Recording studios and techniques

Photograph of a recording studio board

© Bergman

One of the most important ways in which technology has affected the sounds of popular music over time is through developments in sound recording. As new recording technologies have been introduced, musicians have used these developments in their music in creative and innovative ways. Because recording studios are the main site where music and recording meet, and where music is captured and shaped into recordings, they have played a particularly important role in popular music developments.

As recording technologies advanced through the years, engineers and producers made use of the new developments. The new technological developments were also signs of how the aims of those involved in the recording process were shifting significantly. At first the key aim was to simply put a particular musical performance on record - to document it. The function of recording technology at this time was to capture the artistic process rather than manipulate or form part of it. This has sometimes been referred to as a realist approach: the primary aim was to get a representation that was as close as possible to the sound that would be experienced if the listener were in the same room as the performance. Of course these aims were initially limited by the technical limitations of the equipment.

According to the music scholar Jason Toynbee (2000), the realist approach continued to be dominant even when technological advances meant that other things could be done within the recording process. As happened again later, ideas about recording lagged behind technological change due to a conservatism in the recording industry and music culture. Toynbee splits up the history of recording into a series of distinct recording eras, each with a particular set of aims and objectives, and each resulting in its own type of sound.

Toynbee argues that the conservatism of the early era carried over into the second era of recording that he calls the era of 'ventriloquism'. Here the introduction of the electric microphone led to the development of close miking techniques, whereby the intricacies of instruments and the voice could be captured in a way that was impossible previously. But this can also be seen as extension of the realist approaches, in that the aim is still to create something like a live performance and a natural sound.

From the 1950s onwards technological and artistic developments led to what Toynbee calls 'virtual sonic environments' in popular music recordings. Records of the rock era often used 'unnatural' sounding studio techniques which in turn became signature sounds of certain genres. This period saw an advanced level of experimentation with audio effects, tape speeds, splicing and mixing techniques with musicians and producers using the studio almost as an instrument. These sonic environments are therefore 'virtual' in that they could not be exactly recreated in a live context.

Follow these links to explore some particular aspects of recording techniques: