented with vinylite due to the shortage of shellac during the war. The breakthrough was accomplished when the microgroove technology was introduced by a research team led by Peter Goldmark and CBS chief engineer William Bachman in 1948. The new technology enabled a playing time up to 45 minutes using both sides of a vinyl record. In addition, vinyl was lighter, more flexible and virtually non-breakable. With the argument of higher sound quality, the consumers could be persuaded to buy new home reproduction equipment, which expanded the market for recorded music in the 1950s.

The technological revolution met also the foundation wave of independent record labels. Most of them emerged from small recording studios, in which the owners experimented with new sounds that lead to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll. In chapter six, the author highlights the role of independent record studios in four case studies – the Cleveland Recording Company, Schneider Recording, Boddie Recording and Bell Sound Studios.

The book closes with the development of sound recording in the 1960s that was strongly influenced by multi-track recording, mastering and post-mixing. Recording itself became part of the creative process and enables new sounds and sound effects, which could not be reproduced live on stage – e.g. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles and “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys. The new aesthetic possibilities resulted in the differentiation of popular music genres and the further professionalization of recording engineers and music producers.

Thus, the books ends in the late 1960s and the reader has become curious in the further recording history in the following decades until the emergence of digital recording. This, however, would go beyond the scope of Mrs. Schmidt Horning’s excellent dissertation that provides us with valuable and well-founded information of the recording music business from its early beginnings until the rock music era. This book can be recommended to all not only interested in the technological development of sound recording, but also in the sociological change of the recording profession from the 1890s to the late 1960s. And I would like to close with the words of the author “(…) that the effect of technology on music was neither deterministic nor top-down but rather an ever-changing reciprocal process. Thus, Chasing Sound is not only a story of how technology changed music but also a story of how users – musicians as well as technicians – changed technology.” (pp. 6-7).


horning rev comp.inddSusan Schmidt Horning, 2013, “Chasing Sound. Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP“, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 13: 978-1-4214-1022-7 and ISBN 10: 1-4214-1022-2.









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April 2014



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