Well Past Time: Notes on a Musicology of Audio Recording Production

David Carter

Griffith University, Brisbane


In line with the 2005 ARP conference strand Towards a Musicology of Production, this paper examines the process of audio recording production and seeks to lay the groundwork for an analytical, critical and historical approach to the study of audio recording production.

The 20th century saw a number of significant changes in the way we engage with music, not least of these was the advent of recording technology. Impacting on the practice composition, performance and reception, recording technology now plays an integral part in the production and dissemination of almost all contemporary musics.   More importantly, recording technology heavily informs and influences the creative process, particularly in popular music forms.  Since the electronic experimentations of Stockhausen, Emiert, Berio and Varèse in the 1950’s, recording technology has ceased to be a transparent device for the recording of existing music and instead acts as a vehicle for the creation of new music.

This shift in the use of recording technology has seen an increase in the importance of the recording as primary musical text, due to the repeatability of the recorded text; the fact that a recorded ‘performance’ is often a construct of the studio environment and; the advent of widely available recording technology and of cheap playback mediums, as well as digital encoding algorithms such as Mpeg layer 3 and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as Kazaa. Coupled with this development is the rise of the producer as a creative force in music. Channan notes that:

with increasing possibilities for moulding the sound, a producer… who knew what he was doing, could begin to ‘direct’ the musicians; not so much like a conductor in front of an orchestra, but as if they were making a film, not a record.   Or as if the studio had become a huge musical instrument at the producers disposal (Channan, 1995; p. 143-44).  

Despite these changes, musicology has, for the most part lagged behind music critics, sociologists and popular culture commentators in failing to engage with audio recordings as primary musical texts.  Perhaps more importantly, musicology has failed to engage with the process by which audio recordings are produced. This means that, as a discipline, musicology has become less and less informed about an increasingly complex field of study.  It is well past time for researchers in the field of music to engage with audio recording production both as a field of discipline within itself, a musicology of production, and as a significant voice informing a more complete understanding of contemporary music form and practice.  

Rather than attempt to provide a complete model for an, as yet, undefined field of study, this paper will instead examine the questions, what do we mean by ‘production’?  Is record production solely the responsibility of the producer? What is the purpose of a musicology of production and how do we go about it?  How do audio recordings act as historical documents?  And, how does a musicology of production engage with audio recordings as musical texts?

What is ‘production’?

In common parlance, the term ‘production’ is used, rather haphazardly, to describe the role of the producer; the recording process and; the aesthetic and sonic properties of a recorded work. Andrew Dansby, a reviewer for Rolling Stone, describes an Elliot Smith recording as possessing “cascading production” while in the same sentence referring to the “hooky piano vamp” of another track and the “robust production dynamic” of a subsequent album (Dansby, 2003).  In this context, Dansby appears to be describing a subjective impression of the sound of the recording rather than the process of creation or role of the producer.  Conversely, when Neil Young and engineer David Hewitt discuss the production of Young’s Live at Red Rocks DVD in Mix Magazine it is in terms of the technical aspects of the recording process, such as microphone selection, console routing, recording media, etc. (Buontempo, 2001).  Finally, ‘production’ appears to be used as a coverall descriptor for ‘what the producer does’ regardless of genre, individual approach or the specifics of individual projects.  There does not appear to be any clear delineation between these usages of ‘production’ and this has had the affect, particularly in contemporary popular music, of elevating the producer (perceived) role to that of sonic architect, whereby the producer is responsible for the aesthetic and sonic outcomes of a recording through the production process.  Producer Dallas Austin suggests that “some producers have a sound … and they do every other record out of that same sound. So, it develops a brand as far as the sound is concerned” (Austin, 2000)

Whilst there are examples, at least in popular music, where there is an identifiable ‘sound’ that can be associated with particular producers work – Phil Spectors signature ‘wall of sound’, or the Neptune’s instantly identifiable hip-hop production style for example – the role of the producer is far from a uniform one and the notion of producer as sonic-architect is in fact an over-simplification of the production process.  The precise role of the producer in the recording process varies depending on the specifics of a project, the type of music being recorded and the producer’s own style. Furthermore, there are many duties a producer may fulfil, such as managing a budget and scheduling rehearsal and recording times (Huber & Runstein, 1997, p. 18), which have no discernable (read audible) impact on the outcome of the recording process.  There are no set rules or processes by which a recording comes into existence and what may on the surface appear to be a simple causal relationship between the producer and the product, on closer examination reveals a complex system of roles and relationships contributing to the creative process of audio recording production.  

