In 1887, Thomas Edison wrote about a new machine: the phonograph. He described how the machine worked and what this new technology might be good for. On a list of 13 potential uses, he placed “Music” fifth, after “Letter-writing,” “Dictation,” “Books,” and “Educational Purposes.” The future of the phonograph, he speculated, was one in which “the possibilities are illimitable.” The phonograph did come to be used for all of the things Edison imagined (and more). It revolutionized music and its circulation by making it possible to send music without asking musicians to travel. But Edison hardly imagined that the act of recording would change how people think about music and sound.
Paradoxically, recording technologies have a way of being inaudible. We sometimes don’t notice them. Listeners might imagine that the music made with and through these tools simply represents how things sound in the world. But often the technologies change music or sound in ways that matter. For example, Mary Ford and Les Paul’s experimentations with multi-track recording and overdubbing, what they called “sound on sound,” had a major impact on what was imagined possible in pop music recording.
Sometimes recording technologies are even used to do things they were never meant to do. Musicians have long “misused” musical tools to their own ends. They often use technology to meet their creative desires and material needs, to make themselves sound better, and to subvert social norms. For instance, turntable scratching—the technique of moving a vinyl record backward in a way that creates rhythmic sounds or repetitions—goes against the groove of the record. Digital tools, too, can be used in surprising ways that upset the expectations of their design teams. The software Melodyne is largely used for pitch correction and tuning, to “clean up” singing. But it was first intended as a tool for experimental music composition. Its inventors hoped that users would manipulate recordings to create new and interesting artistic effects, not just fix problems.
DJ Shortcut demonstrating different levels of turntable scratching
Demonstration of Melodyne vocal tuning
The design and manufacture of technical tools influence our creative interactions with sound. The graphical piano roll in Garage Band, for example, is not a neutral representation of sound and how it fits or flows. The image on the screen shapes how we use the tool. We see the linear layout of piano keys, and the notes are arranged in steps from low to high. This layout encourages us to think of the sounds like the keys on a piano. By thinking this way, we may miss what might lie “in between” the steps, or aspects of sound not captured by the piano. The keyboard is a very old instrument. The kind we have today was invented in 1689. So it is remarkable that many electronic synthesizers import a keyboard interface into their designs. This reliance on existing patterns demonstrates “path dependency”: people tend to continue their familiar behavior, and tools can encourage them to do that. Putting a keyboard interface on an electronic instrument like a synthesizer allows that instrument to feel comfortable, but it also encourages people to play the instrument in familiar ways. By relying on old patterns, a new recording technology can constrict our thinking about what’s possible.
Screenshot of Garage Band’s “Piano Roll” Graphical User Interface (GUI) from Apple’s support page
If we listen, we can hear how music production has excited people’s imaginations. Wendy Carlos recorded centuries-old keyboard music by J.S. Bach on a Moog synthesizer. She made it possible to hear Bach in a whole new way, animated by an entirely new sound quality, or timbre. When Grand Wizard Theodore (Theodore Livingston) reversed the turntable’s direction of play and got that electrifying, high-pitched scratch, he turned a tool for replaying music into a tool for making music. It is not just individual creators who make these innovations: communities also create together. House music of the 1970s and 1980s brought together genres like soul, disco, hip-hop, and R&B, and remixed them into vibrant dance rhythms using affordable synthesizers and drum machines. These new mixes edited recorded song samples together into new pieces of music. The use of inexpensive equipment and re-use of music that was already recorded meant that house music was cheap to make. Artists did not have to hire studio space or musicians to record. House music created a place of belonging and symbolic home for black, gay, queer, and trans people who had been excluded from other clubs. In this case, as in many others, musical creation was also community formation. Sometimes technological tools and the sounds they make can be at the heart of what brings people together.
How do we assess recording technologies today? How do we determine what they do, when what they actually do is so often far more complex than what they claim to do? What wants, desires, perceived problems and perceived solutions are observable, hearable, in their grooves? Recorded sound is everywhere, and it is part of our everyday lives. Perhaps the next time you hear a recorded sound, you might imagine some extraordinary answers.
Catherine Provenzano’s research focuses on voice, instrumentality, labor, and technology as they intersect class, race, and gender in US popular culture. Currently she is writing a cultural history and ethnography of pitch correction softwares (Auto-Tune, Melodyne), and researching the political economy of sound and software in megachurch worship contexts. She is Assistant Professor of Musicology and Music Industry at UCLA, and is a songwriter and singer.