This paper was presented at Leeds Metropolitan University during the 6th annual The Art of Record Production Conference in December 2010. The conference attracted academics and industry professionals from across the globe and featured a keynote speech from the American record producer Steve Albini.
My paper centred on the operations of Soundstream, the first commercial digital audio recording company in the United States, and reflected on notions of change and continuity in music production by looking at the history and innovative practices of the company.
Following presentation at the conference I developed my work into a further case study of Soundstream which was published in The Art of Record Production Journal. In both papers I explore ideas related to political economy, entrepreneurship, and digital culture. These ideas are at the heart of the intellectual mission of BCMCR, guided by our five principle research themes: identity; history and heritage; cultural practice; technology; production, regulation and enterprise.
I continue to investigate ideas related to entrepreneurship and digital culture and have recently undertaken a research project with UK-based independent jazz label Edition Records. During the Edition project I examined the manner in which the label engages with audiences via social media as a means of negotiating the often complex processes involved with operating a sustainable music business in the digital age. These are themes which have been explored in great detail by my colleague Andrew Dubber, who has published and presented extensively on notions regarding new strategies for music businesses in the digital age.
Ideas regarding the interaction between fans in the digital arena and the production of culture have been explored in further detail by my colleagues Andrew Dubber and Tim Wall, their work in applying insights from online fan culture to new media production being particularly informative. Similarly, engagement with online and social media audiences is a thread that is picked up again in the work of Jon Hickman and Inge-Lise Bore, who have also conducted research into notions of fan culture in the social media environment, and also in the work Matt Grimes on Music Webzines.
The introduction of commercial digital recording technologies in the United States during the 1970s represents a pivotal, transformative era in the history of sound recording that helped to determine new methodologies for the capture, editing, playback and storage of audio. Drawing on primary interview research, this paper reflects on notions of change and continuity in music production by looking back at the history and innovative practices of a digital audio company. It examines the ways in which a group of computer scientists and electrical engineers from the University of Utah introduced new digital recording equipment for music production and developed a digital audio business in response to, and in collaboration with, the music industries.
Soundstream Inc. was a digital audio recording company founded in 1975 by Dr. Thomas G. Stockham Jr. Soundstream was the first commercial digital audio recording company in the United States, providing on-location recording services and computer based digital audio editing. Soundstream’s editing system was a direct precursor of the modern digital audio workstation. By continually developing its digital audio recorder, reconfiguring its business model, and competing with larger, more powerful organisations, Soundstream participated in a period of potent change in the music industries. In order to survive, Soundstream had to address, and act upon, ongoing tensions between technology, artistry, aesthetics and commerce.
Through close contact with engineers, producers and artists in the recording process, Soundstream was able to obtain feedback in the field and improve the sound quality of its equipment. By responding to demand for in-person recording services, rather than pursuing the sale of its hardware, Soundstream galvanised a client base of record labels that wanted digital recording, editing and mastering services. Although popular with labels producing classical music, Soundstream struggled to find equal success with the aesthetics of rock and pop production. As digital recording solutions began to emerge from larger, more powerful companies, Soundstream began to develop solutions for optical media storage and playback. This work was eventually outmoded by the arrival of the compact disc and the company ceased to operate in the mid 1980s.
This paper uses Soundstream as a case study from which to raise questions about the agency of the user, the aesthetic demands of record production and the commodification of technological innovation.