Divide and Conquer: Power, Role Formation, and Conflict in Recording Studio Architecture

Throughout the history of recording studios, divisions of space have exerted a tremendous influence over the recording process, and have helped to shape the experiences of every recording participant, from the technicians behind the control room window, engineers and producers, to the musicians on the performance space floor. This article combines historical research with ethnographic inquiry in an attempt to analyze how power is enacted in the studio, and how studio design facilitates and maintains recording studio hierarchy.

The Emergence of the Performance Space/Control Room Divide

The first recording studios evolved from cluttered laboratories to ad hoc facilities established in existing spaces such as offices and hotel suites. By the turn of the century, the Edison Company operated a specifically built recording complex in New York, with reception area, rehearsal rooms, and two studios – one large room for recording bands and orchestras, and a smaller room dedicated to vocal recordings. Old drawings of an early Edison recording session indicate that there was no physical division between musicians and the recording devices and technicians who operated them.[1]  But the New York facility featured a design that subdivided the room into two areas, one designated for music-making, and another for sound recording technology. The November 1906 edition of the in-house publication Edison Phonograph Monthly describes this facility’s separate spaces for musician and technician.

“A partition runs across one corner. A recording horn projects through a curtained opening in this partition. The artists see only this horn into which they sing. The Phonograph attached to the horn stands back of the partition. How it is equipped and how it does its work are the department secrets that even the artists are not permitted to know.” [2]

Though one might assume that attempt to isolate musician from machinery was necessitated by the problems of acoustic physics, this is not necessarily the case. The phonograph depended on a focused sound directly aimed at the acoustic horn, thus any mechanical noise produced by the device itself behind the horn would not be transferred to the recording. Though the machine was susceptible to sympathetic vibrations from the environment (bumping the machine or footsteps on the floor, for example), the material of the curtain would do little to alleviate this issue.

One rationale for the curtain’s existence concerned the protection of trade secrets. Indeed, fierce competition between Edison and his rivals would certainly have contributed to an atmosphere of paranoia. But in fact, these competing recording devices were both simple and similar in design; it is doubtful that many “secrets” would be apprehended from watching the device in action.

An earlier phrase taken from the same article implies another, more interesting reason for this barrier. The room “has its own peculiar equipment of traps and things that look odd to the uninitiated.” [3]   A mythology of the control room as the locus of technological magic and mystery, incomprehensible to the average musician, has its roots here. There appears to be a presumption that artists would be discomforted in the presence of such frightening mechanisms, and the curtain serves as a shield for such delicate sensibilities. Such considerations of the musician’s experience of recording illustrate the importance that was placed on facilitating good performance, and demonstrate that an emerging recording studio hierarchy favored musician over technician.

The emergence of this hierarchy reflects the record companies’ shift away from lowbrow vaudeville toward highbrow concert music. Most well-known performers were reluctant to appear before the acoustic horn. For Fred Gaisberg, the pioneering record producer and talent scout, the utilitarian setup of early recording spaces provided little incentive for the artists of professional stature that he wished to record on behalf of the Gramophone Co. Following a temporary residency, in Gaisberg’s words, in the “grimy” basement of a former London hotel, The Gramophone Co. set up shop in the top floor of a commercial office building in 1902. A journalist described the facility in the following manner:

“The recording room is at the top of the building, and it has been so situated in order to remove it as far as possible from the din and turmoil of the street traffic of the busy City Road. It is lighted by means of skylights. Stretching from one end of the room is a glass partition, behind which is placed the recording machine… The recording horn projects through about the center of the partition… In the construction of this room every possible means has been utilized to secure its perfection from an acoustic point of view.” [4]

The significant change in design is the use of transparent glass in place of obtrusive fabric. The ability of musicians to view the technicians and the technology obviates the pretense of protecting trade secrets, or shielding the artist from the menace of machinery as a rationale for physical separation. Unlike curtains surrounding an ad hoc recording set-up, walls with glass windows are the visible indicators of a more permanent structure and design. The construction of specific spaces for recording, and the subsequent division of these spaces into separate domains for musician and technician illustrate the transition of the recording process from laboratory experiment to professional vocation.

The description of a 1904 recording session with soprano Nellie Melba includes a tantalizing detail that reinforces the mythology of technological mystery and the power such mystery exerts.

“Then from behind the frosted glass an electric bell rings a sharp summons. The accompanist strikes the first chords of the ‘Ave Maria,’ and in another minute Melba is heard singing. She stands with her back to us, her hands clasped in front of her, her lips a few inches from the trumpet… Behind frosted glass, which is cloudily luminous with electric light, the shadows of the operators pass as Melba sings.” [5]

While smoked glass is redolent of interior design aesthetics of the period, and therefore can be seen as establishing an element of comfort in a more familiar environment, it reinforces the musician-centric hierarchy by turning individual technicians into abstract “shadowy figures.”

In another sense, obscuring the actual tasks being performed by the technicians supports the mythology of technological mystery, while providing a shield that masks their reactions to the performances they are recording. It is assumed that divas such as Melba had little interest in the opinions of mere workmen, but less seasoned and lauded musicians would have been more susceptible to any sign of a negative or even impassive judgment rendered by those who also functioned as the only audience present.

“I’m Looking Through You” – The Performance Space/Control Room Divide as Panopticon

In the earliest days of the commercial recording industry, record companies and the technicians they employed were at the mercy of the musician, whose services were essential to creating a market for recordings. As technology and the architecture of the recording studio evolved, this balance of power began to shift in favor of the technicians who operated the machinery and oversaw the recording process.

With the division of studio space that became standard with electrical recording and loudspeaker amplification, a pronounced shift in power from musician to technician was underscored in the construction of control room windows. While control room windows were designed to aid engineers in maintaining a visual sense of the events transpiring in the performance space, the large windows imposed the presence of technicians upon the entire proceeding.

By the early 1930s, large-scale recording studios were designed with a feature that exaggerated this shift even further. Studios such as EMI’s Abbey Road facility built in London in 1931, placed the control room at the second story level, looking down on the recording room floor. Paul McCartney recalled his first impression of working at Abbey Road, “I also remember those great big white studio sight-screens, like at a cricket match, towering over you. And up this endless stairway was the control room. It was like heaven, where the great Gods lived, and we were down below. Oh God, the nerves!” [6]   In this way, control room inhabitants began to exert control not only over the machinery, but also over the entire process on both sides of the glass.

Such designs recall Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century prison architecture, the panopticon. Bentham’s diagram consisted of a circular perimeter building, with cells open to the inner diameter. These cells faced a central tower from which guards could observe the inmates. Controlled observation was the key in that the inhabitants of the cells were always on display, while the guards were obscured by a system of backlighting, window blinds, etc. In this manner, inmates were aware of their constantly observable state, even if they were unsure that they were being watched at a particular moment. [7]

Using the panopticon as a point of departure for his analysis of discipline and power, Michel Foucault posits that the main effect of this design is, “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” [8]   Similarly, the very design of recording studio control rooms, with their glass observation windows looking out on the inhabitants of the recording room, enables technicians to exercise power over the musicians involved in the recording process. Ostensibly built to enable two-way visual communication, most control room windows consist of at least two panes of glass angled to minimize direct reflection of sounds. Such acoustically motivated construction often has the inadvertent effect of casting visual reflections of floors, equipment, and light fixtures that obscure the view of the control room interior from the musicians in the recording room. Further exacerbating this problem, many engineers employ minimal lighting within the control room, creating a dark ambience that both hides their gaze and contributes to the aura of mystery that surrounds their work.

The physical properties of recording studio design impose social order designations – musician/observed/inmate, technician/observer/guard – and naturalize this order as musicians unconsciously internalize their subordinate position. According to Foucault, “He who is subjected to the field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” [9]

Once a musician has experienced the recording process in the recording studio panopticon, this newly internalized ‘captive’ role remains even as other studio experience may veer from such delineated observer/observed architecture. As Foucault continues, “By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.” [10]   And thus beyond any obvious instances of abuse, or other negative recording experience, the fundamental component of recording studio design, the control room window, becomes the locus of conflict so pervasive among musicians and technicians; it is a victory (or loss) “which is always decided in advance.”