Is production the responsibility of the producer?

Broadly speaking, the role a producer plays in the creation of an audio recording can be plotted somewhere along a continuum between documentation, collaboration and composition.  


Figure 1. Continuum of Production Practice.

Towards the documentation end of the spectrum, the producer’s role is primarily to document (record) a musical event either in the studio or another performance environment.  At the extreme end of this scale the producer’s role is one of a recording engineer, with little or no creative input into outside of the physical recording process.  This approach is most evident in early 20th century recordings in which a recorded work will comprise of “a single and complete take, in which the beginning, middle, and end of the piece were recorded in that order on the same day, in the same place, and by the same performer or group” (Katz 2005, 41).  While there may be the temptation to assume that this approach is also prevalent in the recording of much contemporary classical music, Glenn Gould suggests that “the great majority of present-day recordings consist of a collection of tape segments varying in duration upwards from one twentieth of a second” (Gould, 1966).

The collaborative approach is more typical of popular music, where the producer generally works in collaboration with a performer / songwriter and engineer on some or all aspects of the production process which can include songwriting, instrumentation, engineering, arrangements and even performance.  Channan notes that there is now a “generation of independent producers” who “team up with a favourite engineer and particular artists and groups and take charge of them in the studio” (Channan, 1995, p. 144).  Examples of this approach include George Martin’s work with the Beatles or Brian Eno’s work with Daniel Lanois / Steve Lillywhite and U2.  

At the other end of the spectrum the producer is the composer and sometimes performer and engineer of a recorded work.  The trend of self-production by artists such as Neil Young and Radiohead and much electronic music would fall into this category, as the advent of DJ-as-producer and the democratisation recording technology gave rise to the ‘bedroom producer’, individuals who produce music on their own, often in home studios via primarily electronic means. These producers are described by Cox and Warner as “a technologically adept generation raised on home computers and video games” who utilise “discarded analogue synths and drum machines picked up at junk shops, DJ equipment, the latest computer hardware, and commercial and homemade software” to create music “in their own bedrooms and basements” (Cox and Warner 2004, 366).  The humble environs within which such producers work should in no way be thought to affect the quality of significance of their output.  Electonica wunderkind Richard D. James, for example has produced almost all of his output in his home studio to significant popular and critical acclaim.  

The experience of most real-world producers will fall somewhere between these points on the continuum, more towards one or other end of the spectrum depending on their own style and the specifics of each project.  What is significant here is that, in all but the two extremes of producer-as-documentarian and producer-as-composer, ‘production’ is not the sole responsibility of the producer.  If taken literally, the term production delineates the process of producing an audio recording including manufacturing; recording and; the creative act of realizing a musical work in recorded form, including songwriting / choice of repertoire, instrumentation and performance.  These aspects are present in the production of any recorded work regardless of musical tradition, though there may be significant variations of application between orchestral, pop and electronic musics.  Within this context, responsibility for both sonic and aesthetic outcomes is, at the most basic level, the result of a creative collaboration between the composer and / or arranger, performer, recording and mastering engineers, producer and, in some cases, record company. Whilst an individual may perform multiple tasks (e.g. composer / performer or producer / engineer) and the influence an individual collaborator exerts over the final product will vary (for instance, the performer in electronic music may be a sample), each of these collaborators has an impact on the production process and the way a recording sounds and ‘feels’.  Subsequently, in terms of a musicology of audio recording production, ‘production’ is not something a producer does so much as the sonic, musical and aesthetic characteristics of a recording, or more precisely, the elements of these characteristics that were introduced through the production process.

