Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Editing Sound

Mitch Miller and Johnny Ray listening to the taped playback of a recording session.

As the previous post might indicate, my current book-writing-related obsession is tape recording. This is because the advent of tape recording in the late 1940s is one of the many factors that transforms the music industry after World War II. It was, in fact, directly related to the war: Allied troops entering Germany in 1945 discovered that German scientists had advanced magnetic recording technologies far beyond anything in this country. A few of these German machines were semi-legally-smuggled into the US where they became the basis for the Ampex machine popularized by Bing Crosby, and which by 1954 had completely replaced phonographic lathe machines in recording studios. (Although phonographs remained the dominant distribution medium for several decades.)
Surprisingly, the impact of tape recording has not gotten a ton of scholarly attention. There are a few studies here and there, but nothing like the work that has been done on either of the sound packaging systems that bookend magnetic tape, the phonograph and digital audio. But magnetic tape is just as revolutionary. What particularly interests me is the concept that sound could now not only be captured, but edited. Editing sound previously meant going to difficult and cumbersome lengths with record cutting, or in the case of steel wire recording, literal welding. Now, anybody with a pair of scissors and some tape (ideally Scotch Tape No. 41, which did not ooze up around the sides) could do it. Sound was never the same.
Which, unsurprisingly, caused a certain amount of anxiety. A 1954 consumer manual:
Tape recording allows for considerable latitude in corrective re-recording and sound editing. This fact has been a godsend to many recording artists who cannot or will not present a competent beginning-to-end performance of a work of music for recording....This results in a record which is possibly better than any single public performance ever given by the artist. And it is really a synthetic performance. It may sound fine, but is it music? Is it art? Is it high fidelity?  
My chapter therefore looks a series of moments in the early 1950s that outline the philosophical issues raised by editing sound: Les Paul's multi-tracking experiments, the controversial 1952 Furtwangler recording of Tristan and Isolde in which a young Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sang the notes an aging Kirsten Flagstad was unable to hit, and the modernist tape compositions of John Cage, Otto Luening, and Vladimir Ussachevsky.

If you're in the Philadelphia area, I'm going to be previewing some of these ideas in a talk at St. Joseph's University on November 8 at 7:00 pm. It's provisionally titled "A Short History of Magnetic Tape in 1952."

Citation: Donald Carl Hoefler,  Hi-Fi Manual (Fawcett Books, 1954). Italics in the original. Photo at top from the same volume.

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