A Room With a View – Traversing the Divide

Multitrack recording practice complicates the division between musician and technician. The practice of overdubbing can facilitate mobility across the performance space/control room divide. Once a singer has performed a useable “scratch vocal,” or a drummer has delivered a solid rhythm bed, they are free to leave the isolation booth. Under all but the most paranoid and psychically threatening situations, these musicians are now granted access to the control room. Before overdubbing, musicians could experience musical playback from the control room perspective, could audition the actual audioscape committed to disc or tape, but had no experience of the recording process from the vantage point of the technician. [11]  Access to the control room during the overdub stage allows musicians to observe the observers, while opening up possibilities for musicians to re-gain a measure of control. Though they were powerless to dictate the relative balance and value of the individual elements while they were creating them in the performance space, as a control room listener after the fact, they can now render judgments that were previously in the sole domain of the technicians.

Such multiple perspectives have the added consequence of making performers more self-conscious in the recording studio. The experience of observing an overdub session in action will inform the sense of being observed when it comes time for the musician to step before the microphone, and all the other observers. The solitary musician, alone on the performance space floor, nervously waiting for the tape to roll, imagines the critical comments being made in the control room because they have heard them, or possibly made them, while hanging out during other overdubs. They are aware that out of tune singing, wrong notes, lackluster rhythm can all be auditioned repeatedly. A ‘solo’ button on the console can heighten the moment by isolating these embarrassing moments in all their naked glory.

“That’s one thing that would drive me mad. I would sit back there and I’d see people talking and laughing, and then, “OK, why don’t we just try it one more time.” … And you’re dying to know what’s going on.” [12]

The mystery might be more benign if the musician had never ventured into the control room, but the memory of actual experience nurtures any seed of self-doubt, and this lack of confidence further erodes the power of the musician. Once musicians have ventured into the control room, they become full participants in the exercise of power that the phrase ‘control room’ implies. Now back in front of the microphone, the musician understands not just that power controls, but how power controls. In this manner, it is a self-imposed discipline that keeps musicians in their place, a condition that results from the control room panopticon.

Musical Chairs – The Couch in the Back, The Chair at the Board

Early control rooms were compact in size, allowing room for an engineer, a producer and perhaps an assistant. Because there was no room for all the musicians, playbacks were often broadcast over loudspeakers directly into the performance space. But with the advent of overdubbing, musicians began to inhabit the control room. To accommodate these new occupants, control room design evolved to include more space and more furniture. Ocean Way studio owner Allen Sides claims this change lay in one man’s approach to studio design.

“Bill Putnam invented the concept of what we think of as a control room. Before he built his control room in United’s Studio A, they used to call them ‘booths,’ because they really were booths: little 10 by 12 rooms with a speaker in the corner! Bill’s control room was quite a departure; he actually had a room for a producer and A&R people… a few other people could actually be in the control room.” [13]

Even as musicians were admitted through the control room door, they were commonly relegated to a couch located in an area where they could do the least amount of damage, and exert the least amount of power. It is possible to trace the ever-increasing power of the musician by looking at the shifting placement of the couch. For example, many control rooms built in the 60s and 70s installed couches between the mixing console and the control room window. [14]  In many cases, such placement rendered these guests invisible to the technicians working at the console. This minimized the distraction caused by the musicians’ presence – out of sight, out of mind – and kept inquisitive fingers away from delicate equipment.

As musicians began to assert themselves into every aspect of the recording process, the couch had to be relocated behind the mixing console. From this vantage, musicians could more accurately audition the audioscape being created at the console. They could now watch the technicians at work, and in some instances make the literal leap forward from couch to producer’s chair. More passive-aggressive artists could remain comfortably ensconced on the couch, their every comment attended to, their every wish attempted if not granted, while producers and engineers labored on.

Most producers are not so deferential and require more direct challenges before ceding control. Rather than exchange places, and thus roles, musicians are allowed to join technicians at the console, and an additional chair is supplied for this purpose. The presence of a musician at the mixing console directly usurps the position of power claimed by the producer and engineer. Some producers welcome the additional creative energy, others bristle at the idea of relinquishing their seat of power. One artist recalled a situation where such tensions were acted out in a vivid manner.

“I had an idea to put a violin on [a song]. [The producer] didn’t hear it, so he goes, ‘So, you produce the session. You take today.’ ‘Ok, ok I will.’ So I’m doing this, and I’m doing that. And [he’s] in the corner kind of… steam coming out. And he takes a piece of tape, puts it across his mouth. Takes another piece of tape, puts it across his arms. Completely duct tapes himself to his chair. While there’s a player in the other room performing. And I look back, and that’s what he’s doing. That’s what he’s doing.” [15]

This example of acting out reveals a great deal about the producer’s perspective. Relegated to a non-producing role, i.e. one of a musician observing an overdub session, he is rendered mute, his hands are tied, he is impotent. Is this the proper place he envisions for musicians in the control room? In the recording process overall? In any case, he is willing to sabotage the session so that he may retake control of the proceedings. The subsequent failure of the session reinforces the relegation of the artist to their ‘proper’ place – on the couch, or languishing quietly in the corner.

