The Art of Noise: How Music Recording Has Changed Over the Decades | Vinyl
OOne of the big changes in the British countryside is that hedges and verges no longer shine like they did 20 years ago. Sunlight no longer catches the strands of duct tape that adorned the thorns and weeds, lost reminders of another cassette tape stuck in the car stereo. It would eject, but come out dragging a thin, slippery loop of ribbon, the end hooked deep into the player’s interior. A helpful passenger could release it and carefully rewind the tape into its case, ready to play and play again; more likely they would rip it out of the machine and throw it out the window.
Driving today has fewer distractions, hour after hour the MP3 player sifts through its huge repertoire, and listening at home is also hassle-free, a laptop and headphones removing the need for all those records, tapes, CDs , turntables, amplifiers, wires and speakers. So much time filled, so much space saved; never has music been so accessible and yet so immaterial. It is perhaps this immateriality that has prompted a renewed interest in older audio technologies, for ways of recording and listening that involve something more tangible than a stream of digital code. Tellingly, this is a revival driven by people too young to have used these technologies when they were cutting edge, probably too young to even have thrown that tape out the car window. It’s this generation that buys the vinyl, and it’s the musicians of the same generation that make the records, experiment with tape recorders and get excited about analog sound.
Part of that is fashion, sure, an audio equivalent of steampunk or hipster beard growth, but there’s also something bigger going on. The march of progress has taken us from innovation to innovation – mechanical to electric, 78 to 33⅓, mono to stereo, LP to CD, Walkman to iPod – each new technology overwhelms us with its superiority and the way it solves recurring problems. audio engineering – recording fidelity, more signal and less noise on playback, longer listening times. Resistance was futile because the two halves of the recording industry walked hand in hand, phasing out production of older playback equipment as new formats were introduced.
Only now, when this march seems to have reached some sort of destination – all the music in the world available at all times, usually at little or no cost, in crystal-clear recordings – is it possible to wonder whether this is really where we want to be, or whether we would rather come back to certain points along the way. It is this retrospection that allows us to delight in the particular characteristics of older recording formats, to savor the realization that technologies are not transparent, but imprint their particular imprint on the experience they convey. Etching, screen printing and lithography have all been replaced by more efficient printing methods, but visual artists continue to use them; maybe the music has reached that point too.
A process such as engraving, cutting an image from a plate and then printing it affects what can be represented and how we see it. In the same way, recording formats shape the way musicians work and how we listen. Pop songs are short and sharp because in the days of analog recording, a song couldn’t last longer than the time it took for the needle of the gramophone to cross the narrow gap between the edge disc and the manufacturer’s label in the middle. Whether it was a 10-inch shellac record playing 78 rpm or a seven-inch single playing 45 rpm, the musical discipline was the same: there was time for variety – introduction , verse, chorus, middle eight, instrumental – but there had to be a beginning, a middle and an end too.
The way the music was recorded was also important. For the first 50 years of the recording era, the cylinder or disc made was a copy of a live performance. As the musicians played, the disturbances they created in the air were picked up by a horn, later a microphone, and etched into a groove. But with the advent of magnetic tape, it became possible to combine layers of time, recording different performances side-by-side on the same length of tape. As tape technology developed in the 50s and 60s, the number of tracks multiplied and musicians’ imaginations could wander through a maze of takes, covers, overdubs and patches. With more and more leads available, nothing had to be thrown away; recording has become a kind of musical hoarding. Not sure about the bass line? Don’t delete it, just cut that track and add another version.
Multiple options can breed indecision, otherwise known as remixing. The history of pop music in the 1970s is replete with tales of postponed release dates as artists wondered how to create a definitive version of all that accumulated studio time, piled, track after track, onto the master tape. In the 1980s, indecision became a marketing strategy – releasing one mix, then another, then another. In the internet age, indecision was even promoted as a kind of shared creativity – don’t decide, just put whatever you have online and let the fans do the work.
But it’s the recording formats that matter most to listeners, and now that the LP is back with us, it’s easy to see why we missed it. There is enough room for some kind of music – a Brahms symphony, kind of blue – but not too much. There is a necessary pause which, especially in pop music, imposes a useful set of creative questions: is side two a variation of side one or does each new side have to offer a new style, a new energy? Above all, analog formats remind us that in recording and listening, we don’t have to be passive. In an age when we can paper our lives with a random shuffle of MP3s, there’s something beautifully purposeful about putting a record on a turntable. It is a choice that requires more choices. CDs end silently, but the scratch and click of an LP’s mid-groove is a haunting call to action: Get up, turn me around, or choose something else. There’s also a hint of willful destruction, knowing that each read spins the disc one step closer to its ultimate ruin.
My involvement in the recording industry started just as the last LPs were coming off the shelves, so I only did CDs. But a year ago I started making plans for an LP of music I wrote for cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. Since we only had enough music for one side of an LP, I needed to write a new piece for the other side and decided that the music should, in a way, be about register itself. The result is called replay and begins with the cellist making a series of recordings of himself; as he listens to what he recorded and then tries to play the same music again, the recordings provide audible evidence that, despite his best efforts, he cannot find what he originally played. To make this even clearer, each recording is made with different technology, and in the version we made for BBC Radio 3 last month we used a dictaphone, a Studer tape recorder and an Edison wax cylinder phonograph.
The first two were easy to find. The Studer was the workhorse of BBC radio studios well into the digital age and the Dictaphone has been a lo-tech favorite of experimental musicians for many years; it’s battery-powered, fits in the palm of your hand, and distorts any sound it records. Edison’s machine, on the other hand, is a real antique and came with its own curator, Aleks Kolkowski, who carefully attached a large conical horn to the hand-cranked recorder and warmed a cylinder of wax with a dryer. hair to soften the wax. The hair dryer might not be authentic, but everything else was, and when the recording played, it sounded like my music had been transported back in time to the early 1900s.
After the session, I spoke to Kolkowski, a violinist who works mostly in free improvisation, about the lure of the phonograph. “I saw my colleagues playing with laptops,” he told me, “and I felt like doing something else.” In particular, he wanted to make music “influenced by post-1945 electronic music but using pre-electric technology”. He also told me about his most recent project, an installation called The exponential horn: in search of the perfect sound, which opens at the Science Museum on May 20 and has an “audio dinosaur” at its heart, a 27-foot horn speaker.
The horn opens from an initial 4cm² mouth to a 2.15m² mouth and is a recreation of one of the Science Museum’s most popular exhibits of the 1930s. The original was commissioned in 1929 by Roderick Denman, then curator of telecommunications at the Science Museum, and was designed to reproduce the widest range of sound frequencies possible. Once a week, this has been demonstrated with broadcasts from the BBC’s London Regional Service and at Kolkowski’s facility, audio demonstrations will include sound art, new poetry and archival radio footage, with broadcasts from the BBC and Resonance FM as well as new works.
Sound nostalgia? Maybe, but, like me, Kolkowski is interested in how technology affects the recording and listening process. He is, he says, “very ambivalent towards recording” and, because he wants to make “recordings that sound like recordings”, he chooses to work with technologies that impose themselves very obviously on what is recorded and how it is heard. For him, the fascination of the giant speaker in the Science Museum is not only its power and its fidelity, but also its limits; there is, he says, an “incredible sonic presence in front of the horn, almost in three dimensions” but as soon as you move away “the sound changes radically”.
In 1972, in Ways to see , John Berger described how, “for the first time, images of art became ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, worthless, free”. Over the past decade, innovations in recording and distribution have reduced music to a similar state, but facilities such as The exponential horn and the boom in LP sales will restore some of that lost tangibility and substance, music to be valued rather than discarded.