Towards a Musicology of Production

The ultimate aim of musical scholarship, according to Joseph Kerman, is to understand music within a full and complete context where the scholar’s attention “is diffused across a network of facts and conditioning impinging on [the music itself]” (Kerman, 1985; p. 72).  In the case of a musicology of audio recording production, it is the production process itself as it is applied to particular recordings, rather than the musical work, which is under scrutiny.  Ideally, this understanding should result in the ability to identify, compare and contrast similar production styles across disparate musical texts and historical contexts as well as the communicability, reproduction and development of production methods and techniques under study.  By doing this this, a musicology of production will seek to engage the key figures of the practitioner, historian, analyst and critic. Such an approach mirrors the concerns of traditional musicology, which informs the composition, performance, history and analysis of music, which serves as “a prelude to criticism” (Scruton, 1997; p. 428). Broadly speaking, there are three lines of enquiry through which a musicology of production could achieve these aims.  These are

•    the study of audio recording production as process;

•    the study audio recording production as product and;

•    the study of the historical context and development of audio recording production.

The study of audio recording production as process would involve research into the techniques and processes employed in the recording studio, and other phases of the production process, which contribute to the realisation of a musical work in recorded form. This line of enquiry would also examine the interactions between the key figures in the production process and their roles and influence in the creation of the recorded work.   An ethnographic, practitioner research or participant-observer model would lend itself to this type of research as this would afford an invaluable insider perspective and provide a framework for producers, performers, songwriters, etc. to conduct research in the field.   Unfortunately, we may have already missed the boat in relation to many of the recording made in the last century and while it would still be possible to piece together significant data from interviews, and other historical documents it may be more appropriate to engage with these works through analysis of the recorded text (production) as product and historical document.  

The study of production as product would aim to engage with the recorded text as an artifact of the production process.  Acknowledging the reality of the recorded performance as construct of the studio environment (Katz, 2005; p. 41), the ability of any element of recorded sound to communicate artistic ideas (Moylan, 2002; p. 36), what we are talking about is a study of production through analysis of the recorded text. In this context, audio recordings function as important historical documents as they capture for posterity the sonic, musical and aesthetic concerns of the production process in a format that is “tangible, portable, repeatable, and manipulable” (Katz, 2005; p. 189).  More akin to the traditional musicological practices of analysis and criticism, this approach would aim to deconstruct a recording in such a way that key elements of the production process can be deduced. However, whereas traditional musical analysis has focused on the ‘musical’, and in some instances ‘aesthetic’, aspects of a recorded text, a musicology of audio recording production must also engage with the sonic properties of a recording. While this approach does not presume tacit knowledge on behalf of the researcher as to recording practice, such knowledge would be invaluable and may provide the researcher with the listening skills and language to communicate observations more clearly.  Nicholas Cook suggests that, “when you analyze [sic] a piece of music you are in effect recreating it for yourself” (Cook 1987, 1), and this is in effect the intended outcome of this line of inquiry.

The process of analysing a recorded text involves both analytical and critical listening where “analytical listening evaluates the artistic elements of sound, and critical listening evaluates the perceived parameters” (Moylan, 2002; p. 90).  Furthermore, it is the purpose of critical listening to make aesthetic judgments and to identify a hierarchy of significance in relation to the recorded text.  Scruton notes, “the critic asks us to notice certain things, and to hear them differently” (Scruton, 1997; p. 428).  This balance can be achieved through discussion of the sonic, musical and aesthetic characteristics of a recording. Sonic characteristics are related to the properties and organisation of sound in a recorded text.   Musical characteristics on the other hand are those elements of a recording directly related to musical structure and performance.  Finally, aesthetic characteristics relate to the tangible and intangible elements of a recorded work, which are related to the aesthetic purposes, and outcomes of the production process.  These attempt to encompass the influence of the key creative figures of composer, performer, recording engineer and producer on the recorded text. The sonic, musical and aesthetic characteristics of a recorded text can be discussed in terms of the following criteria laid out below.  


Figure 2. Sonic, Musical and Aesthetic Characteristics of a Recorded Text.  