Be My Guest – Advocates in the Control Room

Just as control rooms expanded to accommodate the presence of musicians, the additional space allows outsiders to observe and participate in the recording process. Friends, family, agents and record industry personnel may now occupy a place in the recording studio. For some musicians, these outsiders serve as an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. Performances can now be directed beyond the line of bored engineers and hypercritical producers towards a coterie of fans, bridging the chasm created by the control room window, mixing console and technical staff. The audience is no longer imagined; they are visibly present, and as such can help to counter the air of artificiality that surrounds much of studio recording practice.

Sometimes these studio visitors become more active participants, functioning as advocates for the musician. Many producers and engineers register their discomfort by trying to limit the amount of time or circumstances when an outsider’s presence is permitted. Producers may value the posse of friends and supporters when trying to elicit a performance from an artist, even soliciting opinions, allowing visitors to voice encouragement to the artist on the other side of the glass. However, comments about aspects of the process that fall within the engineer or producer’s domain, the sound or balance of other recorded elements for example, will be unwelcome.

Just as the control room audience may obscure the divide in the musician’s line of vision, the technicians who occupy the space within the divide are free to perform their duties relatively un-observed, hiding in plain sight. As long as the gaze of the musician and the audience is directed across the divide, the technicians work may continue unobserved and without distraction or obstruction (Table 1, fig. 1). However, should the technicians become the center of attention, the dynamic is dramatically altered. Instead of enjoying the freedom that invisibility affords, the technicians’ every act is scrutinized (Table 1, fig. 2).

This resistance is the natural response to the challenge of power that outside observers pose, as Foucault makes clear. Regarding the panopticon, Foucault observed that the
guard tower was also accessible to the outside world. This had important ramifications for the preservation of the system.

Table 1
Fig. 1
Fig. 2

“This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.” [16]

The discomfort felt by the observed technician can lead to a showdown, resulting in the ejection of the musician’s advocates. Less confrontationally, the conversational din of the entourage will rise to such a level that the observers will be asked to leave the control room on that account. By closing the control room, refusing access to the panopticon, producers reclaim their position at the top of the recording studio hierarchy.

The Panauralcon– Headphones and Talkback Systems

The construction of solid walls between musician and technician cut off any means of direct communication between the two camps. This physical division reinforced internalized identity formation by clearly delineating the role and function of the musician from that of the technician. And yet, these distinct groups still have a symbiotic relationship and a common purpose, which necessitated the construction of communication systems.

Electronic amplification made it possible for technicians to communicate with musicians by broadcasting a ‘talkback’ microphone signal from the control room over loudspeakers placed in the recording room. When an engineer or producer chose to speak to the musicians assembled on the recording room floor, they would push a button that opened the signal path to the recording room loudspeaker. When they had finished their communication, the button was lifted and the signal path was closed, maintaining the privacy of all other control room conversation.

Of course, the musicians on the floor had no such control; their microphones picked up every sound they made. Technicians could govern what information they wished to withhold, and what information they wished to share with the musicians, while simultaneously monitoring all exchanges between musicians. The same inequalities of power created by the visual surveillance of the panopticon exist in the audio realm of what might be considered a panauralcon.

One of the many pieces of conversation scattered throughout Frank Zappa’s 1968 album, We’re Only In It For The Money, features the voice of engineer Gary Kellgren whispering into a microphone from the performance space.

“I know he’s in the control room, listening to every word I say, but I sincerely don’t care. Hello Frank Zappppaaaaaa” [17]

Musicians in front of the recording room microphone have no way of knowing whether its signal is being preserved on a recording, or broadcast over control room loudspeakers, but must operate under the assumption that it is always on. Musicians must be ever vigilant not to utter comments they wish to keep private. An aside to another musician about a producer may be audible in the control room. Likewise, a comment made in an isolation booth about another musician to the producer may be transmitted across wires into the other musicians’ headphones. Revelations made public to fellow recording colleagues, or preserved and transmitted to an outside audience can have devastating consequences. Like the panopticon, the power of the panauralcon exists in the possibility, exercised or not, of microphone surveillance. While engineers and producers freely communicate behind the control room window, recording musicians must be circumspect and cautious.

