Engineering: Creativity and Collaboration in the Recording Studio #arpOslo2014


Mixing deskPaul Thompson, Leeds Beckett University

(co-written with Phillip Mcintyre, University of Newcastle – presented in Phil’s absence with his apologies for not being able to make it in person)

ABSTRACT: Sound engineering has historically been viewed as a technical rather than creative endeavour (Kealy, 1979), particularly within the commercial recording industry where the sound engineer, the record producer and the musician have an identifiable history of delineated unionised roles within the domain of record production.

There is general agreement in the literature that creativity may be best thought of as the bringing into being of ‘an idea or product that is original, valued and implemented’ (Wolff, 2000: 81) and there is growing evidence that creativity occurs through the convergence of multiple elements; an agent, a knowledge system (the domain) and a social organisation that holds the domain knowledge (the field), through a dynamic system of interaction (Csikszentmihalyi: 1988, 1997, 1999 & 2004).

Drawing upon current literature, interviews, case studies and data gathered from an extended ethnographic study in the recording studio, this paper explores the systems model of creativity where sound engineering is identified as a creative endeavour within the broader creative and collaborative system of record production.

Paul describes sound engineering as a ‘layer’ within music creativity, and relates his view to Boden’s discussion of creative myths:

These views are believed by many to be literally true. But they are rarely critically examined. They are not theories, so much as myths: imaginative constructions, whose function is to express the values, assuage the fears, and endorse the practices of the community that celebrates them. (Boden 2004).

There is a more detailed (than mine) discussion of Czikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity, and Paul undertakes an excellent evaluation of cultural ‘rules’ in a domain, implicitly making us all think about what this means for influences upon music producers. He also makes an interesting aside regarding Kerrigan’s attempt to nuance the Systems Model through her own medium (film).

We now consider the ‘Domain’ as it applies to sound engineers, and the particular skillset they bring to the decision-making process that leads to particular sonic outcomes in the creative work. “I consider mics to be like paint brushes”, as engineer Bruce Swedien put it. Even knowledge of monitoring conventions can have an effect on the track, and is certainly knowledge embodied in the engineer’s practice. Tact, diplomacy and related communication skills are all part of the necessary domain acquisition. Informal and formal learning routes are cited, with quotes from sound engineer interviewees.

Having looked at the domain (of knowledge), Paul now considers the engineer’s ‘field’ – that is, who and what are the gates through which engineers must pass, and discusses hierarchies, skill levels and industry networking. These individuals provide selection or validation, and this too is necessarily internalised knowledge for the aspiring sound engineer.

The paper concludes by summarising the engineer’s relationship with the systems model and identifying ways in which engineers can achieve ‘enculturation’ to become effective creative practitioners. There is a complex relationship between the individual’s agency and (social/technical/musical) structures in recording studios, which constrain, enable and mediate the engineer’s activity.

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