As shown in Fig. 2, there is a significant level of overlap between the sonic, musical and aesthetic characteristics of a recording, thus a discussion of performance may relate to all three areas within the context of a particular recorded text.  

An analytical and critical evaluation of these criteria should provide a starting point for the identification of production traits utilised in a recorded text. These criteria can be applied across genre boundaries though different elements may be more or less important depending on the style of recording / production style of the record.  When discussing the production of a classical record for example, one would expect to examine the sonic characteristics of the record in greater depth than say the form / rhythm / harmony of the piece being recorded process as these would probably be prescribed by the composer outside of the production, though one could expect a discussion of performance which is not.  Conversely when examining a work by a DJ / Producer, a discussion of the musical elements will form a greater part of the discussion as in this instance composition is probably a significant part of the production process. Due to the case specific nature of audio recording production it would be impossible to identify quantitatively how a recording came into being with the precision possible in an ethnographic approach. Whilst peripheral texts such as interviews, track notes and magazine articles may shed light on the production process a recorded text will not be able to tell us exactly what microphone was used where or the ins and outs of the interpersonal dynamics involved in the recording process.   However, through an analytical and critical evaluation of the recorded text it should be possible to identify elements of a recording that will help to identify production traits and, subsequently, trends in audio recording production.

The study of the history of audio recording production would draw on elements of each of the approaches already mentioned, as well as interviews, peripheral texts and historic documentation to trace sonic and aesthetic production traits through the history of recorded music and document how approaches to aspects of the production process have changed over time and between different styles and genres of music. The development of recording technology, recording techniques, musical styles, digital audio formats and new forms of dissemination of recorded texts would all be important areas for investigation. The purpose of this research would be to provide an historical framework within which to understand past, present and future trends in audio recording production and to help to provide a sense of context for the study of audio recording production in general. Furthermore, an historical study of audio recording production may also uncover the impact of the recording process on broader musical practice.  Channan argues that “recording is not simply a preservational tool, but a catalyst as well” (Channan, 2004; p. 98), and the limitations and innovations of the audio recording production process may well have an impact beyond the realm of production itself.  As new audio formats such as AAC, mp4 DVDA and SACD are developed, recordings will be produced to take advantage of new creative opportunities and limitations presented by these formats.


Figure 3. Conceptual Map of a Musicology of Audio Recording Production.

Each of these approaches works in conjunction with the other to provide a multifaceted understanding of the production process from the perspective of practitioner, analyst, historian and critic.  Figure 3. shows the complex interrelationships between these figures and the musicology of audio recording production.  The study of production as process by the practitioner informs the history of production and the analysis of production as the production process is documented. The analysis of recorded texts as production artifacts by the analyst and critic informs the practitioner in their understanding of sonic, musical and aesthetic production traits and their application to the production process and the historian’s understanding of production traits and the criticism of recorded works.  Finally the documentation of the historical development of audio recording production draws on the findings of the study oDavid Carterf production as process and the analysis of recorded texts to place this information within an historical context which in turn informs the practice, analysis and criticism of production and, hopefully, future developments in the field.   

Concluding Remarks

As demonstrated in this paper, audio recording production entails the process of realizing a musical work in recorded form. Rather than being the sole responsibility of the producer, audio recording production is in fact the result of collaboration between the key creative figures of composer, performer, recording engineer and producer.  As a new discipline, a musicology of audio recording production has the potential to significantly impact the way we interact with musical texts and view the historical development of music over the last century. This paper has outlined one possible response to the problems presented by a musicology of audio recording production. Rather than focusing on the producer as creative figure, a musicology of production would appear to be best served by engaging with the production process, analysis of recorded texts and historical developments of audio recording production in order to provide a multi-faceted response to a complex field of study.  A musicology of audio recording production presents a unique challenge to researchers in the field of music, as there are, as yet, no clear guidelines as to how research should be done or even what we should be looking for.  As such, this largely unexplored field of research offers the exciting possibility of genuinely groundbreaking scholarship in the field of music and the potential to not only pioneer new approaches to musical research but also carve out an entirely new discipline within musical scholarship.    


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