The key to maintaining or deconstructing this power relation lies in the use of the talkback button. Decisions concerning what information will be shared with musicians, and when it will be shared, are most often made by the producer. Producers often use the talkback mic to communicate judgment or to encourage performance as in, ‘That was a good take, but I think there were some problems in the second chorus. Could you try it with more intensity?,’ while engineers inform the musicians of matters regarding the process of recording, ‘We’re just going to check something, how’s the reverb in your phones?’

The talkback mic can become an area of territorial contestation between control room inhabitants. On several occasions, I witnessed engineers and producers reaching for the talkback button at the same time, though with the purpose of delivering different messages. In all of these cases, the engineers deferred to the producers, allowing them to deliver their critiques before indicating more mundane matters regarding technical processes. Interestingly, I often sensed performers recoiling at the sound of the producer’s voice, while more warmly welcoming the information of the engineer. This makes sense because the engineer is generally providing information meant to facilitate performance, while the producer is often making critical assessments, or seeking to shape the performance according to the producer’s imagined ideal. In this way, the engineer and musicians begin to form an alliance against a common enemy, the producer.

Most producers recognize the importance of good communication skills, and expect an engineer to maintain a rapport with musicians on the other side of the glass. As one producer told me,

“There’s certain people that have good button etiquette. They’ll say, ‘Hey, that was a good take. We’re going to listen back to something. Relax, take a drink of water, we might want to do another again’. ” [18]

Some producers argue that the control room divide, and the discretionary use of the talkback mic benefits the artist by sparing vulnerable psyches from the critical assessments being made behind the glass.

“I might say, ‘She could do that better, I know she could do that better.’ If she were sitting there, I wouldn’t necessarily go, ‘You know, you could do that better.’ I’d say ‘Let’s do another take.’ …I would have to talk a little bit in code if we were all in the same room because I wouldn’t want to hurt someone’s feeling, I wouldn’t want them to feel bad. I want to get the best from them. So there’s a certain benefit that the shield provides from the producer point of view. Because you don’t have to do the emotional work of ‘taking care of’.” [19]

The phrase ‘taking care of’ harkens back to the early responsibilities of figures like Fred Gaisberg who expended considerable energy in attending to the fragile egos of many of his recording artists. Modern day producers still contend with the need to supply considerable emotional support to the musicians in their charge; navigating through delicate, sometimes volatile emotional sensibilities requires considerable skill and patience, and many producers take advantage of every opportunity to avoid creating more “emotional work” for themselves. Sparing the producer from “the emotional work of ‘taking care of'” simplifies the task at hand – capturing performance – by avoiding residual, and sometimes long resonant emotional conflicts. The talkback button functions as a shield, its limited avenue of communication serves as a buffer, ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt them.’ But in the panauralcon, knowing that there is something they don’t know can hurt the artist very much. In these situations, musicians sometimes pressure technicians to maintain a constantly open line of communication. This is facilitated by leaving the talkback mic on throughout the session thus bridging the control room/recording room divide without allowing a producer or engineer to impose control over the exchange of information.

One engineer I spoke with recognized the dichotomy between bridge and barrier that talkback mics engender, and sought to eliminate them from his studio in favor of a literal ‘open door’ policy, though this was often met with resistance from many of his clients.

“In the old space, I didn’t build it; it wasn’t even a studio. But it had a room where somebody had put a piece of glass up so it looked like a studio. There really wasn’t much isolation, and I always kept the door open. And people used to… it used to drive them crazy. They would get really upset. They would literally say things all the time. ‘Aren’t you going to close the door?’ And I’d be like, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, isn’t it going to bleed?’ I’m like, ‘If I close the door, then I have to use the talkback; I can’t just talk to you.’” [20]

Though the engineer related this anecdote to illustrate a point about his clients’ sometimes problematic pre-conceptions of recording studio practice, such resistance also implies a value that fractured communication holds for the musician – the freedom of not hearing. If the power of microphone surveillance central to the panauralcon exerts control over a musician’s behavior, silence is the territory held by the musician. A musician’s silence becomes a staging ground of resistance to the effects of the studio panauralcon. The silence held by the musician is a rare and precious commodity. When the voice of an engineer speaking through the talkback mic interrupts the musician’s sense of isolated space, it is the musician’s silence that is interrupted, not the technician’s. Constantly open talkback mics, or open control room doors as in the above scenario, rob the musician of this silent domain. This loss helps to explain why some musicians prefer the calm of closed communication systems to the constant chatter of open ones.

