Book Review by Christopher Pataky
(Doctoral Student, St. John's University)
Susan Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013). ISBN: 9781421410227. 320pp. $45.00 hardback or eBook. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/chasing-sound
Many millennials have not even seen, let alone have listened to, a vinyl record, eight-track, or cassette tape. Listening to music has become as simple as putting in one’s ear-buds and playing streamed music from an iPod. The recording of music has also become less physical and more digital, improving sound quality, reducing recording time, and allowing musicians to explore genres that would have been impossible to create less than fifty years ago.
In Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP, Susan Schmidt-Horning masterfully presents the often overlooked history of the technology of sound recording and its impact on popular culture. Schmidt-Horning breaks the widespread and misleading notion that words and music are the most important parts of any record. The soothing sounds of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the revolutionary music of The Beatles would not have been possible without advances in recording technology and recording engineers, whose growing contribution made music icons possible. As a former performer, Schmidt-Horning draws from a generous amount of oral interviews with musicians, recording engineers, producers, and major recording labels to deliver a gripping account of the various talents that came together to create music history.
Schmidt-Horning begins with the earliest of recording studios in the Acoustic Era, when the capturing of sound moved from laboratories and small machine shops to professional recording networks. The technological advances of the First World War and the dance craze of the 1910’s ushered in the first “golden age” of recording music as radio created a huge demand for the new blues and jazz music of the day. Records became the most popular form of entertainment and the industry changed almost overnight as small recording studies emerged in the hopes of cashing in with the next hit song.
Chapter Three focuses on the forgotten amateurs of the 1930s who contributed a great deal to music recording in their efforts to “chase sound.” Home recorders like Les Paul, helped to propel the music recording industry to new summits with new techniques. As Chapter Four explains, the years leading up to World War Two saw a rebound of record sales and thus a renewed interest from companies in improving sound quality. In the 1940s, a new emphasis on record production marked a shift toward a greater focus on the studio and those who recorded rather then played the music. Chapter Five tells the story of how the tape, LP, and stereo took recording to new levels of editing, allowing for not only greater sound quality, but greatly reduced production times as well. In Chapter Six we see how large recording studios could not keep a monopoly on recording as new technology helped smaller studios produce non-mainstream music such as rock ‘n’ roll and hillbilly/country, which inevitably replaced the more conventional big band music of the 1940s. Finally, in Chapter Seven we see how technology came to play such an important role in music development. Recording engineers, as an example of the growing importance of sound technology, came to be called “the sound-man artist” surpassing the orchestra conductor and becoming as important to music as the songwriter or lead singer.
Schmidt-Horning’s Chasing Sound serves as a wonderful reminder of the history behind our popular music. Chasing Sound is a brilliant read for both academic and general audiences of cultural and technological history. After reading Chasing Sound it would be hard for any reader to not appreciate the many technological steps that led to the sound quality and electric beats that comprise modern music.