Review of Modern Records, Maverick Methods: Technology and Process in Popular Music Record Production 1978-2000

Modern Records, Maverick Methods: Technology and Process in Popular Music Record Production 1978-2000
by Samantha Bennett

Bloomsbury Press, London, 2018
256 pp., illus. 5 b/w. Trade, £21.59
ISBN: 9781501344114.

Reviewed by
John F. Barber
May 2019

Samantha Bennett positions her new book, Modern Records, Maverick Methods: Technology and Process in Popular Record Production 1978-2000, as filling an information gap. The date range represents the digital turn that most fundamentally affected popular music production. And, although discourse and documentation about popular music recording during this time period is on the rise, says Bennett in her introduction, much cultural consideration of "technology, recordists and workplaces are often superficial, biased and sentimental accounts relying upon practitioners' oral histories and hindsight" (5). Bennett's book seeks to be transformative by unraveling the influence of recordists, technology, and process on popular music recordings from this period.

Recordists, technology, and process are the three interwoven foci of Modern Records, Maverick Methods. Bennett defines recordists as individuals responsible in part or whole for the recording process, technology as systems routinely featured in or applied to the recording process, and process as recording techniques implemented by recordists to capture and record sound.

Individual chapters explore these foci. Chapter 1 establishes sound recording and production technologies at the turn of the 1980s, a time that saw a much-increased presence of digital technology in the recording process. Prior to the 1980s, commercial music recordings were representations of human performances on acoustic and electric instruments. During the 1980s music fans heard an increased presence of digital effects, programmed sound effects, and synthesized representations of acoustic instruments.

Chapter 2 focuses on technology that transformed popular music in the late 1980s. Here Bennett describes the impacts of high-end consoles and consumer MIDI devices on professional and amateur music composition and recording. The potentials of remixing and sampling created many new genres and sub-genres of music during this period, with hip-hop and house as the epitome. Traditional production roles were transformed as well, with semi-professional recordists, DJs, and programmers jostling with professionals for the coveted spots on the popular record charts.

Chapter 3 is about conflations of analogue and digital, cutting edge and vintage, in the 1990s and how they exacerbated the movement away from performed music and toward new, digitally constructed forms. By the late 1990s, bedroom and project studio digitally produced music became more commonplace. In response, analogue and vintage technologies and processes were used to promote sonic identity, a means of separating alternative musics from the mainstream.

Chapter 4 describes tech-processual maverick methods in contemporary record production from 1978-2000, like increased multi-track recording, post-production options, and increasingly available digital synthesis. Another, equally important story emerges as well. According to Bennett, recordists who perceived these new technological tools as limiting, or who embraced the faults and flaws of technological precursors, or who employed technological anachronisms to establish sonic differences for their work, all contributed to the recording techniques and process that evolved during this time period.

Chapter 5 describes diversification of recording and production roles. Bennett describes how shifts in the workplace economy, changes in the recording industry, and the rise of computer software emulating stages in the recording process changed the definitions, roles, and skill sets of recordists, tape-operators, and producers. Ultimately, demands of musicians, performers, managers, and music industry executives determined what prominence each role would play in recording modern music.

Chapter 6 deals with the inevitable changing attitudes of recordists confronted with the evolving technologies and processes for making recordings. Bennett first unpacks the utopianism-pessimism dichotomy surrounding the arrival, acceptance, and use of new recording technologies and practices. Rather than an either-or context, she suggests crossover and fluidity. She concludes that recordists' attitudes impacted their tech-processual practice, something she says needs further consideration in future discussion of recordists' working practices.

Chapter 7 concludes Modern Records, Maverick Methods with detailed analysis of technology and process methodologies in popular music recordings from the period examined.

In the end, Bennett contextualizes music and sound recording through the 1980s and 1990s, examines recordist attitudes, and establishes a continuum of technological and processual landmarks. Throughout, Bennett provides loads of details and analysis in her diverse linkage of process, technology, and the people whose maverick methods sought to combine and overlay analogue and digital technologies so to produce modern sounds in rapidly changing studio environments. She describes the introduction and utilization of digital effect processors, samplers, synthesizers, and DAWS (digital audio workstations) to produce music never before heard, by, in some instances, individuals who had never before created music. In this case, the process of recording becomes an elongated engagement with programming the features and affordances of new technology to achieve desired or inspired results.

Choices made and attitudes affected influenced the modern records of this period. The pop, rock, hip-hop, dance, electronica, world and alternative musics from the 1980s-2000s introduced innovations and creative accomplishments that remain world renown. Bennett presents them as linked, a continuum rather than individual accomplishments in this fresh and insightful perspective. Modern Music, Maverick Methods fills in many portions of the information gap about sound and music recording in this time period, just as Bennett promised. It is a valuable book for musicians, fans, and scholars. It is an interesting read for others as well.