Division, Isolation, and Mobility in the Recording Studio

In response to the options resulting from multitrack recording technology, the technician’s desire for the isolation of particular sounds during a performance necessitated further divisions within the performance space. Sound baffles, movable walls of varying heights, may be placed in various parts of the performance space to help isolate the sound of each instrument or voice. For electric guitarists and bassists, whose sounds are dislocated from their instruments via the mediation of cables and amplifiers, baffles placed between musicians and amplifiers reinforce and exacerbate this dislocation. Occasionally, these baffles nearly traverse the space between ceiling and floor, rendering invisible the amplifiers that produce the sound. Other baffles are only a few feet in height, making it possible for musicians to maintain eye contact among themselves.

Baffles take the mythology of conflict located in the performance space/ control room divide and extend it into the performance space itself. A baffle not only helps create a zone to contain the sound generated by an instrument, it serves to block unwanted sound from ‘leaking’ into that zone. Baffles address the engineer’s need for sonic isolation while acknowledging the importance of ensemble proximity, allowing musicians to create music as they have always done, albeit surrounded by an odd array of foam and canvas furniture. However, the very presence of baffles is proof that the audioscapes of those behind the control room glass have taken precedence over the audioscapes of the musicians on the studio floor. Some of the musicians I spoke to considered the atmosphere of a studio full of baffles to be ‘sterile,’ or ‘fragmented,’ though most seem to have accepted them as part of the studio landscape. Some even see them as a bone thrown to musicians by caring engineers who place at least a modicum of value on the group interaction taking place around, beside, and above the baffles.

Isolation booths, on the other hand, exist to fulfill the demand for absolute separation of musical sounds produced in the context of an ensemble performance. Where baffles reduce unwanted sound leakage into a microphone, isolation booths attempt to eliminate leakage entirely. Though isolation booths provide windows for visual communication, sometimes the best sight line for the individual in the iso booth is with the technician in the control room, not with fellow musicians. Extending the panopticon metaphor, isolation booths become prison cells, just as Bentham’s design required solid walls between prisoners, offering only the limited possibility of visual contact with the individuals in the guard tower. Designed to isolate musical sounds, these booths also have the consequence of isolating musicians and exaggerating the competing needs of individuals over the solidarity of the collective.

Solitary Confinement – Isolation in Multitrack Practice

The desire for absolute separation between musical sounds does not derive from the multitrack’s ability to assign different signals of a performance to different tracks for individual sonic tweaking, but rather from the ability to take apart and replace particular contributions to the musical whole. A perfectly isolated bass line for example, might be replaced after the initial performance. In this way, overdubbing does not simply make it possible to add new elements to a production, but to reconsider, rework, and re-perform an individual’s performance. In this situation, the problem of leakage is very real. If the sound of a replaced part is audible on the recorded tracks of other un-replaced sounds, the ‘ghost’ of the original, replaced sound shatters the illusion of a single ensemble performance. However, if an individual’s performance exists solely on its own track, it can easily cease to exist without impacting the rest of the ensemble. As a result of this isolation, some performances are delivered with the intention of being replaced. The ability of multitrack techniques to create the illusion of ensemble performance has led to practices that preclude the possibility of actual ensemble performance and thus necessitate the illusion.

The existence of the isolation booth transfers the editorial control of recorded performance to technicians – anything not useful to their imagined audioscape can be discarded in favor of elements that will bring the idealized audioscape closer to existence. Isolation booths have been a central feature of studio design for over fifty years, solidifying the hierarchy of technician over musician that is inherent in the conflict myth. Many musicians’ entire recording experience has taken place within the confines of the isolation booth. For them, it is simply ‘the way it’s done.’

The interdependence of multitrack recording and sonic isolation marks the emergence of the producer as the dominant figure in the recording studio. Engineers value isolation because it facilitates greater control over the sonic characteristics of musical sound; producers benefit from isolation because it facilitates greater control over the musical performances delivered and re-shaped during the recording process. As one engineer I spoke with mused,

“I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, the producer who was basically in charge of keeping things under budget and on time, also became sort of the creative director of the song. And then at some point he decided, ‘Ah you know, it would be so much easier for me if I could record the band and not really worry about everybody else’s stuff, just the drummer’s. And then I could get the bass player to come back and replay his bass while I was just focusing on him. And then I’ll do the same with the guitar player. I’ll get what I want’.” [21]

During the basic tracking stage, a song might be recorded with the vocalist singing in an isolation booth for the sole purpose of guiding the other musicians through the form. These ‘guide’ or ‘scratch’ vocals are not intended as final, ‘keeper’ performances, and in this context, the musicians who generate scratch tracks function in a secondary, supportive role. During the recording of basic tracks, the producer focuses attention on the rhythm section. These are the only keeper performances being given at the moment, though in some cases thanks to the isolation between instruments, [22]  only the drum performance will remain in the final mix; all other parts may be replaced.

It may be instructive to consider how a performer’s identity is shaped by the experience of the isolation booth. In a stage performance, it is commonly the artist or lead vocalist of a group that is most identified by the audience for whom the recording is intended. One might assume that the artist or vocalist would therefore receive the most attention during the recording process. With the ascension of producer as the dominant voice of authority, the vocalist is often relegated to a peripheral role. This shift occurs from the very beginning with the cursory scratch vocal, and this secondary position may be extended throughout the entire recording process.

Sometimes this approach is presented to the singer in economic terms. One artist made reference to, “That promise of, ‘We can always work with you. …These guys, we’re paying them triple overtime, so let’s just get the bass and drums that we really need’ “(emphasis mine). [23]   Such economic pressures are often used to justify the practice of overdubbed assembly in favor of full ensemble “keeper” performances. Paying session musicians to accompany multiple takes of a vocalist’s performance would be wasting money. Instead, the vocalist is often promised unlimited time at a later step in the process.

A generous amount of time during a recording project is devoted to instrumental overdubs. This phase of the recording process is where producers exert the most control, exercising arrangement ideas, crafting the details of their idealized audioscape. As instrumental parts are carefully layered to the original basic, the studio clock is ticking, budgets and deadlines are soon approaching their critical end. When this happens, it is not uncommon for singers who have been relegated to the sidelines for much of the production of their recordings to be called upon to deliver their performances in a relatively limited amount of time. By creating circumstances, however inadvertently, that limit the amount of time a singer has in the command position, producers limit the amount of control they must hand over to the artist. Isolation booths automatically stack the deck in favor of the producer. If the singer’s performance is given in the same physical space as the other instruments, with all the attendant leakage, they literally stamp their presence over every component of the recording. They become de facto irreplaceable. A vocal performance completely isolated from the other sounds has no such inherent power.

Even so, the lead vocal itself remains in the domain of the singer. Assessments of pitch and phrasing may all fall in the realm of the producer who may exercise an additional measure of control by creating a composite vocal track out of a complicated series of edits between vocal performances. Nevertheless, the producer is at the mercy of the artist. All other musicians and their performances can be replaced by the producer, and the listening audience will be unaware of any deception; the lead singer is too identifiable, and this identity is intrinsic to the value of the entire recording.

Although the isolation booth may have been created to serve the needs of the technician, many vocalists enjoy isolation booths because they reduce the presence of other instruments in their own personal soundspace. One singer complained of an ineffective isolation booth that compromised his performance.

“I remember this one place… where the drummer was really loud, and he was in the main room and I was in the iso booth. But there was a lot of leakage, especially of the low end, so I wasn’t hearing that part of my voice and I was really pushing it. And by the end of the week, my voice was shot.” [24]

Another singer related a situation where the producer was attempting to capture a keeper take of the vocal during the ensemble basic track recording, but was having difficulty eliciting an acceptable performance from the rhythm section.

“Then [the producer] said, ‘I hate that drum part. Throw it out. Let’s do it ten times.’ But eventually it got so my voice was giving out. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to sing this again?’ So I had to just track it, and they would play.” [25]

Both of these anecdotes denote the value that an isolation booth can (or is expected to) provide. But both stories also reflect a privileging of rhythm section over vocalist. The producer’s quest for perfection in component instrumental parts, can simply exhaust the singing voice over the course of multiple takes or multiple days of recording. Isolation booths may help to alleviate the stress of a vocalist, temporarily mollifying the singer’s dissatisfaction and thus extending the amount of time a producer has to attend to establishing the foundation of the rhythm section. But the un-ease of the vocalist never completely disappears, and the musician who feels the performance space/control room divide most acutely is often the singer for whom the laboriously assembled recorded tapestry is ostensibly designed to support.


The division of recording studio space results in a loss of status and power for musicians during the recording process. Rather than argue that this division represents a form of architectural determinism, I posit that the construction of isolating walls and baffles was designed to shift power from musician to technician. Recent trends in recording practice that seek to abandon physical separation between musicians and technicians reflect the degree to which musicians have reclaimed power during the recording process in the rock and post-rock era. For musicians who have come of age in the era of digital workstations, as well as those whose first recording experiences involved Portastudios and Adats in their bedrooms and basements, the recording process does not necessitate physical separation and isolation, and these musicians are far more likely to resist such arrangements when confronted with more traditional studio environments. However, for those generations of musicians who are to some degree comfortable with baffles, control rooms, talkback mics and headphone mixes, the removal of such barriers doesn not necessarily constitute a liberation from hierarchy. Because these participants have internalized their insider/outsider status, the performance space/control room divide no longer depends upon physical barriers; the discipline of the panauralcon/opticon and the hierarchy of the recording studio are maintained behaviorally. This helps to explain why so many musicians of any era have voiced their disdain for the recording studio. For newer generations, such structural impositions are out of sync with their own recording environments and practices, while older musicians have contributed their creative energies from the lower reaches of a hierarchical structure designed to prize those responsible for the capture of sonic energy, over those individuals responsible for the expression of musical ideas.


[1] Several photographs of The Gramophone Company’s first recording studio in London circa 1899 also show musical instruments sharing the same physical space as the recording apparatus. See Moore, Jerrold Northrop. 1999. Sound Revolutions: A Biography of Fred Gaisberg, Founding Father of Commercial Sound Recording.  London: Sanctuary: 40-41, 46-47.
[2] unattributed quote from “Our New York Recording Plant,” Edison Phonograph   Monthly 4, no. 9 (November 1906): in Horning, Susan Schmidt. 2002. “Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of
Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977.” PhD Dissertation, Case Western Reserve University: 19.
[3] Horning: 19.
[4] Un-attributed, quoted in Moore, 1999: 99 & 101.
[5] Quoted in Moore, 1999: 127.
[6] Lewisohn, Mark. 1988. The Beatles Recording Sessions. New York: Harmony Books.: 6.
[7] Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
[8] Foucault, 1979: 201.
[9] Ibid., 202-203.
[10] Ibid., 203.
[11] The term ‘audioscape’ is derived from R. Murray Schafer’s ‘soundscape’ which seeks to account for the entire sonic experience of an environment. See Schafer, R. Murray. 1977. Soundscape: Our Environment and The Tuning of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  My use of ‘audioscape’ is designed to emphasize the effect of technological mediation that in essence creates a virtual environment when transmitted over loudspeakers, particularly when experienced under isolating headphones.
[12] Author interview –Tracy. Note: The names and identifying information of all interview subjects has been changed.
[13] Quoted in Granata, Charles L. 1999. Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of
Recording. Chicago: A Cappella Books: 156.
[14] One example of such a placement may be seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter during a scene shot while The Rolling Stones listen to a playback in the control room of Muscle Shoals Studios, where Keith Richards and Ian Stewart sit near-comatose out of sight from engineer Jimmy Johnson, Mick Jagger and Charlie Wood who sit behind the mixing console. Gimme Shelter, Criterion DVD 99. A similar positioning is visible during the opening credits of Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville, Paramount DVD 8821.
[15] Author interview –Tracy.
[16] Foucault, 1979: 207.
[17] Zappa, Frank and The Mothers of Invention. 1968. We’re Only In It For The Money.
Rykodisc RCD 10503.
[18] Author interview – Kelly.
[19] Author interview – Kelly.
[20] Author interview – Jesse.
[21] Author interview – Sam.
[22] A common recording practice for electric bass involves bypassing the amplifier altogether, and instead, plugging directly into an external pre-amp, or the console itself – an example of extreme mediation as the sound never audibly exists until it is broadcast over studio loudspeakers or headphones.
[23] Author interview –Tracy.
[24] Author interview – Bob.
[25] Author interview –Tracy.